Last week I posted to my personal Facebook page a profile photo of myself taken during my recent visit to New Orleans. So many people have asked about it that I thought I’d tell you about the place where the photo was made and why I was there.
Most visitors to New Orleans spend their time in the city’s historic French Quarter. That district alone is a rich cache of places to see and experience. Some visitors include a day trip out to one of the many nearby plantations to see how that life was once lived along the mighty Mississippi. But few know about the National Park Service’s Visitor Center, located right in the heart of the French Quarter or the Chalmette Battlefield, a National Park just downriver from New Orleans which was the site of the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. This year is the bicentennial of that historic battle in the War of 1812.
I first visited the battlefield years ago. At the time, it was large empty field except for a large, two-story now-empty plantation home, the Maltus-Beauregard House, which overlooks the battlefield, and a towering 100-foot high cut-stone obelisk monument honoring the fallen troops. But about ten years ago, the National Park Service built and opened a Visitor’s Center at the battlefield with a small, but well-done exhibit about the decisive battle that took place there. The exhibits include maps, informational displays and historic artifacts as well as a short film about the battle. It explains how the Andrew Jackson, with his rag-tag Army of volunteers defeated the British’ well-trained crack soldiers. Youngsters, who can earn a Junior Ranger badge there, will find the exhibit just as accessible and interesting as older visitors. In the past, I have taken friends there with me. This year, my son, Marshall accompanied me on a mid-day visit.
Today, the battlefield is still. But on January 8, 1815, it was the scene of a bloody battle that determined the fate of New Orleans and the Louisiana Territory. When Jackson learned that British troops were advancing on New Orleans, he quickly gathered a force of 4,000 troops, to defend the city. The forces who came together there under Jackson’s command that day were an unusual collection of American soldiers, native Americans from the local tribes, French Creoles, Kentucky and Tennessee riflemen, free men of color and buccaneers with the infamous pirate Jean Lafitte. They represented the diverse cultures that still characterize New Orleans today.
Jackson positioned his troops between the Mississippi River and a cypress swamp forcing the British to cross a wide open field. In three short days, the American “Dirty Shirts,” as they were called, worked feverishly digging mud from the canal that flowed along the western side of the open field and hauled into place timbers to build a rampart 3/5 mile long that was, in some places, according to the Park Service Ranger on duty during my visit, 10 to 12 feet high and 25 feet wide.
It was an amazing feat of engineering and a stroke of strategic genius. It provided such good protection for the American troops against the advancing British Army that only 21 Americans were wounded or died compared to the nearly 2,000 British Redcoat casualties and wounded. The battle actually took place after the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812, was signed but because it wasn’t ratified until February the following year, the fighting continued. The American victory at New Orleans firmly established the emerging country with its ideals of democracy triumphing over European aristocratic system of government.
At the battlefield today, you can take a self-guided driving tour around the field where signs point out the positions of both armies. The rampart was partially reconstructed in 1964 with cannons now positioned behind it to better give visitors an idea of what American forces hastily built. You can climb up the inside of the obelisk to the viewing platform at the top. A walk leads up to the Maltus-Beauregard house and the levee behind where the steamboat, the Creole Queen, docks to drop visitors that take the short cruise down the Mississippi from New Orleans.
A number of exhibits and events are commemorating the battle’s bicentennial in New Orleans. On the anniversary, historic re-enactors, dressed in authentic costume, gathered at the battlefield to mark the actual day of the battle. This event takes place yearly although this year the crowds swelled, according to Park Rangers, due to the bicentennial. In New Orleans, you can currently see exhibits relating to Andrew Jackson and the Battle of New Orleans at both the Historic New Orleans Collection on Royal Street in the French Quarter and the Louisiana State Museum Cabildo on Jackson Square. In April, Navy Week will celebrate the Battle’s Bicentennial.
If a trip to New Orleans is in your plans for this year, I’d encourage you to include a visit out to the battlefield,which can provide a welcome break from the frenzy of the French Quarter, or to one of the ongoing exhibits devoted to the Battle’s Bicentennial. It will provide you with a look back at this unique American city’s importance in American history and how it continues to be one of the most culturally significant cities in the country today.
Read more about the Battle of New Orleans in historian Joyce Miller’s recent article “From Dirty Shirts to Buccaneers” by clicking the link here.