Battle Bicentennial Brings Exhibits, Special Events

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.

The view from the downstairs porch of the Maltus-Beauregard House to the open field where the battle took place.
The view from the downstairs porch of the Maltus-Beauregard House to the open field where the battle took place.

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.

My son checks out the display at the Park Service Visitor Center about the  'grapeshot' cannon used in defeating British troops during the Battle of New Orleans.
My son checks out the display at the Park Service Visitor Center about the
‘grapeshot’ cannon used in defeating British troops during the Battle of New Orleans.

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.

The rampart at the Chalmette Battlefield was reconstructed and today cannons are positioned behind it.
The rampart at the Chalmette Battlefield was reconstructed and today cannons are positioned behind it.

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.

The two-story Maltus-Beauregard House was built on the Chalmette Plantation in 18TK.
The two-story Maltus-Beauregard House was built on the Chalmette Plantation in the 1830s.

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.

The statue of Andrew Jackson upon his horse is silhouetted in New Orleans' Jackson Square.
The statue of Andrew Jackson upon his horse is silhouetted in New Orleans’ Jackson Square.

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.

 

 

 

Mardi Gras Parades Through Streets of New Orleans

Mardi Gras is this upcoming Tuesday. In New Orleans, where I just spent a week, the Carnival season leads up to Mardi Gras and actually begins on January 6, or ‘King’s Day’, the Day of the Epiphany. While Mardi Gras in this country is traditionally celebrated in many places in the South, most people associate it with the historic city of New Orleans. There the parades start two weekends before Mardi Gras and continue until the day of.

The first Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans took place in 1856 when a group of business organized themselves into a ‘krewe’ or club and called it the Mystick Krewe of Comus. When you visit the city, stop by the restaurant, Antoine’s in the French Quarter.  Antoine’s opened in 1840 and is said to be the city’s oldest fine eating establishment. Known for its French-Creole cuisine, the restaurant has also been the scene of many ‘krewe’ luncheons and brunches that take place prior to the annual parades.

Mardi Gras memorabilia and ball gowns are displayed in Antoine's Rex Room where the banquet table is set for a krewe luncheon or dinner.
Mardi Gras memorabilia and ball gowns are displayed in Antoine’s Rex Room where the banquet table is set for a krewe luncheon or dinner.

Three of the restaurant’s private dining rooms bear the names of local krewes. You are welcome to view them, if they are not in use, and view the photos,king and queen gowns, septers, elaborate invitations, medallions and other parade memorabilia on permanent display there. Just ask one of the staff for directions as the restaurant is vast and you can easily lose your way in its backroom chambers.

The parades in New Orleans are held throughout the city. Each one is different in character and theme, although this year, Star Wars seemed to be a popular choice. Contrary to recent popular media publicity, Mardi Gras is very much a family celebration, as are most of the parades. One year when visiting New Orleans, I was lucky enough to catch a parade of the French Quarter’s elementary school (Kipp McDonogh) students. Each class was costumed as a different nursery rhyme. Many of the youngsters were barely taller than the tangled beads that they tried to throw out to the onlookers. It was by far one of the cutest Mardi Gras parades and charmed everyone standing along Royal Street.

The Krewe du Vieux float pokes fun at the Supreme Court in this year's Mardi Gras parade. People packed the streets and balconies to see the first parade of the season.
The Krewe du Vieux float pokes fun at the Supreme Court in this year’s Mardi Gras parade. People packed the streets and balconies to see the first parade of the season.

Krewe du Vieux kicks off the New Orleans parade line-up, however, with its satirical and often bawdy procession in the French Quarter two Saturdays before Mardi Gras. This is one that you might not want to take your kids to see although there were plenty of them in the crowd this year. The krewe pokes fun at everyone and anything in the way of its usually highly charged political theme. This year’s theme, for example, was ‘Begs for Change’ and targeted the Supreme Court, City Hall, the local school system, Kickstarter, the medical system as well as others. Because it is the first parade and occurs on Saturday in the French Quarter the sidewalks along the parade route are packed and loud.

Colored flashing light and lots of bubbles for this pedal-powered float tickled the crowd at the Intergalatic Krewe of Chewbacchus.
Colored flashing light and lots of bubbles for this pedal-powered float tickled the crowd at the Intergalatic Krewe of Chewbacchus.

Another popular early parade near the Quarter is that by the Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus, a fairly recent addition to the krewes. As one New Orleanean friend described it, “It’s a parade for geeks.” Members are Star Wars freaks, Trekkies, Mega-Geeks, Gamers to mention a few. This year, they pedaled, pushed and walked their small floats through the Marigny and Bywater neighborhoods to the delight of everyone there. There were nearly as many Intergalatic costumes on the street as there was in the parade and everyone, everyone was having fun whether blowing bubbles or having laser sword fights or just watching the merriment.

Parade goers raise their arms in hopes of catching  a throw tossed from the masked riders on one of the floats during Cleopatra's parade.
Parade goers raise their arms in hopes of catching a throw tossed from the masked riders on one of the floats during Cleopatra’s parade.

Two of the larger parades that same weekend were the Krewe of Oshun and Krewe of Cleopatra parades. They were entirely different and had big rolling floats from which the masked riders were tossing all sorts of ‘throws’ into the crowd below. We watched from the Garden District neighborhood, not far from where the parades started. Families were there with their kids, sitting together in lawn chairs or standing huddled at the curb so as to better catch the stuffed animals, miniature footballs, key chains, cups, horned headbands, tiny balls as well as the traditional beads. I managed to snag a sipper cup and a lighted key chain with Cleopatra’s krewe insignia on it in addition to some ‘krewe beads’. The beads with the Krewe’s insignia are prized among parade goers.

The Mystik Krewe of Barkus banner bearers begin the afternoon parade.
The Mystik Krewe of Barkus banner bearers begin the afternoon parade. More photos of the dogs in this wonderful parade are on my Portfolio page.

Of all the parades I saw this year, my favorite was that of Krewe de Barkus. Judging from those who lined the streets to watch the afternoon parade, I wasn’t alone.  This is one Mardi Gras parade that has really gone to the dogs. That’s because it’s all about the dogs. Owners and their beloved costumed canines strutted down the street together, along with an occasional second line band, to the cheers of those watching. Dogs of every sort, from Great Danes to Chihuahua, were dressed as ‘Star Wars’ characters in keeping with this year’s parade theme of ‘Bark Wars.’

Masquerading as Princess Leia,, this little dog and her Stormtrooper owner were a hit with the spectators.
Masquerading as Princess Leia,, this little dog and her Stormtrooper owner were a hit with the spectators.

The dogs paraded on the end of a leash or rode in homemade floats and seemed not to mind that they’re wearing headpieces, hats, robes, frilly collars or even peeking out of boxes.  Almost as many dogs were on the sidelines as in the parade where they collected doggie treats of every sort from the marchers. To Go, the handsome brown boxer sitting next to me scored doggie chews, a pull toy, a frisbee and I don’t know what else while I picked up more beads and some insulated cup holders imprinted with the  name and likeness of the Krewe’s King, Andouille Lamarie, a wire-haired Dachshund.  It was all very silly and great fun.

This handsome mastiff seemed quite dignified in his Mardi Gras crown and robe during the Krewe of Barkus parade.
This handsome mastiff seemed quite dignified in his Mardi Gras crown and robe during the Krewe of Barkus parade.

The parades continue throughout the city, with as many as 13 on some days, culminating with those on Mardi Gras itself. And then it all ends–until the next year.  As is said in New Orleans, “Happy Mardi Gras!”

Learn more about the Krewes of New Orleans on the History Blog‘s guest post by Rosary O’Neill from March 27, 2014.

See more of my photos from the Krewe of Barkus Mardi Gras parade. Go to my Portfolio page!