Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Happy Independence Day! really.

Guest Post from Ryan:

Just in case you were unaware, today, January 8, is the United States’ second Independence Day.  More accurately, it should be thought of as America’s true Independence Day.  

“How the hell does he mean that?” you ask. On this day in 1815 a rag-tag force of about four thousand men, including a few hundred US regulars, militia from various southern states, free men of color, Native allies and some Baratarian pirates (who might have been executed under different circumstances) soundly defeated a British invasion force comprising roughly thirteen thousand men.  This action secured America’s independence and, more importantly, forced other world powers to recognize US sovereignty with seriousness. 

“But the War of 1812 ended with the Treaty of Ghent; the battle was unnecessary; America gained its independence with Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown in the American Revolution.”  

All of these things are popular history – merely the facts on the surface.  

I don’t have time to compose an extensive, well-worded explanation of the extreme significance of the Battle of New Orleans.  That would require a back-track and discussion of US/British relations following the Revolution, the Creek War of 1813, Jackson’s first seizure of Pensacola and British ‘activities’ in the intervening period of nearly two decades.  But I will attempt to convey the gravity of the New Orleans campaign in brief. 

The British never saw the surrender of General Cornwallis (during the American Revolution) as a total defeat.  To the British, it was what it was: a surrender.  Cornwallis’ nearly eight thousand men at Yorktown comprised only on third of British forces still on the continent.  Indeed, sporadic fighting continued in the north where thousands of British combat troops remained.  The British surrender at Yorktown constituted a final straw for London. The war in North America drained England’s coffers every day it dragged on.  Think of it in terms of Iraq and Afghanistan – high cost, little return, no end in sight… time to get out. 

In the intervening years, Americans lacked a real national identity, the fledgling government had little more than massive debt from the war and the British refused to recognize the country as little more than an insolent teenager who’d just have to be dealt with later.  But in the meantime London barely recognized Philadelphia and, later, Washington DC.  The British likewise continuously attempted to incite rebellion amongst their old trading partners the Indians.  Tecumseh’s confederacy in the north and the Redstick, or Creek, War in the south are, in part, examples.  Many other factors influenced those conflicts, but British agents did their part. 

Example: Under a Parliament-approved declaration from Admiral Lord Cochrane, a resulting British victory in the War of 1812 would guarantee the reinstatement of all Indian lands and free all Africans of their bondage upon resumption of British control of North America.  Lofty promises, especially the first, considering Britain’s experience with Indians and the constant depredations on both sides of the frontier. 

The Battle of New Orleans was more of a campaign, as it lasted roughly a month from early December of 1814 to early January of 1815.  American and British envoys convened in Belgium and began negotiating a treaty to end the War of 1812 in August of 1814.  The Treaty of Ghent wasn’t agreed upon and signed by the envoys until Christmas Eve in 1814.  Boom.  Done.  War of 1812 finished.  No need for the fateful conclusion of the New Orleans campaign, it was in vain.  . . . WRONG.

In order for the Treaty of Ghent to be valid, both London and the US government in exile (the British successfully occupied and burned DC to the ground, remember?) had to do something called RATIFY it.  Let us remember that prior to telecommunications, it took lots of time for word to reach a destination.  The British invasion force was devastated on January 8, 1815. The US government heard only rumors of a peace treaty being signed in Ghent by January 21.  A smoldering Washington didn’t learn of General Andrew Jackson’s incredible victory until February 4.  The official copy of the Treaty of Ghent arrived with the British sloop-of-war HMS Favorite in New York on February 11 and didn’t reach Washington until February 14. On February 16, 1815, the US Senate unanimously ratified the Treaty of Ghent (35 – 0) and officially ended the War of 1812. 

Bear in mind that had the British achieved a victory and a foothold in New Orleans, they would have reneged [on the peace treaty]. With DC in ashes and their superior navy tightly blockading the US coastline, British follow-up forces were set to pour up the Mississippi River, link up with their forces in Canada and institute essentially the same ‘Anaconda Plan’ the North utilized against the Confederacy some fifty years later.  They intended to recapture their colonies. 

January 8, 1815: General Andrew Jackson, with an inferior force of roughly four thousand thrown-together men, defeated a decorated General Sir Edward Michael Pakenham, who commanded a force of around thirteen thousand well trained and disciplined British regulars, marines and sailors; as well as recruited Natives and blacks.  Many of the British regulars included veterans from various European campaigns against Napoleon.  

I am out of time. This is without-a-doubt a hastily thrown together bit of knowledge(and it shows). The battle itself is incredible and you should look into it. Check out: Robert V. Remini’s The Battle of New Orleans: Andrew Jackson and America’s First Military Victory.  It is short and reads easy.  If you want technical and tactical specs of the battle tell Liz to tell me to post them later.  It’ll probably be dry for a lot of you.  Remember, had the British succeeded at New Orleans, they intended to place North America back under their control.  But thanks to Jackson's leadership, not only was the United States militarily safe, we also gained real recognition on the world stage.  Our diplomats received more attention and other countries nodded recognition at our sovereignty; not to mention, following this event Americans began to call themselves ‘Americans.’  A sense of nationalism was born and spurred the country into the market revolution.  

Drink some booze, light some fireworks and celebrate Independence Day 2.0.  And read Remini’s Battle of New Orleans.  He lays it out extremely well. 

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