Andrew Sullivan’s rant today about Pat Buchanan’s white-people obsession reminded me of a passage I’d been meaning to post from Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848. I met Howe at a book festival in Winston-Salem in September and was so entertained by him that I paid full cover price for his book, which won last year’s Pulitzer for history. I’m now about one-fifth of the way through, and it really is staggeringly good, as evidenced by this bit about Andrew Jackson and the Battle of New Orleans:
Jackson’s force counted but few regulars. There were Tennessee militia (the component with whom the Tennessee general felt most comfortable), Louisiana militia, mostly French-speaking, and mounted Mississippi dragoons. There was an Irish American regiment called the Louisiana Blues, and two battalions of black men, one made up of African Americans and the other of Haitian immigrants. Some of the black soldiers were slaves on loan from their masters to the army, but most of them were free men. Jackson addressed the blacks as “brave fellow citizens” and had promised them pay and respect the equal of whites’. Up from their hideout at Barataria came the notorious pirate band of Jean and Pierre Lafitte—who had cast their lot with the Americans after deciding that a strong presence by the Royal Navy was not in their best professional interests. Jackson’s orders to this heterogeneous army had to be translated not only into French but also into Spanish (because Louisiana had been a Spanish colony as well as a French colony before becoming an American state) and Choctaw, the language of the Native American allies who protected his left flank.
This motley crew, with no help at all from the 2,000 Kentucky militiamen who arrived four days before the battle and then ran away under fire, crushed the British in one of the most famous (if pointless) of American military victories. Afterwards, Jackson failed to hold to his promise to the black soldiers and “The Hunters of Kentucky,” a song that extolled the bravery of the Kentucky militia at New Orleans, became one of the big hits of the 1820s. Oh well.