New Orleans, Louisiana Monday March 27
A rag-tag group of diverse soldiers, mainly untrained, saved the United States. Back in 1812, the United States was still a rough, unrespected experiment in government. European powers were doing their usual wars against each other. Britain was stopping United States ships and “impressing” males into service in the British Navy. Basically, they needed sailors in their Navy and took any able-bodied male on captured ships and pressed them into involuntary service and made them British Sailors. When protests by the U.S. had no impact, the U.S. declared war on Britain in 1812. In addition, the Brits were still influencing Native Americans to resist the U.S. The United States also had ambitions to take over Canada.
The British were hampered by still fighting Napoleon but he and the French were defeated in the spring of 1814. Fresh troops were sent to quell the U.S. One effort coming south out of Canada stalled after a defeat at Lake Champlain. The British were successful in burning the White House in D.C. but Fort McHenry in Baltimore held off British ships and that effort failed.
A third attack was sent out of the West Indies and headed for New Orleans. The British had 10,000 well-trained troops with experienced commanders. The US under General Andrew Jackson had only about 1,000 trained troops. In order to repel the British, the U.S. troops were fortified with free black men, with Choctaw Indians, with state militias from Kentucky and Tennessee, pirates of Jean Lafitte, and volunteers from all walks of life in New Orleans, many of whom were recent immigrants from the Canary Islands, from Germany, from Ireland, and French Acadians from Canada.
We won. The British had a two to one advantage in soldiers when the battle began. When the battle ended, the British had lost (dead, wounded and captured) ten times as many soldiers; 2,000 to 20 for the U.S. By all rights, the British should have won. Bad luck, wet and muddy ground, a few poor decisions, some poor timing, and the death on the battlefield of top commanders hindered the British.
The Americans were aided by great marksmanship by the militia from Kentucky and Tennessee, by smart tactics, and by well-constructed ramparts that negated artillery impact and protected the Americans from British fire.
This we learned at Chalmette Battlefield, part of the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve. Two videos, displays, and an excellent presentation by the NPS Park Ranger told us this and much more. The presentation was well-attended as the talk is timed for the arrival of passengers on a paddle wheel boat coming downriver from New Orleans.
Chris and I chose to drive down. Driving gave us more flexibility and saved us time. It also took us through the Ninth Ward, an area of New Orleans that was particularly hard hit by Hurricane Katrina. We chose not to take photos of the area. One observes homes and businesses still destroyed 12 years after the hurricane. There are also many rebuilt structures and structures undergoing rehabilitation. The use of stilts and concrete foundations to raise the living areas of buildings several feet into the air is marked. The exhibit at the Presbytere we saw on Sunday mentioned that there has also been an attempt to use more environmentally and long-lasting materials in reconstruction.
I did notice one sign advertising an upcoming festival sponsored by an Irish-Italian-Islenos social group. Diversity is still thriving. A different feel is given to the area by the shipping and petrochemical facilities which loom large over the landscape everywhere.
The New Orleans population is recovering. It had been just under 500,000 at the time of the hurricane and is estimated to be just under 400,000 today. The 2010 census had it at 343,000 people. Right after Katrina, it was estimated to have gone as low as 200,000 people.
We did not ask the park rangers how the battlefield had been damaged. However, part of the Chalmette battlefield is the Chalmette Battlefield cemetery and we also took in a cemetery tour by a student volunteer docent. She indicated that the cemetery which is right next to the battlefield was covered by eight feet of water. The brick wall and headstones were damaged. Unique to the New Orleans area, graves at this cemetery are below ground. There is a build up of silt from years ago flooding and this is considered high ground. You may know that graves in most cemeteries in New Orleans are above ground due to the high water table. We had observed that and a funeral march at an earlier visit.
The cemetery is not for dead from the Battle of New Orleans. It began as a cemetery for Union dead during the Civil War for bodies that could not be sent north for burial. Many graves are marked as “unknown.” It is also used for veterans from other wars since the Civil War and all available space has been reserved or used. This cemetery was the first in the area to be integrated; one sees headstones marked “colored troops” from the Civil War. A female Union soldier is buried here. You may have read that some women dressed as men and served as soldiers in the Civil War. Pay was good and most went undetected until injured or death.
Our next stop was Longue Vue House and Gardens; a mansion built by Edith and Edgar Stern. She was a daughter of the Sears company founder. The docent here was candid. The hurricane devastated the grounds and the basement, unique for New Orleans, of the home but the house itself was not damaged. The grounds were laid out extensively. The first home on the site was moved away so the current mansion (over 20,000 s.f.) could be built to maximize the view of the gardens from all rooms. The owner over the years had shared cuttings from the plants here with other gardens around the country. When the gardens had to be re-built, they contacted those gardens and received back cultivars of the original garden plantings to recreate the gardens.
New Orleans is known for a series of fantastic plantations but we had no desire to see more great houses built on the backs of slaves. Longue Vue House was a reasonable compromise. The husband and wife admitted they lucked into money. Their philanthropy in the New Orleans area is well-known.
The house was the second home in the South to have air conditioning. Several of the rooms were “decorated” by the practice of going to Europe and purchasing a whole room of an estate house that was being destroyed or for sale. Each room had a view of some part of the extensive gardens that were designed by Ellen Biddle Shipman.
After we returned to our lodging, we took a later afternoon walk along the levee, watching the ships traveling along the Mississippi.
Ed and Chris.