NEW ORLEANS — New historical research is shedding light on how pivotal the victory by Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson and his ragtag army of frontiersmen, Creoles, slaves and American Indians was at the Battle of New Orleans 200 years ago.
Often the Battle of New Orleans — the main battle took place Jan. 8, 1815 — is viewed as having been a great military victory, but inconsequential because a peace treaty between Britain and the United States was signed before the battle was fought.
"What I was taught in school, like most of us, was that the Battle of New Orleans was irrelevant," said C.J. Longanecker, a former National Park Service ranger who worked for years at the Chalmette Battlefield, a national park dedicated to the battle.
In reality, historians now say, the peace treaty was only as good as the paper it was written on.
A big discovery has come from British war records: A set of secret orders given in October 1814 to Maj. Gen. Edward Pakenham, the commander of the British invasion of the Gulf Coast.
The orders directed Pakenham to fight on regardless of any peace deal and capture New Orleans, said Ronald Drez, the military historian who uncovered the orders. He dug up the records last spring during research in London for his new book, "The War of 1812, Conflict and Deception: The British Attempt to Seize New Orleans and Nullify the Louisiana Purchase."
This should put to rest any doubt about British designs in America, Drez argues.
"It truly is the smoking gun," Drez said. "They say to Pakenham: 'If you hear of a peace treaty, pay no attention, continue to fight.'"
Drez found the orders among military records in The National Archives at Kew in London.
"It's old information that hasn't been looked at," said Ron Chapman about the orders, a historian at the Nunez Community College close to the old battlefield, a large, grassy slip of land along the Mississippi River surrounded by live oak trees, a sugar mill and oil refineries.
In Chapman's new book, "The Battle of New Orleans: But for a Piece of Wood," he reaches similar conclusions to Drez. Both historians said Americans don't appreciate how close the British came to seizing New Orleans and radically changing the course of American history.
The British viewed the sale of the Louisiana territory by Napoleon Bonaparte to Thomas Jefferson as illegal. Great Britain "had never been reconciled with the loss of its colonies" in North America, said Christina Vella, a Tulane University historian and biographer. "They planned to colonize Louisiana."
The stand by Jackson and his makeshift army, then, takes on new meaning.
Nearly 300 British soldiers were dead and almost six times as many were wounded, captured or missing after a multi-pronged attack by the British on the makeshift fortifications the Americans had erected on the two banks of the Mississippi River south of New Orleans. The defeat caused the British armada to retreat to Mobile and definitively ended the War of 1812, and the two countries never went to war again.
"This is as big as Yorktown," Chapman said, referring to the decisive victory over the British during the American Revolution.
All the same, it's not an easy page of American history to digest.
Jackson was a cruel bloodthirsty killer and slave owner. Though courteous in genteel society, the future president drank, swore, smoked, gambled and loved cockfighting. He routinely ordered executions and put bounties on the heads of fugitive slaves, said Vella, the Tulane historian.
As for the other hero of the Battle of New Orleans, the French pirate Jean Lafitte, he was a slave-runner and tax cheat who likely never even heard a shot fired during the battle, said William C. Davis, a historian at Virginia Tech and an authority on Lafitte.
But in discussing the formation of the United States, historians say the battle for New Orleans and its participants, regardless of their failings, were pivotal in saving the American expansionist dream.
"When you think of this nation from shining sea to shining sea," said Longanecker, the retired park ranger, "it would not have happened but for this battle."
The Battle of New Orleans Bicentennial Commission: http://www.battleofneworleans2015.com
National Park Service page about the bicentennial: http://www.nps.gov/jela/battle-of-new-orleans-bicentennial.htm