Tuesday, January 4, 2005

Remember New Orleans!

From the file of I Didn’t Know That.

Forget about Christmas, Thanksgiving and New Year’s. What are you doing for the Eighth of January – the 190th anniversary of Andrew Jackson’s defeat of the British at the Battle of New Orleans?

If this were 1835 instead of 2005, you’d surely have plans because the day was a national holiday with parades, feasts, dances and speeches.

Perhaps no other major American holiday has been so forgotten, historians argue.


The Eighth was celebrated widely in the years after the battle and became a national event after Jackson took the presidency in 1828. Newspaper accounts tell of balls and parades and speeches in the nation’s largest cities. One report from Nashville in 1844 recounts cannon blasts, early adjournment of the state Legislature, a parade and large crowds at The Hermitage, Jackson’s home near Nashville.

“This was a national holiday that rivaled everything but July 4th. It was bigger than Christmas,” said Tony Guzzi, curator of The Hermitage.

The Battle of New Orleans was the final engagement of the final war with England and came at a perilous time for the young republic. Jackson was a decided underdog, facing a much larger and better trained army of British forces with a ragtag group that included regular U.S. troops, New Orleans militia, Kentucky and Tennessee frontiersmen, freed slaves and blacks, and a band of outlaws led by the pirate Jean Lafitte.


Jackson’s victory actually came after the war was over. The Treaty of Ghent was signed in Europe ending the War of 1812 weeks before the Battle of New Orleans. But word of the treaty didn’t reach the United States until after the British were defeated at New Orleans.

Still, the victory made Jackson a national hero and propelled him to political prominence. He became a U.S. senator and ran for the presidency in 1824, but when neither candidate won a majority, the decision went to the House of Representatives and it chose John Quincy Adams.

Four years later, Jackson ran again and won the first of his two terms.

After that, the Eighth of January became intertwined with politics. Places that supported Jackson celebrated it more vehemently than those that didn’t, and his political opponents used the day to hold rallies against him.


The battle was resurrected in popular culture again in 1959 with Johnny Horton’s hit song, “The Battle of New Orleans,” which was sung to a traditional American fiddle tune called “The Eighth of January.”

Today, the anniversary is still celebrated in Nashville and New Orleans. A ceremony is held each year at Jackson’s tomb at The Hermitage, with free admission to the home that day. At Chalmette National Battlefield, a living history encampment draws thousands. In New Orleans, the Daughters of 1812 have a wreath laying ceremony on Jackson Square.

But the attention is very different from what it was 170 years ago. In fact, on Jan. 8, Jackson is sure to be upstaged by another Tennessee icon.

“When I ask tour groups if they know why January 8th is important, someone always brings up Elvis’ birthday,” Forbis said. “January 8th is really a bigger deal in Memphis than anywhere else now.”

“The Battle of New Orleans” was one of the songs in my campfire counselor repertoire at camp, but I never knew it was a national holiday. Well, in honor of that, I’m taking the 8th off from work. (Not that big a deal – it’s a Saturday.)