History · Other Stuff

Historical Campfire Tales: General Jackson Does New Orleans

These posts come with a caveat. They are written from memory as stories for entertainment purposes. No research except getting the dates right goes into these. They are not historically accurate, and may contain things that aren’t even true. Historically accurate versions and “what really happened” comments are welcome on the thread.

I did one on The Second Defenestration of Prague at Sourcerer a while ago. It didn’t play well enough to warrant a second, But Hannah and I enjoyed that post, so we’re trying this one at Things Matter. The idea is good and it just might find some readers on a history blog. On with the tale.

Portrait of Old Hickory by Ralph Eleaser Whiteside Earl. Public Domain Image.

Before he was President of the United States, the formidable Major General Andrew Jackson marched an army south from Tennessee to defend the Gulf Coast from the invading British during the War of 1812.

The country was so wild in those days, and Jackson’s army was so large, he had to build roads to get them from Tennessee to the Coast intact. There’s a commercial pumpkin farm not far from where I live that was part of a plantation, once upon a time. They’ve got a piece of General Jackson’s road preserved there, and they don’t allow anyone to drive tractors or ATVs on it.

In the fall of 1814, during the final months of a war in which Washington D.C. had been all but burned to the ground, Jackson learned that the British planned to attack and occupy New Orleans, which would allow them to control the entire Mississippi Valley. So he marched his army to the Crescent City.

Not long after he arrived in New Orleans, Andrew Jackson declared martial law. That way he could rule the city and environs as proconsul and conscript citizens, etc. until he saw how things were going to play out with the British Navy and the British Army. It made perfect sense. Even though New Orleans rankled and some things happened during his rule that ought not to have happened, it was not out of order. Not when the capitol had already been burned and the entire Mississippi valley was in play.

Military necessity made it a sound decision, and local politics are not that hard to manage for a general with a seasoned army and the authority to suspend habeas corpus and all that.

New Orleans didn’t have much in 1814, but it had more than most southern cities. One of the things it had was a popular newspaper man. The newspaper man did not care for martial law, and by some accounts, he did not care for General Jackson. So he did what newspaper men do. He was critical of the whole thing.

Jackson told the newspaper man to shut his trap, at least until they saw how things went with the invading British, and added that this was for his own good. The newspaper man did not shut his trap.

The general threw the newspaper man in jail. The newspaper man summoned his lawyer. (There was no calling your attorney in 1814 New Orleans. Dude summoned his lawyer. Probably with the help of his jailers.)

The attorney went and talked to a federal judge. The judge issued an order for the newspaper man to be released. Jackson gave the judge the 1814 version of “screw you! I’m the one in charge! Shut your trap!”

The judge held Jackson in contempt and ordered him to appear in court. Jackson had is men throw the judge into the cell right next to the newspaper man, and asked the attorney if he would like to be next. Then he went and did what the President had sent him to New Orleans to do.

Equestrian statue of Andrew Jackson in the French Quarter, NOLA, by Clark Mills. Photo by Ianaré Sévi
Equestrian statue of Andrew Jackson in the French Quarter, NOLA, by Clark Mills. Photo by Ianaré Sévi

He fought off the British, but it was one of those Napoleonic engagements that played out over a period of weeks, and lots of other things happened that ought not have happened to get it done. Like slaves and poor people and generally any able-bodied man got to widen canals and build earthworks. Very large earthworks.

Non-stop, around-the-clock, dig-til-you-drop situation there. While the men were digging, the women were unattended. The local authorities were either acquiescent or locked up, and an army ran the town.

If you had a time machine. If you could travel to New Orleans, c. 1820, and talk to the women who lived through this — slave and free, rich and poor –, the things they would tell you about what happened in that city during the fall and winter of 1814 would curl your hair. That’s assuming you could get them to trust you enough to spill it. Jackson cast a long shadow, even after he was done with New Orleans. He had partisans.

Naturally, after the British were done in and the Mississippi valley was saved, after this war which had seen Washington D.C. burned and President Madison put to flight on horseback was mostly concluded, civil order was restored in New Orleans. (It was some months after, though.) Andrew Jackson, good soldier that he was, relinquished his authority (eventually). Which meant he had to let newspaper man and the judge out of jail.

They went back to being a newspaper man and a judge without missing a beat. They were pissed. The newspaper man wrote stories day and night. So many stories. All about Jackson. The judge summoned the general himself to answer the contempt charge (remember the contempt charge?)

And what did Andrew Jackson do? He did what any good politician would do. He loaded the courtroom with his regulars and answered the charge. He packed it with the ones who had been with him since they were 14 and had survived into their mid-20s. The ones who waded through the swamps and built the roads to New Orleans, Biloxi, and Mobile so the weak, johnny-come-lately bastards who joined up just for the war could march on flat ground. The ones who had played active roles in tossing the civil authorities in jail. The ones he trusted to manage the streets, so he could put his attention into defending the country.

Jackson satire produced much later - c. 1832. Public domain image.
Jackson satire produced much later – c. 1832. Public domain image.

We can criticize Andrew Jackson for a lot of things. I am no fan, when I look at his entire career. He did awful things. He was not a good man. But two things about him we can’t criticize, since he was a nineteenth century general. He knew how to convince people to die on his command, and he knew how to tell a story. The men he packed that courtroom with were not there to shout down criticism (though they probably did) or to defend his person. They were there because he wanted them to see what happened next.

He represented himself. That’s not a smart thing in modern times, but he was a lawyer as well as a general, and he knew what he was doing. There was a trial. He lost.

The judge levied a fine for the contempt of court. He paid it in gold, out of his pocket, amid the hoots and jeers of his men. Then he walked out of the courtroom laughing, and later got himself elected President.

I’m not sure what they did after the trial. I’ve always assumed they went out for beer and whiskey. Probably more than that, considering they were an army, they were in New Orleans, and they’d just saved the Mississippi valley from being conquered by the British.

3 thoughts on “Historical Campfire Tales: General Jackson Does New Orleans

    1. Thanks so much for the comment! I’ve got more of these. The idea started a couple of Christmases ago when I told my sister and brother-in-law the history of Rock-and-Roll from Reconstruction to Southern Rock as a campfire story. I’ve yet to write that one down.

      Also got a lot of international law cases stashed away that can be given this treatment and made interesting. This post itself grew from a footnote I read several years ago in a legal journal article.



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