I like American history. The older the better, because history helps inform how we got here. With that in mind, a family member bought me Andrew Jackson and the Miracle of New Orleans, by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger. Hardcover. Signed copy. There’s even a sticker on the front confirming that fact.
The War of 1812 is over two-hundred years old at this point. It marked the first real test of the new nation and almost ended in disaster. America as we know it today, for better or worse, could have been completely different if a few key moments had gone the other way. I didn’t know this, as I’ve never read anything about the war until now. This book provides a good entry point, but it’s definitely an appetizer and not the main course. There’s a lot of ground to cover, from introducing Jackson and cluing the reader in to what kind of man he was, to illustrating the path he took to end up as a general leading yet another rag-tag army in a pivotal battle of the war. Since the main subject is the battle of New Orleans itself, the other parts form a brisk narrative that may leave you wanting more.
That doesn’t mean this book isn’t worth the read, because the battle of New Orleans is fascinating, from the differing roles of Native American tribes to Jackson’s good decision-making (and good luck) to the British errors that cost them the war. It’s all here. It’s clean and clear, there is no fat and no commitment to a monstrous read like some history books.
America the Clueless
One thing this book reinforces is the idea that those in charge often don’t know what’s going on, and when they get a sense of it, they can’t agree on which way to go. The battle of New Orleans is no exception. As the War of 1812 went on, the British navy controlled the seas, paving the way for their army to move right in and burn down the White House, the British had employed several Native American tribes to fight with them, and part of the country wanted to just give the British what they wanted. America was hardly united. At the same time, diplomats overseas were working to negotiate a peace with little knowledge of how the war was actually going.
Hamilton Was Right?
If you’ve seen the musical Hamilton (which has nothing to do with this book), a central theme is where the people who helped build this country actually came from. Andrew Jackson, in his role in the War of 1812, gets his name in the history books by bringing to his side all manner of people: French privateers who knew the nature of the land in southern Louisiana, Native American tribes opposed to the tribes the British employed, and slave labor that performed critical work for Jackson as his troops dug in around New Orleans.
While I’m sure you know how the battle of New Orleans went, along with the War of 1812, what makes this book interesting is the look it takes at the battlefield decisions by both sides. British tactics were clouded by arrogance and a lack of understanding of the land in southern Louisiana. Jackson had the room to act creatively. I won’t spoil it (more than I have); you should read it for yourself. It’s worth it, and, I think, it’s what this story is ultimately about: How it all came together, how it almost fell apart, and how it miraculously ended.
What’s interesting is, the authors show all this, but they never make any commentary on it. The don’t seem to have an angle. You don’t get to know the characters well, just the main event. History Lite. They say, “Here are the facts of what happened, Have a nice day.” That Jackson got all these people to work together against the British in a time of great uncertainty for a new nation is probably the real miracle.
The rest is just war.