Andrew Jackson was born in South Carolina on March 15, 1767, the third son of Andrew and Elizabeth (Hutchinson) Jackson, immigrants from Ulster. From the start Jackson faced adversity. His father died just a few days before he was born, leaving his mother to struggle to keep the family together.
When Jackson was 8, the revolutionary war broke out between the colonies and England. Jackson’s family sided with the pro-independence forces and in the latter years of the war (at age 13) he served as a mounted courier for the Continental Army. Unfortunately, the war left him an orphan as his brothers were killed by British soldiers and his mother died of cholera. The ordeal left him with an implacable hatred for the British and a hope that he might one day have an opportunity for revenge.
Despite his travails, Jackson studied law after the war and was admitted to the bar in 1787. He then headed for the frontier town of Nashville, Tenn., where he prospered as an attorney and investor in land, horses, and slaves. He entered politics in the late 1790s, serving in both the U. S. House and Senate before accepting appointment to the state superior court of Tennessee. In 1802, Jackson was named the major general of the state’s militia.
When war broke out between the U.S. and Great Britain in 1812, Jackson was exultant. Like many Americans, he had long decried the foreign policy of the Jefferson and Madison administrations as nothing short of cowardly in the face of repeated British outrages on the high seas against American ships. Jackson immediately volunteered for military service and by 1814 had risen to the rank of major general in the regular Army in command of Tennessee, Mississippi, and Louisiana.
Although far from the war’s major clashes in the north, Jackson made the most of his opportunity. His forces successfully repulsed a British assault on Mobile, Ala., in September and in November expelled the enemy from Pensacola, Fla. That left one key city in need of protection — New Orleans, the gateway to the vital Mississippi River. The British, Jackson soon learned, intended to take the city and close the river to American commerce.
Jackson’s army reached New Orleans in late November, shortly before a British fleet arrived and landed a force of some 13,000 at a position 10 miles below the city. Here the Irish connection to the story broadens considerably, for the commander of the British operation was Major General Sir Edward Pakenham, born in Westmeath. Pakenham took the offensive immediately, launching repeated attacks on the city. But Jackson’s men — a much smaller force of 5,000 that included both regular army and militiamen as well as free blacks and Choctaw Indians — held the British at bay until the climactic battle of Jan. 8, 1815.
Among those assisting Jackson in his defense of New Orleans was yet another man with a strong Irish connection. Seventeen years earlier, General Jean Humbert had landed 1,000 French soldiers in Ireland to support Wolfe Tone and the 1798 uprising of the United Irishmen. Captured and imprisoned in the wake of the uprising’s failure, Humbert eventually returned to France, resigned his commission, and sailed for New Orleans. When Jackson arrived, Humbert offered his services and was placed in charge of mounted scouts. His service proved immensely beneficial to the cause and he later received stirring praise from Jackson.
The morning of Jan. 8 was foggy and dark, conditions Pakenham believed gave the attacking British the advantage. Striking from the east from Lake Borgne, the British threw everything they had at Jackson’s lines in an all-out attempt to end the standoff once and for all. But poor coordination of a planned two-pronged strategy threw them off balance. Jackson’s men were ready for the attack and poured fire into the British lines, repulsing the offensive and winning a decisive victory. British forces lost more than 2,000 men as compared with Jackson’s losing only 71. Worse for the British, however, was the loss of two generals, including Pakenham, who was shot while trying to rally his crumbling forces. Defeated, the British retreated and soon sailed off into the Gulf of Mexico, leaving New Orleans safely in American hands.
Given the primitive communications of the day, it took several weeks for news of Jackson’s stunning victory to reach the rest of the country. When it did become public knowledge, the nation exploded in celebration for it was the second welcomed bit of news to arrive in recent days. Back on Dec. 24 — 15 days before Jackson’s victory — American and British officials signed the Treaty of Ghent ending the War of 1812. This gap between treaty signing and the Battle of New Orleans has long led people to erroneously state that Jackson’s victory (snicker, snicker) came after the war had ended. But since the Treaty of Ghent specifically stipulated that hostilities would continue until both governments formally ratified the treaty (something that did not occur until mid-February), the war was very much ongoing when British and American forces clashed on Jan. 8.
Andrew Jackson became a national hero and used his fame over the next decade to build a political career that eventually led to the White House. General Humbert remained in the city until his death in 1823. General Pakenham’s body was brought back to England for burial. The people of New Orleans eventually erected a statue honoring Jackson and the men he commanded and for decades celebrated Jan.8 as victory day, an event that inspired several songs, including “Huzza! for General Jackson,” the chorus of which went:
“Remember New Orleans I say,
Where Jackson show’d them Yankee play,
And beat them off and gain’d the day,
And then we heard the people say
Huzza! For Gen’ral Jackson!”
HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK
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Jan. 12, 1971: Philip Berrigan is indicted along with five others for anti-war actions.
Jan. 14, 1882: Boxer John L. Sullivan KOs Paddy Ryan in Mississippi to gain the heavyweight crown.
Jan. 8, 1736: First bishop and archbishop of Baltimore, John Carroll, is born in Upper Marlboro, Md.
Jan. 12, 1729: Statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke is born in Dublin.
Jan. 14, 1919: TV commentator and writer Andy Rooney is born in Albany, N.Y.