The Terrible and the Brave:
The Battles for New Orleans,
In the waning days of the War of 1812, Andrew Jackson shocked the world by leading a ragtag force of local and state militia, regular U.S. troops, free men of color, Choctaw Indians, and Baratarian pirates to an overwhelming victory over an invading army of proud, tested, elite British veterans bent on seizing New Orleans. Jackson’s improbable victory ensured that this critical American port, and the control of the Mississippi River, would remain in American hands. From May 17 through February 11, 2006, The Historic New Orleans Collection revisited the scene with The Terrible and the Brave: The Battles for New Orleans, 1814-1815.
The exhibition title reflects both the seriousness of the campaign and the fact that the “battle” of New Orleans actually consisted of several engagements, some won by the British and others by the Americans. Drawing from The Collection’s own considerable holdings on the Battle of New Orleans, as well as public and private collections in the U.S. and Canada, The Terrible and the Brave featured an impressive array of original documents and artworks, vintage weapons and military equipment, as well as dazzling Napoleonic-era uniforms. The Louisiana State Museum, the National Park Service, the New Orleans Museum of Art, and The Hermitage in Nashville, Tennessee, all generously loaned objects for the exhibition.
Portions of the exhibition were made possible through the collaboration of Tim Pickles, a British native and well-known local history consultant for museums and the film industry. Mr. Pickles consented to loan various artifacts relating to the British army from his own collection. He also utilized his extensive contacts among fellow collectors and enthusiasts to secure loans from other private collections. Among the highlights of these were replica uniforms, meticulously researched and constructed by Mr. Pickles, and worn by historical reenactors at Chalmette.
While the vintage and replica uniforms were likely to command the attention of exhibition visitors, military history enthusiasts were also be drawn to the printed and manuscript campaign maps from both the British and American sides. Among the most important of these was the highly detailed series of maps drawn and published by Arsène Lacarrière Latour, Andrew Jackson’s chief engineer and the first historian of the battle.
Latour’s maps, and others on display, collectively illustrated the enormous difficulties faced by the British army, which found itself hemmed in by the Mississippi River and impassable swampy woods. Napoleonic-era tactical manuals and American battlefield reports supplemented the maps, and suggest some of the ways that terrain dictated battle tactics.
A selection of cannonballs and small arms projectiles used at Chalmette gave visitors a lively sense of the perils both sides faced on the battlefield. Antique weapons enthusiasts appreciated many fine examples of British and American small arms of the period, including flintlock and percussion pistols, rifles, and muskets, as well as edged weapons such as swords and bayonets. Private collector Robert Melancon graciously lent part of his collection, including the only rifle fully documented as belonging to a member of Captain Thomas Beale’s New Orleans Riflemen—a volunteer unit that experienced considerable action in 1814-15. Also of note was a sword with a particularly fascinating story—it belonged to a young British officer of the 21st Regiment of Foot who bravely crossed the fortified American line on January 8, 1815, only to be forced to surrender to members of John Coffee’s Tennessee militia. In addition to weapons, vintage equipment on display included wooden canteens, powder horns, and a militia doctor’s field surgery kit.
Manuscript letters, rare published accounts, and personal artifacts brought the events of 1814–15 to life. One letter vividly conveyed the mood of the Americans immediately following the climactic battle. Major John Reid of the U.S. Infantry’s 44th Regiment served as an aide-de-camp to Jackson, and on January 13 he wrote from his camp four miles below New Orleans: “Since the affair of the 8th instant, our army and that of the enemy have occupied their former positions. Their loss on that day was terrible, greatly exceeding what we had at first supposed it to be.” Neither Reid nor his fellow officers—who could still hear gunfire from the direction of Fort St. Philip, downriver—knew yet what the next move of the British army would be, for it was still a large and potent force. As Reid wrote his letter, the ultimate outcome of the battle remained an open question. Various manuscript letters and reports from Andrew Jackson, Jean Laffite, British colonel Frederick Stovin, and other major and minor participants in the battle will give visitors a raw, unpolished look at history in the making.
Contrary to the notion that the Battle of New Orleans was an unnecessary coda to the War of 1812, the curators hoped that visitors will understand that the British invasion was a serious threat to the city, as well as to the entire country, and that regardless of the American victory, the event occasioned much loss of life and property. The young United States scored a critical victory, but the British forces in Louisiana showed remarkable bravery and ingenuity in defeat.
As a supplement to the main exhibition, a special display documented the rise of Andrew Jackson to national and international prominence in the decades following the battle. Also, a short documentary film on the Battle of New Orleans, produced by filmmaker Walter Williams, complemented The Terrible and the Brave and features detailed commentary from the curators as well as noted Jackson scholar Robert Remini.
An electronic pdf version of the exhibition catalogue is available.
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