I love maps. Always have. Today I am looking at ones addressing the Battle of New Orleans as one way of prepping for my “Antebellum America” class, which meets 3-5:30pm each Thursday beginning August 22.
Andrew Jackson’s unlikely victory in New Orleans against the British anchors our attention to the stories we tell ourselves about what it means to be American, a focus for this course this fall.
Last fall, we took up the issue of why “space matters” to how power is arranged. That required us to go out of the classroom quite a bit. We spent time at historic sites and reviewed the experiences of important figures and lesser known people, including women who might be shaped as the seemingly powerless southern belle or individuals who might be shaped as the lowly enslaved and only the lowly enslaved.
Jackson is critical to new understandings of power by many people who were in awe of his victory against the British in New Orleans in 1815 after the War of 1812 had already ended. He became a national hero and remains a hero for many even though he was a slaveholder who made the Trail of Tears a social fact and therefore, is anything but a hero for some people. Like him or not, his life and the time in which he lived hold many important lessons for us.
I am often drawn to the contradictions in those lessons. Many contradictions hover around Jackson. His rise to power was orchestrated by Martin Van Buren whose position on slavery was different from Jackson’s. Still, after the War of 1812 and amid a growing Cotton Kingdom alongside an urbanizing America, Van Buren managed to rally support in and outside of the South. In doing so, he assured Jackson’s newly formed Democratic Party of the highest seat in the land. How did he do it? What all did he say that made people in a still young nation believe in him? We will sort through this and the mud that Jackson’s riflemen stood behind while they sent some 2,000 British men to their grave in 1815.
That was a huge loss when compared to eight Americans who perished. And lest we think this is a story only about war or the most powerful, the students will be encouraged to – again – pay close attention to the others who are not part of the big news stories like the Battle of New Orleans. This was so grand a win, it will be celebrated possibly forever. In 2015, I, indeed, attended a lavish event in a local mansion where this battle was remembered. I was deliberate about the ironies of wearing period dress as a woman of color. The same ironies hover when I teach . Getting to weigh in on certain narratives has become more of a privilege than it ever was in the past. I don’t take this lightly. Still, to take some of the edge off of it all, my students and I get out of the classroom a bit.
I recently picked up these books that a cherished senior colleague had in his give-away pile. I learn so much while reviewing the stories that get told a lot. The Battle of New Orleans is one of those stories. I pay close attention not only the story, but the narrators. I encourage my students to do the same.
As true last fall, I will encourage those with me this fall to be attentive to the land around us. I want them to be as attentive to the land around us as I am to New Orleans, or the Crescent City whenever I travel there. During such travel, I digest what little I know about the military maneuvers enabling Jackson’s win. Maps help me better see the enormous significance of this victory for a people who were only recently seen as a bunch of spoiled colonists.
But while looking at these maps, I see other stories, too. They concern nationalism, agriculture/commerce, imperial might, accessibility, urbanization, diasporic influence, community, religious practice, public vs private life…I could go on and on. The challenge before me now is distilling a narrative with clarity. We will, again, pay attention to the stories we tell ourselves about what it means to be American in the years leading to the Civil War. Battles figure into those stories, but not always.
From time to time, we will always be mindful of broadening our view on matters. In the introduction to their wonderfully edited book on the spatial narratives in New Orleans, Rebecca Snedeker and Rebecca Solnit write,
“The map becomes obsolete as you become oriented. The map is then no longer on paper in front of you but inside of you; many maps are, as you contain knowledge of many kinds of history and community in one place. You know longer need help navigating but can offer it. You become a map, an atlas, a guide, a person who has absorbed maps, or who needs no map intermediaries because you know the place and the many ways to get here from there. You know where you are, which may become an increasingly rare thing in an era of digital intervention.”
These words hold promise for me and my students. On the one hand, we are concerned with studying something specific. Places we can find on a map. The United States. The South. New Orleans. A battlefield. The river beside a battlefield. The cypress trees beside the same field and so on.
On the other hand, we will be thinking about people, important ones and not so important ones. We will also think about storytelling, or what seems familiar. Familiarity is key and it can jam you up – if you are not careful.
The British lost the Battle of New Orleans partly because they were far more confident than they should have been. Despite their military might, they did not know everything. For sure, they didn’t know the land like Jackson and his riflemen who came from Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee. These men knew the land that was New Orleans a little or a lot more than their adversary. Knowledge of where you are and where your enemy is is important in any battle. But knowledge of the land is important, too. The American’s victory involved knowledge of land, but also their growing identity as “Americans.”
We will wrap our heads around the swagger we Americans seem to think we have always had and find meaning in it during a particular era as a way of earning a good grade and better understanding storytelling about our shared past.
Meanwhile, the video clip above was taken the morning after my 50th birthday, which was celebrated in New Orleans. I am riding across Lake Ponchartrain in awe of it and the stories, old and new, circling it.