Tracing the final footsteps from the War of 1812

This is Part V of a five-part series documenting the travels of Kentucky Guard Command Historian John Trowbridge as he explores Kentucky’s participation in the War of 1812.

Story and photos by Sgt. Scott Raymond, Kentucky National Guard Public Affairs

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John Trowbridge, State Command Historian for the Kentucky National Guard takes in the view of Chalmette Battlefield in New Orleans, La., Jan. 28, 2013. Trowbridge’s site visit was part of his continued documentation of the role Kentuckians played in the War of 1812. (Kentucky National Guard photo by Sgt. Scott Raymond)

NEW ORLEANS, La. — In the latter days of the War of 1812, the conflict was winding down in the North and East, but Gen. Andrew Jackson was still preparing to meet the British on the final field of battle. With the help of Choctaw Indians, free men of color, pirates and volunteers from Tennessee and Kentucky, Jackson’s army defended New Orleans and the gateway up the Mississippi River from the redcoats final attempt to defeat the upstart United States.

The victory on the plantation fields of Chalmette outside New Orleans proved to be a much greater event to the fledgling government than a just a battle won.  The outcome ended the last war with England, preserved a claim to the Louisiana Territory, triggered migration and settlement along the Mississippi River and rebuilt the spirit of the American people.

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The Chalmette Monument stands just behind the canal Gen. Andrew Jackson fortified to defend New Orleans during the War of 1812. The victory preserved the U.S. claim to the Louisiana Territory and built patriotism in the American people. (Kentucky National Guard photo by Sgt. Scott Raymond)

“This was the most one-sided victory in U.S. military history,” said John Trowbridge, State Command Historian for the Kentucky National Guard.  “And it was won by a ragtag army, pieced together to face what was at the time the greatest army in the world. More than two thousand Kentuckians were part of that group that fought for Jackson at New Orleans.”

Answering the call to fight, the Kentuckians gathered along the Ohio River, built rafts and flatboats and floated down the Mississippi to New Orleans.  They took up defensive positions along a canal Jackson ordered fortified and across the water along the west bank of the river.  The British arrived with a 10,000 man army, nearly out numbering the Americans 2-1.  The final battle last roughly two hours. With thousands of causalities and their commanding general, Sir Edward Pakenham dead on the field, the British retreated, leaving the Americans in control of the Mississippi River.

Although the Treaty of Ghent had already been signed, news did not travel the ocean quickly. But with the victory at New Orleans, there was little doubt, the Americans had the upper hand in defending their country. Several months after the battle, the volunteers from Kentucky and Tennessee began the long journey home.  At the time, the Natchez trace was the path to follow.

The trace had been used by Native Americans for centuries. In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson ordered the trace be improved for travel and postal runs to connect the newly purchased western territories.  In 1815, it was the most direct and reliable route north to Tennessee. Stands or roadside markets and inns were constructed to aid travelers in their journey.

Several sections of the original trace remain, similar to the early nineteenth century. Trowbridge felt especially connected to the militiamen from 1815 as he placed his steps in the same ground two hundred years later. Stories of the time said the militias were loud and boisterous in celebrating their victory as they made their way home.  Some were welcomed as national heroes when they arrived in Nashville. Not every Kentuckian came home however. Although casualities in the battle were low compared to the British, illness and infection struck down many Americans in the harsh swamp lands of Louisiana.

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John Trowbridge, State Command Historian for the Kentucky National Guard walks along an old portion of the Natchez Trace near Jackson, Miss., Jan. 29, 2013. Trowbridge’s site visit was part of his continued documentary of the role Kentuckians played in the War of 1812. (Kentucky National Guard photo by Sgt. Scott Raymond)

“This is the same route they used, marching home from war,” said Trowbridge as he placed his own steps in the sunken pathway in Mississippi. “It may have been a sorrowful return for the Kentuckians after losing several compatriots in New Orleans. But it was still a return home and a return that meant the end of the war.”

“The Battle of New Orleans and the War of 1812 put Kentucky on the national stage,” he said. “The war established a warrior spirit in Kentuckians and a tradition of military service that remains today in the Kentucky National Guard.”

Victory in the forgotten War of 1812 forged the destiny of the continent for generations.  From New Orleans through the Indiana Territory and into Canada, Kentuckians sacrificed to help establish the United States as a player in the events of the world.

As the last battle of the war, Trowbridge said this site visit should wrap up his planned documentary on Kentuckians during the War of 1812. He is looking forward to the bicentennial events he calls significant dates in the nation’s history, each with a Kentucky connection.

“After these visits, I have a better perspective of the Kentuckians roles in the War of 1812 and look forward to honoring their memories during the next several months,” he said.

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