This unit of the National Park System commemorates an event that was once celebrated as a national holiday, helped put a general in the White House, and inspired a popular song a few decades ago. Just for good measure, the park story also includes a legendary pirate.
The holiday is now a distant memory, except in Louisiana, and the park—Chalmette Monument and Grounds—is now part of the larger Jean Lafitte National Historical Park & Preserve.
Unless you're a pretty serious history buff, you're probably still searching the memory banks for "Chalmette," so perhaps the hit song and the connection with a former president will provide a couple of clues.
A half-century ago, a song called "The Battle Of New Orleans" topped both the country and pop music charts, helped launch the career of singer Johnny Horton, and resulted in the "discovery" of the original writer of the song, Jimmy Driftwood.
The Battle of New Orleans was also instrumental in a political career: it made General Andrew Jackson a national hero, a factor in his later move into the White House. Finally, a pirate adds a bit of zest to any story, and Chalmette has it's own: Jean Lafitte.
In September 1814, British military officials sought Lafitte’s help in their campaign to attack the U.S. from the Gulf of Mexico. Lafitte decided to warn American authorities and offered to help defend New Orleans in exchange for a pardon for his men... Although General Andrew Jackson, commander of the American troops, originally described Lafitte as a “hellish banditti,” he finally accepted Lafitte’s help because of the ammunition, cannoneers, and knowledge of the area Lafitte could supply.
The expert cannon fire of Jackson’s troops, including Lafitte’s Baratarians, contributed to the American victories during the New Orleans campaign that culminated with the Battle of New Orleans on January 8, 1815.
The community and plantation named Chalmette are just downriver from New Orleans, and the area was the site of the final major battle of the War of 1812. You may recall from a history class that this battle has often been described as one that could have been avoided, but the park website has an interesting perspective:
On December 24, 1814, British and American representatives who had been meeting in Belgium signed the Treaty of Ghent, the agreement that would end the War of 1812. Did that mean that the Battle of New Orleans, fought on January 8, 1815, was unnecessary? A tragic waste of life caused by the lack of quick communication in those days?
The war was not over when the treaty was signed on December 24. The treaty specifically stated that fighting between the United States and Britain would stop only when both governments ratified the treaty (in the case of the United States, that meant approval by Congress). Congress ratified the treaty on February 15, 1815.
The British had not asked for an immediate end to fighting because they were worried that the United States might still ask for revisions. In fact, the British official who brought the treaty to the United States also brought a copy of the British ratification and had instructions to stop hostilities only if the United States ratified the treaty with no changes.
What would have happened if the British had won the Battle of New Orleans and captured the third most important port in the United States—the gateway to the West?
The treaty said that land captured during the war, including any land captured between the signing and the ratification, would be returned to its original country of ownership. By this time, too, the British were more interested in making sure of their claims in Canada than in starting a new colony in Louisiana. But since the best defense is a good offense, the British wanted to continue treaty negotiations from a strong position, and so continued their attacks on American land to make sure that the Americans would agree to peace.
The British strategy proved costly, and the American victory at New Orleans was a big event both at the time and for decades thereafter. January 8th became a holiday, known variously as Jackson Day, Old Hickory's Day and Battle of New Orleans Day. The park notes,
The resounding American victory at the Battle of New Orleans soon became a symbol of a new idea: American democracy triumphing over the old European ideas of aristocracy and entitlement. General Andrew Jackson's hastily assembled army had won the day against a battle-hardened and numerically superior British force. Americans took great pride in the victory and for decades celebrated January 8 as a national holiday, just like the Fourth of July.
A story in the New York Times on January 9, 1896, described commemoration of the event over 80 years later:
"Flags displayed on public buildings - the famous victory a topic in schools and at dinners... in the world's record of important events, it was the anniversary of the battle of New Orleans... All over the United States, the immediate effect of the news of the battle was electric, and it was enhanced by the news of peace, which arrived a few days later."
In true American fashion, a monument was erected to mark the site of the battle. After several false starts, construction began in 1855 and continued intermittently for the next fifty years. The monument was finally completed in 1908, following federal designation of Chalmette Monument and Grounds on March 4, 1907, by President Theodore Roosevelt.
The site was transferred from the War Department to the National Park Service in 1933; reestablished as Chalmette National Historical Park in 1939; and finally incorporated into Jean Lafitte National Historical Park & Preserve in 1978. Chalmette National Cemetery, established during the Civil War and the final resting place of over 15,000 troops from the War of 1812 through the Vietnam War, is located adjacent to the battlefield site.
The Battlefield includes a recreation of the rampart which protected the American troops from the British army, cannons dating from the period and newer replicas, including a recently-acquired replica of an 18-pounder.
Recent natural events have not been kind to the area. The cemetery and battlefield suffered damage during hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, and the national cemetery and the battlefield's Tour Loop Road are closed for repairs. The battlefield visitor center, Battlefield Road, and restrooms remain open daily from 9:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The park website has information on the status of the recovery work, along with activities at the park, so check for updates before planning a visit.
Chalmette is one of six units in Jean Lafitte National Historical Park & Preserve in southern Louisiana. You'll find directions, maps and other information to help plan a visit on the park's website.