The Story of American Economic History

Weekend Reading: J. William Ward: "The Hunters of Kentucky": The Kentucky Strain of American Nationalism Has Always Been Fake News...

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J. William Ward (1962): Andrew Jackson: Symbol for an Age 0195006992 "IN the spring of 1822, Noah M. Ludlow, prominent in the beginnings of the theater in the western United States...

...was in New Orleans. One day early in May he received, as was the custom in the early theater, a ‘benefit’ night. Remembering the occasion some years later, Ludlow could not recollect what pieces had been acted on that evening but he did recall doing something that was as a rule ‘entirely out of [his] line of business.’ As an added attraction he had sung a song he thought might please the people. The song was ‘The Hunters of Kentucky.’

The lyrics of ‘The Hunters of Kentucky’ had been written by Samuel Woodworth, better known today for having written ‘The Old Oaken Bucket.’ Noah claimed his brother had seen the poem and since it ‘tickled his fancy’ had sent it along to New Orleans. Noah adapted the words to the tune ‘Miss Baily,’ which was taken from the comic opera Love Laughs at Locksmiths, and decided to sing it for his New Orleans audience. When the night came [remembered Noah]:

I found the pit, or parquette, of the theatre crowded full of ‘river men,’—that is, keel-boat and flat-boat men. There were very few steamboat men. These men were easily known by their linsey-woolsey clothing and blanket coats. As soon as the comedy of the night was over, I dressed myself in a buckskin hunting-shirt and leggins, which I had borrowed of a river man, and with moccasins on my feet, and an old slouched hat on my head, and a rifle on my shoulder, I presented myself before the audience. I was saluted with loud applause of hands and feet, and a prolonged whoop, or howl, such as Indians give when they are especially pleased.

I sang the first verse, and these extraordinary manifestations of delight were louder and longer than before; but when I came to the following lines:

But Jackson he was wide awake,
and wasn’t scared with trifles,
For well he knew what aim we take
with our Kentucky rifles;
So he marched us down to “Cyprus Swamp”;
The ground was low and mucky;
There stood “John Bull,” in martial pomp,
But here was old Kentucky.

As I delivered the last five words, I took my old hat off my head, threw it upon the ground, and brought my rifle to the position of taking aim. At that instant came a shout and an Indian yell from, the inmates of the pit, and a tremendous applause from other portions of the house, the whole lasting for nearly a minute, and, as Edmund Kean told his wife, after his first great success in London, ‘the house rose to me!’ The whole pit was standing up and shouting. I had to sing the song three times that night before they would let me off.

Thus was launched one of America’s most popular songs.

Its popularity quickly became a source of annoyance to Ludlow since he was forced to sing it two or three times wherever he appeared. It plagued him so that he gave it to the local papers thinking to kill it but he achieved the opposite result; he simply created a wider audience for the song. ‘The Hunters of Kentucky’ became so popular ‘that you could hear it sung or whistled almost any day as you passed along the principal thoroughfares of the city.’

The widespread circulation of the song was helped along by friends of Andrew Jackson who recognized its use and printed and circulated large editions of it; Thomas Low Nichols remembered that in 1828 ‘the land rang with “The Hunters of Kentucky.”’ At Jackson Day Dinners on the anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans the song was rendered as part of the entertainment and sometimes sung by the whole company seated at dinner. As one anonymous student of campaign songs says, ‘“The Hunters of Kentucky” had much to do with arousing sentiment [for Jackson in 1828].’ A contemporary of the period in which ‘The Hunters of Kentucky’ had its greatest vogue remarked about campaign songs in general that ‘it is not necessary that [a song] should possess much literary merit; if it condenses into some rhythmic form, a popular thought, emotion or purpose.’

The question then is: what popular thought or emotion is expressed in ‘The Hunters of Kentucky’? Taken over almost immediately for political purposes, the song is the final expression given to a widely held assumption why Andrew Jackson was able to defeat the British at New Orleans. In ‘The Hunters of Kentucky’ version of the battle, the terrible slaughter inflicted upon the British was the result of the skill of the frontier rifleman. As might be anticipated from the fact that it worked its way into a popular song, this version of the Battle of New Orleans was widely current from 1815 until it received its classic enunciation in Ludlow’s presentation in 1822.

Before we examine ‘The Hunters of Kentucky’ version of the victory at New Orleans and its popular acceptance, it can be flatly asserted that Jackson’s overwhelming victory can in no way be attributed to the sharpshooting skill of the American frontiersman; further, that fact was recognized by those who took part in the battle and also in the immediate newspaper accounts of the battle. So what we have in ‘The Hunters of Kentucky’ is the imputation to a historical event of a cause which has no basis except in the widespread desire of Americans to believe their own imaginative construction of the battle....

Although it is true that the British were sitting-ducks for the American army, the fact does not necessarily detract from the skill of the American riflemen, although skill would seem to be irrelevant in the circumstances. Two other considerations, however, clinch the case against the marksmanship brief. One is that the Americans simply could not see well enough to bring to bear any skill they may have possessed. A participant’s letter, although marked by a certain lack of critical balance, suggests this: ‘The atmosphere was filled with sheets of fire and volumes of smoke… Our men … took steady and deliberate aim, and almost every shot told.’

Not only was the field obscured by the smoke of battle, but the attack was made in the half-light of dawn and fine shooting was impossible. One of the actual riflemen recalled that:

it was so dark that little could be seen, until just about the time that the battle ceased… the smoke was so thick that everything seemed to be covered up in it.

Contemporary accounts contained some ambiguous statements, such as the one in the letter to the National Intelligencer just quoted, but in general the first news of the battle correctly attributed the havoc done among the British to the American cannon, rather than to rifle fire. The National Intelligencer, Extra, the first eastern announcement of the battle, carried a letter from an American officer who referred to the terrible toll of British dead and wounded as ‘being generally from our cannon.’ Another on the scene account said:

Our artillery was fired upon their whole columns, about an hour and a half, within good striking distance, whilst advancing and retreating, with grape & cannister; and the slaughter must have been great.

Andrew Jackson’s victory address to his troops on January 21, 1815, also recognized the prime importance of the American cannon fire. The condition of the British casualties testified further to the source of their wounds: ‘their wounds are horrible—they are indeed mutilated—there is none of them who have less than three or four wounds, and some have even eight and ten; they have been thus crippled by our grape shot.’ Even when those on the scene attributed the American victory to ‘sheer superiority in firing’ there was no mention of what kind of firing.

Despite available records as to what did happen at New Orleans, there gradually arose the legend that the British were slaughtered because of the sharpshooting skill of the American frontiersman. The first anecdotes which circulated through the nation were plausible, even if, as one suspects, apocryphal. One particularly went the rounds. It was copied from paper to paper, always under the same heading, ‘Sharp Shooting.’ It told of the death of the British officer who led the attack on the American right flank and who was killed after taking possession of the isolated redoubt there. After the battle there was some argument among the American militia about who had been responsible for killing the officer, a Colonel Rennie:

One said if Rannie [sic] had been shot just below the left eye he would claim the merit, otherwise not—for that is where he had aimed the ball. On inspection, it was found that Rannie had been shot as predicted by the marksman!

Since Rennie had penetrated right to the American line there is a possibility that this anecdote might have been founded in truth and that such a feat of marksmanship had been executed. However, the British officer who conveyed the news of Rennie’s death to his relatives in England, and who had examined his body after the battle, reported that Rennie had died of two bullet wounds in the head which suggests that he fell under a hail of bullets and not by the act of a single marksman.

Similar to this story was the one about the ‘Humane Rifleman.’ This concerned a Tennesseean who beckoned to an English officer reconnoitering the American line prior to the battle to come in and surrender, which the officer did. When asked why, the Englishman replied, ‘I had no alternative; for I have been told these d—d Yankee riflemen can pick a squirrel’s eye out as far as they can see it.’

Neither of these anecdotes, be it observed, relates to the main battle area, although both obviously attest to the belief in the frontiersman as an excellent rifleman.

In 1820, two years before Noah Ludlow enshrined the legend of ‘The Hunters of Kentucky’ in song, Marshal Count Bertrand Clausel, who at Salamanca had commanded the French division that had been defeated by Packenham, and Count Desnoettes, who had been with Napoleon at Moscow, visited the battlefield of New Orleans. These gallant and distinguished Frenchmen [relates Walker, the contemporary historian of the Battle of New Orleans]

…were greatly puzzled to know how such good soldiers as the English could be repulsed by so weak a force from such trifling fortifications. ‘Ah!’ exclaimed Marshall Clausel, after some moments of reflection, ‘I see how it all happened. When these Americans go into battle they forget they are not hunting deer or shooting turkeys and try never to throw away a shot.’

And there [remarks Walker] was the whole secret of the defeat, which the British have ascribed to so many different causes.

Thus the story grew until the author of An Epick Poem on the Battle of New Orleans could characterize Jackson’s fighting force in this fashion:

…Rude their sun-burnt men, In simple garb of foresters are seen— But mark—they know with death the bead to sight, And draw the centre of the heart in fight.

And the account of the Battle of New Orleans in The Jackson Wreath could sum up the conflict with the statement that ‘the fatal aim of the western marksmen was never so terribly exemplified.’

It would not be worth establishing the fact that contemporaries were mistaken in ascribing the cause of the victory at New Orleans to the skill of the western frontiersman, if there were nothing more to the matter than a mistake. But in singling out ‘the western farmer,’ or ‘the frontiersman,’ as the cause of the victory, the imagination of the American people was trying to make the account of the Battle of New Orleans buttress one of its favorite concepts; that, as I suggested in commenting on Representative Troup’s speech, ‘The Hunters of Kentucky’ version of the Battle of New Orleans is an attempt to establish the empowering force of nature as the cause of the American victory over the disciplined soldiery of Europe. The point is not that frontier life did not create good marksmen, which it may have, but that a prevailing attitude toward nature caused Americans to ascribe the victory at New Orleans to the frontier farmer although the facts did not support such a version.

Jackson himself implicitly accepted the view that nature was somehow in the background of the American victory. In his address, ‘To the Embodied Militia,’ on December 28, 1814, before the main engagement, Jackson complimented his ‘fellow citizens and soldiers’ on their noble ardor:

Inhabitants of an opulent and commercial town [he went on to say], you have by a spontaneous effort shaken off the habits, which are created by wealth, and shewn that you are resolved to deserve the blessings of fortune by bravely defending them.

Jackson’s thought is here stated in terms of historical primitivism. It is assumed that the advance of wealth and material well-being saps moral and physical strength. Negatively there is the implication that the condition of man in a state of nature is somehow superior. One will notice, however, that Jackson is addressing the inhabitants of an opulent and commercial town; there would be no sense in making a statement such as this to farmers from the frontier regions of Kentucky.

We thus come to realize that ‘The Hunters of Kentucky’ account of the Battle of New Orleans has drastically altered the facts to fit its particular version. Concentration on the marksmanship of the frontiersman has required the neglect of a large number of others who were also engaged in the defense of New Orleans. Thus, what is the most popular account of Jackson’s victory has no place for the part played by the French Creoles, the Free Men of Color, the regular troops, the Barratarian Pirates, or the citizens of the city of New Orleans. Of the 3,569 troops on the line on the morning of the eighth, only 2100, Coffee’s and Adair’s men, fit the frontiersman category. This means that ‘The Hunters of Kentucky’ version has, by its focus, been forced to dismiss more than 41 per cent of the total from consideration, a considerable alteration of the facts. Of the Kentucky troops on hand, most were held in reserve, back of the main line of defense, for the very good reason that only 550 arrived with any arms. Jackson complained that ‘hardly one-third of the Kentucky troops, so long expected, are armed, and the arms they have are not fit for use.’

The fact that no more than one-third of the Hunters of Kentucky had rifles in their hands during the battle further depreciates the legend of their sharpshooting at New Orleans.

It is almost too happy for present purposes that after the Battle of New Orleans had ended a controversy arose over the relative shooting ability of General Coffee’s famed mounted brigade of Tennessee Volunteers and Beale’s Rifle Company which was composed of ‘leading merchants and professional characters of the city, who had formed themselves into a volunteer corps.’ To decide the issue a shooting match was held; against the frontiersmen, fresh from their plows, the inhabitants of an opulent city won the trial of skill.

The view that it was the special worth of the American frontiersman that accounts for Jackson’s victory was not only unhistorical, it was astigmatic. The assertion of the frontiersman not only dictated a cause of victory which simply did not pertain, it demanded the rejection of all who did not fit its particular version, who did not spring from frontier life...