Thursday, May 30, 2013

May 30, 2013: Remembering the Battle of New Orleans

[This is the fourth in a series of Memorial Day-inspired posts. Check out last year’s series for more!]

On three striking sides to one of America’s most insignificant victories.
The first thing that stands out about the January 1815 Battle of New Orleans is that it was entirely unnecessary. Not in the “War: what is it good for?” sense, but quite literally unnecessary: the War of 1812 had been ended by the Treaty of Ghent in December 1814, but the various signatories were still in the process of ratifying the treaty and word had not reached the British troops who were trying to take the city and with it the rest of the Louisiana Purchase territory. So the attack continued, the American troops led by Major General Andrew Jackson fought back, and the U.S. won its clearest military victory of the war after that conflict had officially ceased.
If the victory was thus officially meaningless, however, the composition of those American forces was far more significant. I’ve written elsewhere in this space about the uniquely multicultural, -national, and –lingual identify of New Orleans, and the army fighting to protect the city reflected that identity very fully: the relatively small force (it numbered around 8000, noticeably fewer than the British forces) included French Creole troops from New Orleans (some commanded by the former pirate Jean Lafitte), both free African American residents of the city (colloquially known as fmcs, “free men of color”) and slaves who had been freed specifically to aid in the battle, and Choctaw Native Americans, among other communities.
Moreover, one particular such community is even more striking and unremembered in our national narratives. Since the mid-18th century, a group of Filipino immigrants had settled in a Louisiana town known as Manila Village, comprising what seems likely to be the oldest (and certainly the most enduring) Asian American community. Men from the village joined Lafitte’s forces for the battle, helping to create the truly multicultural fighting unit known as the “Batarians.” It’s difficult for me to overstate how much would change in our understanding of American history and community if we acknowledged at all, much less engaged at length with, this fact: that in one of our earliest military efforts, our forces included French Creole and Filipino Americans, fighting side by side to defend the city and nation that were and remain their home.
The week’s final remembering tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?


  1. I've been teaching the US survey for years and always discuss Jackson's multicultural force at the Battle of New Orleans. But I had never heard the story of Filipino participation! I am intrigued and fascinated by this. One of your two links dates Manila town post battle of NO (mid 19th century), but the other indicates Filipino arrival in Louisiana as early as 1763. Given the range of he Spanish empire, and the proclivity of imperial Navies to make use of colonial labor, it does not surprise me that Filipinos would have arrived in the Americas that early. I am eager to learn more. So much of the historiography in recent decades has focussed on studying American History from a wider "Atlantic World Perspective," which has been useful, but I suspect as the Pacific World becomes increasingly important to the US in this century, scholars will be uncovering more stories like this one, and eventually these will filter into the way we teach the US History survey. Thanks for the nice post.

  2. Thanks for the comments! I'm pretty sure that at least one of those Filipino settlements does indeed date to around the 1760s, and I agree that the trans-pacific American connections are and will be of increasing interest and relevance (and I don't just say that 'cause of my upcoming book on the Chinese Exclusion Act, although, yeah, that too!).