January 8, 2010 by Reader's Connection
The Battle of New Orleans ran from December 23, 1814 to January 8, 1815, and was the last engagement of the War of 1812. I may be saying that incorrectly, since the treaty ending the war had been signed on Christmas Eve, but no matter. According to our first book review, the war might have re-ignited if the British had won at New Orleans: the Brits might have spaced the treaty and made another grab for the land we had acquired with the Louisiana Purchase.
So we honor New Orleans because that battle ended on this day, and also because that city’s great carnival has already begun. Mardi Gras itself (Fat Tuesday, the last day of partying before Ash Wednesday) falls on February 16th this year, but my schedule tells me that the Phunny Phorty Phellows had their merry streetcar ride on Twelfth Night, a couple of days ago.
We’ll look at a couple accounts about the 1814-15 battle, and move on to other books about that city’s souls and their history.
The Battle of New Orleans by Robert V. Remini
Vividly ornamented by his portrayal of the polyglot populace of New Orleans, Remini’s account handles equally expressively the blood-and-guts events of the battles there in 1814-15. Had the Americans been defeated, the British might well have been emboldened to renege on the peace treaty just signed but as yet unreported to the combatants. As it was, victory sealed American independence and ensured continental expansion, its critical but often overlooked significance. Remini tracks the British strategy that brought battle-hardened forces, released by the (first) fall of Napoleon to the Gulf Coast. Adroit defense at Mobile Bay by Jackson and his Tennessee backwoodsmen, freshly blooded in the ghastly Creek War, deflected the British to their Plan B: take New Orleans. Its surrounding swamps, bayous, and brackish lakes were ideal for defense–if only Jackson could rally the city from despondency. Remini engagingly details Jackson’s exertions to enlist pirates, Creoles, free blacks, women, and prelates in what was literally a last-ditch defense. Culminating in the battle action and dreadful butcher’s bill presented after the bollixed-up British attack, Remini’s panorama is a top-notch rendition from a practiced historical hand. — Booklist
War is hell–and it doesn’t get easier when gators and giant skeeters are involved, to say nothing of the shredding cannon and musket fire that punctuates Forrest Gump author Groom’s latest . . . Groom’s excursions into history have usually been provoked by discovering that some relative or another played a part, and this is no exception: A distant forebear turns out to have been commended by Jackson himself for bravery under fire . . . That narrative turns on a few key moments that are well known to historians but perhaps not to general readers, such as the privateer and putative pirate Jean Laffite’s rejecting British enticements to join them and instead throwing his lot in with Old Hickory, only to be betrayed by an ungrateful U.S. government. Groom finds much drama in all the unpleasantries, including some advanced by the noble heroes of New Orleans, as when Jackson orders the execution of supposed deserters and when one psychopathic Tennessean revels in slaughtering unfortunate redcoat sentries.Skillfully done, if not strictly necessary, matching the Monday morning quarterbacking of the practiced military historian with good novelistic technique. — Kirkus Reviews
I should also mention Theodore Roosevelt’s The Naval War of 1812… to Which Is Appended an Account of the Battle of New Orleans, which, if it’s noteworthy for no other reason, provides Teddy’s entertaining views of some of our country’s earliest leaders.
Jefferson . . . was perhaps the most incapable executive that ever filled the presidential chair; being almost purely visionary, he was utterly unable to grapple with the slightest actual danger . . . Monroe’s biographer thinks he made a good secretary of war. I think he was as much a failure as his predecessors, and a harsher criticism could not be passed on him . . . he was mighty in word and weak in action; bold to plan but weak to perform. As an instance, contrast his fiery letters to Jackson with the fact that he never gave him a particle of practical help.
In the rush to analyze New Orleans after Katrina, this articulate and intensely researched history provides not only an impressive look at its subject but also should serve as a model for any future works on great American cities. As he tracks discovery by the French, colonization by the Spanish, and eventual possession by the Americans, Sublette reveals how each nation implanted its character on the Crescent City’s development. Most startling will be his discussion of the deep Cuban and Haitian connections and the cultural and economic effect these Caribbean islands have on present day society and industry . . . Sublette gives the city’s musical legacy its due and investigates Congo Square with its tradition of late night celebrations rooted in distant African life, which provided a permanent link between the two continents. He finishes with an insightful discussion on the Mardi Gras Indians, significant groups who are keeping New Orleans’ history of slavery and hard-fought freedom alive. Cultural studies and history do not get much better than this, a must read for anyone who wonders why this city must be saved. — Booklist
The Year before the Flood : A Story of New Orleans by Ned Sublette
Musician, musicologist and longtime New York resident, Sublette revisits his Southern roots and recounts a 2004-2005 pre-Katrina research sojourn in New Orleans in this blunt, eloquently humane and musically astute memoir–a worthy companion to his acclaimed The World That Made New Orleans, a music-laden cultural history of the city to 1819. Sublette delves into some quintessential dynamics of modern American popular culture–including racism and poverty as well as restive imagination and invention–through the prism of his childhood in virulently segregated, early rock ‘n’ rolling Natchitoches, La., and the fraught but idiosyncratic culture he finds in pre-flood New Orleans. If discussions of Elvis, early rock ‘n’ roll and hip-hop millionaires straight out of New Orleans’s projects inevitably rehearse familiar narratives, Sublette carefully marks them out as part of a larger personal and social landscape. Sublette’s sensitivity to the precariousness of a system that collapsed completely after he returned to New York is more than mere hindsight; his worldview dovetails movingly with his turbulent and alluring subject and its dogged rebirth. — Publishers Weekly
Katrinaville Chronicles : Images and Observations from a New Orleans Photographer by David G. Spielman
A New Orleans resident for some 30 years, Spielman lived and worked in the portion of the city that escaped inundation, and was thus severely inconvenienced but not devastated by the chaos following Hurricane Katrina . . . He photographed and documented the devastation around him. His comments and photographic documentation grew as the second tragedy–disruption of basic social services in New Orleans–continued month after month. As Spielman points out, these commentaries are not journalistic reportage, and the subsequent book might be better considered an example of personal oral history than any structured report of the event. Spielman’s photographs have strength and value, analogous to Civil War battlefield aftermath photographs . . . Spielman’s photographs display a similar straightforward desire to provide an eyewitness account of an extraordinary, outsized phenomenon impacting and overwhelming everyday life. Spielman’s attempt “to witness,” to define and contain the extraordinary, to reduce it to a manageable and mundane human scale, has its own sort of grandeur. — Choice
Travels with Mae : Scenes from a New Orleans Girlhood by Eileen M. Julien
With a series of lyrical vignettes Eileen M. Julien traces her life as an African American woman growing up in middle-class New Orleans in the 1950s and 1960s. Julien’s narratives focus on her relationship with her mother, family, community, and the city itself, while touching upon life after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Haunted by a colonial past associated with African presence, racial mixing, and suspect rituals, New Orleans has served the national imagination as a place of exoticism where objectionable people and unsavory practices can be found. The destruction of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath revealed New Orleans’ deep poverty and marginalized population, and brought a media storm that perpetuated the city’s stigma. Travels with Mae lovingly restores the wonder of this great city, capturing both its beauty and its pain through the eyes of an insider. –Publisher’s Comment (Indiana University Press)
A.D. : New Orleans after the Deluge by Josh Neufeld
American Splendor artist Neufeld beautifully depicts the lives of seven New Orleans residents who survived Hurricane Katrina. In the dialogue-free opening chapter, “The Storm,” Neufeld powerfully intersperses images of the hurricane gathering speed with the cities it crippled when it hit Louisiana on August 29, 2005, specifically New Orleans and Biloxi, Miss. Readers are then introduced to seven New Orleans residents, from all walks of life and parts of the city. Denise and her family–mother Louise, niece Cydney and Cydney’s daughter, R’nae–join thousands of hungry and thirsty New Orleanians waiting to be evacuated after their apartment is destroyed. Leo, the publisher of a local music zine, and Michelle, a waitress, reluctantly leave the city for Houston and are devastated when their apartment (and Leo’s impressive comics collection) is flooded. Other characters flee, or try unsuccessfully to ride out the storm. Neufeld’s low-key art brings a deeply humanizing element to the story. Though the devastation caused by the hurricane and the government’s lackluster response are staggering, Neufeld expertly underscores the resilience of the people who returned to rebuild their lives and their city. — Publishers Weekly