Two hundred years ago this week, the Battle of New Orleans—the final military campaign of the War of 1812—culminated on January 8, 1815, when forces under the command of General Andrew Jackson routed British troops at Chalmette Plantation, along the Mississippi River just downstream from the great port city.
It was an astonishing victory considering the U.S. had struggled during the war, and even more so given the fact that the bulk of Jackson’s forces weren’t federal regulars but, rather, a slapdash assembly of citizen-soldiers comprised of rag-tag militia from Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Louisiana. In the aftermath, national pride and patriotism swelled from New Orleans to Capitol Hill—never mind that the battle happened 15 days after the two nations signed the Treaty of Ghent formally ending the hostilities (news from abroad traveled slowly back then).
But as the Crescent City exhaled, the fighting was just getting started as Congress mobilized to perform one of its time-honored practices: expressing its opinion. Over the next month the House and Senate waged what could arguably be called the last battle of the War of 1812: the fight over the thanks of a grateful nation.
When word of the victory reached Washington, the House swung into action first. Representative George Troup of Georgia, a member of the Military Affairs Committee, introduced a joint resolution on February 6, 1815, that, among other things, awarded General Jackson a Congressional Gold Medal and hailed the “hastily collected” volunteers who repulsed a veteran British army, “thus illustrating the patriotic defence of the country with brilliant achievement.”
Not to be out-gunned, the Senate marshaled its own joint resolution the following week. Like their House colleagues, Senators also scrambled to give Jackson a medal. But they used much different language, de-emphasizing the role of the citizen soldiers and instead bestowing the nation’s thanks first upon “the officers and soldiers of the regular army.”
But the House refused to be flanked. Surely, Members believed, “yeoman of the country marching to the defence” of New Orleans symbolized the very triumph of the founders’ republicanism over the rotted European system of aristocracy, entitlement, and deference. On February 16, Representative Troup stood stalwart on the House Floor to declare that not only was the Senate resolution “defective” for missing the “prominent fact” that the militiamen were decisive, it would mislead future generations into believing that the regular army did all the fighting. America’s “noble patriots, those gallant citizen soldiers who have crowned [the] peace with imperishable lustre” deserved Congress’s “heartfelt thanks,” reiterated Charles Ingersoll of Pennsylvania, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
The next day, the House passed an amended version of the Senate bill after inserting its own distinct language honoring the lopsided everyman composition of Jackson’s forces. Troup, who firmly believed that the resolution should be as accurate as possible, tried to muster support for the original House resolution which he described as “a veritable history of facts as they occurred.” Pragmatists, on the other hand, including former Speaker Nathaniel Macon of North Carolina, counseled that whatever the language of the resolution, posterity would get it right. The object wasn’t to provide documentary evidence for future historians but to express national thanks.
By late February time was running short as the 13th Congress (1813–1815) was days away from adjourning. And so, with both sides dug in, the House proposed meeting the Senate in a special conference committee. Troup led the House delegation while William Branch Giles of Virginia led a small contingent of Senate negotiators. Late the next day, Troup reported back to the House that an accord had been struck. The chamber passed the newly revised resolution, followed by Senate approval two days later.
The compromise language of the final resolution, approved on February 27, 1815, read:
“That the thanks of Congress be, and they are hereby given to Major General Jackson, and, through him, to the officers and soldiers of the regular army, of the militia, and of the volunteers, under his command, the greater portion of which troops consisted of militia and volunteers, suddenly collected together, for their uniform gallantry and good conduct conspicuously displayed against the enemy . . . and particularly for the valour, skill, and good conduct on the eighth of January last, in repulsing with great slaughter, a numerous British army, of chosen veteran troops. . . .”
So it was that the closing battle of a wearisome and, at times, unpopular war occasioned just another scuffle in a long-running series of skirmishes between the House and Senate.
Sources: Annals of Congress, House and Senate, 13th Cong., 3rd sess. (6, 15–17, 21–25, and 27 February 1815); House Journal, 13th Cong., 3rd sess. (6 February 1815); Statutes at Large, 3 Stat, 249 (27 February 1815).Follow @USHouseHistory