As BP oil makes landfall on the Gulf Coast and President Barack Obama attempts to reassure Gulf State residents that everything will be ok, I’ve been thinking of another situation involving the British that took place on the Gulf Coast in the winter of 1814.
During the War of 1812 the British army was attempting to invade the United States via the Gulf of Mexico. They would have succeeded in taking North America if not for the actions of General Andrew Jackson, and we all could be speaking the Queen’s English today.
Jackson responded to a crisis along the gulf in a manner very different than the response to our present oil crisis.
A lot of people have questioned BP and the president’s initial response to the oil spill. The response was lacking commentators have noted. “What were they doing?” some have asked.
Perhaps a better question would be, WWJD? What Would Jackson Do?
How would Andrew Jackson have dealt with the spill and the people responsible for it?
Historical facts may provide insight into possible 19th century solutions that Andrew Jackson may have implemented in order to deal with this 21st Century problem. The reader must remember that the course of action postulated is conjectural and not an endorsement of what Andrew Jackson would do.
Looking at Jackson’s life may offer some insight into his possible course of action today.
During the Revolutionary War Andrew and his brother Robert were abused by a British officer after refusing to shine the officer’s boots. Jackson's refusal infuriated the officer and he took a swipe at Jackson with his sword.
As Jackson attempted to defend himself he suffered wounds that left scars on his hand and head.
The officer smashed the sword over Robert’s head. Robert died a few days later of smallpox and Andrew was left an orphan after his mother died later that same year. Like the scars, Jackson would carry the war memories for life.
In August 1814 as the British were preparing for the invasion via the Gulf, Jackson, who was then a general, anticipated a meeting. In a letter to his wife Rachel he wrote, “I owe to Britain a debt of retaliatory vengeance. Should our forces meet I trust I shall pay the debt.”
Jackson was able to pay that debt plus interest.
In the winter of 1814 fifty war ships loaded with 15,000 hardened British troops set out from Jamaica and crossed the Gulf of Mexico headed for the American South. It was not unknown to the Americans that the British were planning an invasion through the Gulf, but precisely where, no one knew.
Unlike anyone associated with our current oil spill Andrew Jackson recognized the moment and acted immediately. He took charge of a situation that if not controlled could have had catastrophic consequences.
In a campaign that can only be described as extraordinary for the time, Jackson executed a lightning-bolt defense of the Gulf Coast.
From what is now Montgomery, Ala., Jackson lead his army to Mobile where the Americans repulsed a British attack on September 15th at Fort Bowyer, today’s Fort Morgan.
On October 25 Jackson left Mobile and led his army to the Spanish capitol at Pensacola arriving on November 6th. Jackson easily captured the city and flushed out a brigade of British soldiers.
Jackson then led his army to New Orleans arriving on December 1st. Jackson lost no time preparing the city for the British invasion.
First Jackson declared martial law, mobilized the local militia and recruited any and everyone who would join him in the defense against the invasion. Those stepping up included New Orleans' doctors, lawyers, merchants, Creoles and American-born French and free blacks. Pirates from the Baratarian Islands even joined in. To the dismay of local slave owners, Jackson armed a troop of free blacks from Santo Domingo, today’s Haiti.
Next Jackson began building defensive positions around the city. Jackson established his main defensive line at the Rodriguez Canal on the Chalmette plantation south of the city.
It was here on January 8, 1815 that 8,000 hardened British troops marched toward Jackson's 4, 500 man army waiting behind a mile-long fortified defensive wall along the Canal.
Tennesseans, Kentuckians, Choctaws, free blacks, pirates, Creoles along with the doctors, lawyers and merchants let loose a deadly barrage of cannon, rifle and musket fire dropping the British by the hundreds in the open field south of the canal. The British Generals Keane and Gibbs were cut down and carried to the rear. General Packenham was killed by grapeshot while attempting to rally his troops who began retreating under the withering fire.
Hundreds of Kentuckians, who chose to show up for the battle even though they had no guns, stood in the rear cheering Jackson as he directed the action against the British.
The British suffered 2,037 killed, wounded or missing during hour long battle. The Americans had only seven killed and six wounded at the canal. Packenham's and Gibb’s remains were packed in barrels of rum and shipped back to England.
The Battle of New Orleans was over and America was safe. But as circumstances would prove, Jackson wasn’t through with the British.
In 1818 during the First Seminole War, Jackson captured the British subjects Robert Ambrister and Alexander Arbuthnot near the Spanish fort at St. Marks on the Apalachicola River. Jackson accused Ambrister, an ex-British marine, and Arbuthnot, 70, of aiding the Seminoles. Jackson hand-picked a military tribunal and had the British subjects tried and convicted as war criminals.
Jackson had Ambrister shot and Arbuthnot strung up by the neck from the yardarm of Arbuthnot's own ship.
“I hope the execution of these two unprincipled villains will prove an awful example to the world,” Jackson wrote to Secretary of State John Calhoun.
On the day of the executions Jackson marched his army toward Pensacola. On May 24, 1818 Jackson walked unopposed into the seat of Spanish government in Florida and ran the American flag up the flagpole for no good reason other than he could. The Spanish governor fled to Cuba.
As a result of his actions in the War of 1812 and the First Seminole War Andrew Jackson launched himself to the American presidency in 1828.
Andrew Jackson loved America and its working class people; after all, those are the people he sprang from.
In the aftermath of the BP explosion Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the Obama administration will “keep a boot on the neck of BP” as the British oil company attempts to stem the flow of oil.
With the loss of working class jobs, the destruction of the ecosystem and tourism trade along the gulf coast, it’s not beyond reason to say that Andrew Jackson would put more than a boot on the necks of BP executives. What would Jackson do?
Jackson would place a rope around the British Petroleum executives’ necks and string them up from an oil rig in the Gulf above the water.
I like to think Jackson would look on with a certain satisfaction as the oil-reddened water lapped at the ankles of their twitching feet.
He may even ship their bodies back to England packed in barrels of oil.