By Roger (15 January 2015)
I'm back from my first road trip of 2015. I went down to the bicentennial celebration of the Battle of New Orleans. This battle was, actually, a series of skirmishes, culminating in an all-out British assault on 8 January 1814.
The War of 1812 had not been going well for our new nation – the Capitol had been torched, and our victories, though strategically significant, had been few. The attacking British forces were over-confident; had some bad luck; and were slaughtered by a small group of regular soldiers, in conjunction with freed black men, Choctaw warriors, some pirates, and some locals looking for adventure.
The final battle was over in a few hours with more than 2,000 British casualties to about 70 Americans. The American commanding general, Andrew Jackson, rode his fame from this battle into the White House, becoming our seventh President in 1829.
I'll try to hold back on the history lessons, but that was really what this trip was all about.
The organizers did a great job with the re-creation of the battlefield (you don't do re-enactments on the real battlefield) and lots of living history displays at the actual Chalmette battlefield. There were shuttle buses to take you between the two sites, about a mile and a half away from each other. The re-enactors were as varied as the forces that participated in the real battle. It was a people photographer's dream.
I met dozens of people at the Chalmette displays. Barbara was talking about the history of the tignon, a scarf-like head covering, worn by women of color. It was required by a law passed in 1786, under Governor Esteban Miro, as a mark of inferiority. It had the opposite effect, as the women used the finest materials available and decorated them with jewels and ribbons. Barbara practically demanded that I take her portrait. I was happy to oblige.
Several members of the Choctaw Nation came in from Oklahoma and set up a display and performed dances. The Choctaws were enemies of the pro-British Creek, and many fought on the American side.
The American soldiers were a motley mix of regulars and militia. The favorites for the re-enactors tended to be the frontiersmen. They told me portraying these men allowed them to get a little more inventive with their “uniforms.”
And, of course, there were the folks portraying the British troops. They came from England, Scotland, and Canada. (It always amazes me how far some of these re-enactors travel for their hobby.) Several had ancestors who fought in the battle. They were in the uniforms of the units they portrayed, so there were many variations in their army, too.
All in all, there were about 700 re-enactors, but it seemed like there were many more. As you walked around both sites, there was always something going on. As I said at the beginning, the organizers put on a good show, with something for everyone. At one camp, there were women preparing food in the camps, in a huge kettle. There were talking about the problems of preparing enough food for the soldiers while they were wrestling with the kettle, fire, and big, wooden spoon.
When the battle began, the smoke from the muskets and cannons quickly obscured the battlefield. The British formations kept getting closer to the American hastily-constructed breastworks, but they were decimated before they could create any major breech.
I planned this trip last year when I saw that the bicentennial was approaching and almost cancelled it a few times. I wasn't sure it would be worth the time. You may find yourself thinking this way, too, from time to time. Don't give in to that feeling; get out there and use your camera. You started down this photography road because you wanted to make some interesting pictures. You can't do that when you're sitting on the couch. It's more fun to go explore.