A Bloodless Victory
The Battle of New Orleans in History and Memory
Joseph F. Stoltz III
Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2017, 192 pages
Book Review published on: August 21, 2020
Dr. Joseph Stoltz’s book, A Bloodless Victory: The Battle of New Orleans in History and Memory, is a historical study of the 1815 Battle of New Orleans and how it differs from common memory. He holds a PhD in history from Texas Christian University and is a historian, as well as the digital scholarship librarian, at the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon. Prior to joining the Washington Library, he was associate editor of the United States Military Academy’s West Point History of Warfare project, a seventy-one chapter digital textbook focusing on operational military history from Ancient Greece to Operation Enduring Freedom. His research fields include Early American military history and eighteenth-century military thought.
Stoltz’s main purpose in writing this book is to raise awareness of the difference between the historical accounts of the Battle of New Orleans, which he diligently researched, as compared to the common memory that has been warped by over two centuries of partisan politics, the Civil War, music, art, literature, theater, and eventually film. One of the major historical inaccuracies that the author debunks is the legend of the cotton bales shown in various art forms and noted in music as well. It does not require much thought to realize that, in an era of black powder weapons and flints, only fools would hide behind something that would be lit aflame after the initial volleys. And yet, the story of using cotton bales as part of Andrew Jackson’s defensive line has endured for two centuries.
Stoltz presents a well-written and historically detailed accurate account of the events leading up to the Battle of New Orleans and then of the main British assault on 8 January 1815. He provides the details that help readers understand that this was not the story of myth where Western Americans marched to New Orleans, threw up some cotton bales to hide behind, and commenced shooting down poorly led British soldiers slowly marching toward them. Stoltz outlines the tactical brilliance of Jackson in canalizing the British forces and placing them at a distinct disadvantage. He also shows that it was the work of trained engineers and artillerists, as well as the heavy use of spade and shovel, that built the solid defensive line used by the American forces.
Stoltz also clears up misconceptions about the British forces. They were a force fresh from fighting and defeating the forces of Napoleon Bonaparte in Europe. It is clear that Maj. Gen. Sir Edward Pakenham was no fool. He worked to gain allies of the various multicultural elements around New Orleans but was unable to garner support. Therefore, he had to attempt a difficult attack because he knew he was running out of time. His forces west of the river actually seized the American position, but the main assault was crushed. It cost Pakenham his life and the British retreated.
I do not want to spoil the remainder of the book by providing too much detail. It is enough to know that the history became warped over time, to the point, where many of the myths still linger and cloud the story even today. It is a story of party politics, the Civil War, and various art forms that turned many myths into facts. Sadly, it also turned many away from honoring the event that was once celebrated on par with Independence Day. Stoltz conducted extremely well and detailed research for this book. There are 373 citations that reference 449 various sources including primary sources, newspapers, periodicals, movies, music, websites, and others. There are no major weaknesses in the book.
Overall, A Bloodless Victory is fascinating and interesting in how it details the difference between history and common memory of the Battle of New Orleans. This book will be of interest to those seeking a greater understanding of this battle and how it was remembered. If you are member of the military or other national security organizations and your basic memory of the battle is from the 1959 song by Johnny Horton, you clearly need to read this book.
Book Review written by: Lt. Col. Wesley L. Girvin, U.S. Army, Fort Belvoir, Virginia