Today marks the bicentennial of the Battle of New Orleans. It was nevertheless fought in Chalmette, Louisiana, and the battle, while an overwhelming victory, was arguably meaningless. As events unfolded, General Andrew Jackson’s ragtag, multicultural force annihilated a British force which had just defeated Napoleon, and decisively so; but because of slow communications, it took place weeks after an armistice ending the War of 1812 had been signed in Europe. Nevertheless, it marked the last instance in which a foreign army invaded the United States.
The quiet, green, marshy expanse of the Chalmette Battlefield means a lot to me. When I returned to New Orleans to volunteer in the months after Katrina, I stayed in a FEMA camp in the shadow of the battlefield. It was closed, having been covered by a dozen feet of water following the storm. The brick walls and some of the tombstones of the adjacent national cemetery had been toppled. But under the live oaks and among the quietude of the mostly African-American Civil War dead, I experienced moments of calm and contemplation after days of gutting nearby homes. Paradoxically, as I have found when I visited King’s Mountain or Gettysburg or Antietam or Yorktown, the battlefield provides solace. It is as if the telescoped hours of death, carnage, and horror were being neutralized by peace, by a counterbalancing aura of humanity. It is why I believe I love battlefields.
I try to take my students to Chalmette for that reason. It is instructive of the battle and with the correct interpretation, you can see the British troops, accompanied by the bagpipes of the Scottish Highlanders marching to their doom as Choctaw snipers, Jackson’s Kaintucks, New Orleans Creoles, and Jean Lafitte’s pirates efficiently exacted their revenge for the British burning of Washington. But the calm of this green plain, decorated with a variety of wading birds and crawfish tunnels, persists.
I felt that that first time in 2006, when it was more or less abandoned, and I last felt it on a rainy June afternoon in 2014, the last time I graced the grounds. However, in the future, that quietude will be disturbed by the subject of a column in today’s Times-Picayune, by New Orleans geographer Joseph Campanella. It will forever disrupt my sense of calm as a wander the battlefield.
According to Campanella, a free man of color named Pierre Fazende inherited a portion of battlefield in the 1850s, not long before the Civil War. Shortly after the war, in the bloom of Reconstruction, he sold off a strip of lots that ran perpendicular to the Mississippi to African-Americans. That strip of houses, shops, a school, a couple of barrooms, and other assorted buildings became the village of Fazendeville. While the promise of the forty acres and a mule never materialized in the post-war South, this little strip of land became a symbol of black ownership and independence.
The residents were proud of their attachment to regional history, as the community lay roughly equidistant between Jackson’s old fortifications and the mouldering graves of Civil War dead in the National Cemetery. And so they would remain for nearly a century.
The 1960s carried a couple of forces for change, one arguably noble, the other spawned of racism. If you do the math, 1965 marked the sesquicentennial of the Battle of New Orleans. The worn, working class houses of Fazendeville lay about where British General Edward Packenham was mortally wounded during the British advance. Hence, the community disrupted what could be a tourist attraction for St. Bernard Parish, which played and continues to play second, third, or fourth fiddle to its neighbor and tourism magnet upstream. At the same time, in the midst of the Civil Rights era, racist politicians saw this as an opportunity to rid Chalmette of a black, working class enclave. By 1964, most houses had been bulldozed. The century-old community, the Battleground Baptist Church included, was cleared for a green, uninterrupted plain. Most of Fazendeville residents relocated to the the Lower Ninth Ward or to Violet, a community downstream from Chalmette. And needless to say, residents of all three: the Lower Ninth, Chalmette, and Violet, were inundated and displaced by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Henceforth, I will take my student to the battlefield. And we will talk about the events that transpired on January 8, 1815. But, we will also discuss the events that took place in 1964.