The USPS Civil War stamps I mentioned in my last blog got me thinking of an earlier Battle of New Orleans - in the War of 1812.
I had several older siblings and they all loved music. My earliest memories include the popular songs of the day playing on a radio in the background. Elvis, Fabian, the Everly Brothers, Ricky Nelson, and many more - I could probably sing along with them all today, and many of them take me back with startling clarity to a specific moment in time when I chance upon them today.
One of my favorite songs was “The Battle of New Orleans” sung by Johnny Horton, although when I was seven years old, I had no idea what he was really singing about. I just knew the song was loud and lots of fun to sing along to. Casey Kasem would tell us in his mellow radio announcer voice that this song made the charts for twenty-one weeks, hitting #1 on June 6, 1959, and staying there for six weeks. The song also reached #1 on the country single chart, and won a 1960 Grammy for both Song of the Year and Best Country & Western Recording. I guess I wasn’t the only one who liked it!
With Memorial Day later this month and the 200th anniversary of the onset of the War of 1812 right around the corner on June 18, 2012, I listened to the song again (I love the Internet) and this time, it takes on new meaning. Many Americans who fought for this country’s freedom in the American Revolution also bore arms in the War of 1812. Horton’s song is an extremely simplified and exaggerated account of the American victory at the Battle of New Orleans, which was fought on January 8, 1815 and was the last major battle of the War of 1812. The Americans did defeat the British in this battle (with about 70 casualties versus the British’s 2,000+), and the British did withdraw, but the battle was a bit more complicated than the song suggests!
The part of the song that was my favorite, next to the part about the alligators, goes like this:
“Yeah, they ran through the briars
And they ran through the brambles
And they ran through the bushes
Where the rabbits couldn’t go
They ran so fast
That the hounds couldn’t catch ‘em
On down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico.”
You may also recall that the War of 1812 was when Francis Scott Key penned his poem, The Star Spangled Banner, as the smoke cleared at the Battle of Fort McHenry in September of 1814. Professional flag maker Mary Pickersgill had sewed the flag under government contract in 1813. Fort McHenry was built prior to the War of 1812, and was named after James McHenry who was the U.S. Secretary of War from 1796 to 1800. Key’s poem officially became our national anthem by an order of Congress in 1931. The original flag that inspired Francis Scott Key is among the most treasured artifacts in the collections of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. Each of the 15 stars is about 2 feet in diameter, and the 15 stripes are about 24 inches wide. I had the opportunity to see it about ten years ago while it was being restored, a monumental undertaking. I didn’t really grasp the enormity and presence of this flag until that day; then my imagination let me see and hear it, flapping and snapping high atop the flagpole, watching over the fort as the battle raged.