Monday, November 25, 2019

Q&A with William C. Davis

William C. Davis is the author of the new book The Greatest Fury: The Battle of New Orleans and the Rebirth of America. His many other books include Crucible of Command. He is a retired history professor who taught at Virginia Tech.

Q: Why did you decide to focus on the Battle of New Orleans in your new book?

A: The decision came out of discussions between me and my agent Jim Donovan of Dallas. 

I am very interested in the events and the characters involved in the 1800-1830 period of the new republic, and particularly in what was then known as the Southwest—Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Texas. 

There have been several books on the British Invasion of Louisiana, but none that delved deeply into the British records abroad in England and Scotland, or that exploited the incredible mass of eyewitness letters published in the newspapers of the time.  

There is still a lot of misconception about both the battles for New Orleans and their impact, and the opportunity to present some fresh ideas was also attractive.

Q: What would you say are some of the most common perceptions and misconceptions about the battle?

A: There are two misconceptions that have been particularly tenacious. 

One is that the battle was won by Tennessee and Kentucky riflemen. That reflects a growing interest in the new “western” peoples of those states and a tendency to romanticize men who were already becoming folk heroes in their own lifetimes, like David Crockett, Reuben Kemper, Sam Dale, et al. 

It also reflected the East and West’s desire for individuality in their heroes, especially the daring, resourceful, and unerringly accurate marksman of the James Fenimore Cooper Leatherstocking novels. 

The fact is unarguable that it was American artillery that won the battle of Jan. 8, 1815, and inflicted horrendous casualties on the British. 

But cannon operated by gun crews are mechanistic things without personality. The buckskin-clad Kentucky or Tennessee rifleman was both more romantic and more acceptable to American aspirations; hence from the outset people who were not actually in or at the battle began glamorizing those individuals.

The other misconception is that, since a peace treaty had already been signed—though not yet ratified by Congress—the battle was unimportant in its impact on the peace that followed. 

It is a fact that by this time authorities in London had lost interest in reclaiming Louisiana for their ally Spain, and just wanted the war to end. But it took two months for communications to get from London to the British commanders in the Gulf, and fully a month for news from New Orleans to reach Washington, and nearly another month from Washington to London. 

In short, there was no way for quick reactions across the Atlantic. Had the British taken New Orleans in January 1815, it would have taken weeks for the news to reach London, and just as long for any response to get back to New Orleans. 

Three or more months could pass before the captor of lower Louisiana could have any instructions from home, be they orders to hold it in spite of the treaty, or to hand it over and evacuate. During those months the British could have done untold damage to Mississippi Valley trade and commerce, confiscated millions of dollars worth of cotton and other goods then stored in New Orleans. 

At the same time, the local population of Spanish heritage could have reasserted Spain’s claim, and it was a persuasive claim at that. Britain was resolved not to aid Spain in reclaiming Louisiana or at least New Orleans, but Britain was also resolved not to oppose it either. 

In the end, New Orleans and Louisiana were highly likely to have remained American possessions, but in the interim between a British victory and a British withdrawal, many things could have happened that would have impacted the region’s future for the coming generation.

Q: Can you say more about the legacy of this battle?

A: Besides the impact stated above, the battle left multiple legacies. 

For one, thanks to the growing newspaper press in America that followed events at New Orleans breathlessly, the attention of the states east of the Appalachians was refocused on the “west” as never before. 

The heroes of the battle became American heroes. It made Jackson president, our first from west of the mountains. It promulgated the “rifleman” mentioned above, who would be the dominant American folk hero until the post-Civil War emergence of the Cowboy. 

Thus the victory created a model of what Americans wanted to see themselves as being—rugged, independent, and individualistic.

Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that particularly fascinated or surprised you?

A: The variety and quantity of primary sources available is staggering.

The Public Record Office and National Archives in England are loaded with masses of reports, diaries, series of correspondence, and more, most of which has never been thoroughly exploited. The Scottish National Archives are much the same, and private papers in the National Library of Scotland are almost as substantial. 

In the United States, the massive papers of Edward Livingston, close confidant of Jackson’s and an aide on his staff, have never been examined for material on the campaign, and several repositories in New Orleans itself have major collections, especially the Historic New Orleans Collection.

Beyond manuscripts, the newspapers of the era offered a major opportunity, especially since the development of digitization and optical character recognition programs have made it possible now to search hundreds of thousands of pages of period newspapers. 

I probably found 300 or more letters written from New Orleans in the newspapers, and for previous generations the only way to find them would have been to blow out my eyes spending years scanning microfilms. Now that same research can be done in a few weeks.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Right now I am working on restoring a 1928 Pierce Arrow convertible coupe, a nice break from writing. 

I have completed the editing and annotation of a remarkable Civil War correspondence until recently unknown and still in private hands, the 524 1863-1865 letters between Confederate General Gabriel C. Wharton and his wife, Nannie, which should be published in the next 18 months.  

Beyond that, I am discussing a book on the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery with my publisher, but no fixed plans as yet.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with William C. Davis.

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