The Volunteer State, as every Tennessee schoolchild is taught, is a motto rooted in the overwhelming turnout of Tennesseans for the War of 1812. Americans might remember that the war was fought against Great Britain and that the Star Spangled Banner was written about it, but otherwise the war is mostly a forgotten affair. Tom Kanon wants people to remember the War of 1812. His new book, Tennesseans at War, 1812 – 1815: Andrew Jackson, the Creek War, and the Battle of New Orleans, is an important contribution to the history of a war that, like many others, is much more complex than can be conveyed in a few middle-school factoids or in a hit song performed by Johnny Horton.
In his latest scholarly work, Kanon—an archivist for the Tennessee State Library and Archives and an author of two previous books about the War of 1812—presents an exploration of the Southwestern theater of the war. (Tennessee and the Mississippi Territory were, at the time, the American Southwest.) To good effect, he details the various causes, facets, and consequences of a fight that should be more remembered, if not for the sacrifices of the combatants then certainly for the effects it produced on subsequent generations and the nation itself. He also illuminates the often conflicted personalities of its participants and the ironies inherent in a war fought for national independence that resulted in greater subjugation of Native and African Americans.
The Creek War and the War of 1812, though technically separate conflicts, were so intimately intertwined as to be virtually inseparable. The causes and dates overlapped and the participants viewed the victories or defeats in one as impacting the other. To Tennesseans—including Andrew Jackson, John Coffee, and many other men whose names now grace cities and counties across the state—the Creek War was necessary because they believed British agents were fomenting Indian attacks to deprive the United States of its right to grow. Most of the causes of the War of 1812 were of only theoretical concern to a Tennessee farmer, but not being safe to till his land and transport his goods to market at Mobile or New Orleans would be a virtual death sentence.
When a faction of Creeks known as the Red Sticks began to attack settlers, Tennesseans jumped at the chance to do battle in what they regarded as a second war of independence. The Red Sticks were defeated during a short but uncomfortable campaign in which, ironically, the whites were aided by many of their Creek, Choctaw, and Cherokee neighbors. With the Red Stick threat eliminated, Tennesseans quickly left military service for hearth and home. But the war against Britain was not over, and volunteers were soon called again to travel “down the mighty Mississip’” to repulse a feared invasion of Louisiana.
The second southwestern campaign was without doubt part-and-parcel of the War of 1812. Led by Andrew Jackson in what is rightfully regarded as a military masterpiece, a polyglot army of volunteers from Tennessee, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Kentucky—as well as U.S. Army regulars, Choctaws, free blacks, and even some pirates—countered the British in a two-week series of engagements. It was a total victory, celebrated in prose, poetry, and song as the Battle of New Orleans. Americans, Kanon writes, “promptly bestowed the title of ‘hero’ on Andrew Jackson and his Tennessee army.”
Because of the twin triumphs over the Creeks and British, Americans once again felt united across social and geographic boundaries. This era of good feeling and prosperity also brought the need for more land and a boom for the cotton economy, two factors that led Tennesseans and others on the frontier to force their former Indian allies off ancestral lands and also to expand slavery. With the anti-Indian, pro-slavery Andrew Jackson at the head of the rising Democratic Party, the frontier was soon “civilized.” As Kanon concludes, “The War of 1812 provided Tennessee with much to be proud of and much to account for—a dual legacy that molded the history of the state and still keeps shaping its character.”
A Michigan native, Chris Scott is an unrepentant Yankee who arrived in Nashville twenty-five years ago and has gradually adapted to Southern ways. He is a geologist by profession and an historian by avocation.