Nice Comment on My ‘Battle of New Orleans’ Review in WSJ

New OrleansI don’t usually post these, but I received a nice email today from a guy who had been through the new “Battle of New Orleans” exhibit at the Louisiana State Museum in the Big Easy.

Your concise review of this exhibit provides a great overview. Spent about three hours in January during a visit to NOLA tying to digest this incredible offering at the LA State Museum; wish I had been able to read your review before my visit. All in all just a breathtaking and expansive look at the story and it’s impact then and now on New Orleans and its people. I hope your piece will bring the attention this exhibit deserves.

The whole piece, entitled “From Dirty Shirts to Buccaneers,” is here.


From Dirty Shirts to Buccaneers

My latest in The Wall Street Journal, a review of the new War of 1812 exhibit at the Louisiana State Museum in New Orleans.

It is only fitting that the Battle of New Orleans should be remembered at the conclusion of the three-year bicentennial of the War of 1812. Not only was it the last major engagement of the war, but it was the young country’s second defeat of the British Empire, which further cemented our independence. It also made a folk hero of Andrew Jackson, helping to propel him eventually to the White House, and spawned a pop culture fascination that continued well into the 20th century. The Louisiana State Museum has done a great job of explaining all this with its show “From ‘Dirty Shirts’ to Buccaneers: The Battle of New Orleans in American Culture,” which opened Jan. 11 in the historic Cabildo, a magnificent 1790s Spanish-era building just off Jackson Square.

A winding staircase leading to the two main exhibit galleries is lined with portraits of important historical figures from the battle—such as an 1840 oil on canvas by E.B. Savary of Gov. William Charles Cole Claiborne, the first territorial and state governor of Louisiana—as well as the campaign banner (also oil on canvas, c. 1840) of Gen. J.B. Plauché, who ran for lieutenant governor in 1849 and reminded voters that he was a “companion of Jackson.”

New OrleansAt the top of the stairs is the sweeping “Battle of New Orleans,” a roughly 34-by-41 inch painting on loan from the New Orleans Museum of Art that was done by Jean Hyacinthe de Laclotte, a French draftsman and engineer who was at the battle. He sketched scenes while overlooking the decisive Chalmette battlefield and used them as the basis for his 1815 oil on canvas, which depicts the pitched battle between British regulars and the ragtag group of soldiers that Andrew Jackson assembled for his successful defense of the Crescent City.

If you are getting the sense that this exhibit features as many historic artworks as artifacts, you would be right. Both are displayed in two galleries. The first focuses on the military history of the conflict; the second, on the myths and legends of the battle in popular culture in the decades that followed.

The most affecting image in the military gallery is an 1839 oil on canvas from the French artist Eugène Louis Lami that combines an accurate picture of some of the battle and landscape with his own artistic license to highlight some of the more dramatic events. The battle was really a series of skirmishes that began on Lake Borgne on Dec. 14, 1814, and concluded with the major engagement at Chalmette on Jan. 8, 1815. The painting is one of five Lami created for the Palace at Versailles. He ended up selling the New Orleans and Battle of Yorktown works to William Corcoran in 1878 for $1,500, a nearby panel tells visitors. The Washington, D.C., philanthropist and art collector then donated the artworks to the states of Louisiana and Virginia, respectively.

One of the most prominent features of the painting is Jackson, the hero of New Orleans and the future U.S. president, leaning calmly on his sword amid the turmoil of battle. One example of artistic license is the depiction of the pirate Jean Laffite leading a band of his Baratarians against the British. While Laffite ran supplies to the American troops, the exhibit explains that there is no evidence he was at the culminating battle.

In the painting’s foreground a wounded soldier, lying on the ground, looks out at the chaos of battle. This is Lami’s way of symbolizing the ferocity of the fighting, which resulted in the death of 291 and wounding of 1,262 British soldiers, while the American casualty count stood at only 13 dead and 39 wounded.

For all the large works of art here, there are also some very interesting smaller ones. Among them, a Joseph Langlumé lithograph portrait (c. 1835) of Bishop Louis William Valentine DuBourg. Jackson had him celebrate a Mass of Thanksgiving on Jan. 8, 1815; it is repeated every year and includes a hymn of thanks to God for saving the city.

Frock coatAs for martial artifacts, there is much to see here, including Jackson’s battle coat, on loan from the Smithsonian, as well as the Ralph Eleaser Whiteside Earl painting of the future president begun at the Hermitage outside Nashville in January 1817. Considered one of the best portraits of Jackson, the oil on canvas, on loan from the National Portrait Gallery, hangs next to the battle coat.

Weapons are plentiful, and the museum believes that all were used in the famous battle. Among them, a pair of flintlock pistols; a Baker rifle with bayonet from the Tower Armory in London, lost by a soldier of the 95th Rifle regiment on the plantation of Gen. Jacques Villeré, where the British set up a headquarters; Gen Villeré’s sword; and a 5-foot-long British drum major’s baton.

There is also a very brief but informative film that reminds visitors of the particulars of the battle, including Jackson’s decisive move to set up his defenses so the British, who greatly outnumbered his forces, had to come at the Americans through a narrow isthmus between the Mississippi River and a nearby swamp. It was critical to the Americans winning the battle.

The second gallery, “Remembering & Mythmaking” (which will be up for only a year, while a version of the martial gallery will become a permanent exhibition) begins with a display dedicated to the 1959 Johnny Horton hit “Battle of New Orleans,” which went to No. 1 on the U.S. pop chart. Also told here is the lesser-known story of Lonnie Donegan, the so-called King of Skiffle, whose own version of the song went to No. 2 on the U.K. charts that same year. Visitors can listen to both songs on headsets.

Much of this gallery is also dedicated to “The Buccaneer,” a film that Cecil B. DeMille made first in 1938 with Fredric March and again in 1958 with Yul Brynner, just a year after he won his Oscar for “The King and I.” A short video explains that the 1958 version was originally slated to be a musical; those plans were scrapped. And while Brynner may have gotten top billing, Charlton Heston stole the spotlight with his portrayal of Jackson.

There was also a “Last of the Buccaneers” film, released in 1950, that starred Paul Henreid, best known for “Casablanca.” The movie poster lists him as playing “Jean Lafitte.” I asked the curators whether “Laffite” or “Lafitte” is correct and was told that it has been spelled both ways throughout history, with “Lafitte” considered to be the Anglicized version.

The exhibit closes with a plaster cast of the head of Andrew Jackson. A nearby panel explains that on Feb. 23, 1934, vandals cut off the head of the Jackson statue that is in the center of nearby Jackson Square. It was replaced, but the museum keeps the cast around just in case.

Mr. Yost is a writer in Houston.

Better the Second Time Around

Jimmy's NephewAnother 5-Star review for “Jimmy’s Nephew,” the second book in my Rick Crane Noir series.

Just finished reading Jimmy’s Nephew for the second time and liked it even more this time around. It’s not often you can find something that’s keeps you interested….twice, all while tackling sensitive issues combined with drama, mystery, a little love and sexiness all in one.

Can’t wait to see what Rick uncovers next!

Here’s what other reviewers had to say about the detective story:

— The swift pace set by author Yost makes it tough to put down.

— Yost is at his best in the upstate NY detective thriller.

— I was a little on edge with the subject matter but could not put the book down. Highly recommended.

The first book in the series was “Cooper’s Daughter,” which received 27 4-5 Star reviews.

‘Great Book from Start to Finish’

Jimmy's NephewAnother 5-star review for “Cooper’s Daughter,” the first book in my Rick Crane Noir series.

That makes 27 top reviews for the book (23 5-star and four 4-star).

What makes it all the better is the latest accolades come from one of Amazon’s top reviewers.

“Great book from start to finish,” says B. Burns, who has 15 pages of reviews on Amazon.

“It will  tug at your heart at times,” Burns wrote, “and cheering in the next !!”

The second book in the series, from Stay Thirsty Publishing is “Jimmy’s Nephew.”



I Will Never Forget. Thank You

Every once in awhile you get a note that reminds you why you do what you do.

B17I got one of those notes from Maurita Adler, whose dad was a 19-year-old turret gunner on a B-17. She wrote to thank me for my piece in The Wall Street Journal on the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force outside Savannah, Georgia.

Just read your recent article in the Feb. 5, 2015 WSJ. U did a great job. My Dad was 19 and a turret gunner on the b-17 in 1943. Have wonderful photos and will get in touch w/this museum. He was awarded 5 distinguished flying crosses because of all the risks bombing over Germany. My Dad took me and my son to this great place years ago. An experience I will never forget. Thank you for writing this.

Thank you, Maurita.

And thanks to your dad.

National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force

Here’s my latest in The Wall Street Journal, a review of the Mighty Eighty Air Force Museum outside Savannah. Next year, Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg will release another of their HBO miniseries, based on the 100th Bomb Group, part of the Eighth Air Force, again using real life airmen they researched in the museum’s archives.


Sacrifice Remembered, Symbol Restored

By Mark Yost

Pooler, Georgia

‘The Greatest Generation” is a common moniker given to the men and women who served in World War II. But after going through the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force in this suburb of Savannah, it will be clear that the airmen of this highly distinguished unit earned some superlatives all their own.

B17Most people probably know the story of the Eighth Air Force from “Twelve O’Clock High,” the film and TV series based on the unit’s missions. But visitors will learn that the Eighth Bomber Command (redesignated the Eighth Air Force in February 1944) was activated at nearby Hunter Army Airfield in January 1942 and almost immediately departed for England. Its primary mission: bombing industrial targets inside Nazi Germany. At its peak in 1944, the Eighth had some 200,000 men and on any given day from its airfields in East Anglia, England, could launch 2,000 four-engine bombers and 1,000 escort fighters on a single mission, making it the single-largest air armada in history. But those missions came with a heavy price: Some 47,000 men from the Eighth were either killed, captured or reported missing in action, accounting for half of all the U.S. Army Air Corps’ casualties. One of the Eighth’s units, the 100th Bombardment Group, earned the nickname “the Bloody Hundredth” for the casualties it suffered. In an October 1943 raid on Münster, Germany, for example, only one B-17 out of 13 made it back to the airfield at Thorpe Abbotts.

Those are the facts and figures that are presented in the 90,000 square feet of space divided into a dozen galleries that include artwork, diaries, maps, photos and dioramas, as well as the usual artifacts. The most recent addition among the bomber jackets, caps, bullets, ball turrets and medals is a fully restored B-17G Flying Fortress, a gift from the National Air and Space Museum that was unveiled on Jan. 28 and now sits in the center of the museum’s Combat Gallery. The project, which took six years, was important because some 4,700 B-17s were lost during the war. Afterward, most were destroyed and sold for scrap metal. Today, fewer than 50 B-17s remain, with only about a dozen restored to flying condition.

There is also “The Mission Experience,” where visitors are given an overview of the Eighth Air Force, attend a mock preraid planning meeting, and then go into a theater for a film that tries to give them a sense of what it was like to be at 32,000 feet, with temperatures well below zero, flying for hours on oxygen, constantly harassed by German fighter planes and flak, the English abbreviation for Flugzeugabwehrkanone, or “aircraft-defense gun.”

But where the museum excels is in telling the personal stories of the men and the missions of the Eighth Air Force. Among them, Robert Rosenthal, who a plaque tells us was the pilot of Royal Flush, that lone B-17 that returned from the raid on Münster. “With two engines out, a hole in the starboard wing, and three wounded crewmembers, Rosie maneuvered his stricken bomber like a fighter which forced the attacking Germans to seek an easier target.”

In a small gallery honoring Medal of Honor winners is the story of First Lt. Donald J. Gott, whose plane was heavily damaged and caught fire during a raid over Saarbrücken in November 1944. “Antiaircraft fire had wounded the flight engineer’s leg and severed the radio operator’s arm causing him to lose consciousness,” his plaque reads.

Because the radio operator was unconscious, Gott refused to give the order to bail out. Instead, he flew the plane on one engine to friendly territory. “He ordered his crew to bail out while he and his co-pilot, William Metzger, Jr., attempted to land the aircraft with the wounded radio operator aboard. At only 100 feet above the ground, the aircraft exploded . . . ”

The highly decorated unit’s most devastating day might have been Oct. 14, 1943, known as Black Thursday, its second mission to take out the German ball-bearing plant at Schweinfurt. As one of the informative panels notes, the Allies did not have the air superiority they would enjoy some eight months later in Normandy for the D-Day landings. That morning 251 B-17s left England and by the time the sortie returned, 60 bombers had been lost. An additional 12 subsequently had to be scrapped, and 121 needed extensive repairs. Worse yet, 600 airmen were lost over enemy territory, and those planes that did make it back carried five dead and 43 wounded.

While much is made of the B-17—both here and in the history books—the museum also tells the story of the Second Air Division, a unit of the Eighth Air Force that included some 9,000 officers and 45,000 enlisted men who flew the slightly smaller B-24 Liberators on some 94,000 sorties during 400 missions from 1942 to 1945. And it has a section devoted to the VIII Fighter Command, the escort squadrons of P-38 Lightnings, P-47 Thunderbolts and, later in the war, P-51 Mustangs that tried to keep the German fighters from decimating the bombers before they could reach their targets.

The museum also doesn’t shirk from discussing the political feud between Eighth Air Force commanders and Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris of RAF Bomber Command, who ridiculed U.S. daylight bombing tactics and greatly underestimated the accuracy of the American’s Norden bombsight. The men of the Eighth Air Force not only destroyed Germany’s industrial might, but also inflicted far fewer civilian casualties than did British nighttime raids.