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.

About Mark Yost
Mark Yost is the author of the Rick Crane Noir series, published by Stay Thirsty Press. Rick Crane is the classic, anti-hero private eye in the spirit of Sam Spade and Jim Rockford. He works in the unmistakably noirish underworld of Upstate New York, running errands and fixing problems for Jimmy Ricchiati Sr., one of Upstate New York's most notorious crime bosses. But readers quickly learn that deep down, Rick Crane is one of the good guys. "Cooper's Daughter," the first book in the widely acclaimed series, is a fast-moving tale in which a heartbroken father comes to Rick and asks him to find out what really happened to his daughter, who was murdered and the details buried in the Unsolved Crimes File of the local police department. The second book in the series is "Jimmy's Nephew," which begins with the death of Joey "Boom Boom" Bonadeo, an up-and-coming boxer and the nephew of Rick's underworld boss. What starts out as a routine investigation turns into a case that will test Rick's faith -- in the Catholic Church and his fellow man. Book No. 3 in the series, "Mary's Fate" is due out in August 2015. Mark Yost also writes for The Wall Street Journal Arts in Review page, as well as the Book Review section. He is a member of the Mystery Writers of America -- Midwest Chapter, International Thriller Writers, and a number of other author groups. He is also a member of the Amazon Author's Program. Mark lives in the Loyola neighborhood of Chicago, but he and his son, George, call the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn "home."

2 Responses to From Dirty Shirts to Buccaneers

  1. John Werst says:

    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.

  2. Donna Simonson says:

    Great article, Mark! Makes me want to go!

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