I have respect for anyone who wears the military uniform of their country, official heroes and cowards alike. But it seems to me the official coward makes the greater sacrifice. They suffer only scorn and disgust for their incompetent public service. Yet, inevitably, they can always be depended upon to provide the melodramatic contrast required to make the hero’s' medals shine that much brighter. As just one example, you might say it took the scarifies of six cowards to burnish Andrew Jackson's medals bright enough to be seen in Washington, D.C. You could say that, but that would not be fair to either Jackson or the six cowards.
Andrew Jackson looked like a hero. He stood over six feet tall, and at 130 pounds was razor thin, with piercing blue eyes. In 1812 he had a head of bright red hair and the emotional responses of a fifteen year old juvenile delinquent. He was made a general of the Tennessee militia, by popular acclimation, and ordered to take his farmers down the Mississippi River to Natchez, where they would be enveloped into an army to defend New Orleans. Secretary-of-War John Armstrong can be forgiven if he was anticipating a British move against the vital and vulnerable port. And upon learning the British were too busy in Europe to bother with America, his rational decision was to send all the militia units home. But the way Armstrong went about it was typical of the man - petty and cheap. Upon reaching Natchez, Jackson was ordered to disband his men and sent them home without pay.
It was honorable of Jackson that he refused. In violation of his orders Jackson safely marched his men home, as a unit. And he maintained such discipline on that march that he earned the title “Old Hickory”, after the wood that broke before it bent. And only when they were safe at home did Jackson release his men from their units, with the promise that they would be paid for the extra month of service on the march. It was a display of common sense and humanity worthy of a hero. And it got Jackson reprimanded, and left behind when the war heated up along the Canadian border.
The unanticipated result was that on September 14th and 15th , of 1814, when the British ships attacked Fort Bowyer at the entrance to Mobile Bay (above), there was nobody left in the south to command the defense of the New Orleans and the southern coast, except Andrew Jackson. The attack on Bowyer was repulsed, but the assault threw militia all along the coast into a panic, especially the 500 or so members of the First Regiment of the West Tennessee Militia manning a run down outpost of Fort Charlotte, guarding the mouth of the Mobile River. The water in their fort was bad, the food was scarce and lousy, and disease was running rampant. And in a case of spectacular bad timing, many of the Tennesseans decided at this moment, to go home.
They had enlisted in June back in Nashville, for three months, and as they figured it, as of September 20th , 1814, their time was up. So that morning about 200 of them just left. Desertion was common, but organized desertion could not be tolerated. The army offered a $10 reward for each man returned to his unit, and by November 2nd, 166 men had come back, under arrest or voluntarily. Between December 5th, and December 18th, 1814, those men were tried for mutiny in Mobile , by officers of the Tennessee Militia. The verdicts was then sent for review to Andrew Jackson, 150 miles away in in New Orleans.
He was kind of busy at the time - recruiting, arming and drilling the local militia. On the December 23rd Jackson led 2, 000 men in a desperate night attack against an English advance guard of 1,800 men at the Lacoste's Plantation, 9 miles south of New Orleans. Jackson's force was thrown back, but British causalities were heavy enough they were now cautious, giving Jackson just enough time to fortify the canal 4 miles south of town. On January 8, 1815, the 11,000 man British force attacked the 2,500 Americans. The result was decisive. The British lost almost 300 killed and 1,200 wounded, and were forced to retreat. American casualties were 13 killed and 39 wounded. Jackson's victory was nothing short of a miracle.
The day after - January 9th, 1815 - Jackson returned to his headquarters in New Orleans to find among other things waiting for him, the verdict from the court martial in Mobile. Jackson approved it and sent it back without comment. Two Tennessee officers were dismissed, and a third had his sword broken over his head, before being dismissed. Most of the 160 enlisted men lost half their pay, had half their head shaved before being drummed out of camp. The six seen as ringleaders were condemned to be executed by firing squad. But before that could happen, the British captured Fort Bowyer on February 12th. British men-of-war carrying 1,400 infantry and 11 cannon now entered Mobile Bay, and prepared to attack the pitiable Fort Charlotte and Mobile. Only the arrival of word of the peace treaty signed in Ghent (and negotiated by John Quincy Adams) two months earlier (on December 24, 1814) saved the fort, and maybe New Orleans and maybe Andrew Jackson's career. The end of the war did not save the six condemned men.
On February 21, 1815, the six men were brought to the scene of execution, and made to kneel on their own coffins. In charge of the detail was Colonel William Russel, U.S, Army. He urged the condemned to, “Die like men – like soldiers....Meet your fate with courage.” When asked if they had any last words, a Baptist preacher who had been hired as a substitute, began to sob. Private Henry Lewis said nervously,.”I have fought bravely, you know I have...I would not wish to die this way. I did not expect it.” On command, 36 regular soldiers fired, six aiming at each of the condemned militiamen. In checking the bloody results, five were dead, and Sargent David Morrow was found to have four musket ball wounds. He pleaded with Russel, “Have I not atoned for this offense? Shall I not live?” The colonel allowed him medical care, but the answer was no. He died four days later, “in great agony.”
To those involved it was a very great affair and likely produced more than a few nightmares over the lifetimes of the executioners. History barely took note, until late January of 1828 in Philadelphia, when Irish transplant John Binns reprinted an anti-Jackson item (above) which he labeled “Monumental Inscriptions”. Originally he had created it as what we might call a one page “blow in” for his newspaper, the Democratic Press during the 1824 election.Then it barely raised a flicker of interest. This time it's 15 X 24 inches, with six coffin woodcuts in two rows, instantly became infamous as the “Coffin Handbills”, plural because in the end there would be 26 versions of it.
It was a “Swift Boat” attack, hitting Jackson in his strongest position, his military record. The body of most of the “Coffin Handbills” carried a poem, “Gen Jackson and the Six Militiamen.” It read, in part, “Twas on the twentieth day of June, Their three months tour began; And when the ninety days were done, Their thoughts all homeward ran...Then General Jackson called a court, These citizens to try. Three officers of every sort Determined they should die...Then General Jackson issued out, An order from his pen, That in four days they should be shot - These six militia men..And God forbid, our President This Jackson e'er should be; Lest we should to his camp be sent , And shot for mutiny.”
John Binns had to endured picketing of his shop and home, and a few rocks thrown as his windows, back in 1824. But this time his friends had to physically defend the property, stopping arsonists and vandals. His fellow Irish American William Duane from Philadelphia, and a Jackson supporter, declared that Binns “now hangs, gibbeted in the pillory of public opinion” Another Adams newspaper, The United States Gazette, responded for Binns, dismissing Duane as behaving with “his accustomed egotism, and pomposity.” Things were getting personal.
By March the Coffin Handbills were virtually flooding New Hampshire. And Isaac Hill, who had published the smear that John Quincy Adams had pimped for the Czar, was forced to spend several issues of his weekly Concord “Patriot”, defending Jackson. In one issue he dismissed the attack by pointing out that Jackson“...On the 8th of January, 1815 ...murdered in the coldest blood 1,500 British soldiers...” Hill's exasperated comment went national in the Jackson Press. But by June the anti-Jackson handbills were being reprinted in Henry Clay's old newspaper, the Kentucky Reporter, in Lexington.
An editorial in the Nashville Republican and State Gazette, published the year before, now seemed prophetic. “If one half or less of the evil told of them is true”, wrote the generally neutral newspaper, “they deserve to be objects of universal repulse and scorn.... A stranger might say to an American, “Am I or am I not, to believe your political writers? If I may credit them, your nation must be degenerate indeed” Indeed.
Removed from the context of the assaults on Fort Bewyer, and the vulnerable situation of Mobile, Alabama, as was done by the handbills, Jackson's approval of the execution appears cold and callous. But then political advertising is not supposed to be informational, but motivational. And in such situations the less information the public has, the easier it is to spur them to action. For myself, reviewing all the information from 150 years distance, the fairest observation seems that all wars are made up of immoral actions and unproductive sacrifices. That is why war is to be avoided until absolutely unavoidable. General Andrew Jackson's signature on the order of execution was not unusual at the time. But going through with the executions after the war had ended - that was as cold and as callous as hell. But did it hurt Jackson's candidacy in 1828? Not much.
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