U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Fabricating the Memory of the War of 1812

As an easy way out while traveling, I thought to share some of my dissertation research about the construction of the memory of the War of 1812 in the years following the war. This is  a condensed version of parts of the fifth and last chapter of my dissertation.

The way Americans remembered the War of 1812 has had a peculiar history. Today most Americans are familiar with little more than the imagery of the defense of Fort McHenry as related in the American national anthem: “The Star-Spangled Banner.” However, the memory of the War of 1812 was one of the most important sites for the creation of early American western mythology. While today many know quite little if anything about the Battle of New Orleans that ended the war with the taste of victory in American mouths, there was not an American in the decades immediately following the war that could not recite the glory of Andrew Jackson and the American militia at New Orleans. This emerging narrative of the war, however, was for the most part fabrication, for in the years following the war Americans labored to construct a particular narrative of the battle and of the war designed to highlight the rising glory of the west.

Above all else, what effectively cemented the iconic memory of the battle and of the war as fledgling mythology was its reverberations in popular culture and especially in song. Americans wrote numerous songs about the war and its heroes during the war. Indeed, as noted above, a song romanticizing the Battle of Fort McHenry became decades later the American anthem. Yet, in the months and years following the war, more whimsical songs about New Orleans and western virility seemed to capture American imagination the most. One song about New Orleans, perhaps more than any other popular culture artifact of the day, reveals the work of creative interpretation and fabrication undertaken by Americans of the period. Supposedly composed by “one of the ‘brave black patriots,’ who so nobly ‘volunteered’ their services” to the British after running away from their Chesapeake plantations, the song told the narrative of the Battle of New Orleans from the alleged perspective of a runaway slave, who accompanied the British invading force as a soldier. Written in the emerging tradition of ‘black face’ minstrelsy, these are the first four stanzas:

When me leetle boy, den me sum from Guinea,

Buckra man teal me, bring me to Virginia;

Dare me very much work

Great big fence-rail toat-e—

But British man he come,

He give me find red coat-e

Captain money give, very much I tank he,

But de sojer man call me dam black Yankee;

Admiral clever, good,

He give me port and bean-e

I go long wid him

For take New-Orlean-e

When we come ashore, great big gun we shoot-e

For make Yankee run, den we could get de “booty”

But de backwood Yankee,

He not much good nater,

He say he ‘one half horse,

Half an alligator!’

General he much swear, make de mortar thunder,

Old Hickory man for scare, till we get de plunder;

Den wid pretty garl,

We’ll have plenty fun-e—

But Old Hickory man

Debil a step would run-e (1)

It was no surprise that Americans took a liking to this song as it circulated widely in the months and years following the war. For not only did it delight in the new heroes of the war—Jackson as Old Hickory and the “backwood Yankee” that referred to himself as “half horse, Half an alligator”—but it also painted runaway slaves who joined the British to escape enslavement as despicable fools and the British as corrupt race traitors. No less importantly, it erased the alternative—and more accurate—narrative of the defense of New Orleans that some circulated at the time, which highlighted the participation of a ragtag multi-ethnic and mixed race army, for in fact there were black troops on both sides of the battle lines.(2)

Indeed, in the wake of the war not all Americans received the “correct” script regarding the War of 1812; some celebrated naval heroes, while others seemed more interested in the pirates that rallied to New Orleans’ defense. But within several years Americans weeded out less opportune aspects of the story of the battle. In so doing, they rendered the memory of the battle usable western—and American—mythology.

The most famous piece of popular culture that more than any other both signaled and enshrined this transformation was Samuel Woodworth’s “Hunters of Kentucky.” Written in 1818 or 1819, the song probably first appeared in print in New York in February of 1821 and subsequently circulated in several contemporary newspapers. In May of the next year, Noah M. Ludlow first performed the song garbed in leather stockings and moccasins. In this he was probably inspired by engravings of Daniel Boone he sold some time earlier to make ends meet when he was out of work. According to an account Ludlow wrote years later, he had received a clipping of the song by mail from his brother who saw the song in a New York paper. Ludlow then decided to perform it before a New Orleans crowd of river boatmen. That night and many nights over the following couple of years Ludlow performed the song over and over—and over—again to much applause in theaters across the country. The song’s fame grew so much that by 1828 Jackson capitalized on its popularity and employed it in his presidential campaign, despite personal scruples about the performance of the Kentucky militia in the battle itself.(3) The following four stanzas (out of a total of eight) from the song highlight the ‘alligator horse’ and sharpshooting tropes associated with frontiersmen, as well as the enthusiastic and whimsical poise in the face of danger:

We are a hardy, free-born race,

Each man to fear a stranger;

Whate’er the game we join in chase,

Despoiling time and danger

And if a daring foe annoys,

Whate’er his strength and forces,

We’ll show him that Kentucky boys

Are alligator horses,

I s’pose you’ve read it in the prints,

How Packenham attempted

To make old Hickory Jackson wince,

But soon his scheme repented;

For we, with rifles ready cock’d,

Thought such occasion lucky,

And soon around the gen’ral flock’d

The hunters of Kentucky

But Jackson he was wide awake,

And was not scar’d at trifles,

For well he knew what aim we take

With our Kentucky rifles.

So he led us down to Cypress swamp,

The ground was low and mucky;

There stood John Bull in martial pomp

And here was old Kentucky.

A bank was rais’d to hide our breasts,

Not that we thought of dying,

But that we always like to rest,

Unless the game is flying.

Behind it stood our little force,

None wished it to be greater,

For ev’ry man was half a horse,

And half an alligator.

The Hunters of Kentucky owed its success to the happy combination of ideas and images that so well complemented the exigencies of Americans as they sketched the blueprint for a reinvigorated national mythology that invoked the rising glory of the west. Not only did the song  relate the familiar story of the superiority of American militia over the best fighting force in the world, it united it with the rising folkloristic legends of frontier long hunters and especially with Daniel Boone. In 1820 Boone passed away, but his legend only grew and consolidated its hold over American imagination. Plumbing the frontiersman mythology and linking it with the heroics of New Orleans and the emerging icon, Andrew Jackson, “The Hunters of Kentucky” recast frontiersmen as epitomizing the vitality of the American character.

[1] See for example “Poetry,” New Jersey Journal, 4/25/1815, (Elizabethtown, N.J), p. 4. I counted at least eight different news papers that posted this song in April and May, 1815. Seems to have first been published in the Carlisle newspaper the American Volunteer.  Appeared also at least in one Almanac as well see David Richardson, The Virginia Pocket Almanac and Farmer’s Companion for 1819 (Richmond, Virginia, 1818), 3. This song resembles in form a ‘black face’ genre that emerged at the time, see for example “Negro and Buckra man,” The American Muse or Songsters Companion (New York, Smith and Forman printers 1814) 67-8.

[2] This interpretation is inspired by John William Ward, Andrew Jackson: Symbol for an Age (New York, 1953), 13-29. For a rather limited time following the war some Americans highlighted the participation of Jean Lafitte’s pirate crew, while others discussed the bravery of the free black troops that drew the praise of Jackson after the battle, but such accounts did not persist very long.

[3] For the early publication see “Poetry,” Ladies Literary Cabinet, 2/10/1821, New Series, Vol. 3 (New York: Brodrick and Ritter, 1821), 112. Woodworth had written the song for enactment on stage by the contemporary New York actor Hopkins Robertson, but the latter died before he had a chance to perform it. Noah M. Ludlow, Dramatic Life as I Found It a Record of Personal Experience (St. Louis, Mis.: G. I Jones and Co., 1880), 191-253, Ludlow uses Woodward instead of Woodworth. Ward most famously made this argument in Andrew Jackson, 13-29. I think the song was written just prior to the death of Hopkins Robertson late in 1819, see the announcement of his death in Ladies Literary Cabinet 11/20/1819, New Series Vol. 1 (New York: Broderick and Ritter, 1820), 16.

3 Thoughts on this Post

    • Hi Greg, unfortunately I don’t know much about Woodworth and I suspect no one knows very much as there is very little written of him and very limited archival evidence that could help us learn more about him. I would be happy to correspond with you about everything I know. Perhaps his most interesting–and peculiar–work is *The Champions of Freedom*, which he wrote in 1816. I highly recommend reading it despite its complete failure as a work of literature.

  1. Supposedly composed by “one of the ‘brave black patriots’

    I recently read a blog post on if, how, and why historians should compare and contrast eighteenth-century compositions by figures such as Ignatius Sancho and later *black minstrelsy.* Scholars should at least consider narrations of authorial identity in such synchronic inquiries. Likewise, I recently finished Chambers’ Memories of War (reviewed in the WMQ) and Purcell’s Sealed with Blood. Both books include chapters on the memory of the War of 1812. You are most likely also familiar with essays by Matthew Dennis and Kristen Woods’ publications on partisan music as well as early Republic soundscapes. I found your specific focus on the memory of the Battle of New Orleans pertinent to the subsequent dissonance and consonance of the dual party system.

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