Rock star? That’s what a billboard in Nashville says, according to the city’s paper, and with the recent ’round the clock celebrations of the bicentennial of the Battle of New Orleans fêting Old Hickory, it’s easy to get that idea. Bigger than life, the Major General has been a towering historical figure ever since his 1815 victory on the Chalmette battlefield.
Perhaps his celebrity helps explain the reverence for Jackson’s military jacket, now in New Orleans and on display at the Cabildo. The coat is on loan from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. D.C., where it keeps company with other national treasures, including Abraham Lincoln’s top hat and George Washington’s sword. And it isn’t just any jacket from Jackson’s wardrobe; it’s the one he wore when commanding the troops at the Battle of New Orleans. Jackson is shown wearing the blue wool, single-breasted jacket with gold epaulettes and bullion fringe in every depiction painting of the battle, as well as in the portrait by Ralph E.W. Earl that is also on display at the Cabildo (on loan from the National Portrait Gallery).
The coat precious enough that the Louisiana Museum Foundation invested $100,000 to protect it with permanent security infrastructure upgrades and guards at the ready 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Security has been so tight that museum personnel could not discuss the timetable for its arrival or how it got here, even after the fact.
Louisiana State Museum Curator Wayne Philips was the primary force behind convincing the Smithsonian to make the loan and bring the coat back to New Orleans for the first time in 200 years.
“I was on vacation in Washington six years ago and visiting the National Museum of American History when I sort of stumbled across it,” Phillips says. “I was flabbergasted that it still existed and that we didn’t know anything about it in New Orleans. I started hatching a plot to persuade the Smithsonian to loan it to us for the bicentennial. It speaks to the professionalism of our museum that they agreed to entrust us with a national treasure.”
The reverence shown to the coat has not always been matched by the public’s treatment of one of the city’s most visible tributes to Jackson, the monument to the war hero in the center of what was originally called the “Place d’Armes” — now Jackson Square.
Cast by the renowned sculpture Clark Mills, the equestrian statue was not erected until 1856, even though Jackson himself laid the cornerstore for it when he visited New Orleans to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the battle in 1840. When the original cornerstone was laid, Jackson also placed a time capsule which included coins, newspapers, and documents.
The first Jackson monument committee failed to achieve its end and a new committee was seated in 1851, six years after Jackson’s death in 1845. The new committee immediately renamed the public square in the front of St. Louis cathedral for Jackson and signed a contract for $30,000 with Mills in 1854. The year before, Mills’ statue of Jackson on horseback had been installed in Washington, D.C.’s Lafayette Square (across from the White House) and the New Orleans statue was to be a replica. However, a fire ravaged Mills’ foundry in 1855 and destroyed many of the molds needed to complete the statue, requiring him to start from scratch on some elements.
The same year, the monument commission decided that the “colossal bronze statue” should be sited at the very center of the square, a few paces from where Jackson had laid the original cornerstone and time capsule in 1840. The two were relocated in October 1855 and joined by a second time capsule. Perhaps the two capsules are what gave rise to the 1868 April Fools’ joke played by a newspaper writer, who reported that buried treasure was found beneath the statue.
An immense celebration, attended by 100,000 people, trumpeted the installation of the statue in February, 1856. Not only was the art work heroic in proportion (about 1/3 larger than life size), but Mills managed to balance 10 tons of metal on the horse’s two hind feet, an awe-inspiring engineering feat.
“Mills built the statue so that if you were to draw a line from the tip of the horse’s rear hooves through its head, exactly the same amount of metal would have been on one side of the line as on the other,” Phillips explains.
Despite its commanding appearance, the statue drew criticism from those familiar with the traditional symbolism of horse postures of equestrian statues. A horse with both front legs in the air was said to indicate that its rider had died in battle. Three feet on the ground and one raised leg meant the soldier had been wounded in battle, and four hooves on the ground meant the rider survived the conflict without wounds. Reared on its hind legs with it forelegs in the air, Jackson’s horse defied tradition.
When Union General Benjamin Butler (derided by the nicknames of “Beast” and “Spoons” by defiant locals) took control of the city in 1862, it was he who quite literally made his mark on what New Orleanians held dear — the Jackson statue. Believing that he was quoting Jackson, Butler ordered that an inscription be carved into the monument’s base reading “The Union Must and Shall Be Preserved.” His snarky attempt to humiliate locals by using their hero’s own words to admonish them backfired, according to historian Leonard Huber, when it was discovered that Butler got the quote wrong (Jackson had said instead, “Our federal union — it must be preserved” when he was president).
The monument withstood a battery of astonishing assaults in the 20th century. Jackson’s head was nearly removed in the early decades of the century when a vandal used a sledgehammer on it. In 1934, four boys (ages 11 to 16) playing near the statue accidentally knocked its head off after a game “bread and butter” then tag devolved into a peanut fight. Images from the newspaper show Jackson looking every bit the headless horseman, hat raised gallantly into the air above the stump of a neck. The Cabildo had a plaster cast (now on exhibit) made of the head and reattached the original. Judge John D. Nix felt certain the boys — found out by “boyish neighborhood talk” — had meant no harm and dismissed all charges. But in 1962, an attempted decapitation of the statue resulted in the head tilted far back and Jackson staring at the sky. Steps were taken to ensure that tricksters and vandals would not be so successful in the future.
At some point, the bronze plaque identifying the work fell off the base (no one noticed it was missing) and wasn’t found until 1934 by a gardener who was working to repair flower beds damaged by the statue’s decapitation by the four boys. The plaque was reinstalled, only to be stolen, and the solution was to engrave the base with the identification to avoid future trouble. The work occurred in 1982.
The saga of the statue’s original sword has a less cheery ending. It was “wrenched” from the statue prior to the 1934 episode, recovered, and put on display in the museum before returning to the statue. It disappeared again in 1958 and the statue remained swordless for 3 years even after the offer of a reward ($50) failed to scare it up. A duplicate was made of the sword on the Jackson statue in Nashville and then mounted with bolts to the one in Jackson Square. In 1962, the sword was stolen again but recovered after an anonymous tipster led two reporters to its hiding spot near a drainage canal in Metairie.
As for a genuine sword belonging to Jackson, one was presented by the General to Jacinto Lobrano at the end of the battle in Chalmette. Lobrano, an Italian, was a member of privateer Jean Lafitte’s cohort and the one who, according to his obituary, played a significant role in convincing Lafitte to assist the Americans. In 1939, Lobrano’s treasure was displayed by his granddaughter, Mrs. Ellis Peak, to members of the Current Reviewers Club in Baton Rouge.
Perhaps one of the more curious tales involving a likeness of Old Hickory occurred in 1988 when a Lakeview couple awakened to find a statue of Jackson lying on the curb in their front yard. It was no souvenir-store statue but a dramatic, life-size effigy created by renowned sculptor Enrique Alferez in 1964. Made for the Andrew Jackson Restaurant on Royal Street, it was on display in 1965 during festivities celebrating the sesquicentennial of the Battle of New Orleans. None other than the Earl of Pakenham, a descendant of the ill-fated leader of British forces at the Chalmette battle, was on hand for a celebratory dinner and was depicted in a newspaper photograph “examining” the Alferez statue.
No one was quite sure how the statue ended up on the ground where it did. The original Andrew Jackson Restaurant had closed in 1985 and the statue kept in storage after that. A day or two before it surfaced at the lakefront, it had been moved temporarily out of storage to an alley. What happened next is anybody’s guess. But the 87 year-old Alferez was quoted as calling to his wife as the news unfolded on television, “My God, what happened to my statue? It’s in the middle of the road!”
So is Jackson a “rockstar?”
For someone who has been dead for one hundred and seventy years, he certainly has a knack for staying in the news. He has also given rise to myths (the treasure under the foundation) and engendered mysteries. Where is the original sword from the Mills statue? Who has the bronze plaque? How did his Alferez likeness make the trip from the French Quarter to a Lakeview street and where is it today? Are the time capsules still secure in the foundation of the statue? If still in doubt, consider this: There are actors who have made a career of portraying Jackson, rather like celebrity impersonators. And what war hero other than Jackson would have had his personal portraitist live in his home and follow him to the White House?
Given the oversized nature of Jackson’s image, Wayne Phillips says, it is ironic that his coat, the national treasure, looks so darn small.
“It’s important to remember that although Jackson stood six foot one,” Phillips adds “He only weighed about 150 pounds.”
What: “From Dirty Shirts to Buccaneers: The Battle of New Orleans in American Culture”
Where: The Louisiana State Museum’s Cabildo, 701 Chartres St.
When: 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m, Tuesdays-Sundays, through Jan. 8, 2016.
Contact: (504) 568-6968, www.louisianastatemuseum.org/
Take the tour: The Friends of the Cabildo have designed a Battle of New Orleans Tour that tells the events that took place in the French Quarter surrounding the battle, from the lost locations of forts that used to protect the city to Jackson’s headquarters.
Meeting Location: Old U.S. Mint Barracks Street Gate (Across from LA Pizza Kitchen)
When: February 7, Saturday, 10 a.m.
Space is limited to 15 spots and reservations are required. Go to Online Tickets to reserve a spot. FOC Members $20 / General Admission $25.