"The Past is Never Dead. It's Not Even Past" - A Discussion of the Difference Between Historical Fact and History with Joseph Stoltz III

The current statuary controversy across the United States highlights that many Americans do not appreciate the difference between historical facts and history. Historical facts are discrete definable pieces of evidence. History is the contextual narrative of the past that puts those facts into context. I wrote A Bloodless Victory to examine this phenomenon. On 8 January1815, an American army under the command of Andrew Jackson repulsed a British force of several thousand men after roughly thirty minutes of intense fighting. Those are the facts. However, just a brief examination of the 50th, 100th, and 150th anniversaries of the battle shows the diversity and contradictory nature of the predominate historical narratives publicized at each anniversary.

The 50th anniversary of the battle occurred in 1865 as Union troops besieged Petersburg, Virginia and began their invasion of South Carolina; closing the noose on the Confederate States of America. In New Orleans, Union troops paraded past a statue of Andrew Jackson in celebration of their liberation of that city a few years before in 1862. They saw their efforts as the living embodiment of Jackson’s decree: “Our federal union. It must be preserved!”  For Confederate troops hundreds of miles away in Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina, they also looked to the Battle of New Orleans for inspiration. In 1815, Jackson’s impressive military victory “won” the war even as the United States capital lay in ashes. If they could only rekindle the Southern martial spirit that had been so powerful fifty years before at New Orleans, maybe the Confederacy might just survive.

In 1915, one hundred years after the Battle of New Orleans, much of the world was aflame as the Great War raged. Not yet involved in what many Americans viewed as a European affair, public debate in the United States swirled around the justness and appropriateness of armed conflict. For some, 8 January 1915 was a chance to celebrate the martial prowess of their communities. Humbled fifty years before in the American Civil War, the anniversary of New Orleans was a chance to reflect on a time when the men of the South were victorious in battle. For others, the anniversary was a time to focus on the inutility of war. Had not the United States and the United Kingdom achieved much more by not fighting each other for the past one hundred years? January 8th was a chance to celebrate the peace that followed the Battle of New Orleans, rather than focus on the bloodshed of the day itself.

The 150th anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans took place as the American Civil Rights movement was building to its dramatic climax. By 1965, riots had occurred in Harlem, African Americans in Mississippi were organizing to vote like never before, and a growing black nationalist movement advocated armed opposition to local, state, and federal governments. As celebrants gathered to commemorate the Battle of New Orleans, various organizers presented two starkly different versions of the past to the public. One depicted the service of African Americans in the ranks of Jackson’s army as a sign that they were happy with the American system as it was, dutiful and compliant to the whims of white rule. Another, narrative focused on the multi-racial aspect of the American fighting force. This retelling highlighted the hypocrisy of demanding equal service of, but not equal compensation for, New Orleans’ free African American population. It presented the battle as a symbol of what could be achieved when Americans understood they all bled the same color.

The three vignettes above are just the beginning of the myriad ways one single event like the Battle of New Orleans has been depicted in American popular culture. It is a useful case study for the phenomenon of historical commemoration in general because it spans almost the entire length of the United States’ history. It is also a great example of how a topic gets forgotten and the role politicization plays in that process.

In the decade following the battle, Americans celebrated January 8th with an enthusiasm that nearly rivaled the 4th of July. As generations of political movements appropriated those patriotic celebrations towards partisan ends it forced a political reaction from their opposition; the long-term effect of which was to diminish the number of people memorializing the Battle of New Orleans. In that sense, I am glad that A Bloodless Victory is coming to print when it is. Now especially, the public needs a reminder that the history, the stories, we tell about the past are not the same thing as the past, and that when politics are involved any story can be “spun”.

Joseph F. Stoltz III is a historian at the Fred W. Smith Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon. He is also author of A Bloodless Victory: The Battle of New Orleans in History and Memory