- Tennesseans at War, 1812–1815: Andrew Jackson, the Creek War, and the Battle of New Orleans by Tom Kanon
A burst of new scholarship has accompanied the dual bicentennial of the Creek War and the War of 1812, providing much needed attention to what historian Don Hickey in The War of 1812 called America’s “forgotten conflict” (Urbana, Ill., 1989). This renewed interest in the wars inspired a host of authors to reexamine both the political and social causes and legacies of these two formative events in the South. Archivist Tom Kanon adds an insightful perspective to this growing literature as he examines the prominent role of Tennesseans, both generals and militiamen, in the southern campaigns and the importance of the conflict to Tennessee’s identity as the Volunteer State. By focusing on the Tennessee militia, Kanon illustrates how the two wars were intertwined, insisting that “for most Tennesseans who served between 1812 and 1815, the Creek War was the War of 1812” (3).
According to Kanon, the public memory of these wars in Tennessee was wrapped up in notions of “patriotic self-sacrifice, inspired heroism, a slight dig at authoritarianism, and, most importantly, the volunteer spirit that pervaded the state’s early history” that helped turn Tennessee from “a nascent frontier community to [End Page 338] a ‘civilized’ center of commerce and culture” (1, 3). Yet, as Kanon demonstrates throughout the book, reality did not always live up to this idealized memory. Kanon observes that throughout the war Tennessean leaders, most notably Andrew Jackson, faced enlistment disputes and mutinies as his troops experienced “home mania” (85). One telling anecdote in chapter four described a showdown between Jackson and the militia as he aimed artillery at his men to force them to stay until their replacements came. This is just one example of how Kanon complicates our understanding of the war and of Tennessee’s place within it. One of the most important goals for Kanon was to understand why Tennesseans volunteered to enlist in the first place and how their actions and victories came to define their memories of the war.
In order to better understand the motivations of the Tennessee volunteers, Kanon provides an examination of the factors that led to the outbreak of conflict, carefully noting the importance of Indian warfare and western expansionism. Kanon demonstrates how these two factors were often interconnected, since violence and conflict between Indians and frontiersmen usually revolved around conflicting claims to land. To westerners, the frontier represented an opportunity of expansion, renewal, and profit. Westerners’ insatiable desire for Indian land, frustration over the seeming inaction of the federal government, and fear of Indian depredation consistently caused tension and skirmishes on the frontier. These conflicts resulted in a growing antagonism, and even hatred, between Indians and Tennesseans. Indian warfare, however, also played into westerners understanding of their place in the nation. Kanon argued that these “Frontier Fathers” felt disconnected from the legacies that the Revolutionary War left on the east coast and sought to create their own legacy as “men who fought Indians, surveyed the conquered land, established commercial links with the East, and wielded political power in the freshly carved settlements” (5). The War of 1812 provided them with the ultimate opportunity to enhance their status through military action and legitimize their efforts at westward expansion by removing Indians from lands. [End Page 339]
At the outbreak of the War of 1812, the Tennessee militia received a generous number of patriotic volunteers, but for almost a year the Tennesseans faced no real military contest. Most of the fighting became concentrated on the northern border to Canada and on the east coast. The Tennesseans had to wait until the fall of 1813 before they could fully participate in military action as they became involved in the Creek War. In his third chapter, Kanon examines the factors that led to the outburst of fighting between Creeks; factors include the civilization program (which threatened traditional Creek...