Tennessee Militia Maj. Gen. Andrew “Old Hickory” Jackson had to face down potential mass desertions twice in just a short period during the War of 1812, and both times he put on stunning displays of bravery that would hint at his potential for future success in both war and politics.
Portrait of Andrew Jackson
Jackson is a controversial figure for good reason. He was a military hero who earned accolades fighting the British, generally remembered as morally fine, and for fighting Native American tribes, something most of America would rather not talk about.
But he was, for better or worse, a product of his time, a general who marched where his state asked him to go and who shared the spirits and beliefs of his peers, even the deeply prejudiced ones. And he was dedicated to doing his own duty and in seeing every man around him do what he saw as their duty.
The Tennessean was beloved by his troops, partially thanks to an event in early 1813. The War Department had ordered many of his men dismissed from service at New Orleans with no provisions or plans to get them back to Nashville where they had enlisted. Jackson responded by personally leading the men north to safety before meeting up with his replacement troops.
Jackson and his men find a missing supply train as well as, according to some reports, captured Creek warriors and Black men who attempted to flee slavery.
(John Frost, 1847)
He became a hero in the eyes of the Tennessee militiamen. But they would face hardships as well, fighting throughout 1813 against Creek Native Americans and then suffering severe supply shortages the following winter. When he learned in November 1813 that many were considering deserting, he begged them to stay.
Jackson offered a deal. If missing supply wagons did not arrive in two days, he would ride back with them. But if supplies arrived, they would stay.
The two days passed and a standoff ensued. After a bit of wrangling, Jackson agreed to ride north with a body of soldiers and look for the missing supplies. If they were found, he expected them to return to the fort. And so the men rode north and did actually find the train, filled with meat and flour. According to 1847 pictorial on Andrew Jackson’s life, they also found re-captured slaves and Creek prisoners.
They ate in place, and then Jackson ordered them back to the camp. No one was happy with the command, and an entire infantry company attempted to march away north, and Jackson intercepted them with cavalry. When they arrived back at the main camp, an entire brigade was getting ready to leave.
This time, he grabbed a musket and, since his left arm was badly injured from a personal fight earlier that year, he laid the weapon across his horse’s neck and aimed it with his right arm at the mutineers. This was one gun against a brigade. The deserters could have easily overpowered him, but someone would either have to take the first shot or be the first person to try and ride past Jackson and call his bluff.
No one tempted the anger in Jackson’s eyes. Instead, troops loyal to Jackson began forming up behind him until there was little chance the brigade could break free, so they turned and headed back south.
But the anger in camp was far from quenched, and the bulk of the men had signed one-year contracts that they believed would end Dec. 10, 1813. Jackson insisted that their contracts would end one year after he had called them forward into the field, an anniversary that wouldn’t come for months.
“Let me just ride around in front of these.” – Andrew Jackson, 1813
(U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Gabrielle C. Quire)
On the night of December 9, just hours before the men’s contracts ended by their own estimates, Jackson ordered the men to parade outside the fort. He ordered an artillery company out as well.
Then he rode out in front of the men and promised that, if they attempted to leave, he would order the cannons fired with himself still in the middle. Yes, he would likely be the first killed, but dozens would follow him to a quick grave if they attempted to leave.
He ordered the gunners to light their matches and then watched the men in silence. Eventually, officers came forward and promised that they and their men would stay until reinforcements arrived.
It must have been quite the dramatic display, and it did save Jackson’s army for a few days.
But the hits would keep coming for Jackson. Reinforcements arrived, and so he released the men who had attempted to “desert.” Then it turned out the new men’s contracts were also due to end in December, and that another brigade’s contracts would end January 4, 1814.
Jackson protested, but the arguments over contracts had made it back to the larger world. Both the governor of Tennessee and the secretary of war agreed with the militiamen that their contracts ended one year after signature, not one year after being called to active service in the field.
The general did eventually receive his reinforcements, though. And he would go on to win battles against the Creeks that resulted in treaties favorable to the U.S. and would bolster Jackson’s eventual political career. He was accepted into the U.S. Army, as opposed to the Tennessee Militia, as a brigadier general and then major general.