On this day in 1840, President Andrew Jackson laid the cornerstone for a still unplanned monument to celebrate the victory of the Americans over the British in the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812 that had happened 25 years earlier. A parade containing military members, bands, and government officials escorted Andrew Jackson to the ceremony. The procession started at the State House on Canal Street (which was demolished when the State Capital was moved to Baton Rouge in 1850) and wound its way through the French Quarter down Royal Street, as far as Esplanade Avenue and then turned onto Chartres Street to return to Place d’Armes. Jackson was seated on a temporary stage where the brick laying ceremony was conducted. Speeches were made by Rev. Abbé Anduzé (first in French, then English) and Counsellor Barton, and hymns were sung by the Bishop and assembled clergy members. At the end of the ceremony, Andrew Jackson boarded the Steamship Vicksburg which brought him to Vicksburg, Mississippi where he was again honored by the citizens of that town.
Andrew Jackson died 5 years later and soon after Place d’Armes, was renamed Jackson Square in his honor. Two artists: Clark Mills and Achille Perelli vied for the contract to create a statue of General Jackson. Clark Mills had already won a similar bid to create an Andrew Jackson statue for Lafayette Square in Washington D.C. so he was also selected to create the statue for New Orleans. The Louisiana Legislature allocated $20,000 of the $30,000 needed for this statue, the rest which was donated by private parties.
The sculpture was completed in December 1855 in Mills’s studio in Washington D.C., with the plan of it being unveiled on the anniversary of the battle: January 8th. A delay in delivery postponed the unveiling ceremony a month.
February 9th 1856 was a day of great celebration in the city. Many businesses were closed so owners and workers alike could join in the festivities. Spectators arrived in their best clothes and uniforms were donned by military and social clubs. Bands paraded through the streets and arrived at Jackson Square at noon for the ceremony. It is claimed that as many as 60,000 people were in attendance including many members who had fought alongside General Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans 41 years earlier. When the canvas was dropped from the statue, the crowd roared with approval and hats were thrown into the air. Bands revived their jubilant tunes and a hundred gun salute broke out on the levees. After a few moments, Clark Mills, the sculptor of the statue was brought forward to address the crowd.
The statue before you represents one who, with a handful of men proved himself the savior of your beautiful city. General Jackson is there represented as he appeared on the morning of the 8th of January, forty-one years ago. He has advanced to the center of the line in the act of review; the lines have come to present arms as a salute to their commander, who is acknowledging it by raising his chapeau, according to the military etiquette of that day. His restive horse, anticipating the next move, attempts to dash down the line; the bridle hand of the dauntless hero being turned under, shows that he is restraining the horse, whose open mouth and curved neck indicate that the animal is feeling the bit. I have thought this explanation necessary as there are many critics who profess not to understand the conception of the artist.
According to the White House Historical Association, Clark Mills’s statue in Washington D.C. (of which the one in New Orleans was a replica) was the first bronze statue cast in the United States and the first equestrian statue in the world “to be balanced solely on the horse’s hind legs”. To have all of the weight (about 15 tons) balancing in the horse’s two back legs is nothing short of an engineering marvel.
Not everyone was impressed with this feat of engineering. Over a hundred years after the unveiling ceremony, a concerned citizen sent a letter to the mayor explaining that this equestrian statue did not to adhere to the well-known practice of using the position of a horse’s legs to symbolize how the rider died. In most cases, if both of the horse’s legs are raised, then that means that the rider died in battle. If the rider did not die in battle, but later died of wounds sustained in battle, then only one leg of the horse would be raised. Response from then Mayor Schiro acknowledged that Jackson did die in bed of natural causes, but as he could not think of any way to alter the statue to put both legs of the horse on the ground, it would remain as created. A new explanation for deciphering a military statue was proposed by a New Orleans tour guide: a raised left hoof meant the rider was wounded in battle, raised right hoof means the rider died a natural death. If both front legs are raised, then the rider went on to greater glory, as did Andrew Jackson, rising from General to the President of the United States.
It is hard to imagine what New Orleans would look like without Jackson Square or this iconic statue.