When the War of 1812 began, Jackson was a military man in title only. He had never served active duty and he had never led troops in combat. He had been elected to his posts only by virtue of having political friends. Nonetheless, when war broke out, Jackson did not hesitate before offering the government the use of the 2,500 troops under his command in Tennessee. In December 1812 Jackson marched with to New Orleans with 1,500 troops to reinforce the garrison there.
General Wilkinson, who commanded the troops in New Orleans, was wary of Jackson's war-fever. Furthermore, there was old bad blood between the two men from previous dealings. Wilkinson, therefore, halted Jackson's army far outside the city, where it waited and waited. Jackson grew increasingly frustrated even before he received an order to disband his army. Jackson realized that Wilkinson meant him to return to Nashville and leave his troops to be assimilated into Wilkinson's army. Therefore, Jackson announced he would return to Nashville with his army, and did just that. The long and hard return trip to Nashville earned him the moniker "Old Hickory" from his men, who claimed that he stood as tough as hickory wood. The army did not reach Nashville until May 1813.
After his return to Nashville, Jackson became embroiled in yet another fight for honor, standing as a second in a duel in which a man was shot in the buttocks. The affair culminated in a street brawl, with Jackson backing one combatant into a tavern at gunpoint. In the midst of the brawl, Jackson took a bullet in his arm–a bullet he would carry with him for nearly twenty years.
Jackson recovered in time, though, to lead a force of militia against the Creek Indian tribe, who had massacred more than four hundred settlers at a fort in Alabama (then part of the Mississippi territory). Jackson, his arm still in a sling, immediately set off to exact vengeance. His tear through the Indian country was much like Sherman's notorious march to the sea forty years later at the end of the Civil War. Jackson's army left almost nothing standing. At Red Sticks, the first major engagement, Jackson and his army systematically slaughtered hundreds of braves. In a strange twist, though, Jackson's army found a baby Indian boy clutched in the arms of his dead mother on the battlefield. When Jackson was unable to find a foster parent, Jackson sent the boy to his own home, the Hermitage, and raised him like a son until he died of tuberculosis at sixteen.
As Jackson's army continued its rampage, more and more Indian villages aligned with his army rather than be slaughtered, strengthening his army and his knowledge of the area. Certain death awaited those who opposed Jackson. At Talladega, his army killed more than three hundred–at a loss of only fifteen in his own army. Jackson even threatened his own men with death to prevent a mutinous company from returning to Tennessee.
The government, recognizing Jackson's hard-driving leadership, sent 5,000 more troops to join his army. At Horseshoe Bend, Jackson finished off the Creek tribe. Jackson offered no quarter in the daylong battle, overrunning position after position and eventually killing more than five hundred on land, in addition to perhaps two hundred more who drowned trying to swim away. The grateful government offered Jackson an official position as major general of the U.S. Army, commanding the Seventh District–Tennessee, Louisiana and the Mississippi territory. With the backing of the federal government, Jackson demanded twenty-three million acres of land from the Indians–one-fifth of modern day Georgia and three-fifths of Alabama–along with assorted other concessions. The Creek were left with few choices but to grant Jackson's demands. The agreement, the Treaty of Fort Jackson, was signed August 10, 1814.
Jackson's army was not out of the woods yet, however. Without any authorization from the government, the General and his men headed for Florida, where British troops were massing in Spanish-held Pensacola. Jackson attacked Pensacola and forced the British to flee, then hurried to Mobile to stop an attack there. When that attack did not materialize, he returned to Pensacola and realized the actual target at New Orleans. His exhausted army set off for Louisiana.
On December 2, 1814, Jackson's army straggled into New Orleans, much to the relief of the city's residents. He immediately set about overseeing the strengthening of the city's defenses, felling trees to block waterways, erecting breastworks, installing batteries, and positioning his men to form a solid line of defense. His men were a motley crew, including everything from army troops to a band of Spanish pirates and a group of six hundred free blacks. The once- grateful public soured on Jackson as he installed martial law, and his dictatorial manner offended city leaders. Jackson did not care, however, as his only goal was to repel the British at all costs.
Sixteen hundred British troops under the command of General John Keane landed south of New Orleans and marched on the city. Had they marched straight in, the British would have likely taken the city; however, prisoners Keane's army captured claimed Jackson had more than 18,000 troops within New Orleans. Keane's army eventually captured the plantation of General Jacques Villere, who only barely escaped capture. Jackson rallied his troops, and at dusk, using the British campfires for guides, the American troops opened fire. The two sides fought for two hours. The battle cost the British about twice the casualties the Americans suffered.
Two days later, while the Americans strengthened their defenses in front of the British army, the British managed to sink the American flagship in the Mississippi River. The British built extensive gun emplacements, and on New Year's Day, 1815, a massive bombardment shook the besieged city of New Orleans. Despite strong cannon fire, the American defenses held and the Americans again inflicted double their own casualties on the British.
A week later, the British began moving several hundred troops across the river to flank Jackson's army. The Battle of New Orleans had begun in earnest. Three different columns of British troops were meant to attack different points of Jackson's army, overextending and eventually breaking him. However, incompetence and delays cost the British dearly. American cannon and small arms ripped large holes in the British lines and the British general himself died after being shot near the front lines. By noon, it was all over–the British had been soundly defeated, losing over 2,000 men, while the Americans had lost only thirteen. It was the biggest, most complete victory in the history of American warfare. By January 19, 1815, the British were gone.
Unbeknownst to the New Orleans combatants, the peace treaty effectively ending the War of 1812 had actually been signed in Belgium the day after the initial attack on New Orleans. The Americans, therefore, had already technically won the war before the bulk of the battle raged. The entire battle had been only a moral victory–but an incredibly important moral victory. Major General Andrew Jackson, "Old Hickory," was now a national hero.