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When Andrew Jackson became Old Hickory
The roots of American populism
Andrew Jackson welcomed the coming of war in 1812. A Carolinian who had relocated to Tennessee in the 1790s, Jackson experienced life on the western frontier when the Indian tribes of the region still disputed white settlement and the British encouraged the Indian disputation. A war against Britain promised to solve the settlers’ Indian problem by driving the British away from American borders and thereby compelling the Indians to make peace.
Jackson was the commanding general of the Tennessee militia and he rallied troops to take up arms in defense of their homes and their families' futures. The Tennesseans responded with such alacrity that their state became known as the Volunteer State. Following orders from the war department in Washington, Jackson launched his men on a journey from Nashville to New Orleans, a likely spot for a British seaborne attack.
In a fleet of thirty boats, Jackson's corps braved the cold of the Tennessee winter, floating amid large chunks of ice down the Cumberland River to its junction with the Ohio, and down the Ohio to the Mississippi. They proceeded down the Mississippi to their interim destination of Natchez, where Jackson was to await further orders.
When the orders arrived, they flabbergasted Jackson and dismayed his men. The war department had had a change of heart. It concluded that the British threat to New Orleans was not imminent and therefore that the Tennessee troops were not needed. "The causes for embodying and marching to New Orleans the corps under your command having ceased to exist, you will on receipt of this letter consider it as dismissed from public service," Jackson was ordered by John Armstrong, the secretary of war.
The flabbergasting part of the order was that it made irrelevant all the hazard and discomfort the men had experienced getting to Natchez from Nashville. The dismaying part was that it meant the men would have to get home on their own and at their own expense. In that pre-steamboat era, the return trip would be by land rather than water, by foot rather than boat.
Jackson was outraged, besides being flabbergasted. In an angry letter to Armstrong, he protested this abandonment of his men by the government. "Those that could escape from the insalubrious climate are to be deprived of the necessary support and meet death by famine," he characterized their likely fate. "The remaining few to be deprived of their arms pass through the savage land where our women, children and defenseless citizens are daily murdered. Yet through that barbarous clime must our band of citizen soldiers wander and fall a sacrifice to the tomahawk and scalping knife of the wilderness, our sick left naked in the open field and remain without supplies, without nourishment or an earthly comfort."
The government might abandon his men, but Jackson would not. "I animated those brave men to take the field," he told Armstrong. He had led them south, and he would lead them back north. He rejected and disobeyed the dismissal order. "I mean to commence my march to Nashville in a few days, at which place I expect the troops to be paid and the necessary supplies furnished by the agents of government."
Though the government was failing to its duty, Jackson would do his. He assumed the risk of paying for the homeward march, pledging his home and property against a loan to keep the men fed. "As long as I have friends or credit, I will stick by them," he vowed.
He told his man they could count on their commander. "He will not leave one of the sick nor one of the detachment behind," Jackson said in a general order. "The sick, as far as he has the power and means, shall be made comfortable. They shall all be taken along. No one shall be left unless those that die, and in that event we will pay to them the last tribute of respect; they shall be buried with all the honors of war."
Jackson's defiance of the government on their behalf thrilled the men. They understood the risk he was taking–to his military career and his personal future. The government would distrust him after this and likely never promote him. The men knew that Jackson had been born poor, like them, and that what he had accumulated through years of hard work might be lost on their account.
He already seemed a father figure to many of the young men; now another image came to mind. On his horse, resilient and determined, Jackson seemed as tough as a hickory branch. "Old Hickory," one called him, and the name stuck.
When his column finally reached Nashville, the city turned out for Jackson and the men. "Long will the General live in the memory of the volunteers of West Tennessee for his benevolent, humane and fatherly treatment to his soldiers," a local paper declared. "If gratitude and love can reward him, General Jackson has them."
Jackson went on to greater things. The war department grudgingly gave him command of a motley force it hoped would slow a new British assault on New Orleans; Jackson delivered the most brilliant victory of the war. Already Tennessee’s hero, he became America’s hero. Eventually he became America’s president.
Yet what stuck in the popular mind was the image of Old Hickory, defying a wickedly short-sighted government on behalf of the men under his protection. When Jackson went to Washington to be inaugurated, his supporters hoped he would cleanse the Augean stables of corruption there. The task was bigger than the Jacksonians realized, but the dream of the defiant representative of the American people taking on the government in the people’s name never died.