Leading up to 1812, the United States found itself increasingly drawn into an international conflict. Formal hostilities with Spain or France never materialized, but tensions with Britain increased for several reasons. Among these was the desire of many Americans for more land, particularly British Canada and Florida, the latter still controlled by Spain, Britain’s European ally. On June 18, 1812, Congress officially declared war on the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, beginning the War of 1812.
Jackson responded enthusiastically, sending a letter to Washington offering 2,500 volunteers. However, the men were not called up for many months. Biographer Robert V. Remini claims that Jackson saw the apparent slight as payback by the Madison administration for his support of Burr and Monroe. Meanwhile, the United States military repeatedly suffered devastating defeats on the battlefield. On January 10, 1813, Jackson led an army of 2,071 volunteers to New Orleans to defend the region against British and Native American attacks. He had been instructed to serve under General Wilkinson, who commanded Federal forces in New Orleans.
Lacking adequate provisions, Wilkinson ordered Jackson to halt in Natchez, then part of the Mississippi Territory, and await further orders. Jackson reluctantly obeyed.
The newly appointed Secretary of War, John Armstrong Jr., sent a letter to Jackson dated February 6 ordering him to dismiss his forces and to turn over his supplies to Wilkinson. In reply to Armstrong on March 15, Jackson defended the character and readiness of his men and promised to turn over his supplies. He also promised, instead of dismissing the troops without provisions in Natchez, to march them back to Nashville.
The march was filled with agony. Many of the men had fallen ill. Jackson and his officers turned over their horses to the sick. He paid for provisions for the men out of his own pocket. The soldiers began referring to their commander as “Hickory” because of his toughness, and Jackson became known as “Old Hickory.” The army arrived in Nashville within about a month. Jackson’s actions earned him respect and praise from the people of Tennessee. Jackson faced financial ruin until his former aide-de-camp Thomas Benton persuaded Secretary Armstrong to order the army to pay the expenses Jackson had incurred. On June 14, Jackson served as a second in a duel on behalf of his junior officer William Carroll against Jesse Benton, the brother of Thomas. On September 3, Jackson and his top cavalry officer, Brigadier General John Coffee, were involved in a street brawl with the Benton brothers. Jackson was severely wounded by Jesse with a gunshot to the shoulder.
On August 30, 1813, a group of Muscogee (also known as Creek Indians) called the Red Sticks, so named for the color of their war paint, perpetrated the Fort Mims massacre. During the massacre, hundreds of white American settlers and non-Red Stick Creeks were slaughtered. The Red Sticks, led by chiefs Red Eagle and Peter McQueen, had broken away from the rest of the Creek Confederacy, which wanted peace with the United States. They were allied with Tecumseh, a Shawnee chief who had launched Tecumseh’s War against the United States, and who was fighting alongside the British. The resulting conflict became known as the Creek War.
Jackson, with 2,500 men, was ordered to crush the hostile Indians. On October 10, he set out on the expedition, his arm still in a sling from fighting the Bentons. Jackson established Fort Strother as a supply base. On November 3, Coffee defeated a band of Red Sticks at the Battle of Tallushatchee. Coming to the relief of friendly Creeks besieged by Red Sticks, Jackson won another decisive victory at the Battle of Talladega. In the winter, Jackson encamped at Fort Strother, faced a severe shortage of troops due to the expiration of enlistments and chronic desertions. He sent Coffee with the cavalry (which abandoned him) back to Tennessee to secure more enlistments. Jackson decided to combine his force with that of the Georgia militia, and marched to meet the Georgia troops. From January 22–24, 1814, while on their way, the Tennessee militia and allied Muscogee were attacked by the Red Sticks at the Battles of Emuckfaw and Enotachopo Creek.
Jackson’s troops repelled the attackers, but outnumbered, were forced to withdraw to Fort Strother. Jackson, now with over 2,000 troops, marched most of his army south to confront the Red Sticks at a fortress they had constructed at a bend in the Tallapoosa River. On March 27, enjoying an advantage of more than 2 to 1, he engaged them at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. An initial artillery barrage did little damage to the well-constructed fort. A subsequent Infantry charge, in addition to an assault by Coffee’s cavalry and diversions caused by the friendly Creeks, overwhelmed the Red Sticks. The campaign ended three weeks later with Red Eagle’s surrender, although some Red Sticks such as McQueen fled to East Florida. On June 8, Jackson accepted a commission as brigadier general in the United States Army, and 10 days later became a major general, in command of the Seventh Military Division. Subsequently, Jackson, with Madison’s approval, imposed the Treaty of Fort Jackson. The treaty required the Muscogee, including those who had not joined the Red Sticks, to surrender 23 million acres (8,093,713 ha) of land to the United States. Most of the Creeks bitterly acquiesced.
Though in ill-health from dysentery, Jackson turned his attention to defeating Spanish and British forces. Jackson accused the Spanish of arming the Red Sticks and of violating the terms of their neutrality by allowing British soldiers into the Floridas. The first charge was true, while the second ignored the fact that it was Jackson’s threats to invade Florida which had caused them to seek British protection. In the November 7 Battle of Pensacola, Jackson defeated British and Spanish forces in a short skirmish. The Spanish surrendered and the British fled. Weeks later, he learned that the British were planning an attack on New Orleans, which sat on the mouth of the Mississippi River and held immense strategic and commercial value. Jackson abandoned Pensacola to the Spanish, placed a force in Mobile, Alabama to guard against a possible invasion there, and rushed the rest of his force west to defend the city. The Creeks coined their own name for Jackson, Jacksa Chula Harjo or “Jackson, old and fierce.”
After arriving in New Orleans on December 1, 1814, Jackson instituted martial law in the city, as he worried about the loyalty of the city’s Creole and Spanish inhabitants. At the same time, he formed an alliance with Jean Lafitte’s smugglers and formed military units consisting of African-Americans and Muscogees, in addition to recruiting volunteers in the city. Jackson received some criticism for paying white and non-white volunteers the same salary. These forces, along with U.S. Army regulars and volunteers from surrounding states, joined with Jackson’s force in defending New Orleans. The approaching British force, led by Admiral Alexander Cochrane and later General Edward Pakenham, consisted of over 10,000 soldiers, many of whom had served in the Napoleonic Wars. Jackson had only about 5,000 men, most of whom were inexperienced and poorly trained.
The British arrived on the east bank of the Mississippi River on the morning of December 23. That evening, Jackson attacked the British and temporarily drove them back. On January 8, 1815, the British launched a major frontal assault against Jackson’s defenses. An initial artillery barrage by the British did little damage to the well-constructed American defenses. Once the morning fog had cleared, the British launched a frontal assault, and their troops made easy targets for the Americans protected by their parapets. Despite managing to temporarily drive back the American right flank, the overall attack ended in disaster. For the battle on January 8, Jackson admitted to only 71 total casualties. Of these, 13 men were killed, 39 wounded, and 19 missing or captured. The British admitted 2,037 casualties. Of these, 291 men were killed (including Pakenham), 1,262 wounded, and 484 missing or captured. After the battle, the British retreated from the area, and open hostilities ended shortly thereafter when word spread that the Treaty of Ghent had been signed in Europe that December.
Coming in the waning days of the war, Jackson’s victory made him a national hero, as the country celebrated the end of what many called the “Second American Revolution” against the British. By a Congressional resolution on February 27, 1815, Jackson was given the Thanks of Congress and awarded a Congressional Gold Medal. Alexis de Tocqueville (“underwhelmed” by Jackson according to a 2001 commentator) later wrote in Democracy in America that Jackson ” was raised to the Presidency, and has been maintained there, solely by the recollection of a victory which he gained, twenty years ago, under the walls of New Orleans.” Some have claimed that, because the war was already ended by the preliminary signing of the Treaty of Ghent, Jackson’s victory at New Orleans was without importance aside from making him a celebrated figure. However, the Spanish, who had sold the Louisiana Territory to France, disputed France’s right to sell it to the United States through the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. In April 1815, Spain, if the British had won at New Orleans, asked for the return of the Louisiana Territory. Spanish representatives claimed to have been assured that they would receive the land back. Furthermore, Article IX of the Treaty of Ghent stipulated that the United States must return land taken from the Creeks to their original owners, essentially undoing the Treaty of Fort Jackson. Thanks to Jackson’s victory at New Orleans, the American government felt that it could safely ignore that provision and it kept the lands that Jackson had acquired.
In the spring of 1822, Jackson suffered a physical breakdown. His body had two bullets lodged in it, and he had grown exhausted from years of hard military campaigning. He regularly coughed up blood, and his entire body shook. Jackson feared that he was on the brink of death. After several months of rest, he recovered. During his convalescence, Jackson’s thoughts increasingly turned to national affairs. He obsessed over rampant corruption in the Monroe administration and grew to detest the Second Bank of the United States, blaming it for causing the Panic of 1819 by contracting credit.
Jackson turned down an offer to run for governor of his home state but accepted John Overton’s plan to have the legislature nominate him for president. On July 22, 1822, he was officially nominated by the Tennessee legislature. Jackson had come to dislike Secretary of the Treasury William H. Crawford, who had been the most vocal critic of Jackson in Monroe’s cabinet, and he hoped to prevent Tennessee’s electoral votes from going to Crawford. Yet Jackson’s nomination garnered a welcoming response even outside of Tennessee, as many Americans appreciated Jackson’s attacks on banks. The Panic of 1819 had devastated the fortunes of many, and banks and politicians are seen as supportive of banks that were particularly unpopular. With his growing political viability, Jackson emerged as one of the five major presidential candidates, along with Crawford, Adams, Clay, and Secretary of War John C. Calhoun. During the Era of Good Feelings, the Federalist Party had faded away, and all five presidential contenders were members of the Democratic-Republican Party. Jackson’s campaign promoted him as a defender of the common people, as well as the one candidate who could rise above sectional divisions. On the major issues of the day, most prominently the tariff, Jackson expressed centrist beliefs, and opponents accused him of obfuscating his positions.
At the forefront of Jackson’s campaign was combatting corruption. Jackson vowed to restore honesty in government and to scale back its excesses. In 1823, Jackson reluctantly allowed his name to be placed in contention for one of Tennessee’s U.S. Senate seats. The move was independently orchestrated by his advisors William Berkeley Lewis and U.S. Senator John Eaton in order to defeat incumbent John Williams, who openly opposed his presidential candidacy. The legislature narrowly elected him. His return, after 24 years, 11 months, 3 days out of office, marks the second-longest gap in service to the chamber in history. Although Jackson was reluctant to serve once more in the Senate, he was appointed chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs. Eaton wrote to Rachel that Jackson as a senator was “in harmony and good understanding with everybody,” including Thomas Hart Benton, now a senator from Missouri, with whom Jackson had fought in 1813. Meanwhile, Jackson himself did little active campaigning for the presidency, as was customary. Eaton updated an already-written biography of him in preparation for the campaign and, along with others, wrote letters to newspapers praising Jackson’s record and past conduct.
Democratic-Republican presidential nominees had historically been chosen by informal Congressional nominating caucuses, but this method had become unpopular. In 1824, most of the Democratic-Republicans in Congress boycotted the caucus. Those who attended backed Crawford for president and Albert Gallatin for vice president. A Pennsylvania convention nominated Jackson for president a month later, stating that the irregular caucus ignored the “voice of the people” in the “vain hope that the American people might be thus deceived into a belief that he [Crawford] was the regular democratic candidate.” Gallatin criticized Jackson as “an honest man and the idol of the worshipers of military glory, but from incapacity, military habits, and habitual disregard of laws and constitutional provisions, altogether unfit for the office.” After Jackson won the Pennsylvania nomination, Calhoun dropped out of the presidential race and successfully sought the vice presidency instead.
In the presidential election, Jackson won a plurality of the electoral vote, taking several southern and western states as well as the mid-Atlantic states of Pennsylvania and New Jersey. He was the only candidate to win states outside of his regional base, as Adams dominated New England, Clay took three western states, and Crawford won Virginia and Georgia. Jackson won a plurality of the popular vote, taking 42 percent, although not all states held a popular vote for the presidency. He won 99 electoral votes, more than any other candidate, but still short of 131, which he needed for a true majority. With no candidate having won most of the electoral votes, the House of Representatives held a contingent election under the terms of the Twelfth Amendment. The amendment specifies that only the top three electoral vote-winners are eligible to be elected by the House, so Clay was eliminated from contention.
Jackson believed that he was likely to win this contingent election, as Crawford and Adams lacked Jackson’s national appeal, and Crawford had suffered a debilitating stroke that made many doubts his physical fitness for the presidency. Clay, who as Speaker of the House presided over the election, saw Jackson as a dangerous demagogue who might topple the republic in favor of his own leadership. He threw his support behind Adams, who shared Clay’s support for federally funded internal improvements such as roads and canals. With Clay’s backing, Adams won the contingent election on the first ballot. Furious supporters of Jackson accused Clay and Adams of having reached a “corrupt bargain” after Adams appointed Clay as his Secretary of State. “So, you see,” Jackson growled, “the Judas of the West has closed the contract and receive the thirty pieces of silver. [H] ends will be the same.” After the election, Jackson resigned his Senate seat and returned to Tennessee.