The Story of the New Orleans Mint, Part I
New Orleans was founded in 1718 by a fellow named Jean Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville. As you might imagine, he was French. He named the city Nouvelle Orléans (New Orleans) for the Duke of Orleans, Philip II (not to be confused with a variety of other monarchs named Philip II throughout the history of western civilization). The City changed hands from the French to the Spanish, then back to the French before becoming a part of the United States in 1803 as part of the Louisiana Purchase.
The British never really considered the Louisiana purchase valid, since the U.S. bought the territory from the United Kingdom’s all time arch enemy and despoiler of everything noble and good, Napoleon Bonaparte. To the United States, Napoleon was just another quirky tyrant, and they didn’t really care what the British considered valid or invalid. While the British were at war with Napoleon they needed lots of sailors to operate their mighty fleet of warships to fight the French to the death.
For some unknown reason, some British sailors preferred to work on merchant ships, unload salted herring at the docks, or to try their hand at potato farming. Some of them went to America and became U.S. citizens, working on U.S. ships, which were not at war with the French to the death.
The British considered the naturalization of the ex- British sailors invalid too, and so they stopped U.S. ships at sea and forcibly brought their boys back home. This was called “Impressment”. The Americans weren’t impressed, and partly because of this declared war on the British. The Americans figured it would be an easy win, considering the British were preoccupied with Napoleon. To the dismay of the Americans, the British kept them on their heels for two and a half years, (although there were some inspiring American victories, especially near the end of the war).The two sides met and decided to call it a draw on December 27, 1814 when the warring parties signed the Treaty of Ghent.
News of the treaty and ratification took a couple of months back in those days, and the British figured they would make the best use of the lag time by capturing New Orleans. Although they figured the American garrison there was weak, and the impetuous commander by the name of Andrew Jackson largely inept, they left nothing to chance. The attacking British army was composed mostly of veteran soldiers who had just beaten Napoleon at Waterloo. These guys were not pansies by any stretch of the imagination. They ate leather for fun, slept on sharpened bayonets, and didn’t flinch when a palmetto bug ran up their pant legs. You get the idea. There were lots of them, and they were coming for New Orleans.
It turns out the defending Americans, though small in number, weren’t so weak as the British imagined, and Andrew Jackson not so impetuous and inept as they thought either. Jackson had a bone to pick, since as a boy he’d been mistreated by the British army during the American Revolution. He made sure the invaders had hardly a moment’s rest by harassing them from the moment they landed, and prepared a brilliant defense. Still, Jackson and the Americans needed everything to go exactly their way and then some to win against the British army (did I mention they were tough?). Everything went the Americans’ way. The British helped the Americans along by forgetting to bring their ladders when they had to scale the American earthworks. The British also had to face volunteer riflemen from Kentucky and Tennessee. The Kentucky riflemen grew up shooting squirrels between the eyes at 300 yards, so you can imagine what they did to soldiers in red marching across an open field, or to generals on horseback shouting and waving their arms.
The sound when The Americans under Andrew Jackson won the Battle of New Orleans was the sound of the world’s collective jaw dropping. Unfortunately for the Americans, the war was already over, so beating the redcoats at New Orleans didn’t affect the terms of the treaty. But New Orleans stayed American, and Andrew Jackson went on to accomplish a thing or two as well, I hear, like getting himself on the $20 bill. But I digress. Andrew Jackson remembered New Orleans fondly, and when the time came to build new U.S. Mints, New Orleans was at the top of his list.