CHALMETTE, La. (Reuters) - Huddled around a Louisiana campfire on Thursday, a man dressed in the rumpled clothes of an American militia member from the 1815 Battle of New Orleans put in historical perspective the frigid night he had spent in a nearby tent.
Alabama farmer David Latham was among 1,500 people gathered in the New Orleans suburb of Chalmette to re-enact and commemorate the bicentennial of the final battle of the War of 1812, when American forces led by Andrew Jackson routed the British.
“What we go through is nothing compared to what they went through,” said Latham, who is representing a member of the Tennessee Militia who defended the Americans’ left flank and picked off British opponents with his rifle.
“They were cold, hungry. They hadn’t eaten.”
Beginning Friday evening, the participants, some of whom have traveled thousands of miles to join in the event, will recreate the five clashes that comprise the Battle of New Orleans, which some historians say was key in making the British honor the terms of a peace treaty signed in late 1814.
“If the British had won, we may not be in America right now,” said Martin Sutton of the Louisiana Living History Foundation, which helped organize the event. “We may be part of the British colonies still.”
In the course of the three days of re-enactments, 18 cannons will fire across a recreated “Line Jackson,” a protective wall of wood and dirt the Americans built in a single night.
All told, the battle left more than 2,000 British and fewer than 30 Americans dead, wounded or missing.
The site, about half a mile from the original battlefield - hallowed ground that is off limits for large-scale re-enactments - was carved out of woodland abutting a Walmart store.
The land was set to be turned into a subdivision before Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, said Christopher Tidmore, who has spent two years planning the event, and whose maternal descendents owned the plantation from which the British mounted their final, ill-fated offensive on Jan. 8, 1815.
Most of the re-enactors portray soldiers, but others will also be on hand, including an artist dressed in period clothes who will paint the event, as well as those in hospital tents tending to the “wounded.”
“We’ll be holding people down while their arms are getting sawed off, giving them water, mopping their sweaty brows, writing letters to mothers, praying profusely,” said Claire Sparling, 27, who is among a group that traveled to Louisiana from Winnipeg to help the British cause.
A seamstress, Sparling recently sewed new lace on the red coat of Toronto resident Larry Stutt, who is portraying a British captain, and who was keeping warm on Thursday in a royalist hospitality tent.
With such heavy British casualties in the original battle, does Stutt expect his character to survive?
“I don’t think, just having had my coat redone, that I’m going to be in the dirt,” he said.
Reporting by Jonathan Kaminsky; Editing by Clarence Fernandez