Unpublished documents reveal an Andrew Jackson who committed mutiny and shed tears as he thought his mistakes would lead to the deaths of teenage soldiers under his command. Indians saved him. The backwoods Jackson, who had never commanded a battle, presumed to take on the mantle of General George Washington.
Tell me a little bit about Hardened to Hickory: The Missing Chapter in Andrew Jackson’s Life.
Hardened to Hickory is the story of Andrew Jackson’s first significant military command, considered a disaster, just two years prior to his victory in the Battle of New Orleans. The background was the fight between Jackson and General James Wilkinson for the U.S. Southern Command. General Wilkinson had sold his loyalty to work as a double agent for an enemy nation. Theodore Roosevelt called Wilkinson “the most despicable character in our history.” The fight between the “most despicable character in our history” and Andrew Jackson is worth a study. Jackson learned from mistakes in logistics as well as command. Ultimately, Jackson earned the loyalty of his soldiers by refusing to abandon them at the risk of his own life. It was in this chapter that Jackson’s soldiers are said to have given him the moniker “Old Hickory.” The challenges Jackson overcame in this chapter transformed him into the man we know as general and president.
Is there one short story from your book you would like to share?
“Unlike cavalry, the typical Volunteer infantryman trudged through the snow in his homemade farm shoes and homespun dark blue or brown hunting shirt. To the average man, hunting shirts were a military tradition that honored their ancestors who fought the Revolution wearing similar uniforms. The outer shirts or frocks were often highlighted with white, yellow, or red fringe to distinguish companies from each other. Despite the homespun cloth that almost any man could afford, these company-specific details gave the troops a crisp military appearance that encouraged a sense of professionalism.
Most common soldiers’ shoes and uniforms would wear out even before they had begun the return march. To travel light, the men would be able to carry no more than one change of clothes, including white vests and white pants for parade. If winter rains soaked through soldiers’ knapsacks as well as their uniforms, Volunteers would have no choice but wear the wet clothing even if it froze on their backs. If the cloth tore beyond what could be mended in the field, the soldier would be fully exposed to the elements. Sleeping blankets rolled up to be carried on the soldiers’ backs could be unrolled and worn around the shoulders for warmth, but winter coats were not part of the uniform.
In addition to a blanket, some Volunteers carried a rifle or musket and a small amount of food in their knapsacks. Others did not even own a firearm or a change of clothes, but their relative poverty did not deter them from service. They left home carrying what little food or equipment they could spare and found that other Volunteers were willing to share.
Many Volunteers were teenagers. Drummers could be as young as twelve. Younger soldiers compensated for their lack of experience with optimism and energy. Despite the hazards that lay ahead, the boys could imagine themselves setting out on a grand adventure into the Indian territory settlers called the “Wilderness,” an adventure that they would share with future generations, just as their grandfathers had entertained them with stories of the Revolution. In addition to giving the boys a good reason to avoid daily chores at home, this war would provide a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to prove their mettle.“
Are there any important lessons from Jackson’s experience that our readers would like to hear?
From the time of Jackson’s military service in the American Revolution at age 13, Jackson was driven by an ambition to become the next General George Washington—he wanted to become the next general to force the British army from American soil and the hero to save his nation from an invader. Jackson often patterned his public image as a general from Washington’s example.
But the same excess of ambition that would help Jackson ultimately achieve his goal sometimes blinded him, caused him to make mistakes, and put his soldiers at risk. In this chapter of Jackson’s life, Jackson shed tears when he thought that his ambition had caused him to lead his soldiers into a deadly trap. At the low point, when Jackson’s troops began to die and he received a dismissal order, he had to choose between abandoning soldiers to a certain death or risk facing a firing squad. He was 450 miles from home, and he had few funds, medicines, arms, or transportation to take sick troops back to safety. Jackson’s officers attempted an intervention to encourage him to admit defeat.
But Jackson was never a quitter. A boy who wrestled Jackson as a youth stated that he “never would give up.” At the core of Jackson’s ambition was an almost supernatural will to survive and to succeed. That intense will made the difference between Jackson’s failure and his ultimate victory.
How long did it take for you to complete your research for your book? What was the most challenging?
Research took seven years to complete. No Jackson biographer had written more than a few pages about this chapter in Jackson’s life, because most of the documents were either in private collections or not easily accessible in archives. In fact, some of the most interesting finds were copies of documents attached to letters to the Secretary of War. Those copies are not catalogued; the only way to search through them is to read each letter. I even found the defense plan for the Gulf Coast in the War of 1812 as an attachment to a letter.
Because the details of this story had never been published, the only way to become familiar with names, dates, and events to tell the story was to read the original documents numerous times. It took time to figure out the key players and their motivations. Details that did not seem significant at the beginning stood out in later readings after I had located additional accounts and learned additional facts. Eventually, documents from different writers pieced together the story like watching a movie from different angles.
Deciphering different writers’ handwriting in old script on hundreds of letters, sometimes in faded ink on a dim microfilm reader, was a real challenge. I motivated myself by thinking of it as a hunt for treasure. When I found a missing piece of the puzzle, such as General Wilkinson’s admission that he was trying to undermine Jackson just as he had undermined Mad Anthony Wayne, there was a thrill of the find that made hours of dull work worthwhile.
Why is reading important for our Military and/or the Nation?
Almost everything a soldier or civilian works with to achieve success has a history. Understanding that history provides better insight into how use it effectively— both strengths and limitations that may not be obvious on the surface. The deeper understanding of the “why” a tool or a location was developed the way it was developed helps in making decisions on the best way to use it and what to avoid.
In addition, reading helps us understand people, the greatest asset. As I researched the period leading up to the War of 1812, I was struck by the similarity of issues and personalities of that period and today. The world has changed much since then, but human nature does not change. The people we deal with are no different at some levels from the people of earlier generations. Reading helps us understand human nature from experiences we will never have. And that understanding gives us the level of wisdom of someone who has had a lifetime of experiences.
What is Next for you and your writing projects?
I have researched questions about the death of Meriwether Lewis for over 30 years, and I am working on a book examining the evidence. Three years after successfully leading the Lewis and Clark expedition as an army caption, Lewis died in an area on the Natchez Trace known for robbery and murder. Conflicting accounts stated that he died from wounds from two or three gunshots. The newspaper reported that his throat had been cut. A large sum of money he was carrying was missing. The first official account based upon hearsay claimed that Lewis committed suicide, but the signature on that account was a forgery. A commission that examined Lewis’s remains three decades later concluded that it was more likely Lewis was murdered. Many historians have accepted the suicide theory. I think it is one of the most intriguing mysteries in American history.
It has also been suggested that I write a historical fiction series for the Young Adult market. I developed an interest in history because I had a high school history teacher who knew how to bring history to life. My goal is to create an adventure series for young readers to encourage them to explore history.
My focus has been on the history of the Natchez Trace, an ancient trail that President Jefferson developed into a military wagon highway to defend the Gulf Coast. In addition to soldiers, the road attracted notorious bandits, Indian warriors, spies, and future presidents. The series will provide an opportunity to introduce young adults to stories that will inspire them as well as provide perspectives on accounts I have found related to slavery and Indian removal.
Just as people are complex, history is complex. History sometimes gets oversimplified to make a current political point or to tell a story. I hope to show readers that just as every person has strengths and weaknesses, some historical figures accomplished great feats despite personal flaws.
Tony L. Turnbow has studied the history of the Old Natchez Trace for more than 30 years. He practices law in Franklin, Tennessee. With a Bachelor of Arts and a concentration in southern U.S. history from Vanderbilt University and a Juris Doctorate from the University of Tennessee College of Law, he has continued to use his training to explore unpublished primary sources about the Natchez Trace. He authored “The Natchez Trace in the War of 1812” in The Journal of Mississippi History, and he has published articles in the Tennessee Historical Quarterly and the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation journal “We Proceeded On.” He also wrote a full-length play “Inquest on the Natchez Trace” about the mysterious death of explorer Meriwether Lewis. In the course of writing a book about Lewis’s death, Mr. Turnbow discovered unpublished accounts of Andrew Jackson’s 1813 Natchez Expedition.
Mr. Turnbow represented the Natchez Trace Parkway Association on the Tennessee War of 1812 Bicentennial Commission, and he was the recipient of the Tennessee Society U.S. Daughters of 1812 “Spirit of 1812” award. He has spoken frequently about his research to meetings of DAR, SAR, Colonial Dames, U.S. Daughters of 1812, General Society of 1812, and historical organizations.
Tony can be reached via: LinkedIn, Facebook & Twitter