When Jackson Square became Jackson Square
Ordinarily, the arrival of the steamers Clarksville and Vicksburg on the New Orleans riverfront wouldn’t have been unusual. Seagoing vessels have been a common sight at that particular bend in the Mississippi River since the day the city was founded in 1718. But Jan. 8, 1840 — 25 years to the day of Andrew Jackson’s triumph at the Battle of New Orleans — wasn’t an ordinary day, and the Clarksville and Vicksburg, lashed together “in gallant style” for much of the voyage downriver, wasn’t bearing your ordinary passenger. After days of dispatches in The Daily Picayune tracking the vessels’ progress downriver, none other than Jackson himself, the hero of the battle and the nation’s seventh president, disembarked around 10 a.m. for three days of pomp and circumstance. It would all culminate in the city’s central square with the ceremonial laying of the cornerstone of a monument to his 1815 victory — a moment that would lay the groundwork for the square’s eventual renaming in his honor.
Five years after his visit, Jackson would be dead. Six years after that, in 1851, the city’s main square — called Place d’Armes while the city was under French rule and the Plaza d’Armas under Spain — was renamed Jackson Square. Today, it remains as central to the city as it ever was, an iconic, postcard-ready beacon to locals and tourists alike.
- Jackson’s 1840 arrival was a scene. “An immense throng assembled at the wharf to welcome him, and the steamboats, vessels in the river, and house-tops, were alive with people waving their hats and handkerchiefs as he approached,” The Daily Picayune wrote.
- From there, the 72-year-old Jackson — described as “look(ing) somewhat the worse for age, but … still remarkably active and hearty for one of his years” — climbed into a carriage drawn by four horses and received a military escort to the State House. “As the procession passed along Canal Street, a dense mass of citizens thronged each side, and the number balconies were groaning with their fair burthens — ladies waving their handkerchiefs, while the silver-headed warrior bowed in acknowledgment of their salutations.”
- Joined by veterans of the battle, Jackson then toured the square that would eventually bear his name and reviewed troops there. After a bit of speechifying and a cannon salute, he retired to a room at the St. Louis Hotel, at the corner of St. Louis and Chartres streets, in a space now occupied by the Omni Royal Orleans.
- At the hotel, he was visited by a steady stream of well-wishers, according to a Jan. 10, 1840, report in The Daily Picayune, which read in part: “The old and the young, the grave and the gay seemed ambitious to grasp the hand of the man who shed such lustre on their country’s arms. The bright eye of beauty gazed with respectful admiration on his furrowed cheeks, and even lisping children pressed forward with apparent feelings of intuitive admiration.”
- That evening, Jackson attended a performance of a comedy at the St. Charles Theater. Once more, he received a hero’s welcome, both from the 2,000 audience members, as well as from the performers, who sang, “Hail Columbia” in his honor.
- Locals snapped up copies of The Daily Picayune to read about Jackson’s arrival. “Although we printed an edition of our paper unusually large yesterday,” the paper’s editors wrote the day after his arrival. “It was by no means adequate to the demand.”
- The day after his arrival, Jackson returned to Chalmette Battlefield, again accompanied by a group of veterans, “to survey the scene of his former glory, and to retrace the ground on which he won his great laurels.”
- The landscaping and fences that today adorn the square were added in 1851 as part of a sprucing-up campaign spearheaded by the Baroness Pontalba, who also built the apartment buildings flanking the square.
- The equestrian statue of Jackson at the square’s center was dedicated in 1856. It was sculpted by Clark Mills and is one of three castings of the same figure. The others are in Washington, D.C.; and Nashville, Tennessee.
- As the geographical heart of New Orleans, Jackson Square has witnessed its fair share of history. At one time the site of public executions, it has also seen countless notable weddings and funerals at St. Louis Cathedral, the finalization of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 at the Cabildo, a visit by Pope John Paul II in 1987, and a notable televised address by President George W. Bush after Hurricane Katrina.
- During that Jackson Square speech by Bush, which came seven days after Hurricane Katrina, he offered much-needed assurance that the city would come back. “There is no way to imagine America without New Orleans,” he said, “and this great city will rise again.”
- After the Great Fire of 1788, which left several hundred people homeless, Gov. Esteban Miro approved construction of a tent city on Jackson Square to house them. Miro also threw open the government’s store of food to feed them.
In the wake of the 2017 flap over the city’s removal of 20th century monuments to Confederate leaders Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and P.G.T. Beauregard, some suggested that having a square named after Jackson, whose controversial legacy includes embracing of Indian removal, be reconsidered. The question at the crux of that debate: whether it’s possible to celebrate what Jackson means to the city without endorsing his checkered political legacy as a whole. It isn’t a new one. As an 1840 Daily Picayune story shows, it’s one the city grappled with even before the square was named for Jackson, and will probably be one with which it grapples for years to come. “We, in our individual capacity, are among those who have politically opposed Gen. Jackson in thought, word and deed — not eleventh hour men, but went against his political advancement from the first jump out,” the newspaper wrote. “Still, we yesterday forgot the politician and thought only of the man — welcomed him as the ‘Hero of New Orleans’ and the fearless defender of his country, and were willing to forget aught else.”