Six Bridges Book Festival: William C. Davis

Adept Storytelling Shows Why Battle of New Orleans Still Matters for Today’s America

William C. Davis believes in the power of a well-told tale, especially when writing history. His dedication to narrative comes through in his absorbing recent work, The Greatest Fury: The Battle of New Orleans and the Rebirth of America.

“Using human interest and a lively style keeps the ‘story’ in history,” Davis said. “It’s like the proverbial tree that falls in the forest – if you write a book and it’s so dull that no one can read it, you haven’t really written a book.”

The Greatest Fury deploys sensory, immediate imagery to help place the reader in the scene, and this style is very effective in the descriptions of battles. But the book is about far more than military history – it’s about complicated, ornery, infuriating people like General Andrew Jackson, who would spawn his own mythology and forever change the idea of what it meant to be American. The story also highlights ordinary people who wrote letters and newspaper columns about the conflict, and thereby revealed how the public experienced the war.

Highlighting individual voices

Davis took this personal, detailed approach because of his faith in the power of individual voices. “People are interested in people – they always have been, which explains the success of People magazine. It’s no accident that in nonfiction, biography is always the bestselling genre. If we let people speak for themselves, they’re always interesting. And that’s where letters come in, because we see people speaking for themselves in their letters.”

Davis, a noted historian and scholar, was able to use his extensive research in newspapers and letters in a powerful way thanks to advances in digital technology. “There hadn’t been a comprehensive book on this subject for thirty or forty years, which meant that no one had yet used some of the primary sources that are now much more accessible that they were thirty years ago,”” he said. “I knew I would be able to take those sources and show the impact of the Battle of New Orleans on the country as it unfolded, as well as the aftermath and its effect on the American character.”

Technological advances aid research

Even fifteen years ago, writing a book of this scope would have been a decade-long project accomplished only by paging through one newspaper page at a time in archives or on microfilm. But now, with scores of digitized and searchable newspapers, an author can do it in months or weeks.  In the newspapers of 1814-1815, letters were constantly appearing from soldiers, civilians, and local merchants to give their perceptions of what was happening.

“A lot of it was hearsay,” Davis said.  “But even hearsay is important. What those people thought was happening around them could affect their morale and their decisions, whether or not it was completely accurate.” Davis found 300 to 400 letters from observers just in those newspaper sources, thanks to the speed of research made possible by digital archiving.

In our current cultural moment, when many don’t connect the relevance of history to today’s events, the legacy of Andrew Jackson’s personality both as military general and later as American president is both sobering and timely.

“Andrew Jackson’s character is still a part of many Americans’ identity, but I would say that many who include some of his character traits in their identity don’t know that Jackson was the origin of those ideas,” Davis said. “He was thought of as ‘Champion of the Common Man’ (which in fact he wasn’t), and known for his cockiness, refusal to back down, and America First rhetoric. And he was absolutely fearless. I think you can draw a throughline directly from the public perception of Andrew Jackson to the public perception of John Wayne, and that’s how they were perceived in their time: big, bold, fearless, and fair. Though this perception was not the reality of Jackson’s entire character, the perception affected the future of the nation, because as Americans, we based our decisions on our expectations of who we think Americans are, and who we would like to be.”

Andrew Jackson: legend and reality

The reality of Jackson was more complicated, as revealed by Davis’s expert synthesis of research and storytelling. Davis understands the challenges that faced Jackson in the complex scenario of his time. “Yes, the Louisiana legislature was hopelessly inefficient. Jackson was entitled to be frustrated with the fractured and divided state of it, as he worked with Creoles, native Spaniards, native French, and Americans who had newly moved to Louisiana from elsewhere. But the situation called for diplomatic resources that Jackson did not possess.”

William C. Davis will bring more of his well-researched insight into both historical and contemporary American culture to the Six Bridges Book Festival.  Attendees of all ages will enjoy his lively, down-to-earth conversational style and ability to bridge past and present historical moments to show what the lessons of the past are still teaching us about American identity and today’s political challenges.

William C. Davis spent 21 years in the book and magazine publishing industry, and until 2013 was professor of history and executive director of the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies at Virginia Tech. The Greatest Fury: The Battle of New Orleans and the Rebirth of America is the latest of his more than 60 books on Southern history and the Civil War. 


feature by Rosslyn Elliott