In January 1813, Andrew Jackson marched south from Tennessee with a force of 2000 to bolster the defense of New Orleans. When he got to Natchez, some 500 miles from home, he received orders to dismiss his troops.
The order was for him simply to dismiss the troops and turn over his supplies to General James Wilkinson. Apparently, Jackson’s men were expected to make their own way home and find ways to feed themselves. They were in hostile territory and, by then, over a hundred of Jackson’s men were ill. Fifty-six couldn’t even sit upright. Jackson turned over his supplies, as ordered, but he vowed to take all his men home.
The problem was that the expedition had only eleven wagons. When Dr. Samuel Hogg asked Jackson what he should do, Jackson replied simply, “You are not to leave a man on the ground.”
Hogg reminded Jackson that the wagons were already filled with the sick. There was no more room. Jackson’s solution was straightforward.
“Let some of the troops dismount. The officers must give up their horses. Not a man must be left behind.”
I can imagine Hogg screwing up his courage then. Jackson was known for a volatile temper. But he also had a horse. Hogg asked for Jackson’s horse for the sick. Jackson turned over the reins.
Jackson led the troops home, paying out of his own pocket for their provisions, and walking all of the five hundred miles. He laid out his thinking in a letter to Felix Grundy.
“I shall march them to Nashville or bury them with the honors of war. Should I die, I know they would bury me.”
Leadership is about accomplishing your mission and caring for your people. And how you do both speaks volumes about the kind of leader and person you are. Jackson’s actions are a stark contrast to “leaders” who put their welfare first.
This incident was the making of Jackson’s reputation as a general. During the march, his men started calling him “Hickory” because he was so tough. That became “Old Hickory,” the nickname he would carry for life.
Boss’s Bottom Line
What I love about this story is that Jackson did what he thought was the right thing, without much thought about the consequences or how things might look. At the time he chose to get all his men home, walking himself and paying for their food, he could not have known how things would play out later in his life. When you lead, we expect you to do the right thing, all the time, not just when it’s convenient or when it looks good.
Jon Meacham’s biography of Andrew Jackson, American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House, is a great biography, but it concentrates on Jackson the President and skips over most of his early life. If you want an overview of Jackson’s life, I recommend Robert Rimini’s one volume Life of Andrew Jackson.