Andrew Jackson “was perfectly willing to burn New Orleans to the ground, if that’s what it took to stop the invaders,” says Robert V. Remini, recalling the Tennesseean’s successful 1815 offensive against the British. “He was in this fight for the sake of his country, not for the sake of New Orleans.”

If anybody can be confident of this, it’s Remini. A professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago, he has spent his career writing about Jackson, most notably in a National Book Award-winning, three-volume biography. It wasn’t until he began work on The Battle of New Orleans, however, that Remini understood how that conflict had affected combatants other than Old Hickory. “The British thought that all they had to do was show their colors, and the cowardly Americans would run,” he observes, “but that didn’t happen. The Americans were willing to fight hard and face whatever horrors came, because they really felt that their freedom was on the line here.”

It was both those stakes and the pounding the British took in Louisiana that lead the author to label this clash “America’s first military victory.” “Nothing comparable had happened during the Revolutionary War,” he notes. “The battles of Saratoga and Yorktown were surrenders–we didn’t defeat the British; they realized they were trapped, and they gave up. We needed to prove to them and to ourselves that we could really thrash them, and we did that at New Orleans.”

So why is it that this encounter and the War of 1812, in general, aren’t better remembered today? “Because none of it changed anything,” Remini says. “No great events came as a result of that war, there was no territorial acquisition. The peace treaty that ended the fighting put everything back the way it had been before. All that was different, was that the world knew the British weren’t invincible anymore.”