Why Preserving the Past Matters for This High School Sophomore’s Future
15-year-old Jack Cantrell has had an interest in history ever since he first saw Indiana Jones, but as he’s grown, that interest has turned into a full-blown passion for old places. He’s been to the annual reenactment of the Battle of New Orleans—the final battle of the War of 1812—at Chalmette National Cemetery almost every year since he was a child, and he even discovered a connection to his own family’s history there.
In 2018, when HOPE Crew organized a cleanup at Chalmette, Cantrell jumped at the chance to restore this priceless piece of history (and progress in his Boy Scouts ranking along the way). We talked with Cantrell, a high school sophomore, to learn about his love of military history, battlefields like Chalmette, and more.
Tell me about your previous trips to Chalmette. What was it like to visit the battlefield, growing up?
I was 5 years old when I first went to Chalmette. I remembered seeing all the cannons and the graves in the distance … and it kind of stuck with me. I try to go [back to Chalmette] for the annual battle reenactments whenever I can.
The cemetery’s bicentennial reenactment was a really inspiring event. In 2014, it had been 200 years since the Battle of New Orleans. We went there for two days. Most everything had drastically increased—not just the size of the lot, but also the number of reenactors, as well [the battle was moved to a lot about a mile away from the battlefield itself]. Normally there would have been around 150 soldiers representing it: British soldiers from Jamaica, members of the Choctaw Nation, free men of color, privateers, militiamen, and highlanders; there were, however, 1,500 of them for the bicentennial. Overall, it was an amazing event, and I’m glad that I could have witnessed it.
How did you come across your relatives, the French Cantrells? How are they connected to Chalmette?
My mother ran into our French cousins through a Facebook group, [where she met] a man by the name of Glenn Cantrell. [He and my mother] ended up becoming Facebook friends, and my mother told Glenn I was interested in history. He introduced us to my cousin, Angel Cantrell. She had traced our history back to the 400s when our ancestors came down from Norway and settled in Normandy. I’m on the English side of our family, which split in 1066 when we went to fight in the battle of Hastings with William the Conqueror.
When I first met Angel, we sat down on a blanket in front of the Beauregard House at Chalmette. Celeste Cantrell, the wife of Michel Cantrell and one of Angel’s ancestors, [had] bought the property and restored the house [in the mid-1800s]. She refurbished everything there and restored it to the condition it is in today.
How did you get involved with the HOPE Crew event at Chalmette?
Well, I’m a Boy Scout, and I needed several hours of conservation work to progress to the next rank. But I also wanted to go because Jacques Cantrell, on the French side of the family, fought in the Battle of New Orleans and is buried there. I felt obligated to go out and clean his and the other veterans’ headstones. [When we got to Chalmette,] we went out and scrubbed down the headstones with a chemical agent that ate away at the mold, and we helped restore them.
Where does your interest in military history come from?
When I was around 3, my mother showed me Indiana Jones, and I decided I wanted to be an archaeologist—I thought that’s what all archaeologists did at the time. While I eventually lost interest in archaeology itself, I liked listening to war stories from veterans, and that’s what clicked for me [and my love of military history].
I also met John McCain when I was 5. When my mother told me what he had gone through as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, I was inspired. I hadn’t really paid much attention to the history of the Vietnam War; I was more focused on the history of World War II at that age. [Because of that experience and] because it was something I hadn’t heard about as much when I was younger, I took a greater interest in Vietnam and other wars.
Why is it important to preserve places like Chalmette?
Chalmette serves a reminder of what happened in the past. It tells a story about these small groups of men who fought off an entire British army [during the War of 1812] and won miraculously, with minimal casualties.
In New Orleans, we have The National World War II Museum, and I’ve studied the war through and through. But to go to the Normandy beach landings where a battle actually occurred? That would be awe-inspiring. When you go to a museum, you learn about events that happened long ago, but actually going to a place where something occurred—it’s almost spiritual. People walked that same ground, however many years beforehand, and changed history.