The Pirate Turned Patriot

27 mins read

Editor’s note: The following is extracted from Some Forgotten Heroes and Their Place in American History, by E. Alexander Powell (published 1922).

It is not flattering for us to have to admit that we are greatly indebted to a pirate for the success of the Americans against the British attack on New Orleans in 1814. Such is the case, however. And we shall have to make concessions to our pride by recalling the old adage that there is some good in everyone. This will be rather easy for us to do in the instance of Jean Lafitte. Lafitte was not the leering, heartless, walk-the-plank type of pirate that had infested the Spanish Main in the days of the treasure-laden ships. He was rather a gentleman pirate, preying upon the illicit slave-smugglers — one lawless element operating upon another. However, one deed makes Jean Lafitte of heroic mold. When Andrew Jackson was organizing his motley army to repel the British, Lafitte placed patriotism above all other considerations, and offered his own cannon and the services of his expert marksmen in defense of a state which had set a price on his head.

How many well-informed people are aware, I wonder, that the fact that the American flag, and not the British, flies today over the Mississippi Valley is largely due to the eleventh-hour patriotism of a pirate? Of the many kinds of men of many nationalities who have played parts of greater or less importance in the making of our national history, none is more completely cloaked in mystery, romance, and adventure than Jean Lafitte. The last of that long line of buccaneers who for more than two centuries terrorized the waters and ravaged the coasts of the Gulf of Mexico, his exploits make the wildest fiction appear commonplace and tame. Although he was as thoroughgoing a pirate as ever plundered an honest merchantman, I do not mean to imply that he was a leering, low-browed scoundrel, with a red bandanna twisted about his head and an armory of assorted weapons at his waist, for he was nothing of the sort. On the contrary, from all I can learn about him, he appears to have been a very gentlemanly sort of person indeed, tall and graceful and soft-voiced, and having the most charming manners. Though he regarded the law with unconcealed contempt, there came a crisis in our national history when he placed patriotism above all other considerations, and rendered an inestimable service to the country whose laws he had flouted and to the State which had set a price on his head. Indeed, we are indebted to Jean Lafitte in scarcely less measure than we are to Andrew Jackson for frustrating the British invasion and conquest of Louisiana.

Though the palmy days of piracy in the Gulf of Mexico really ended with the seventeenth century, by which time the rich cities of Middle America had been impoverished by repeated sackings and the gold-freighted caravels had taken to traveling under convoy, even at the beginning of the nineteenth century these storied waters still offered many opportunities to lawless and enterprising sea-folk. But the pirates of the nineteenth century, unlike their forerunners of the seventeenth, preyed on slave-ships rather than on treasure-galleons. Consider the facts. On January 1, 1808, Congress passed an act prohibiting the further importation of slaves into the United States. By this act the recently acquired territory of Louisiana, over which prosperity was advancing in three-league boots, was deprived of its supply of labor. With crops rotting in the fields for lack of laborers, the price of slaves rose until a negro fresh from the coast of Africa would readily bring a thousand dollars at auction in New Orleans. At the same time, remember, ship-loads of slaves were being brought to Cuba, where no such restrictions existed, and sold for three hundred dollars a head. Under such conditions smuggling was inevitable.

At first the smugglers bought their slaves in the Cuban market, and running them across the Gulf of Mexico, landed them at obscure harbors on the Louisiana coast, whence they were marched overland to New Orleans and Baton Rouge. The smugglers soon saw, however, that the slavers carried small crews, poorly armed, and quickly made up their minds that it was a shameful waste of money to buy slaves when they could get them for nothing by the menace of their guns. In short, the smugglers became buccaneers, and as such drove a thriving business in captured cargoes of “black ivory,” as the slaves were euphemistically called.

As the demand was greatest on the rich new lands along the Mississippi, it was at New Orleans that the buccaneers found the most profitable market for their human wares, for they could easily sail up the river to the city, dispose of their cargoes, and be off again with the quick despatch of regular liners to resume their depredations. But the buccaneers did not confine their attention to slave-ships, so that in a short time, despite the efforts of British, French, and American warships, the waters of the Gulf became as unsafe for all kinds of merchant vessels as they were in the days of Morgan and Kidd.

As a base for their piratical and smuggling operations, as well as for supplies and repairs, the buccaneers chose Barataria Bay, a place which met their requirements as though made to order. The name is applied to all of the Gulf coast of Louisiana between the mouth of the Mississippi and the mouth of another considerable stream known as the Bayou La Fourche, the latter a waterway to a rich and populous region. The Bay of Barataria is screened from the Gulf, with which it is connected by a deep-water pass, by the island of Grande Terre, the trees on which were high enough to effectually hide the masts of the buccaneers’ vessels from the view of inquisitive warships cruising outside. Between the Mississippi and La Fourche there is a perfect network of small but navigable waterways which extend almost to New Orleans, so that the buccaneers thus had a back-stairs route, as it were, to the city, which brought their rendezvous at Grande Terre within safe and easy reach of the great mart of the Mississippi Valley.

Such supplies as the buccaneers did not get from the ships they captured, they obtained by purchase in New Orleans. For the chains which were used in making up the caufles of slaves for transportation into the interior, they were accustomed to patronize the blacksmith-shop of the Brothers Lafitte, which stood — and still stands — on the northeast corner of Bourbon and St. Philippe Streets. Of the history of these brothers prior to their arrival in New Orleans nothing is definitely known. From their names, and because they spoke with the accent peculiar to the Garonne, they are credited with having been natives of the south of France, though whence they came and where they went are questions which have never been satisfactorily answered. They were quite evidently men of means, and might have been described as gentlemen blacksmiths, for they owned the slaves who pounded the iron. Being men of exceptional business shrewdness, it is not to be wondered at that from doing the buccaneers’ blacksmithing they gradually became their agents and bankers, the smithy in St. Philippe Street coming in time to be a sort of clearing-house for many questionable transactions.

Now Jean Lafitte was an extremely able man, combining a remarkable executive ability with a genius for organization. Through success in managing their affairs, he gradually increased his usefulness to the buccaneers until he obtained complete control over them, and ruled them as despotically as a tribal chieftain. This was when his genius for organization had succeeded in uniting their different, and often rival, efforts and interests into a sort of pirates’ corporation, composed of all the buccaneers, privateers, and freebooters doing business in the Gulf, this combination of outlaws, incredible as it may seem, effectually controlling the price of slaves and many other things in the Mississippi Valley.

The influence of this new element in the buccaneer business soon made itself felt. At that time New Orleans was a sort of cross between an American frontier town and a West Indian port, its streets and barrooms being filled with swaggering adventurers, gamblers, and soldiers of fortune from every corner of the three Americas, the presence of most of whom was due to the activity of the sheriffs in their former homes. It was from these men, cool, reckless, resourceful, that Lafitte recruited his forces.

Leaving his brother Pierre in charge of the New Orleans branch of the enterprise, Jean Lafitte took up his residence on Grande Terre, where, under his directions, a fort was built, around which there soon sprang up a veritable city of thatched huts for the shelter of the buccaneers, and for the accommodation of the merchants who came to supply their wants or to purchase their captured cargoes. Within a year upward of a dozen armed vessels rendezvoused in Barataria Bay, and their crews addressed Jean Lafitte as “bosse.” One of the Baratarians, a buccaneer of the walk-the-plank-and- scuttle-the-ship school named Grambo, who boldly called himself a pirate, and jeered at Lafitte’s polite euphemism of privateer, was one day unwise enough to dispute the new authority. Without an instant’s hesitation Lafitte drew a pistol and shot him through the heart in the presence of the whole band. After that episode there was no more insubordination.

By 1813 the Baratarians, who had long since extended their operations to include all kinds of merchandise, were driving such a roaring trade that the commerce and shipping of New Orleans was seriously diminished (for why go to New Orleans for their supplies, the sea-captains and the plantation-owners argued, when they could get what they wanted at Barataria for a fraction of the price), the business of the banks decreased alarmingly under the continual lessening of their deposits, while even the national government began to feel its loss of revenue. The waters of Barataria, on the contrary, were alive with the sails of incoming and out going vessels; the wharfs which had been constructed at Grande Terre resounded to the creak of winches and the shouts of stevedores unloading contraband cargoes, and the long, low warehouses were filled with merchandise and the log stockades with slaves waiting to be sold and transported to the up-country plantations. So defiant of the law did Lafitte become that the streets of New Orleans were placarded with handbills announcing the auction sales at Barataria of captured cargoes, and to them flocked bargain-hunters from all that part of the South. An idea of the business done by the buccaneers at this time may be gained from an official statement that four hundred slaves were sold by auction in the Grande Terre market in a single day.

Of course the authorities took action in the matter, but their efforts to enforce the law proved both dangerous and ineffective. In October, 1811, a customs inspector succeeded in surprising a band of Baratarians and seizing some merchandise they had with them, but before he could convey the prisoners and the captured contraband to New Orleans Lafitte and a party of his men overtook him, rescued the prisoners, recovered the property, and in the fight which ensued wounded several of the posse. Some months later Lafitte killed an inspector named Stout, who attempted to interfere with him, and wounded two of his deputies.

Then Governor Claiborne issued a proclamation offering a reward for the capture of Lafitte dead or alive, at the same time appealing to the legislature for permission to raise an armed force to break up the buccaneering business for good and all. The cautious legislators declined to take any action, however, because they were unwilling to interfere with an enterprise that, however illegal it might be, was unquestionably developing the resources of lower Louisiana, and incidentally adding immensely to the fortunes of their constituents. As for the Baratarians, they paid as scant attention to the governor’s proclamation as though it had never been written. Surrounded by groups of admiring friends, Lafitte and his lieutenants continued to swagger through the streets of New Orleans; his men openly boasted of their exploits in every barroom of the city, and in places of public resort announcements of auctions at Barataria continued to be displayed.

Now, it should be understood that the feebleness which characterized all the attempts of the federal government to break the power of the buccaneers was not due to any reluctance to prosecute them, but to the fact that it already had its attention taken up with far more pressing matters, for we were then in the midst of our second war with Great Britain. The long series of injuries which England had inflicted on the United States, such as the plundering and confiscation of our ships, the impressment into the British navy of our sea men, and the interruption of our commerce with other nations, had culminated on June 18, 1812, by Congress declaring war. So unexpected was this action that it found the country totally unprepared. Our military establishment was barely large enough to provide garrisons for the most exposed points on our far-flung borders; the numerous ports on our seaboard were left unprotected and unfortified; and our navy consisted of but a handful of warships. The history of the first two years of the struggle, which was marked by brilliant American victories at sea, but by a disastrous attempt to invade Canada, has, however, no place in this narrative.

Early in the summer of 1814, the British Government, exasperated by its failure to inflict any vital damage in the Northern States, determined to bring the war to a quick conclusion by the invasion and conquest of Louisiana. The preparations made for this expedition were in themselves startling. Indeed, few Americans have even a faint conception of the strength of the blow which England prepared to deal us, for with Napoleon’s abdication and exile to Elba, and the ending of the war with France, she was enabled to bring her whole military and naval power against us. The British armada consisted of fifty war-ships, mounting more than a thousand guns. It was commanded by Vice-Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane, under whom was Sir Thomas Hardy, the friend of Nelson, Rear-Admiral Malcolm, and Rear-Admiral Codrington, and was manned by the same sailors who had fought so valorously at the Nile and at Trafalgar.

This great fleet acted as convoy for an almost equal number of transports, having on board eight thousand soldiers, which were the very flower of the British army, nearly all of them being veterans of the Napoleonic wars. Such importance did the British Government attach to the success of this expedition that it seriously considered giving the command of it to no less a personage than the Duke of Wellington. So certain were the British that the venture would be successful that they brought with them a complete set of civil officials to conduct the government of this new country which was about to be annexed to his Majesty’s dominions, judges, customs inspectors, revenue-collectors, court-criers, printers, and clerks, together with printing-presses and office paraphernalia, being embarked on board the transports. A large number of ladies, wives and relatives of the officers, also accompanied the expedition, to take part in the festivities which were planned to celebrate the capture of New Orleans. And, as though to cap this exhibition of audacity, a number of ships were chartered by British speculators to bring home the booty, the value of which was estimated beforehand at fourteen millions of dollars. Whether the British Government expected to be able to permanently hold Louisiana is extremely doubtful, for it must have been fully aware that the Western States were capable of pouring down a hundred thousand men, if necessary, to repel an invasion. It is probable, therefore, that they counted only on a temporary occupation, which they expected to prolong sufficiently, however, to give them time to pillage and lay waste the country, a course which they felt confident would quickly bring the government at Washington to terms.

This formidable armada set sail from England early in the summer of 1814 and, reaching the Gulf of Mexico, established its base of operations, regardless of all the laws of neutrality, at the Spanish port of Pensacola.
One morning in the following September a British brig hove to off Grande Terre, and called attention to her presence by firing a cannon. Lafitte, darting through the pass in his four-oared barge to reconnoitre, met the ship’s gig with three scarlet-coated officers in the stern, who introduced themselves as bearers of important despatches for Mr. Lafitte. The pirate chief, introducing himself in turn, invited his unexpected guests ashore, and led the way to his quarters with that extraordinary charm of manner for which he was noted even among the punctilious Creoles of New Orleans.

After a dinner of Southern delicacies, which elicited exclamations even from the blasé British officers, Lafitte opened the despatches. They were addressed to Jean Lafitte, Esquire, commandant at Barataria, from the commander-in-chief of the British forces at Pensacola, and bluntly offered him thirty thousand dollars, payable in Pensacola or New Orleans, a commission as captain in the British navy, and the enlistment of his men in the naval or military forces of Great Britain if he would assist the British in their impending invasion of Louisiana. Though it was a generous offer, no one knew better than the British commander that Lafitte’s cooperation was well worth the price, for, familiar with the network of streams and navigable swamps lying between Barataria Bay and New Orleans, he was capable of guiding a British expedition through these secret waterways to the very gates of the city before the Americans would have a hint of its approach. It is not too much to assert that at this juncture the future of New Orleans, and indeed of the whole Mississippi Valley, hung upon the decision of Jean Lafitte, a pirate and fugitive from justice with a price upon his head.

Whether Lafitte seriously considered accepting the offer there is, of course, no way of knowing. That it must have sorely tempted him it seems but reasonable to suppose, for he was not an American, either by birth or naturalization, and the prospect of exchanging his hazardous outlaw’s life, with a vision of the gallows ever looming before him, for a captain’s commission in the royal navy, with all that that implied, could hardly have failed to appeal to him strongly. That he promptly decided to reject the offer speaks volumes for the man’s strength of character and for his faith in American institutions. Appreciating that at such a crisis every hour gained was of value to the Americans, he asked time to consider the proposal, requesting the British officers to await him while he consulted an old friend and associate whose vessel, he said, was then lying in the bay.

Scarcely was he out of sight, however, before a band of buccaneers, acting, of course, under his orders, seized the officers and hustled them into the interior of the island, where they were politely but forcibly detained. Here they were found some days later by Lafitte, who pretended to be highly indignant at such unwarrantable treatment of his guests. Releasing them with profuse apologies, he saw them safely aboard their brig, and assured them that he would shortly communicate his decision to the British commander. But that officer’s letter was already in the hands of a friend of Lafitte’s in New Orleans, who was a member of the legislature, and accompanying it was a communication from the pirate chief himself, couched in those altruistic and patriotic phrases for which the rascal was famous. In it he asserted that, though he admitted being guilty of having evaded the payment of certain customs duties,
he had never lost his loyalty and affection for the United States, and that, notwithstanding the fact that there was a price on his head, he would never miss an opportunity of serving his adopted country. A few days later Lafitte forwarded through the same channels much valuable information which his agents had gathered as to the strength, resources, and plans of the British expedition, enclosing with it a letter addressed to Governor Claiborne in which he offered the services of himself and his men in defense of the State and city on condition that they were granted a pardon for past offenses.

Receiving no reply to this communication Lafitte sailed up the river to New Orleans in his lugger and made his way to the residence of the governor. Governor Claiborne was seated at his desk, immersed in the business of his office, when the door was softly opened, and Lafitte, stepping inside, closed it behind him. Clad in the full-skirted, bottle-green coat, the skin-tight breeches of white leather, and the polished Hessian boots which he affected, he presented a most graceful and gallant figure. As he entered he drew two pistols from his pockets, cocked them, and covered the startled governor, after which ominous preliminaries he bowed with the grace for which he was noted.

“Sir,” he remarked pleasantly, “you may possibly have heard of me. My name is Jean Lafitte.”

“What the devil do you mean, sir,” exploded the governor, “by showing yourself here? Don’t you know that I shall call the sentry and have you arrested?”

“Pardon me, your Excellency,” interrupted Lafitte, moving his weapons significantly, “but you will do nothing of the sort. If you move your hand any nearer that bell I shall be compelled to shoot you through the shoulder, a necessity, believe me, which I should deeply regret. I have called on you because I have something important to say to you, and I intend that you shall hear it. To begin with, you have seen fit to put a price upon my head?”

“Upon the head of a pirate, yes,” thundered the governor, now almost apoplectic with rage.

“In spite of that fact,” continued Lafitte, “I have rejected a most flattering offer from the British Government, and have come here, at some small peril to my self, to renew in person the offer of my services in repelling the coming invasion. I have at my command a body of brave, well-armed, and highly disciplined men who have been trained to fight. Does the State care to accept their services or does it not?”

The governor, folding his arms, looked long at Lafitte before he answered. Then he held out his hand. “It is a generous offer that you make, sir. I accept it with pleasure.”

“At daybreak tomorrow, then,” said Lafitte, replacing his pistols, “my men will be awaiting your Excellency’s orders across the river.” Then, with another sweeping bow, he left the room as silently as he had entered it.

Governor Claiborne immediately communicated Lafitte’s offer to General Andrew Jackson, then at Mobile, who had been designated by the War Department to conduct the defense of Louisiana. Jackson, who had already issued a proclamation denouncing the British for their overtures to “robbers, pirates, and bandits,” as he termed the Baratarians, promptly replied that the only thing he would have to do with Lafitte was to hang him. Nevertheless, when the general arrived in New Orleans a few days later, Lafitte called at his head quarters and requested an interview. By this time Jackson was conscious of the feebleness of the resources at his disposal for the defense of the city and of the strength of the armament directed against it, which accounts, perhaps, for his consenting to receive the “bandit.” Lafitte, looking the grim soldier squarely in the eye, repeated his offer, and so impressed was Jackson with the pirate’s cool and fearless bearing that he accepted his services.

On the 10th of December, 1814, ten days after Jackson’s arrival in New Orleans, the British armada reached the mouth of the Mississippi. Small wonder that the news almost created a panic in the city, for the very names of the ships and regiments composing the expedition had become famous through their exploits in the Napoleonic wars. It was a nondescript and motley force which Jackson had hastily gathered to repel this imposing army of invasion. Every man capable of bearing arms in New Orleans and its vicinity — planters, merchants, bankers, lawyers — had volunteered for service. To the local company of colored freedmen was added another one composed of negro refugees from Santo Domingo, men who had sided with the whites in the revolution there and had had to leave the island in consequence. Even the prisoners in the calaboose had been released and provided with arms.

From the parishes round about came Creole volunteers by the hundred, clad in all manner of clothing and bearing all kinds of weapons. From Mississippi came a troop of cavalry under Hinds, which was followed a few hours later by Coffee’s famous brigade of “Dirty Shirts,” composed of frontiersmen from the forests of Kentucky and Tennessee, who after a journey of eight hundred miles through the wilderness answered Jackson’s message to hurry by covering the one hundred and fifty miles between Baton Rouge and New Orleans in two days. Added to these were a thousand raw militiamen, who had been brought down on barges and flat-boats from the towns along the upper river, four companies of regulars, Beale’s brigade of riflemen, a hundred Choctaw Indians in war-paint and feathers, and last, but in many respects the most efficient of all, the corps of buccaneers from Barataria, under the command of the Lafittes. The men, dragging with them cannon taken from their vessels, were divided into two companies, one under Captain Beluche (who rose in after years to be admiral-in-chief of Venezuela) and the other under a veteran privateersman named Dominique You. These men were fighters by profession, hardy, seasoned, and cool-headed, and as they swung through the streets of New Orleans to take up the position which Jackson had assigned them, even that taciturn old soldier gave a grunt of approbation.

Jackson had chosen as his line of defence an artificial waterway known as the Rodriguez Canal, which lay some five miles to the east of the city, and along its embankments, which in themselves formed pretty good fortifications, he distributed his men. On the night of December 23 a force of two thousand British succeeded, by means of boats, in making their way, through the chain of bayous which surrounds the city, to within a mile or two of Jackson’s lines, where they camped for the night. Being informed of their approach (for the British, remember, had the whole countryside against them), Jackson, knowing the demoralizing effect of a night attack, directed Coffee and his Tennesseans to throw themselves upon the British right, while at the same moment Beale’s Kentuckians attacked on the left. Trained in all the wiles of Indian warfare, the frontiers men succeeded in reaching the outskirts of the British camp before they were challenged by the sentries. Their reply was a volley at close quarters and a charge with the tomahawk — for they had no bayonets — which drove the British force back in something closely akin to a rout.

Meanwhile Jackson had set his other troops at work strengthening their line of fortifications, so that when the sun rose on the morning of the day before Christmas it found them strongly intrenched behind earthworks helped out with timber, sand bags, fence-rails, and cotton bales — whence arose the myth that the Americans fought behind bales of cotton. The British troops were far from being in Christmas spirits, for the truth had already begun to dawn upon them that men can fight as well in buckskin shirts as in scarlet tunics, and that these raw-boned wilderness hunters, with their powder-horns and abnormally long rifles, were likely to prove more formidable enemies than the imposing grenadiers of Napoleon’s Old Guard, whom they had been fighting in Spain and France. On that same day before Christmas, strangely enough, a treaty of peace was being signed by the envoys of the two nations in a little Belgian town, four thousand miles away.

On Christmas Day, however, the wonted confidence of the British soldiery was somewhat restored by the arrival of Sir Edward Pakenham, the new commander-in-chief, for even in that hard-fighting day there were few European soldiers who bore more brilliant reputations. A brother-in-law of the Duke of Wellington, he had fought side by side with him through the Peninsular War; he had headed the storming party at Badajoz; and at Salamanca had led the charge which won the day for England and a knighthood for himself. An earldom and the governorship of Louisiana, it was said, had been promised him as his reward for the American expedition.

Pakenham’s practised eye quickly appreciated the strength of the American position, which, after a council of war, it was decided to carry by storm. During the night of the 26th the storming columns, eight thousand strong, took up their positions within half a mile of the American lines. As the sun rose next morning over fields sparkling with frost, the bugles sounded the advance, and the British army, ablaze with color, and in as perfect alignment as though on parade, moved forward to the attack. As they came within range of the American guns, a group of plantation buildings which masked Jackson’s front were blown up, and the British were startled to find themselves confronted by a row of ship’s cannon, manned as guns are seldom manned on land. Around each gun was clustered a crew of lean, fierce-faced, red-shirted ruffians, caked with sweat and mud: they were Lafitte’s buccaneers, who had responded to Jackson’s orders by running in all the way from their station on the Bayou St. John that morning. Not until he could make out the brass buttons on the tunics of the advancing British did Lafitte give the command to fire. Then the artillery of the pirate-patriots flashed and thundered. Before that deadly fire the scarlet columns crumbled as plaster crumbles beneath a hammer, the men dropping, first by twos and threes, then by dozens and scores. In five minutes the attacking columns, composed of regiments which were the boast of the British army, had been compelled to sullenly retreat.

The British commander, appreciating that the repulse of his forces was largely due to the fire of the Baratarian artillery, gave orders that guns be brought from the fleet and mounted in a position where they could silence the fire of the buccaneers. Three days were consumed in the herculean task of moving the heavy pieces of ordnance into position, but when the sun rose on New Year’s morning it showed a skillfully constructed line of intrenchments, running’ parallel to the American front and armed with thirty heavy guns. While the British were thus occupied, the Americans had not been idle, for Jackson had likewise busied himself in constructing additional batteries, while Commodore Patterson, the American naval commander, had gone through the sailors’ boarding-houses of New Orleans with a fine-tooth comb, impressing every nautical-looking character on which he could lay his hands, regardless of nationality, color, or excuses, to serve the guns.

With their storming columns sheltered behind the breastworks, awaiting the moment when they would burst through the breach which they confidently expected would shortly be made in the American defences, the British batteries opened fire with a crash which seemed to split the heavens. Throughout the artillery duel which ensued splendid service was rendered by the men under Lafitte, who trained their guns as carefully and served them as coolly as though they were back again on the decks of their privateers. The storming parties, which were waiting for a breach to be made, waited in vain, for within an hour and thirty minutes after the action opened the British batteries were silenced, their guns dismounted, and their parapets leveled with the plain. The veterans of Wellington and Nelson had been outfought from first to last by a band of buccaneers, reinforced by a few score American bluejackets and a handful of nondescript seamen.

Pakenham had one more plan for the capture of the city. This was a general assault by his entire army on the American lines. His plan of attack was simple, and would very probably have proved successful against troops less accustomed to frontier warfare than the Americans. Colonel Thornton, with fourteen hundred men, was directed to cross the river during the night of January 7, and, creeping up to the American lines under cover of the darkness, to carry them by assault. His attack was to be the signal for a column under General Gibbs to storm Jackson’s right, and for another, under General Keane, to throw itself against the American left, General Lambert, who had just arrived with two fresh regiments, being held in reserve. So carefully had the British commanders perfected their plans that the battle was already won — in theory.

No one knew better than Jackson that this was to be the deciding round of the contest, and he accordingly made his preparations to win it. He also had received a reinforcement, for the long-expected militia from Kentucky, two thousand two hundred strong, had just arrived, after a forced march of fifteen hundred miles, though in a half-naked and starving condition. Our history contains nothing finer, to my way of thinking, than the story of how these mountaineers of the Blue Ridge, footsore, ragged, and hungry, came pouring down from the north to repel the threatened invasion.
The Americans, who numbered, all told, barely four thousand men, were scattered along a front of nearly three miles, one end of the line extending so far into a swamp that the soldiers stood in water to their waists during the day, and at night slept on floating logs made fast to trees.

Long before daybreak on the morning of the 8th of January the divisions of Gibbs and Keane were in position, and waiting impatiently for the outburst of musketry which would be the signal that Thornton had begun his attack. Thornton had troubles of his own, however, for the swift current of the Mississippi, as though wishing to do its share in the nation’s defence, had carried his boats a mile and a half down-stream, so that it was day light before he was able to effect a landing, when a surprise was, of course, out of the question. But Pakenham, naturally obstinate and now made wholly reckless by the miscarriage of his plans, refused to recall his orders; so, as the gray mists of the early morning slowly lifted, his columns were seen advancing across the fields.

“Steady now, boys! Steady!” called Jackson, as he rode up and down behind his lines. “Don’t waste your ammunition, for we’ve none to spare. Pick your man, wait until he gets within range, and then let him have it! Let’s get this business over with today!” His orders were obeyed to the letter, for not a shot was fired until the scarlet columns were within certain range. Then the order “Commence firing” was repeated down the line. Neither hurriedly, nor excitedly, nor confusedly was it obeyed, but with the utmost calmness and deliberation, the frontiersmen, trained to use the rifle from boyhood, choosing their targets, and calculating their ranges as unconcernedly as though they were hunting in their native forests. Still the British columns pressed indomitably on, and still the lean and lantern-jawed Jackson rode up and down his lines, cheering, cautioning, exhorting, directing. Suddenly he reined up his horse at the Baratarian battery commanded by Dominique You.

“What’s this? What’s this?” he exclaimed. “You have stopped firing? What the devil does this mean, sir?”

“Of course we’ve stopped firing, general,” said the buccaneer, touching his forelock man-o’-war fashion. “The powder’s good for nothing. It might do to shoot blackbirds with, but not redcoats.”

Jackson beckoned to one of his aides-de-camp.

“Tell the ordnance officer that I will have him shot in five minutes as a traitor if Dominique complains again of his powder,” and he galloped off. When he passed that way a few minutes later the rattle of the musketry was being punctuated at half-minute intervals with the crash of the Baratarian guns.

“Ha, friend Dominique,” called Jackson, “I’m glad to see you’re at work again.”

“Pretty good work, too, general,” responded the buccaneer. “It looks to me as if the British have discovered that there has been a change of powder in this battery.”

He was right. Before the combined rifle and artillery fire of the Americans the British columns were melting like snow under a spring rain. Still their officers led them on, cheering, pleading, threatening, imploring. Pakenham’s arm was pierced by a bullet; at the same instant another killed his horse, but, mounting the pony of his aide-de-camp, he continued to encourage his disheartened and wavering men. Keane was borne bleeding from the field, and a moment later Gibbs, mortally wounded, was carried after him.

The panic which was just beginning to seize the British soldiery was completed at this critical instant by a shot from one of the Baratarians’ big guns which burst squarely in the middle of the advancing column, causing terrible destruction in the solid ranks. Pakenham’s horse fell dead, and the general reeled into the arms of an officer who sprang forward to catch him. Terribly wounded, he was carried to the shelter of a spreading oak, beneath which, five minutes later, he breathed his last. Then the ebb-tide began. The shattered regiments, demoralized by the death of their commander, and fearfully depleted by the American fire, broke and ran. Ten minutes later, save for the crawling, agonized wounded, not a living foe was to be seen. But the field, which had been green with grass half an hour before, was carpeted with scarlet now, and the carpet was made of British dead. Of the six thousand men who took part in the attack, it is estimated that two thousand six hundred were killed or wounded. Of the Ninety-third Regiment, which had gone into action nine hundred strong, only one hundred and thirty-nine men answered to the roll-call. The Americans had eight men killed and thirteen wounded. The battle had lasted exactly twenty-five minutes. At eight o’clock the American bugles sounded “Cease firing,” and Jackson — whom this victory was to make President of the United States — followed by his staff, rode slowly down the lines, stopping at each command to make a short address. As he passed, the regimental fifes and drums burst into “Hail, Columbia,” and the rows of weary, powder-grimed men, putting their caps on the ends of their long rifles, swung them in the air and cheered madly the victor of New Orleans.

There is little more to tell. On March 17 the British expedition, accompanied by the judges and customs-inspectors and revenue-collectors, and by the officers’ wives who had come out to take part in the festivities which were to mark the conquest, set sail from the mouth of the Mississippi, reaching Europe just in time to participate in the Waterloo campaign. In the general orders issued by Jackson after the battle the highest praise was given to the Lafittes and their followers from Barataria, while the official despatches to Washington strongly urged that some recognition be made of the extraordinary services rendered by the erstwhile pirates.

A few weeks later the President granted a full pardon to the inhabitants of Barataria, his message concluding: “Offenders who have refused to become the associates of the enemy in war upon the most seducing terms of invitation, and who have aided to repel his hostile invasion of the territory of the United States, can no longer be considered as objects of punishment, but as objects of generous forgiveness.” Taking advantage of this amnesty, the ex-pirates settled down to the peaceable lives of fishermen and market-gardeners, and their descendants dwell upon the shores of Barataria Bay to this day. As to the future movements of the brothers Lafitte, beyond the fact that they established themselves for a time at Galveston, whence they harassed Spanish commerce in the Gulf of Mexico, nothing definite is known. Leaving New Orleans soon after the battle, they sailed out of the Mississippi, and out of this story.

Raised in a home filled with books on Western civilization, P.G. Mantel became a lover of history at an early age. An amateur writer of verse, he makes himself useful as an editor for Men of the West.

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Previous Story

The Covered Bridges of Kentucky

Next Story

Lakota Noon: a Review

Latest from History