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Saving New Orleans

In a new book, "Patriot Fire," the author of "Forrest Gump" paints an uncommonly vivid picture of an overlooked chapter in American history -- and its unlikely hero.

Laffite's letter to the U.S. authorities amounted to a declaration of patriotism. Addressing himself to his powerful friend Jean Blanque, a member of the Louisiana legislature, Laffite revealed the entire British scheme: a huge fleet containing an entire army was at the moment gathering for an attack on the city.

If Laffite thought that the New Orleans authorities were now going to forgive him for smuggling, however, he was mistaken. Blanque delivered Laffite's communiqué to Louisiana governor William C.C. Claiborne, who convened the legislature's recently organized Committee of Public Safety. Most committee members insisted that the letters must be forgeries and that Laffite was a lowdown pirate simply trying to get his brother out of jail. But Gen. Jacques Villeré, head of the Louisiana militia, declared that the Baratarians had adopted the United States as their country and that they could be trusted. In any event, Cmdre. Daniel Patterson and Col. Robert Ross announced they were going ahead with their expedition to oust Laffite from Grand Terre.

Laffite, who had been anxiously on the lookout for the return of his messenger, was both surprised and delighted to see in the messenger's pirogue none other than his brother Pierre, who had magically "escaped" from jail. (The magic probably had something to do with bribery.) Laffite's spies in New Orleans also returned with the unpleasant news that Patterson's flotilla and army were assembling at New Orleans to put him out of business. This prompted Laffite to write another letter, this time to Claiborne himself, in which Laffite candidly admitted his sin of smuggling but offered his services and those of the Baratarians "in defense of the country," asking in return a pardon for himself, Pierre, and any other of his men who were indicted or about to be. "I am a stray sheep," he wrote, "wishing to come back into the fold."

When Andrew Jackson saw Laffite's offer to bring his Baratarians to the defense of New Orleans in exchange for a pardon, Jackson denounced the Baratarians as "hellish Banditti."

Laffite, for his part, was well aware that his time limit to join the British invasion had expired and that several of His Majesty's warships now lay off Barataria Bay. Now the Americans, too, were organizing a force against him. Accordingly, he ordered most of the Baratarians to sail from Grand Terre with whatever of value they could carry, including munitions. He put his brother Alexandre, a.k.a. Dominique You, in charge of the island with about 500 men, instructing him to fight the British if they attacked and, if that proved unsuccessful, to burn all the warehouses and ships at anchor. Laffite then fled with Pierre, who had become ill, to a friend's plantation northwest of the city.

The American attack on Barataria came the next day, September 16, 1814. Jean's instructions to his men had been to not resist the Americans. As the ships, headed by the schooner-of-war Carolina, neared, word rang out that they were American. The Baratarians began to scramble for any means of escape—pirogues, rowboats, gigs—and headed into the trackless marshes.

"I perceived the pirates were abandoning their vessels and were flying in all directions," said Patterson. "I sent in pursuit of them." Most got away, but about 80, including Dominique, were captured and thrown into a lice-infested New Orleans jail known as the calaboose. The Americans burned the Baratarians' buildings—40 in all—and sent the captured goods up to New Orleans to be cataloged and filed for themselves as claims in the prize court. It was quite a haul for Patterson and Ross—estimated at more than $600,000 at the time—and that was the end of Barataria, though not of the Baratarians.

On November 22, Jackson finally responded to calls from New Orleans by saddling up with his staff and journeying overland from Mobile, personally scouting possible landing sites for a British invasion. By that time the general had become wracked with dysentery. When he arrived in New Orleans nine days later, gaunt and pallid, he could barely stand, but he was cheered by grateful crowds.

To some his appearance might not have inspired confidence: his clothes and boots were filthy from more than a week on the trail, his face was prematurely wrinkled for his 47 years, and his great head of hair had gone gray. But later that day, when he appeared on the balcony of his headquarters on Royal Street, there was something in his voice and his icy blue eyes that convinced most in the crowd that the city's salvation had arrived. Jackson "declared that he had come to protect the city, that he would drive the British into the sea, or perish in the effort."

Soon, events began to overtake New Orleans. On December 12, the British invasion force arrived offshore. Laffite, for his part, was still persona non grata in the city and, with an arrest warrant hanging over him, remained in hiding.

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