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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.

Just before 11 a.m. on December 14, the battle began on Lake Borgne, about 40 miles from the city. British sailors and marines quickly boarded American gunboats positioned there. The British suffered 17 killed and 77 wounded and captured five American gunboats with all their armaments and several boatloads of prisoners. Ten Americans had been killed and 35 wounded.

Jackson was once again faced with the question of what to do about Laffite and his Baratarians, many now scattered in hiding throughout the swamps. After a series of complex negotiations involving the Louisiana legislature and a federal judge, Laffite was escorted to Jackson's Royal Street headquarters. To his surprise, Jackson beheld not a desperado in pirate garb but a man with the manners and mien of a gentleman.

Nor did it hurt Laffite's case that Jackson, who already had commandeered many of Laffite's cannons, had found that New Orleans could offer very little in the way of ammunition and gunpowder. Laffite still had munitions in abundance, squirreled away in the swamps. Again he offered them to Jackson, as well as the services of his trained cannoneers and swamp guides. Jackson concluded that Laffite and his men might well prove useful to the cause.

The Baratarians, accordingly, were organized into two artillery detachments, one under Dominique You and the other under the Laffites' cousin, Renato Beluche. Laffite himself was given an unofficial post as aide-de-camp to Jackson, who instructed him to supervise the defenses leading into the city from Barataria Bay.

On December 23, Jackson was shocked to learn that a British force had massed at a sugar plantation south of New Orleans. In a bold move, American soldiers attacked the British at night, slaughtering them with musket fire, tomahawks and knives. Their assault left the field strewn with British casualties—and slowed their advance.

Jackson moved his forces back a mile and began his defenses. All Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, Jackson's men labored to build and strengthen his soon-to-be-famous parapet. While walking the lines of the main fortification with his friend Edward Livingston, a prominent Louisiana lawyer, Laffite saw something that might have caused a shiver of fear to flow over him. At the far left end of the line, where it entered the cypress swamp, the rampart abruptly ended. Everywhere else, Laffite told Livingston, the army could fight from behind a rampart, but here the British were afforded an opportunity to get behind the American position—which was precisely what the British intended to do. Jackson immediately agreed with this assessment and ordered the rampart extended and manned so far back into the swamp that no one could get around it. Laffite's advice might well have been the best Jackson received during the entire battle.

The fortification took an incredible effort, and when it was at last finished two weeks later, it was more than half a mile long, behind which lay a berm seven or eight feet high, bristling with eight batteries of artillery placed at intervals. In front of it, the men had dug out a ten-foot-wide moat.

On the morning of December 27, when the sun had risen enough to present a field of fire, the British battery opened on the Carolina, positioned in the Mississippi downriver of Jackson, at point-blank range. The warship blew up in a fantastic roar of smoke and flame. Another American vessel, the Louisiana, was able to avoid a similar fate by having her sailors pull her upriver. They anchored her right across from Jackson's ditch, his first line of defense.

Jackson decided to meet the British attack head-on. This was no easy decision, considering that his people were outnumbered in both infantry and artillery. But Jackson trusted his two Tennessee commanders, John Coffee and William Carroll, and had faith in the courage and loyalty of their men, with whom he had fought the Creek War. Likewise, he had come to trust the Creole fighters of Louisiana under their French-speaking officers.

Lastly, Jackson, who now looked upon Laffite's Baratarians as a godsend, ordered Dominique You and his cutthroat artillerists to come at once to the barricade. The Baratarians responded resolutely, with squat Dominique You, smiling his perpetual grin and smoking a cigar, leading the way. They arrived ready for a fight about dawn on December 28.

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