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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, who was returning from an inspection of his stores of powder and flints deep in the swamp, got to the grisly field just as the battle ended, but he did not know who had won. "I was almost out of breath, running through the bushes and mud. My hands were bruised, my clothing torn, my feet soaked. I could not believe the result of the battle," he said.

On the morning of January 21, the victorious troops marched in formation the six miles from the battlefield to New Orleans. Two days later, Jackson's army was drawn up on three sides of the city’s parade ground. The Tennesseans and Kentuckians were there, too, as were Laffite's red-shirted Baratarian buccaneers. Bands played, church bells pealed and a celebratory cannonade roared from the banks of the levee.

Laffite felt a particular gratitude "at seeing my two elder brothers and some of my officers lined up in the parade...whom the public admired and praised with elegies and honor for their valor as expert cannoneers."

On February 6, President Madison sent out a proclamation pardoning Laffite and all the other Baratarians who had fought with the Army. Laffite assumed this also freed him to recover the property that had been confiscated by Commodore Patterson and Colonel Ross following their September raid on Grand Terre. Patterson and Ross disagreed; they had the property now and were backed up by the Army and the Navy. Laffite's lawyers filed suit, but Ross and Patterson began to auction off the property anyway, including 15 armed privateering ships. Laffite persuaded his old partners—who remained among the wealthiest and most influential citizens of New Orleans—to surreptitiously repurchase them for him, which they did. Laffite resumed preying on Spanish shipping under letters of marque from Cartagena.

In 1816, with some 500 of his men, he relocated to Galveston, 300 miles to the west. The Galveston enterprise quickly became profitable, and by 1818, Laffite had made arrangements to sell his captured goods to various merchants in the interior, as far away as St. Louis, Missouri. It wasn't long before the authorities in Washington got wind of his doings; President James Monroe sent a message to the effect that Laffite and his crews must depart Galveston or face eviction by U.S. troops.

Then, in late September 1818, a hurricane roared through Galveston Island, drowning a number of Laffite's men and wiping out most of the settlement's houses and buildings. Laffite set about rebuilding, managing to keep the authorities at bay for another two years. Finally, in 1821, he abandoned the Galveston redoubt and for all intents disappeared.

What became of him after Galveston has been the subject of much contradictory speculation. He was reportedly killed in a sea battle, drowned in a hurricane, hanged by the Spanish, succumbed to disease in Mexico, and murdered by his own crew.

If you believe his own journal—scholars disagree about its authenticity—Laffite had departed Galveston for St. Louis. There, he found God, married a woman named Emma Mortimere, fathered a son and settled down to the life of a landlubber.

According to the disputed memoir, at some point a chagrined Laffite, now turning portly, grew a beard and changed his name to John Lafflin. During his later years, he settled in Alton, Illinois, across the river from St. Louis, where he began writing a journal of his life. He lived there until his death in 1854 at the age of about 70.

He wrote in the memoir that he never got over the shabby treatment he felt he had received from the federal government and from the city he had risked his life and treasure to defend. And he mused bitterly over what might have happened if, instead of siding with the Americans, he had taken the British bribe. Answering his own hypothetical, he concluded that the Americans would have lost the battle, as well as Louisiana—and that there would have been no president of the United States named Andrew Jackson. The very name of Jackson, wrote Laffite, "would have tumbled into oblivion."

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