Saving New Orleans

In a new book, the author of “Forrest Gump” paints an uncommonly vivid picture of an overlooked chapter in American history and its unlikely hero

Scourges of the sea: Dashing Jean Laffite (left) and his swashbuckling brother Alexandre, although a study in contrasts, were equally intrepid. Historic New Orleans Collection

By Autumn 1814, the United States of America, barely 30 years old, was on the verge of dissolving. The treasury was empty, most public buildings in Washington, including the Capitol, the White House (then known as the President's House) and the Library of Congress, had been burned by a victorious and vengeful British Army, in one of the most dramatic incursions of the War of 1812. Festering tensions—arising out of Britain's interference with neutral America's lucrative maritime commerce—had erupted into hostilities in June of 1812. American seaports from the Atlantic to the Gulf of Mexico were blockaded by the British Navy, and the economy was in ruins. The U.S. Army was stymied and stalemated; the Navy, such as it was, had fared little better.

Then, as leaves began to fall, a mighty British armada appeared off the Louisiana coast with the stated purpose of capturing New Orleans, America's gateway to the great Mississippi River Basin. The misfortune would have split the United States in two. New Orleans was as nearly defenseless as a city could be in those days, with only two understrength Regular Army regiments totaling about 1,100 soldiers and a handful of untrained militia to throw against nearly 20,000 veterans of the British Army and Navy, who were descending upon it as swiftly and surely as a hurricane.

Orders from the secretary of war went out to the legendary Indian fighter Gen. Andrew Jackson, then in nearby Mobile, Alabama. He should go immediately to New Orleans and take charge.

Central to the British design for the capture of Louisiana, which had been admitted to the Union in 1812, was an extraordinary scheme devised by Col. Edward Nicholls to enlist the services of the "pirates of Barataria"—so named for the waters surrounding their barrier island redoubt—who were for the most part not pirates at all but privateers, operating under letters of marque from foreign countries. Under the agreed concessions of maritime law, these official letters, or commissions, allowed privateers to prey on the merchant shipping of any nation at war with the issuing country without—in the event they were captured—being subject to hanging as pirates.

In the Gulf of Mexico, a large gathering of these ruthless men had set up operations on Grand Terre Island, Louisiana, which lies about 40 miles south of New Orleans as the crow flies. The leader of this band was a tall, handsome, magnetic Frenchman named Jean Laffite, who, using his blacksmith shop in New Orleans as a front, came to run a phenomenal smuggling business for the grateful citizens of New Orleans, rich and poor alike, who had been harmed for years by an American embargo on international trade—a measure intended to deprive Europe of raw materials—and by a British blockade designed to stifle American commerce.

It was to the Baratarians that Colonel Nicholls dispatched his emissaries from HMS Sophie to see if they could be enlisted into the British effort against New Orleans. On the morning of September 3, 1814, the Sophie dropped anchor off Grand Terre. Through spyglasses the British observed hundreds of sleepy-eyed, ill-dressed men gathering on a sandy beach. Presently a small boat was launched from the beach, rowed by four men with a fifth man in the bow. From the Sophie, a longboat was likewise launched, carrying its captain, Nicholas Lockyer, and a Captain McWilliams of the Royal Marines. The boats met in the channel, and Lockyer, in his best schoolboy French, asked to be taken to Monsieur Laffite; the response from the man at the prow of the small boat was that Laffite could be found ashore. Once on the beach, the two British officers were led through the suspicious crowd by the man in the bow, along a shaded path, and up the steps of a substantial home with a large wraparound gallery. At that point he genially informed them, "Messieurs, I am Laffite."

Jean Laffite remains among the most enigmatic figures in the American historical experience, right up there with Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, Kit Carson, Wyatt Earp and Wild Bill Hickok. The youngest of eight children, Laffite was born in Port-au-Prince in the French colony of San Domingo (now Haiti) around 1782. His father had been a skilled leatherworker in Spain, France and Morocco before he opened a prosperous leather shop on the island. Jean's mother died "before I could remember her," he said, and he was raised by his maternal grandmother.

His older brothers, Pierre and Alexandre, would figure prominently in his life. After a rigorous education beginning at age 6, Jean and Pierre, two and a half years his elder, were sent away for advanced schooling on the neighboring islands of St. Croix and Martinique and then to a military academy on St. Kitts.

Alexandre—11 years Jean's senior—returned occasionally from his adventures as a privateer attacking Spanish ships in the Caribbean and regaled his younger brothers with stories of his exploits. They were so captivated by his tales that nothing would do but for them to follow him to sea.

When Jean and Pierre arrived in Louisiana from Haiti in 1807, they came as privateersmen—a barely respectable and an unquestionably dangerous business. Laffite, then in his mid-20s, was described as dark-haired, about six feet tall, with "dark piercing eyes," a furious vertical crease in his brow and a comportment something like a powerful cat. He was also said to be intelligent, convivial and a gambling and drinking man.

Joseph Sauvinet, a Frenchman who had become one of the principal businessmen of New Orleans, quickly recognized the value of a resourceful man such as Laffite. Sauvinet set up Jean and his brothers in the smuggling business, with instructions on how to avoid U.S. Customs by offloading their goods downriver below a bend called English Turn, from where the cargo could be transported to Sauvinet's warehouses for resale in New Orleans.

Laffite and his men chose as their base of operations the remote Barataria Bay. It must have seemed a paradise, a place of breathtaking natural beauty and serenity. In addition, Grand Terre was elevated enough to provide protection from all but the worst hurricanes.

Under Jean's stewardship, the privateers captured more than 100 vessels and their cargoes, the most valuable of which were slaves taken in the waters around Havana, which had become the center of the slave trade in the Western Hemisphere.

With the exception of Laffite, who still attired himself as a gentleman, the rest of the Baratarians—there would be probably more than 1,000 of them—dressed like swashbuckling pirates: red-and-black striped blouses, pantaloons, tall boots, and colorful bandannas tied around their heads. Many wore gold earrings, and all carried cutlasses, knives and pistols.

As business grew, the Baratarians became increasingly outrageous. They posted fliers in broad daylight on buildings throughout New Orleans, announcing their booty auctions, held in the swamp halfway between Grand Terre and New Orleans. These were attended by the city's most prominent men, who bought up everything from slaves to pig iron, as well as dresses and jewelry for their wives.

Meanwhile, Laffite began to squirrel away large stores of arms, gunpowder, flints and cannonballs at secret locations. These munitions would prove critically important when the Battle of New Orleans broke out.

The British delegation that came to enlist Laffite in the attack on New Orleans handed over a packet of documents signed by Capt. W. H. Percy, the British senior naval commander in the Gulf of Mexico. Percy threatened to send a fleet to destroy the Baratarians and their stronghold because of their privateering activities against Spanish and British shipping. But if the Baratarians would join with the British, he said they would receive "lands within His Majesty's colonies in America" and the opportunity to become British subjects with a full pardon for any previous crimes.

A personal note from Colonel Nicholls to Laffite also requested the use of all the boats and ships of the Baratarians and the enlistment of Baratarian gunners and fighters in the invasion of Louisiana. The privateers' assistance, Nicholls informed Laffite, was crucial. Once New Orleans was secured, the British planned to move the army upriver and "act in concert" with British forces in Canada, as Laffite later recalled, "to shove the Americans into the Atlantic Ocean." The British officers indicated that His Majesty's forces also intended to set free all the slaves they could find and enlist their help in subduing the Americans.

The two Englishmen next offered Laffite their pièce de résistance: a bribe of 30,000 British pounds (more than $2 million today) if he would convince his followers to join with the British. Playing for time against the threatened British assault on his stronghold, Laffite told the two envoys he needed two weeks to compose his men and put his personal affairs in order. After that, Laffite promised the Englishmen, he and his men would be "entirely at your disposal."

As he watched the British sail away, Laffite must have considered taking the bribe. He must have also considered the British promise to free his brother Pierre, who had been charged with piracy and was locked in a New Orleans jail facing the hangman's noose. On the other hand, Jean, though a Frenchman by birth, apparently considered himself something of a patriot where America was concerned. After all, the country had been good to him. He had amassed a fortune (though in blatant contravention of its laws) by smuggling on its shores. He promptly sat down with pen and paper and proceeded to double-cross his newfound British friends.

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.

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.

When the British army came into view, it must have been both a magnificent and a disturbing sight. With drummer boys beating out an unnerving cadence, there soon appeared thousands of redcoats in two columns, 80 men abreast. They pressed forward until midafternoon, with American rifle fire—especially from the Tennesseans' long rifles—and the artillery taking their toll. Finally, the British commander, Gen. Sir Edward Pakenham, had seen enough; he called off the assault and took his army out of range of the American guns.

Much of the effective American artillery fire probably was the work of Laffite's Baratarian gunners. Laffite himself, some accounts say, had supervised the installation of two of the largest and most powerful guns in the line, the 24-pounders, which Jackson had ordered dragged down from New Orleans a day or so earlier. If so, Laffite had thus deliberately placed himself in a perilous position; had he been captured by the British, he would surely have been hanged for his double cross, if not on piracy charges. One gun was commanded by Dominique You and the other by Renato Beluche.

Then came New Year's Day, 1815. At 10 a.m., the British artillery began blasting away. Singled out for particular attention was the Macarty plantation house, Jackson's headquarters, wrecked by more than 100 cannonballs during the first ten minutes. Miraculously, neither Jackson nor any of his staff was injured. Covered with plaster dust, they rushed out to form up the army for battle.

According to the German merchant Vincent Nolte, the main British battery, situated near a road that ran through the center of sugar cane fields, "directed its fire against the battery of the pirates Dominique You and Beluche." Once, as Dominique was examining the enemy through a spyglass, "a cannon shot wounded his arm; he caused it to be bound up, saying, 'I will pay them for that!'...He then gave the order to fire a 24-pounder, and the ball knocked an English gun carriage to pieces and killed six or seven men." Not long afterward, a British shot hit one of Dominique's guns and knocked it off its carriage. While it was being repaired, someone asked about his wound. "Only some scratch, by gar," he growled, as he ordered his other cannon loaded with chain shot that "crippled the largest British gun and killed or wounded six men."

By noon, two-thirds of the British guns had been put out of action. General Pakenham had just learned that a 2,000-man brigade of British reinforcements had arrived in the Mississippi Sound. It would take a few days to transfer them to his army; after that, Pakenham determined to go all out at the Americans, now a force of about 5,000. For the British, the matter of supplies was becoming desperate. Their army of 8,000 to 10,000 men had been on the Mississippi for nine days and had devoured their provisions, in addition to ransacking the surrounding plantations for food.

With New Orleans just a few miles in the rear, Jackson had no such problem, and Laffite's supply of munitions seemed endless. Still, Jackson was fearful. He was outnumbered; his position on the Rodriguez Canal was just about the only thing standing between the British and New Orleans. On January 7, he spent most of the afternoon in the heavily damaged Macarty house, observing the British encampment. "They will attack at daybreak," he predicted.

On Sunday morning, January 8, the final battle began. Despite heavy fire from the Americans, the British came on relentlessly. Then, on Jackson's left, the British 95th Regiment waded across the ditch in front of Jackson's line and, since no fascines or scaling ladders had yet arrived, began desperately trying to carve steps into the rampart with their bayonets. Meanwhile, against orders, the leading companies of the British 44th stopped and began to shoot at the Americans, but when they were answered by a ruinous volley from Carroll's Tennesseans and Gen. John Adair's Kentuckians, they ran away, setting into motion a chain of events that would soon shudder through the entire British Army. "In less time than one can write it," the British quartermaster E. N. Borroughs would recall, "the 44th Foot was swept from the face of the earth. Within five minutes the regiment seemed to vanish from sight."

At one point Jackson ordered his artillery batteries to cease firing and let the clouds of smoke blow away, in order to fix the British troops clearly for more of the same. In Battery No. 3, he observed Capt. Dominique You standing to his guns, his broad Gallic face beaming like a harvest moon, his eyes burning and swelling from the powder smoke. Jackson declared, "If I were ordered to storm the gates of hell, with Captain Dominique as my lieutenant, I would have no misgivings of the result."

In only 25 minutes, the British Army had lost all three of its active field generals, seven colonels and 75 other officers—that is, practically its whole officer corps. General Pakenham was dead, cut down by American rifle fire. By now the entire British Army was in irredeemable disarray. A soldier from Kentucky wrote, "When the smoke had cleared and we could obtain a fair view of the field, it looked at first glance like a sea of blood. It was not blood itself, but the red coats in which the British soldiers were dressed. The field was entirely covered in prostrate bodies."

Even Jackson was flabbergasted by the sight. "I never had so grand and awful an idea of the resurrection as on that day," he later wrote, as scores of redcoats rose up like dim purgatorial souls with their hands in the air and began walking toward the American lines. "After the smoke of the battle had cleared off somewhat, I saw in the distance more than five hundred Britons emerging from the heaps of their dead comrades, all over the plain, rising up, and...coming forward and surrendering as prisoners of war to our soldiers." These men, Jackson concluded, had fallen at the first fire and then hidden themselves behind the bodies of their slain brethren. By midmorning, most of the firing had ceased.

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."

From Patriot Fire by Winston Groom. Copyright 2006 by Winston Groom, published by Knopf.

Winston Groom is the author of numerous histories, including 1942: The Year That Tried Men's Souls, Shrouds of Glory and A Storm in Flanders, as well as the novel Forrest Gump.

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