Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Battle of New Orleans

When Pirates – And Andrew Jackson – Saved a City

On this date, January 8, 1815, the final battle of the War of 1812 was fought at the city of New Orleans, a backwater, disease-ridden den of iniquity that had only been the property of the United States for a handful of years. New Orleans had been run by the French, then the Spanish, French again, and then became part of an American territory, thanks to President Thomas Jefferson. It was a city born in sin – most of the initial settlers had been convicts and prostitutes flushed from the Paris jails and sent to the steamy, mosquito-ridden swamps of Louisiana – and it maintained that reputation with bordellos, saloons and a reputation as the wickedest city in the New World. It became a haven for lawbreakers, outlaws, gamblers, whores and even pirates – one of whom would be instrumental in saving the city from a British invasion.

Little did the defenders of New Orleans know, but the war had actually been over for almost two weeks when they fought an all-out battle to save the city from destruction!

Jackson Square in New Orleans’ French Quarter is named in honor of General Jackson, who successfully saved the city from the British. He is depicted on a horse in the center of the square. 

When the War of 1812 broke out against the British, from whom our country had just one its freedom a few years before, it looked as though this was one we just might lose. American was outmanned, outgunned and had rallied Native American forces against settlers in the western regions, resulting in bloody massacres. Our struggling Navy was nearly broken by superior British commanders, fresh from battles with French forces, and even the White House in Washington was burned. American commanders began to fear for the safety of New Orleans, which had become a major port for the country.

New Orleans, at this time, was a melting pot city of different cultures, most of whom did not get along with one another. But if there was one thing that could bring together these opposing forces – the Catholic Creoles, Free People of Color and Protestant Americans – it was a threat from the British. The people of New Orleans, who still considered themselves mostly Spanish or French, were long used to being governed by enemies of Britain. As for the Americans, the bitterness from hard-won independence they had achieved from England still lingered in recent memory. The last thing they wanted was to fall under the thumb of the British once again. With this in mind, the Creoles and the Americans began to rally together. The coming battle would be a heroic event in the city’s history – as long as they managed to survive it.

The biggest problem that the city had, however, was that it was defenseless. Word reached New Orleans that the Capitol and the White House in Washington had been burned and that President James Madison was unable to raise an army because the United States Treasury was empty. If Washington could not be saved, then what would become of New Orleans?

General Andrew Jackson

The city was in chaos when General Andrew Jackson arrived. The crusty Indian fighter had come to New Orleans already in 1812 when the British first threatened the city. After arriving at the mouth of the Mississippi with his men from Tennessee, he was ordered to disband his army and return home. Disgusted at the lack of orders from his superiors, he left and went home, getting into fights with the Creek Indians along the way.

As the war dragged on, Jackson returned to help man the defenses of New Orleans again in December 1814. He arrived just before the holidays, only to be confined to his bed with dysentery and a high fever. From his sickbed, he still managed to organize the defense of the city. He imposed martial law on New Orleans and enlisted the aid of every breathing human being who could fire a gun. He accepted the assistance of regiments of Free Men of Color, Kentuckians who came downriver on flatboats, Choctaw Indians and, finally (after some bargaining), held from the pirate brigades under the command of Jean Lafitte and his brother, Pierre.

Of all of the pirates who sailed the Caribbean, preying on merchant and slave ships, there are none who have gained as much fame in New Orleans as Jean Lafitte. Operating from the bayous south of New Orleans, some say that he was only saved from the hangman’s noose because of his aid he offered to Jackson during the fighting at New Orleans.

Jean Lafitte, New Orleans’ most famous pirate

The Lafitte brothers had opened a blacksmith shop in New Orleans in 1809, which served as a front for their smuggling operation, which dealt in slaves and stolen goods. A year later, Jean Lafitte formed a loose band of pirates, privateers and smugglers based in Barataria Bay, located south of the city. Over the next few years, they raided ships in the Gulf of Mexico, concentrating mainly on Spanish galleons and slave traders. Even after slave trading was outlawed in Louisiana, plantation owners attended secret auctions in the bayous and there, merchants were also able to purchase low-cost, plundered goods from the pirates. 

Eventually, the secret meetings became too well known and the brothers Lafitte were charged with piracy and illegal trading. Released on bail, they escaped the city and continued their operations. A bounty of $500 was placed on Lafitte’s head in 1813 and he arrogantly responded by posting bills advertising a price of $5,000 for the head of the governor.

The disagreement over maritime conditions that led to the War of 1812 erupted and went badly for the Americans. Not only were the invasions of Canada repulsed, but the fledging American naval captains found themselves blockaded into their own ports by the superior British fleet. At New Orleans, the British wanted to continue the success they had found in Maryland and Washington by attacking New Orleans and disrupting transport on the Mississippi River. In September 1814, British officers offered Jean Lafitte a pardon and a rich reward if he and his pirates would help them attack New Orleans. Lafitte had no love for the British and quickly informed the American authorities of the impending attack.

Lafitte’s information did not garner him a reward from the Americans, though. Instead, Barataria Bay was invaded by American ships, which captured the pirate fleet as it lay at anchor. Lafitte and his men managed to hide out in the swamps until the Navy left and then they reclaimed their settlement.

When Andrew Jackson arrived in New Orleans a short time later, things changed for the pirates. Jackson, having never been accused of being conventional, realized that Lafitte and his men could play a crucial role in the defense of the city. Jackson quickly made a practical offer to Lafitte: help save the city and Jackson would see to it that Lafitte was offered a pardon for his crimes. Lafitte agreed and his men manned guns that had been taken from two warships during the fighting.

One month after the battle, Lafitte was given a full pardon by President Madison. Rather than remain in New Orleans, the new national hero went back to being a pirate. He and his men sailed for Texas, a lawless frontier region between America and Spanish Mexico. They established a port at Galveston and within a year, the area became a haven for criminals and smugglers. While Lafitte mostly preyed on Spanish ships from Mexico, he made the mistake of attacking several American ships in 1819. This led to an outcry and a naval expedition was dispatched against him.

In 1820, a naval force headed by the U.S.S. Enterprise bombarded and destroyed Galveston. Lafitte escaped capture but what became of him is unknown. Most believe that he died of yellow fever in Mexico in 1826.

Lafitte and his pirates played an important role in the Battle of New Orleans, but the “savior” of the city was General Andrew Jackson himself. On December 23, 1814, Jackson attacked the British troops who were camped along the banks of the Mississippi. The British forces were led by General Pakenham and although fresh from defeating Napoleon, they suffered a severe blow at the hands of ragtag troops made up of Kentuckian Long Rifles, ill-prepared militia men, Indians, Creoles, Free Men of Color and pirates. The fighting raged back and forth for several bitterly cold days between Christmas and New Year’s Day. The British continued to be reinforced with fresh troops until they greatly outnumbered the American forces in New Orleans. On New Year’s Day, the British attacked the city’s defenses, only to be driven back again.

The fighting stalled out for a week and then, on January 8, the final battle took place on the muddy and mist-covered grounds of Chalmette Plantation. The Americans huddled behind bales of straw and cotton and soon began to hear the ghostly sounds of bagpipes and drums coming from the fog. Soon, they were able to see the colors of the Duchess of York’s Light Dragoons and the tartans of the 93rd Highlanders. The British troops pressed toward the American forces, advancing in tight, efficient lines.

The final battle on January 8 ended with devastating losses for the British army. The American forces suffered only a handful of casualties and the ragtag army effectively destroyed the superior British forces. 

But the combat-hardened troops were no match for the desperate men of New Orleans. The militiamen, the hastily organized regiments and the pirates savagely blasted the British lines without mercy. By later that day, Jackson’s army had prevailed, with only 15 men dead and 40 wounded.

The British were not so lucky. The carnage on their side consisted of 858 dead and about 2,500 men wounded or missing. They had nowhere to turn for medical care and legend has it that they sought refuge with the Ursuline Sisters, who would turn no one away. The stories say that many enemy troops were hidden within their walls long after the fighting had ended.

Ironically, soon after the battle, news finally reached the city that the British had signed a peace treaty at Ghent on Christmas Eve --- two weeks before the Battle of New Orleans even took place. It was a fight that was never supposed to happen, but city had left an indelible mark on American history, made a hero for a pirate, and continued a career for a general who would go one to be one of America’s most revered presidents.

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