You are browsing the archive for 2015 January.

The Spy Who Led the British to the Back Door of New Orleans in 1814

January 11, 2015 in American History, general history, History, Louisiana History, Nautical History

Capt. Robert Cavendish Spencer

Capt. Robert Cavendish Spencer

Because he was multilingual and adept at spying, the 23-year-old Capt. Robert Cavendish Spencer, an ancestor of the current British royal family, was one of the most valuable assets the British forces had during their 1814-1815 campaign to take New Orleans during the War of 1812.

“Captain Spencer (of the HMS Carron)  was very usefully employed in the expedition against New Orleans. From his knowledge of the French and Spanish languages, he was selected by Sir Alexander Cochrane to obtain information respecting the state of Louisiana, and procure guides, pilots, and c. for the approaching expedition….”  according to a biographical entry about Spencer in a British book (The Annual Biography and Obituary) in 1832.

After a mission to Pensacola where he barely escaped being captured by (General Andrew) Jackson’s troops on Nov. 6, 1814,  and his participation in the British victory at the Battle of Lake Borgne on Dec. 14, 1814, “Captain Spencer was selected to reconnoitre Lac Borgne (sic), in company with Major (John) Peddie, for the purpose of discovering where a landing could be best effected. Having obtained considerable influence over the emigrated Spaniards and Frenchmen settled as fishermen, & c., he prevailed on one of them to take Major Peddie, himself, and coxswain in a canoe up the creek; and this party actually penetrated to the suburbs of New Orleans, and walked over the very ground afterwards taken up by General Jackson as the position for his formidable line of defense.”

Spencer was said to have bribed the fishermen to guide him and Peddie, and also received from them some clothing to disguise themselves. One thing Spencer could not disguise, though, was his bright red hair.

The two British spies walked around the Villere plantation all the way to the Mississippi River levee, whose waters mapmaker Peddie declared were “sweet and good.” Having discovered an eligible spot for the disembarkation, Spencer undertook, with Colonel Thornton, and about thirty of the 85th and 95th regiments (from the HMS Tonnant), to dislodge a strong picket of the enemy, a service which they performed most efficiently, without a shot being fired, or an alarm given.” (This included the near-capture of Gabriel Villere at his home near Villere Canal. Villere was ordered by Jackson to block the Villere Canal but had not fulfilled the order. He escaped from the British successfully, got a pirogue to cross the river to the West Bank, and proceeded from there quickly to New Orleans to alert Jackson to the British incursion. Denis de La Ronde, whose plantation adjoined Villere’s, also eluded the British and got to New Orleans safely. Latour made a successful spying excursion himself to the area of the LaCoste and Villere plantations to ascertain the strength of the British troops and judged their number to be around 1,800 men, reporting back to Jackson by 1:30 p.m. Dec. 23. The Night Battle of Dec. 2 happened later that same day when Jackson decided to attack the British encampment with ground troops aided by cannon fire from the US Carolina.)

The information about Spencer is confirmed in an 1818 obscure history of the War of 1812,  A Full and Correct Account of the Military Occurrences of the Late War Between Great Britain and the United States of America, Vol. 2, by New Orleans campaign veteran William James.

“This point (Villere) had been reconnoitered since the night of the 18th (Dec.) by the honorable Captain Spencer, of the Carron, and Lieut. Peddie, of the quarter-master-general’s department. These officers, with a smuggler as their guide, had pulled up the bayou in a canoe and advanced to the high road, without seeing any person, or preparations.,” wrote James.

According to Arsene Lacarriere Latour’s Historical Memoir of the War in West Florida and Louisiana, fishermen and part-time smugglers living in a makeshift fishing village at the Bayou Bienvenue were responsible for guiding Spencer and Peddie to the entrance from the bayou to the Villere Canal. Once the two British officers had satisfactorily surveyed the path to the Villere plantation, they returned to lead the 85th and 95th regiments, Captain Lane’s rocketeers, one hundred men of the engineer corps, and the 4th regiment by boats from Pea Island on Lake Borgne to Bayou Bienvenue to Villere Canal. The British landed at Villere plantation by 4 a.m. on Dec. 23, at which time they rested for some hours.

American General James Wilkinson, analysing the facts in his published memoir years after General Andrew Jackson’s victory at the Battle of New Orleans, said Spencer’s guidance of the British to Villere Plantation by Dec. 22, 1814, narrowly missed being a crushing blow to Jackson.

“As the enemy had, unperceived, got within two hours’ march of the city, if they had proceeded directly forward, the advantages of General Jackson’s position, which afterwards became all important, could not have availed him, because the enemy would have carried surprise with them, would have found the American corps dispersed__without concert, and unprepared for combat; and, making the attack with a superior numerical force of disciplined troops, against a body composed chiefly of irregulars, under such circumstances, no soldier of experience will pause for a conclusion. The most heroic bravery would have proved unavailing, and the capital of Louisiana, with its millions of property, would have been lost. But, blinded by confidence, beguiled by calculations injurious to the honor of the high-mettled patriot-sons of Louisiana, and considering the game safe, they gave themselves up to security, took repose, and waited for reinforcements,” wrote Wilkinson.

In addition to his participation in the Lake Borgne battle, Spencer and the HMS Carron had been among the British warships who unsuccessfully tried to take Ft. Bowyer in September 1814, and was also involved in the successful seizure of that same fort in 1815, following the Battle of New Orleans. That seizure was declared null following ratification of the Treaty of Ghent by the United States in February 1815. For his valuable assistance, Spencer received special commendation from Cochrane and was awarded the captaincy of the HMS Cydnus in early 1815..

As younger brother of  the Earl of Spencer,  Prince William and Prince Harry’s direct ancestor, Robert Cavendish Spencer was  the princes’ great-great-great  uncle.

For related articles, see:

Capt. Percy’s Folly at Fort Bowyer

The British Visit to Laffite: a Study of Events 200 Years Later

Patterson’s Mistake: the Battle of Lake Borgne Revisited

Commemoration of a Hero: Jean Laffite and the Battle of New Orleans

The Last Battle of Chalmette

January 5, 2015 in American History, general history, History, Louisiana History

Jackson's Headquarters at Chalmette in the late 1800s

The Beauregard House at Chalmette in the late 1800s

The last battle of Chalmette was fought by genteel ladies wielding fountain pens, not swords, in 1935 as the site of the US triumph over the British was in the process of becoming a national historical park. The women, descendants of Battle of New Orleans participants, were incensed by former New Orleans politician Sidney Story’s notion Chalmette Battlefield  should be re-named as “Andrew Jackson National Park.”

Work had been underway at Washington, D.C., for some six years at that time to create a national historical park from the grounds where the resounding American victory of Jan. 8, 1815, had taken place.

Story, a Chicago resident who had been a prominent New Orleanian,  wrote to Louisiana Congressman J.O. Fernandez urging the change in proposed name from Chalmette National Park.  Fernandez had earlier introduced a House resolution for creation of the park. Story also sought backing for the name change from various patriotic organizations in New Orleans.

The New Orleans Times-Picayune soon evidenced irritated letters.

“Chalmette Chapter, Louisiana United States Daughters of 1812,  wishes to go on record as being unalterably opposed to any other name that may be suggested by anybody for any reasons whatsoever, believing that the proposed name, Chalmette National Historical Park, fittingly commemorates the outstanding victory gained by American arms on the plains of Chalmette, under the leadership of Andrew Jackson,” wrote Rubie G. Eustis, president of the Chalmette Chapter, Louisiana, USD of 1812.

Story, who was regional director of the United Sttes Merchant Marine League for the Great Lakes states, was all for changing the name to honor Jackson, however. In his letter to Fernandez, the native New Orleanian wrote:

“Andrew Jackson National Park would arouse the patriotic fervor of every red-blooded American, especially throughout the Mid-West and South.

I was born on the ground where that great battle was fought. My grandfather fought under Jackson. There are many interesting stories and anecdotes connected with that momentous event which history does not record but tradition has handed down,” he continued.

Further, Story asserted “I am a staunch advocate of glorifying our heroes and their valorous deeds, because they are an inspiration to our youth. This is most needed in these days, when alien propaganda, assisted by alien-hearted ‘Americans,’ is trying to disparage everything American by arousing contempt for our legislature, the government, our flag and our heroes.”

Mrs. Eustis contended in the op-ed page of the Times-Picayune that “Chalmette Chapter, Louisiana, USD of 1812, always has paid, and always will pay, full homage to the personal valor and military genius of Andrew Jackson, evidenced in its highest degree on the plains of Chalmette, where was fought and won the Battle of New Orleans, which historians have come to recognize as one of the outstanding battles of world history; which made possible the development of a small and struggling nation on the Eastern seaboard into the great and powerful United States of today.”

It was …(at) Chalmette that Jackson and his Americans triumphed over the British veterans of the Napoleonic campaigns. For more than a century, military records and historic documents have linked together Jackson’s victory and Chalmette’s plains. An ‘Andrew Jackson National Park’ might fittingly be established in the hills of his hardy boyhood or in the rich lands of his adopted state, or elsewhere in the great Middle West his prowess helped to preserve, but there was only one Battle of New Orleans, there is only one Chalmette.”

For much of the 19th century following the Civil War, Chalmette Battlefield was forgotten, allowed to be consumed with brush and weeds, its monument memorial uncompleted in the wake of the Civil War. That changed in 1894, when the Louisiana Society United States Daughters of 1776 and 1812 took charge of the upkeep from the state. Working with a meager revenue from selling pecans and wood plus a small stipend from the state, the women kept the grounds and worked on completing the monument, which was accomplished in 1908. In 1929, the mostly elderly women (granddaughters and great-granddaughters of battle participants) could no longer continue with the task of upkeep of Chalmette, so the property was transferred to the War Department.

“There is a world of pathos in the stories told by staunch members who have been at work for more than a generation for this cause, raising funds by selling pecans from the old trees on the ground, and hay grown in the wind-swept fields,” wrote Mrs. Eustis.

Taking up the ladies’ cause was James Dinkins, with a letter to the editor of the Times-Picayune in August 7, 1935:

“I learn with surprise and regret that an effort is being made to have the name of Chalmette Battlefields Park changed to Andrew Jackson National Park. To do so would seem no good purpose, nor add a feather-weight to the name and genius of General Jackson.

The battle of General Jackson__the battle of New Orleans__was one of the three greatest military achievements in the annals of the war and if General Jackson could speak he would say: ‘By the ‘tarnal, the name of Chalmette battlefield shall not be changed.’ The Chalmette Chapter of 1812 are the recognized and rightful custodians of the battlefield; every improvement that has been made there was sponsored and won by the chapter. The members of Chalmette Chapter are pledged to protect the graves that hold the dust of those who died that we would be free. I am a member of Chalmette Chapter and am acquainted with the earnest efforts of the members to make Chalmette battlefield a credit to New Orleans.”

Bending to the wishes of the women, an editoral writer for the Times-Picayune took up their standard: “There could be no more fitting name than that of Andrew Jackson for what is now Chalmette park, but the suggestion from Sidney Story has one marked disadvantage. New Orleans already has its Jackson Square and the name has been familiarized to generations as the center of the oldest and most historic part of the city. The battlefield of New Orleans has its splendid memories of the soldier and statesman who was its hero, but with both a Jackson park and a Jackson square there would be inevitable confusion of visitors and probably of our own citizens. New Orleans has worked for years to rid of duplicated or similar names for many of its streets, and some of us would regret to see a return to the doubling-up system.”

Story backed down from his proposal for the park to honor Jackson, and was not heard from again. He died at age 74 in 1937, with his main claim to fame his creation of the semi-legal Storyville redlight district in New Orleans from 1897 to 1917 to regulate prostitution and drug use in the city.

Chalmette was named a national historical park on August 10, 1939, under the name of Chalmette National Historical Park. It remained under this name until 1979, when extra cultural and historic areas of the park were created in addition to the battlefield, and Chalmette National Historical Park became a part of Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve. The name was chosen to reflect the regional nature of the new, expanded park, which encompasses the area in which the privateer and smuggler operated, plus honors him for his valuable service to the American side during the British invasion.  One can only wonder what both the Daughters of 1812 and Mr. Story would have thought about that development….

Skip to toolbar