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….

Patterson’s Mistake: the Battle of Lake Borgne Revisited

December 30, 2014 in American History, general history, History, Louisiana History, Nautical History

Battle on Lake Borgne

Battle on Lake Borgne

American Commodore Daniel T. Patterson made the single biggest mistake of the Louisiana portion of the War of 1812 when he deployed almost all of his naval force to patrol and spy along the coastal area of Lake Borgne in December 1814 while he remained in New Orleans. His tactical error not only gave the British control of Lake Borgne during their invasion, it also gave them the light draft American ships to move their troops as quickly as possible over the wide expanse of the lake to a disembarkation point at Pea Island, some 60 miles above where the British warships were anchored.

On the morning of Dec. 14, 1814, American Lieut. Thomas ap Catesby Jones regarded with both trepidation and elation the three columns of armed British rowboats full of men pulling towards Jones’ fleet of five American gunboats lined up at the entrance to Lake Borgne near Malheureux Island. He had carefully picked his position to line up the light draft gunboats to use their broadsides to best effect, but the tides and wind had betrayed the Americans’ best efforts, and some were pulled somewhat out of formation, and Jones’ flagship Gunboat No. 156, along with another, had grounded for the second time and was mired on the bottom: there was no way to shift position, or continue to retreat to the safety of the fortification guns at Petite Coquilles: they would have to fight off the British where they were.

Even though Jones and his 181 men were outnumbered nearly seven to one by the 1,200 advancing British in 42 armed longboats, Jones was eager to take them on and merit the post captain promotion he would surely deserve for such a feat. He was young and impetuous, qualities which his commander, Patterson, utilized to the fullest extent. Patterson had instructed him to “sink or be sunk” in a possible confrontation with the British, and he didn’t intend to let any of his five gunboats go down.

It must have unsettled Jones when the British fleet’s commander, Nicholas Lockyer, halted the rowboats just out of gun range so all his men could enjoy an early lunch before the assault after having rowed 30 miles from their ships. Lockyer, commodore of HMS Sophie, was a seasoned British commander and knew the value of psychological, as well as tactical, battle strategy. When lunch was over, and the men fortified, he ordered the fleets to renew rowing toward the gunboats. All the British were chanting “Give Way!” and cheering as boisterously as they could while the single carronades mounted at the bows of each of their boats fired intermittently at the gunboats, with Jones’ No. 156 flagship being targeted first.

“The Americans being moored in line, at least four hundred yards apart from one other, the attacking boats were a good deal divided, and each boat pulling away wildly came to close quarters,” wrote Capt. Cooke in his “Narrative of the British Attack on New Orleans.” “The clouds of smoke rolled upwards, and the splashing of round and grape shot in the water, and the loud exhortations of “Give way!” presented an animated scene at mid-day.”

“Capt. Lockyer, in the barge of the Seahorse, was first up to the mark (Jones’ 156), and his boat’s crew were most uncourteously handled by the American commodore, who at first would not let Capt. Lockyer get aboard, and a rough tussle took place, but other boats coming up, the sailors, sword in hand, being covered by the fire from the small arms of the marines, cut away their defensive netting that was coiled round her decks like a spider’s web,” continued Cooke.

“The British at last mastered the Americans, and captured all the five vessels in succession, making their different crews prisoners, but not before some of the guns of the captured vessels had been turned upon those that still resisted, to enable the boarders to complete their victory.”

Leading his men on the boarding assault on No. 156, Lockyer suffered three wounds, at least one of a severe nature, and Jones, too, was severely wounded when a musket ball slammed into his left shoulder early in the boarding fray. He was taken below and replaced by his second in command, Masters Mate George Parker, who also fell wounded during the hand to hand combat that ensued.

When the British took control of No. 156, its guns were brought to bore on No. 163, and the rest in succession soon fell like a line of tipped over dominoes.

The whole battle took less than two hours. Both commanders were injured severely, and the battle took a significant toll on both sides. The Americans lost 10 killed in action, 35 wounded, with 86 captured, and the British had 17 killed in action, with 77 wounded in action. The wounded were evacuated, and the British renamed the gunboats HMS Ambush, Firebrand, Destruction, Harlequin and Eagle. They proceeded to use the gunboats to speed up transportation to their disembarkation point of Pea Island, 30 miles further up Lake Borgne, near the mouth of the Pearl River.

In his Dec. 16, 1814, letter to John Wilson Croker, secretary to the British Admiralty,  Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane had nothing but the highest praise for Lockyer and his men:

“Lockyer had the good fortune to close with the flotilla, which he attacked with such judgment and determined bravery, that notwithstanding their formidable force, their advantage of a chosen position, and their studied and deliberate preparation, he succeeded in capturing the whole of the vessels, in so serviceable a state as to afford at once the most essential aid to the expedition…Our loss has been severe, particularly in officers, but considering that the successful enterprize has given us command of Lac Borgne (sic), and considerably reduced our deficiency of transportation, the effort has answered our fullest expectations.”

Even though he must have been in extreme pain from his wounds, Lockyer managed to write a letter to Cochrane four days later from onboard the HMS Sophie detailing the Lake Borgne operation and commending individual officers:

“After several minutes’ obstinate resistance in which the greater part of the officers and crew of this boat were either killed or wounded, myself amongst the latter, severely, we succeeded in boarding, and being seconded by the Sea Horse’s first barge, commanded by Mr. White, midshipman, and aided by the boats of the Tonnant, commanded by Lieut. Tatnell, we soon carried her, and turned her guns with good effect upon the remaining four…In about five minutes we had possession of the whole of the flotilla.”

Jones and the rest of the captured Americans were taken onboard the HMS Gorgon, later to be transferred to Bermuda. It would be mid March of 1815 before they would be on US soil again. Jones faced a court of enquiry upon his return, but passed it with flying colors for his bravery and courage, thanks to the afterglow of the Battle of New Orleans.

The British victory led by Lockyer was an American disaster, as following it, Gen. Andrew Jackson had no lookouts or defenses on Lake Borgne, plus there was no defensive gunpower to hold the forts on the Rigolets and Bayou St. Jean. It is likely things would have happened much differently with the ensuing battles if the crew of the tender USS Sea Horse had not escaped capture after blowing up their supply ship on its way to get stores from Bay St. Louis, not long before Lockyer and company successfully took the five gunboats. Capt. William Johnson from the US tender, after observing the gunboats’ battle from a tree, traveled quickly to Patterson in New Orleans to tell him of the advancing British, as he knew about it within a day after it had occurred, while the British were still laboriously transporting men, guns and supplies to Pea Island, using their seized gunboats. Patterson relayed the bad news to Gen. Andrew Jackson, who must have been absolutely livid, considering he knew full well that now he had no eyes at all on the British and was, for all intents and purposes, blind.

Patterson’s small navy had been reduced to the Carolina schooner and Louisiana sloop, both at New Orleans, and one gunboat at Ft. St. Phillip on the Mississippi River. Six fast armed schooners taken in the Patterson-Ross raid of Jean Laffite’s Barataria sat idle at the Navy yard in New Orleans, but couldn’t be used for two reasons: there were no sailors to man them, and they were still awaiting judgment in admiralty court, so it was like they weren’t even there. The Louisiana also couldn’t be used initially due to a lack of men. Only the Carolina boasted a full crew of New Englanders who had arrived with the ship in August 1814. Patterson’s unpopularity with sometime privateer crews made him anathema for them to want to work for his navy.

In “The Amphibious Campaign for West Florida and Louisiana 1814-1815,” historian Wilburt S. Brown, retired Marine Corps major general, said the Lake Borgne battle was  a “classic example of an operation in which the defenders were almost stripped of naval strength before the operation was begun, while the attackers’ naval strength remained overwhelming.”

Patterson’s mistake began early in December, shortly after Jackson’s arrival in New Orleans, when the five gunboats and tender Sea Horse were sent into the waters around Pass Christian to watch for British ships and movements. Jones had dispatched two of the gunboats, No. 23, and 163, under command of Isaac McKeever and Sailing Master Robert Ulrick, toward Dauphin Island to provide an early warning. Those two gunboats spied the British fleet advancing, and fired a shot or two off at the HMS Armide (Vice Admiral Cochrane’s flagship) and HMS Seahorse before darting into the shoals and racing back to the other three gunboats near Ship Island to sound the alarm. The Armide gave chase, then could not pursue due to almost grounding; Jones’s No. 156 grounded temporarily, but he managed to get it free overnight with the next tide. In the meantime, the British tried to capture the US Sea Horse supply tender only to be stymied when her captain blew her up. They then proceeded with the barges (longboats) against the US gunboats.

McKeever and Ulrick behaved somewhat irresponsibly in firing at the massive fifth rate British ships, as the chase that followed drew the invading fleet’s attention to the whole gun boat group near the lower opening of  Lake Borgne. The gunboats were only supposed to spy on the British movements, then retreat en masse back to the coverage of the fort at Petite Coquilles. It is unknown if Jones gave them instructions to fire. The schooner-rigged gunboats, popularly known as “Jeffs,” were known as poor sailing vessels even though they only drew five feet of water. Their main advantage was in the shoal waters where the large frigates and other warships could not go, but even there they had to use caution as tricky tides could find them in water barely chest high.

Patterson’s mistake of sending all five gunboats for the spying mission together could easily have been avoided by sending just a few men in light rowboats or the like to watch the coast and report back. Jones also erred when he decided to hold tight and battle a superior force rather than blow up the gunboats so they could not be used by the enemy. The only good achieved by the American side from the Battle of Lake Borgne was the false intelligence the British received from the prisoners regarding the size of Jackson’s army, which they had exaggerated.

Lockyer came out the clear winner of the Lake Borgne contest, but due to his injuries, he missed out on the rest of the campaign. He was not proclaimed out of medical danger (sepsis killed many wounded from infection) until mid-January 1815. He received a promotion from commodore to post captain in 1815 for his service.

Subsequent mistakes made on the British side, plus Jackson’s keen tactical skills and a supply of needed flints and powder to the Americans from the Laffites led to the Jan. 8, 1815 Battle of New Orleans overwhelming victory for the US.

For related articles, see:

The Saga of Melita and the Patterson-Ross Raid at Barataria

The Case of the Spanish Prize Ship at Dauphin Island

The British Visit To Laffite, a Study of Events 200 Years Later

 

Eyewitness Report of Jean Laffite at Chalmette Battlefield

December 21, 2014 in American History, general history, History, Louisiana History

Map of the Battle of New Orleans, 1815Much has been made this past year over just exactly where Jean Laffite was during the battles against the British in December, 1814, and Jan. 1815, particularly regarding Jackson’s line at Chalmette. Here is what an eyewitness stated in 1852, in an article in the National Intelligencer newspaper, reprinted in DeBow’s Review, Vol. XII, New Series, Vol. V_1852:

“We referred in our last to the statement of parties in New-Orleans, that Lafitte (sic) was not present at the battle of New-Orleans, as has been commonly supposed. That he was there is sustained by a writer in the National Intelligencer, dated Alabama, etc., as we find in the following extract. We trust that, as Gen. Butler has been referred to, he will settle this mooted point.”

In the column of the “National Intelligencer,” of the 20th instant, I noticed an article, in which it is said: It has been currently believed, on the authority of novelists, etc., that the celebrated Lafitte (sic) was a pirate, and fought in the American ranks at New-Orleans. Whoever knows personally anything of Lafitte, as stated, could have asserted any such thing. [sic] The writer of this had the honor of serving under General Jackson at the siege of New Orleans as an officer; saw Lafitte every day and knew him personally. He was not in the first battle, fought with the British forces on the night of the 23d of December, 1814; but was at the breast-works called Jackson’s lines immediately thereafter, where he remained until the retreat of the enemy and the breaking up of the American camp. He was placed with his men by Gen. Jackson__who had full confidence in his skill, ability, and fidelity to the American cause__in command of a battery of two 24 or 32 pounder cannon, not far from the river, and between the 7th United States Infantry, Major Pierre and Plauche’s battalion of city volunteers; and I affirm that a more skilful (sic) artillerist, a braver or more determined officer, soldier, or one who rendered more effective service during the siege, was not in Jackson’s army. And pirate or blacksmith, the services he rendered the American cause should not be denied, blotted out, or buried in oblivion, now that he is no more, and perhaps has left none behind to defend him. What I have stated is on my own personal knowledge, and acted under my own eye: and is well known to Gen. Wm. O. Butler, of Kentucky, at that time a captain in the 44th Infantry,”

(The eyewitness account refers to Laffite only by surname, but it is deduced to mean Jean Laffite as Jean’s older brother, Pierre Laffite, did take part in the battle of Dec. 23, 1814, which the writer said “Lafitte” was not at. Jean Laffite had been sent by Gen. Jackson on Dec. 22 to Major Reynolds in the Temple area to examine defenses there.)

 

 

The Saga of Melita and the Patterson-Ross Raid at Barataria

December 15, 2014 in American History, general history, History, Louisiana History, Nautical History

The Balize as it looked in the early 1820s

The Balize as it looked in the early 1820s

A series of unfortunate events plagued Joseph Martinot, supercargo of the Carthagenian merchant schooner Melita. First, he had been stymied in his attempt to enter the Mississippi and arrive at New Orleans by the presence of the British blockade near the Balize; then, off the coast of Louisiana to the westward of the Balize, he had been caught in a storm while trying to slip by the British: his ship had been damaged by the squall, so he made for the closest place for repairs, which happened to be  Jean Laffite’s smuggling base at Grande Terre; next, he had endured hassles trying to lawfully bring his goods to New Orleans, and now, back at Grande Terre to oversee ship repairs, he found himself fleeing for his life in a pirogue paddled by frantic Baratarians as men on a US Navy barge fired musketry and an occasional cannon shot their way.

The Navy barge soon closed the distance between the vessels, and Martinot found his lot cast in with Dominique You and the Baratarians in the Sept. 16, 1814, raid of Grande Terre by Commodore Daniel T. Patterson of the New Orleans Naval Station and Col. George Ross of the 44th US Infantry.

At least, thought  Martinot, he had covered himself by declaring his goods and paying the appropriate duties at the New Orleans customhouse some days earlier. There was proof of that with Notary John Lynd in town, so he believed  Patterson would treat him with the appropriate consideration. Martinot and his ship had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Patterson and company, however, did not see it that way.

Comm. Daniel Todd Patterson

Comm. Daniel Todd Patterson

Martinot and the others were conducted onboard the gunboat of  Comm. Patterson, who made the supercargo open a trunk he had taken with him in his flight from the raid. Then Patterson somewhat belligerently searched through the trunk himself, confiscated a telescope and a poignard (type of Spanish knife) , then directed Acting Lieut. Isaac McKeever, to proceed with a  modified strip search of Martinot.

According to Martinot’s later deposition to Lynd, he took off his vest and laid it on the deck of the gunboat, then opened his pantaloons, and McKeever raised up the supercargo’s shirt to see whether he had any money or valuables concealed on his person, but none were found. Then Martinot was ordered to take off his boots, and they too were searched, with nothing found concealed in them, either. Frustrated in their endeavors to find valuables, Patterson then went through the pockets of the vest which was on the deck, and in the corner of a handkerchief he probably smiled as he pulled out  a folded batch of bank notes, which must have made him quite happy, considering there was a total of  $700, or the equivalent of over $9,000 in today’s currency. Martinot had been carrying a small fortune in that vest.

Patterson demanded that Martinot tell him how much money was in the handkerchief, to which the supercargo replied he did not know, so Patterson proceeded to count out the notes and told Martinot to count the amount as well. Martinot thought this demonstration might mean he would get the money returned to him as his own property over which they (the naval authorities) had no right, and said the same to Patterson, whereupon McKeever likely laughed as he said there was little chance of the prisoner recovering it. Patterson would not give him a receipt, just told Martinot brusquely to see him at his office in New Orleans later.

Alarmed at the loss of his money, Martinot explained the nature of his business at Grande Terre, and that he had been there but two days, repairing his vessel (the Melita), and pointed out the ship which was moored to the shore as she had been half full of water and had only recently been pumped out dry to start repairs. Martinot continued by saying the Melita had been regularly reported to the customhouse, and the duties of her cargo paid, that he had brought provisions for her repairs from town, and had deposited them in Msr. Lafitte’s (sic) store, with the ship’s rigging, sails, anchor, cables, and five barrels of bread. Patterson turned a deaf ear to Martinot’s account.

Worse was to come for Martinot. On the evening previous to his departure from Grande Terre, Patterson demanded of Martinot a list of the sails, and said he had no knowledge of any other articles. Then the next day shortly before he left (and after the officers and soldiers had thoroughly scavenged and retrieved anything of value on the island),  the commander ordered the dry-docked schooner burned. Martinot was allowed to go on shore to see if he could find anything belonging to his ship, but of course nothing was left to find.

Patterson and Ross, with their men, had claimed and seized all the “booty” and ships that they could, and destroyed the rest. All told, they had seized close to half a million dollars’ worth in the raid.

Martinot was not jailed for very long, as by Sept. 29, he was back in the office of Notary John Lynd, deposing his protest against “Commodore Patterson, his officers, and all others who may concern (sic) for the loss and damage done by him and them, or by his order to the said vessel (Melita) and her stores and materials, for the value of which he holds him and them responsible, and which he will endeavor to recover of him or them by all lawful ways and means.” Records show that Martinot did pursue them in the court system, but due to rapidly transpiring events with the British invasion, nothing was resolved, and although Patterson told him to see him at his office for a recipt for the $700, etc., that, too, must not have transpired, considering Martinot filed the protest. The man’s telescope must have remained part of Patterson’s seizures, too, and it was a valuable instrument in itself.

The saga of the Melita’s and Martinot’s troubles began in July 9, 1814, when the schooner left Cartagena bound for New Orleans. During the voyage, as well as previous to their departure, the master and supercargo of the Melita were repeatedly warned by various captains of other ships in the Gulf not to attempt to enter the Mississippi River by way of the Balize as they would run a great risk of being captured by the British warships blockading off the bar there. The Carthagenian privateer General Bolivar , owned by Laffite associate Renato Beluche, had recently attempted to enter the Balize only to be chased off by the British.

Martinot said in his testimony to Lynd in a sea protest filed August 4, 1814, that due to the warnings about the British, they therefore endeavored to fall in with Grande Terre, to westward of the Balize, and came to anchor on the coast in five fathoms of water: while there, a storm arrived from the south so heavy that it parted their cable, and they lost part of it along with the anchor. The ship limped to Grande Terre, where Martinot in his role of supercargo took the goods off the ship, loaded them on some pirogues, and proceeded up the bayous to the Customhouse at New Orleans to make a good faith declaration to the Revenue Department so that even though the Melita could not arrive at New Orleans the regular way, her cargo would be lawfully entered at the port.

Martinot made sure to attest that it was only due to fear of the superior force of the British off the Balize that the Melita had diverted to Grande Terre, where she went by necessity, and self-preservation, and not any sinister view, nor intent to defraud the revenue of the United States.

Accordingly, P.L. Dubourg, clerk of the New Orleans Customhouse, then gave Martinot written permission on August 5 to bring the goods, consisting of four trunks and fourteen boxes of dry goods, marked “Mt” through the lakes to the landing opposite the Custom house, then to make report, and wait a regular permit for landing.

Martinot brought his goods to the Customhouse, where two city merchants, Francis Ayme and J.S. David, estimated the value to arrive at the duties payable. Martinot paid same to the collector, then faced a new hurdle. Although Dubourg gave permission for Martinot to take the goods to his friend and fellow agent Joseph L. Carpentier’s store in New Orleans, as they were repacking the trunks, naval officer Edwin Sequin abruptly stepped in and declared he would seize the goods, and did so.

Martinot immediately went to get Lynd to come to the Customhouse and speak to Seguin about the matter to demand the goods be delivered up to Martinot, to which Seguin probably blithely replied he would not do so then, but only after he had had the quantities and qualities of the goods verified, and their value estimated by two other merchants. This resulted in Martinot filing a protest on August 11 with Lynd against the naval officer and all others for any losses and damages suffered by the unwarrantable detention and seizure of the Melita’s goods. (He must have wondered at this point why he had even bothered to try to do the right thing in not smuggling the items into New Orleans.)

By the 10th of September, Martinot had settled the lengthy matter of dispersal of the goods and purchased the necessary items to repair the Melita, so he left New Orleans for Grande Terre, taking the speedy bayou route and arriving on Sept. 14. To his dismay, he found the schooner moored to the shore, half full of water, and was told by the officer left in charge of her that he had been obliged to run her on shore as he had been fearful she might sink otherwise. On the 15th, the Melita was pumped dry, and Martinot told the Baratarian carpenters to begin the repairs immediately in order to get the ship to New Orleans as soon as possible. He decided to store the ship’s sails, rigging and provisions in Laffite’s warehouse. Martinot probably breathed a sigh of relief, but then the hurricane of the US Navy descended early on the morrow.

Around 8 a.m. on Sept. 16, Patterson and Ross made the island of Grande Terre after a five day journey of the US Carolina, barges and gunboats down the Mississippi River. In a letter to the Secretary of the Navy William Jones, Patterson recounted that they discovered “a number of vessels in the harbor, some of which shewed Carthaginian colors.” Within an hour, the “pirates” formed a “line of battle near the entrance making every preparation to offer me battle,” so Patterson and Ross formed an order of battle themselves, then found the Carolina drew too much water to cross the bar and enter the harbor. The closest she could approach, wrote Patterson later, was two miles from the bar, as otherwise she would ground.

The Baratarians then made signals to each other with smoke along the coast, and Patterson said at the same time, “A white flag was hoisted onboard a schooner at the fore, an American flag at the main masthead, and a Carthagenian flag below.” As Patterson replied with a white flag, he saw that the Baratarians had set fire to  two of their best schooners, so then he made the signal for battle, and the chase began, with the Baratarians dispersing rapidly without firing on the Americans, or offering any resistance, other than setting fire to their own ships. This unexpected response irritated Patterson greatly, as he was spoiling for a glorious battle, and later he stated in his letter to Jones , “I have no doubt the appearance of the Carolina in the squadron had great effect on the pirates.” As soon as he left Barataria, while he was at the Balize, Patterson dispatched a letter to Louisiana governor William C.C. Claiborne, crowing about his success, and boasting that “From the number of the enemy’s vessels, and their advantageous position, I had anticipated a sharp, short contest which must have terminated most fatally to them,” but instead of fighting, the Baratarians had scattered, which Col. Ross ignorantly attributed to their fear of seeing the American flag at the mast of the Carolina…even though the Carolina could barely get near enough to Barataria Pass so the privateers could see her colors.

In addition to the spoils of the raid, Patterson and Ross and their men brought six Baratarian ships to New Orleans, including three which Patterson boasted were “admirably adapted for the public service on this station, being uncommonly fleet sailors and light draught of water, and would be of infinite public utility.” (Those same ships would sit at the New Orleans wharf throughout the time of the British invasion, presumably caught up in legalities to prevent their use until properly adjuticated, even though Jackson’s martial law edict of Dec. 16 would have superceded any bars to their use by American forces. It has never been explained exactly why those ships sat idle, except for the fact that following the Barataria raid Patterson found it almost impossible to obtain any sailors.)

Martinot was only one of more than a few merchants and other visitors to Grande Terre who were accidentally caught up in the Patterson-Ross raid, but he seems to have suffered the most collateral damage from it. He had tried to do everything properly and by the book, only to learn that when greedy naval officers act like the pirates they claim they dispersed in their rush to seize money, ships and goods, the rule books get thrown overboard.

NOTE: Thanks go to Sally Reeves, archivist of the fabulous Notarial Archives of New Orleans, for providing  the John Lynd notarial acts involving Joseph Martinot and the Melita. The Notarial Archives is a veritable treasure-trove of historical information, with literally thousands of such stories as Martinot’s waiting to be told.

Also See:

The British Visit To Laffite: A Study of Events 200 Years Later

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

The Case of the Spanish Prize Ship at Dauphin Island

 

The Case of the Spanish Prize Ship at Dauphin Island

December 8, 2014 in American History, general history, Louisiana History

The HMS Sophie gives chase to a privateer

The HMS Sophie gives chase to a privateer

Capt. Nicholas Lockyer of HMS Sophie was furious when he gave the order to weigh anchor just off Grande Terre island on Sept. 4, 1814. He and his fellow British officers had been released a couple of hours earlier from a sleepless night in a crude, dirty cell where they had been subjected to threats and jeers from mostly French Baratarians throughout the night. His demands to see Jean Laffite had been steadfastly ignored until the morning, when Laffite had shown back up, profusely apologizing for his men’s behavior towards them after he had left the British suddenly following their attempt to bribe him into service.

The day before, Lockyer had brought the Baratarian leader British letters seeking to entice him to join the British campaign to seize Louisiana, but now he could tell that visit had been a precious waste of time, and he had to report empty-handed to his commanding officer Sir William Percy of HMS Hermes.

First he had to return four pilots to the Balize at the mouth of the Mississippi, where he had picked them up a few days earlier to help him navigate the tricky tides of Barataria Pass at Grande Terre. Why he needed four pilots for this job is unknown.

New research has found Army Commanding Officer Charles Wollstonecraft at Fort St. Philip had gotten word from one of these pilots about the visit Sophie made to Laffite, as he wrote about it in a letter to Gen. Andrew Jackson on Sept. 13, 1814: “About a week past, a British Schooner, the Sophia (sic), took from the Balize four pilots, she sailed for Barataria bearing a white flag & in her passage drove two privateers on shore; the Capt. of the Sophia, landed under the flag, but was detained & his flag insulted: he was afterwards liberated, & last Thursday, returned the pilots to the Balize. Since Thursday (Sept. 8), no vessel has been in sight at the Balize, except our (Patterson and Ross) squadron [on their way to raid the Laffite stronghold at Grande Terre on Sept. 16.] The smugglers have been informed of the intended attack for some time past, & it is reported, are well prepared for it, & determined to stand out to the last; it is also said, that they are very strong, in men & vessels.”

Returning back to Lockyer and the Sophie’s voyage after dropping off the pilots, fortunes improved for the beleaguered captain when he spied  one of those fast Baratarian pirate schooners in tandem with a captured Spanish prize ship not far from the mouth of the Mississippi. He ordered the men to tack toward the pirate, called everyone to battle stations, and smiled. Perhaps he could get at least one of those schooners for Percy.

According to American Major Howell Tatum’s daybook journal of General Andrew Jackson’s troops and activities, the Sophie did do battle with a Baratarian privateer which had earlier captured a Spanish ship. The privateer schooner seems to have eluded Lockyer’s grasp, probably by darting into the light draft shoal areas of the coastline where the heavy British warship dare not go. Shots may have been fired, but apparently none landed on the warship, as the Sophie bore no scars when she showed back up at Pensacola. The Baratarian prize master and crew of the heavy Spanish brig could not take advantage of the shoals without stranding, and the Sophie managed to get the prize to heave to, boarded her, and replaced Laffite’s Baratarian prize master and prize crewmen with British officer and sailors from the Sophie.

Lockyer was nettled that he hadn’t managed to get that privateer schooner for Percy, but the Spanish brig prize was at least something. The governor at Pensacola would likely be grateful to see it back with cargo intact. The trip to meet with Laffite wouldn’t have been a total loss. However, Lockyer didn’t count on the tricky waters near Dauphin Island. Absent a knowledgeable pilot, the prize master of the British ship didn’t know the lay of the shoals there, and the Spanish brig foundered__not far from the American garrison at Fort Bowyer. Lockyer could just look back in dismay as the Sophie sailed away to meet its deadline, hopeful that when the British attacked the fort in a few more days that the Sophie men could be retrieved safely. He decided it was best not to tell Percy about this misadventure until after they had captured the fort.

However, according to Tatum’s account, the Spanish prize ship was re-captured by an expeditionary party under the command of Major William Lawrence at Fort Bowyer. The prisoners taken on board were the British prize master, six British sailors, and three Spanish sailors (who had been among the original crew of the unnamed Spanish vessel).

No information is given for what transpired with the hapless prizemaster and crewmen from the Sophie, but they were likely sent to General Andrew Jackson at Mobile along with the three Spaniards. Jackson took one look at the Spaniards, and decided to use them as hostages against the irritatingly uncooperative governor of Pensacola, Don Mateo Gonzales Manrique, who had allowed the British to send armed war parties  of British and Indians into the Mobile area.

On the night of September 3, 1814, a considerable firing of musketry was heard from the east side of Mobile Bay in the direction of the houses and mill of Jean D’Olive of the Town of Mobile. According to Tatum, early the next day, Jackson learned an attack had been made on d’Olive’s house, where an overseer and three black slaves had been taken and carried off for Pensacola by Indians and British of that place, part of Woodbine’s hostile corps. Another slave who had escaped related the information, and although a party was immediately sent in pursuit, due to the tedious delay in crossing the bay for want of a proper boat, the raiding party completed their mission in safety across the Perdido and escaped to Pensacola with their prisoners.

As the Indians previously had been allowed by the British to commit such acts of violence as scalp-taking and the like, Jackson determined to hold the luckless Spanish seamen from Penscola as hostages to insure the safe return of the men taken from d’Olive. In a scorching hot letter to Manrique, Jackson wrote that if anything happened to d’Olive’s men, the Spanish governor was assured that the hostages Jackson had would be made to answer, “Eye for Eye, Tooth for Tooth and Scalp for Scalp” for injuries suffered by the d’Olive group. Jackson was particularly incensed because a few days earlier, Manrique had sent him a letter in which he claimed he had armed those Indians who later had committed the attack, with his excuse being that he had armed them as a measure of precaution to meet any attempt of the American government to invade Pensacola as they had formerly done to Mobile. Jackson quite naturally considered this breakdown in trust as overwhelming evidence that the Spanish were placing themselves in a “belligerent” state against the US, and validated his response in holding the Spanish crewmen as hostages.

Thus the first strike that warned Jackson of the true intentions of the British and Spanish was the raiding party on the d’Olive plantation.

As Tatum, Jackson’s topical engineer, states: “Serious apprehensions were now entertained, by many, for the safety of Fort Bowyer. The (British) vessels lying at Pensacola were believed to be merely the van of a much larger naval force destined to act in these seas, and accompanied (perhaps) by land forces intended for the reduction of Mobile and occupation of West Florida.”

The Sophie joined with Percy as he led the Hermes along with two other British ships from Pensacola to Fort Bowyer on Sept. 11.  The first battle of Fort Bowyer a few days later was lost by the British when Percy’s Hermes grounded twice right in front of raking fire from the Americans, and he was forced to abandon ship and set fire to her.

No mention is made in any records of exactly what happened with the  Spanish prize ship that grounded near Dauphin Island. There are some indications in the New Orleans Notarial Archives that maybe boats under Comm. Daniel T. Patterson’s direction offloaded the ship, as mention is made of a Spanish ship in distress on Dauphin Island at that time. The ship seems to not have been there when the British ships made their attack a few days after it foundered, and there are no records of Lockyer ever telling Percy about capturing the ship from the Baratarian privateer.

Jackson never did get a satisfactory reply from Manrique, and by late November 1814, the Spanish prisoners still lingered in irons in his camp. They had first been captured by Laffite’s men, then rescued by the Sophie, then captured by the Americans, then held in strict privations in what must have been miserable conditions. Their fate, like the fate of the British prize master and Sophie crewmen from the Spanish ship, remains shrouded in mystery.

 

Additional Historia Obscura articles for more information:

The British Visit To Laffite: A Study of Events 200 Years Later

Capt. Percy’s Folly at Fort Bowyer

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

Daniel Todd Patterson’s Secret Visits to Dauphin Island in 1814

 

Andrew Jackson’s Fine and the Place of Martial Law in American Politics

November 21, 2014 in American History, general history, History, Legal History, Louisiana History

 

Andrew Jackson by Thomas Sully From Wikimedia Commons

Andrew Jackson resented mightily the fine imposed on him by Judge Dominick Hall in New Orleans in 1815 for contempt of court. At the very end of his life, with death approaching, Jackson campaigned for the return of the thousand dollar fine through an act of Congress, and his efforts were rewarded. “He viewed the return of his fine as a larger statement about the legitimacy of violating the constitution and civil liberties in times of national emergency.” (Warshauer, p.6) That is the crux of the problem presented in Matthew Warshauer’s Andrew Jackson and the Politics of Martial Law: Is it ever all right to violate the constitution? Did Andrew Jackson set a precedent that it was, a precedent later followed by Abraham Lincoln and every wartime president since?

The fine was levied by the Federal District Court in 1815. It was refunded to Jackson by Congress in 1844. But did this refund really serve as a justification of martial law? Or was it just a sign of appreciation for a dying former president and national war hero?

The term “martial law” was at one time a synonym to “military law” and used to describe the legal tradition of absolute law – one characterized by a lack of civil liberties – that applied to those who served in the military while they were in active service. Only later, after the Congressional debates concerning the refunding of the Jackson fine, did “martial law” come to mean giving the military absolute authority over civilians in times of emergency. (Warshauer, p. 17).

Nationalism, according to Warshauser, was the force that allowed the constitutional limits on military authority to be breached, not just in the case of Andrew Jackson, but for every member of the executive branch since who has invoked emergency powers:

To many, Jackson represented the pinnacle of American nationalism. The Battle of New Orleans had invested him with the highest claims of patriotism and devotion to country… Jackson’s understanding of his nationalist appeal is one of the items that made him a formidable politician and president. Subsequent presidents have embraced the same political use of nationalism. Lincoln focused on the sanctity of the Union during the Civil War and … embraced martial law. Consider also the nationalism fomented by Franklin Roosevelt in the midst of the Great Depression. He utilized the overwhelming nationalist support of the 1936 election to challenge the Supreme Court’s threats to his New Deal legislation. … [E]ngagement in World War II was impossible without nationalist sentiment … in the form of … Pearl Harbor…Similarly, George W. Bush could not possibly have engaged in a war against Iraq … or curtailed civil liberties with the Patriot Act without the nationalism spawned by [9/11]. (Warshauer p. 18)

Did Andrew Jackson really invent American nationalism? Did it not exist before that moment in 1814 when he arrived in New Orleans? When exactly did American nationalism come into being? And what does the term mean in this context? Is it just a another word for patriotism? Or does it mean loyalty to one’s nation of origin?

It was not that sense of nationalism that led to the American Revolution. Abigail Adams, writing to her husband John, on November 12, 1775 referred to the common origin of the Americans and the British: “Let us separate, they are unworthy to be our Brethren. Let us renounce them and instead of supplications as formerly for their prosperity and happiness, Let us beseech the almighty to blast their counsels and bring to Nought all their devices.” Notice that there is no question that the British were the brethren of the American colonists. It was just that they weren’t worthy! If on national grounds alone, the Americans and the British were one people. But the American colonists’ insistence on the civil liberties secured to all Englishmen applying also to themselves was the reason for the separation. If anything, this was anti-nationalism. Civil liberties trumped national unity.

Andrew Jackson, while still a minor, served in the Revolutionary War. He defied the British, his brethren, at the risk of his life. When exactly did he become a nationalist? Could it be when he entered the City of New Orleans and realized that he would need to get Edward Livingston to translate everything he said to French before he could address the people of the city and hope to be understood?

To an ill-educated boy from the rural south, New Orleans was cosmopolitan and foreign. It was filled with people who had just recently been French and only a little earlier had belonged to Spain, and it was more foreign by far than the invading British forces! “Concerns over spies and dissent within the largely foreign city prompted Jackson to proclaim martial law.” (Warshauer p. 19). Jackson did not trust the people of New Orleans precisely because they were not his brethren!

While Jackson’s feelings of being outnumbered by foreigners in a city whose defense was chiefly his responsibility might be quite understandable, both retrospectively in 1842 when the congressional refund debates began and maybe even prospectively in 1814, the situation he was placed in came about through the extra-constitutional machinations of Thomas Jefferson in 1803.

There was no provision in the constitution for new territories –and the human population that lived within them– to be bought and sold at taxpayer expense . The provision for new states to be brought into the Union presupposed that the majority of those living there would petition to join of their own free will. And it was probably presumed, at the time of the writing, that these new people would be brethren who had colonised large wilderness areas and had come to outnumber the natives who were there first.

But Anglo-Americans in New Orleans were outnumbered by French Creoles and Cajuns, free blacks, Spanish merchants, Catholic clergymen and nuns, both French and Spanish, whose oath of loyalty was to the Pope before any State or monarch, and any number of other “foreigners” or at the very least, people who sounded and looked foreign, even though they were now legally American citizens, Louisiana having just joined the Union as a state in 1811.

Would Andrew Jackson ever have considered imposing martial law if he had been stationed in a state such as South Carolina during the beginning of the War of 1812? There, it was the local free white males who had failed to obey the orders of their governor, Joseph Alston, thereby leaving the state without a defense force during the beginning of the war. A writ of habeas corpus had been issued to free deserters from the militia, because the possibility of dying of malaria was felt to be much more real than any just-declared war against Britain. 

 The unusual state of affairs in New Orleans due to the Louisiana Purchase is one of the factors that led to Jackson’s decision to invoke martial law. He did not trust the citizens of New Orleans, because they seemed foreign. It is not, however, something that comes into the legal argument that was derived from this precedent, which was later applied against his own brethren by President Lincoln in the context of a civil war.

Andrew Jackson was not, in fact, the first American general to attempt to impose martial law on New Orleans, although he was the first to make it stick as a legal precedent. The first to impose martial law in American held New Orleans was General James Wilkinson, who was also, at the time, the Governor of Louisiana Territory, and his purpose in so doing was not to repel a foreign invasion, but to apprehend and disenfranchise Aaron Burr and his friends Erich Bollman and Samuel Swartwout, whom he accused of plotting to take over the Western territories and separate them from the United States.

At the time, Edward Livingston, also a friend of Burr’s, had just barely escaped being summarily arrested as well. Writs of habeas corpus were ignored and the attorneys presenting them threatened with arrest. Deprived of the right to counsel, the prisoners were transported by the military branch of the government and kept without right to trial. As it happens, James Wilkinson had been a Spanish spy, and it was in his capacity of an agent of Spain that he acted to repel Aaron Burr’s attempt to filibuster his way through Texas and Mexico. Which is a reminder that a person does not necessarily need to be a foreigner to serve as both a spy and a traitor.

Andrew Jackson was aware of these past events, for he, too, just like Bollman and Swartwout and Edward Livingston, was a good friend of Aaron Burr and a supporter of his would-be venture against Spanish held Mexico. He stood by Burr during the treason trial in Richmond, and he was aware of the Supreme Court decision in Ex Parte Swartwout and Ex Parte Bollman that stated that the right to habeas corpus may not be infringed by the executive branch unless Congress passed a law suspending the writ of habeas corpus. Thomas Jefferson had wanted to pass such a measure through Congress in his eagerness to foil Burr, but Congress did not grant his wishes.

So here was Andrew Jackson, like James Wilkinson before him, suddenly declaring an emergency and suspending the writ of habeas corpus. What would be the right course of action for anyone disagreeing with Andrew Jackson’s imposition of martial law? To file a motion for a writ of habeas corpus? It was exactly the right so to do that had been suspended. To openly rebel against the armed forces of the United States? Even if successful, that would open anyone so doing to a charge of treason.

The right to a writ of habeas corpus and to be free of martial law is one of those things that get hammered out in a court of law after the fact. They cannot under normal circumstances be resolved in the heat of the moment. Even in Ex Parte Bollman first the right to habeas corpus was suspended, and only later was this ruled to be unconstitutional.

One difference between the two cases was that the United States was not in fact at war when James Wilkinson tried to suspend the writ, so that the Supreme Court was still sitting, and it was possible to appeal directly to the highest court on a question of jurisdiction, even if lower court judges were imprisoned for speaking up in New Orleans. But America was under siege in 1814, and in August of that year the capital had been burned by the British. Government buildings were still in shambles at the time of the Battle of New Orleans.

Before the Battle of New Orleans the pragmatics of the situation and the extreme gravity of the British threat allowed Jackson to do whatever he chose without real resistance. Any checks and balances to his actions of a constitutional nature could only come too late and after the fact. This meant that restitution and/or a fine could be levied against Jackson later, but nobody could get an injunction to prevent him from doing whatever he chose to do right then.

Jackson was fully aware of this state of affairs. He asked the counsel of two legal advisors before he took this step:

 Jackson’s advisors, Edward Livingston and Abner Duncan, ultimately concluded that martial law suspended all civil functions and placed every citizen under military control. The lawyers disagreed, however, on the legality of the proclamation. Livingston believed that it was “unknown to the Constitution or laws of the U.S.”… (Warshauer p.23)

On December 16, 1814 Andrew Jackson issued his proclamation imposing martial law on the City of New Orleans. “All who entered or exited the city were to report to the Adjutant General’s office. Failure to do so resulted in arrest and interrogation. All vessels, boats and other crafts desiring to leave the city required a passport, either from the General or Commodore Daniel T. Patterson. All street lamps were ordered extinguished at 9:00 p.m., and anyone found after that hour without a pass was arrested as a spy. New Orleans was officially an armed camp and General Jackson the only authority.” (Warshauer p.24)

It was ironic that Daniel T. Patterson was given almost equal authority with Andrew Jackson, since if there was ever a British sympathizer in the city of New Orleans, he, rather than the French speaking populace, must surely have been guilty. It was after all Patterson who attacked the Baratarian privateers, destroying their base, and capturing their ships, when Jean Laffite informed him that the British were anchored off Mobile Point and about to attack Fort Bowyer and offered to help him fight the British. But Daniel T. Patterson was an American naval officer, and Jackson trusted him implicitly. There was nothing foreign about him.

Among other powers that Jackson summarily granted himself with this proclamation of martial law was the power to draft into the militia or impress into naval service any person and to confiscate property, which included fencing, the wood in the walls of “negro houses”, muskets and flints, and even bales of cotton. Nothing taken was paid for, though receipts acknowledging the confiscations were provided.

 Every slave, horse, ox, and cart was requisitioned for military use, and the general authorized the enlistment of all Indians within the district to serve on the same footing as the militia. Mayor Nicholas Girod received orders to “search every house and Store in the City for muskets, Bayonets, Cartridge boxes, Spades, shovels, pick axes and hoes”…

From the point of view of second amendment rights, it seems interesting that arms were being confiscated from their owners, rather than the owners simply being enlisted in the militia and asked to bring along their own weapons in the service of their country. This does not seem like the well-regulated militia contemplated by the second amendment. Instead, arms were taken from the people who owned them and being redistributed to other people who were considered more trustworthy.

While all this conscription and confiscation was going on under the guise of martial law, the thing that truly saved the city came in the form of a donation freely given. Jean Laffite and his Baratarian artillery unit were eager to serve and happy to donate flints and powder and artillery – if only the General would allow them to enter the city! As there were not enough flints available in the city, this donation was indispensable. It was in grudging cooperation with the Baratarians that Jackson was able to win the Battle of New Orleans and with that the undying gratitude of the nation. The glorious battle culminating in an American victory on January 8, 1815 led to much rejoicing, including public displays in the the Place d’Armes in which Baratarians alongside other American volunteers marched proudly, and at a banquet for high ranking officials, Jean Laffite stood side by side with Andrew Jackson as an honored hero. And then… everything should have gone back to normal, only it didn’t.

The citizenry of New Orleans may have grumbled, but they were by and large accepting of Jackson’s actions imposing martial law prior to the Battle of New Orleans. Despite his suspicion of them, most did not want to submit to the British and did everything they could to support the defense of the city. It was only after the American victory and when rumors that a peace treaty had been signed began to circulate that people started to openly rebel and inquire as to why it was that in peacetime martial law had not yet been lifted. “Desertions and mutiny among American troops prompted even more arrests. No longer perceiving a threat to their city after the January 8 victory, the citizens of New Orleans demanded a return to their former lifestyles.” (Warshauer p.31)

Businesses had been neglected. All commerce had ceased. Families lost their breadwinner. All this was acceptable during the thick of war, but the sooner things went back to normal once the war was over, the less suffering to the citizenry. Jackson, however, held onto wartime measures without any compunction for the suffering he was inflicting, long after the danger from the enemy was past. He ordered deserters imprisoned, then shot. One man, Pvt. James Harding, who deserted to help his wife who had been evicted from their home, was granted a reprieve from execution only at the last moment. These deserters were not career military, but ordinary citizens who had been glad to serve their country when the help was needed, but who had obligations in civilian life that were now pressing. Many residents of New Orleans of French and Spanish origin who had been happy to serve in the thick of battle were now starting to ask the French and Spanish consuls to provide them with exemptions on the grounds that they were really French or Spanish citizens. Everything that had united the residents in defense against the enemy was now conspiring to separate them in light of the continued iron rule of Andrew Jackson’s martial law. (Warshauer pp. 32-33.)

In mid-February, more than a month after the British had retreated for good, boarded their ships and disappeared, Jackson attempted to scare the citizenry into obedience by saying that “the enemy is hovering around us and perhaps meditating an attack.” (Warshauer p.32). Rather like an incompetent parent conjuring up the bogeyman to get children to obey, Jackson needed an invisible enemy to keep the people of New Orleans in line.

On February 24 Governor Claiborne wrote to exiled Attorney General Stephen Marerceau: “I can no longer remain a Silent Spectator of the prostration of the Laws. – I therefore request you, Sir, without loss of time to repair to this city… and resume your official duties…. And on receiving any information of any attempt of the Military to seize the person of any Private Citizen, not actually in Military Service of the United States, you are specially instructed to take for his protection, and for avenging the Injured Laws of this State such measures as your knowledge of the laws will point out.” (Warshauer p.34)

On March 3, an article appeared in the Louisiana Courier signed anonymously by “A Citizen of Louisiana of French Origin”:

 [I]t is high time the laws should resume their empire; that the citizens of this state should return to the full enjoyment of their rights; that in acknowledging that we are indebted to General Jackson for the preservation of our city and the defeat of the British, we do not feel much inclined, through gratitude, to sacrifice any of our privileges, and less than any other, that of expressing our opinion of the acts of his administration….

The article was penned by state senator Louis Louaillier, and one of the chief acts of the administration that he complained of was bringing citizens before military tribunals “a kind of institution held in abhorrence even in absolute governments.” Two days after the article appeared, Jackson had Louaillier arrested and warned that any person serving a writ of habeas corpus to free Louiaillier would also be imprisoned.

If Jackson wanted to prove himself a tyrant, then there could have been no better way to do it. A request for a writ of habeas corpus had in fact already been made before Federal Disrict Court Judge Dominick Hall. Hall, who had been appointed by none other than Thomas Jefferson in 1804. Hall equivocated momentarily on the issue of jurisdiction – was this a Federal or a State matter? – then granted the request. No sooner had Judge Hall granted the motion for a writ of habeas corpus, then Andrew Jackson had him arrested for “aiding and abetting and exciting mutiny within my camp.” In Jackson’s mind, the entire city of New Orleans was his camp and every citizen, from Federal Judges to state senators to the lowliest householder – was a soldier at his beck and call. (Warshauer pp.35-36)

And this might never have ended, if not for the arrival of an official notification on March 13 to Andrew Jackson of the ratification of the Treaty of Ghent.

Signing of the Treaty of Ghent
Wikimedia

But as soon as the treaty, which had already been signed on December 24, 1814, while the Battle of New Orleans was ongoing, by Ambassador John Quincy Adams for the Americans and by Admiral of the Fleet James Gambier, and that was ratified by the Prince Regent ( aka George IV) on January 30, 1815, was also ratified by the U.S. Senate on February 18, 1815, it was in fact the law of the land. There was only one problem: Jackson had not been told about it through proper channels. Yes, he’d heard about it. But not through official channels. And Andrew Jackson always went by the book.

As soon as Jackson received notification of the peace of Ghent being ratified by all parties, he revoked martial law and all the many prisoners were released, those exiled were allowed to come back to the city, and the case against Jackson was brought to court. United States v. Major General Andrew Jackson was what it was called, Judge Hall presided, and when all the legal arguments were settled Andrew Jackson was found in contempt of court and fined one thousand dollars, which, without admitting any wrongdoing, he paid.

Jackson was not forced to spend a single day in prison, despite the many he imprisoned. He was not forced to undergo any corporal punishment such as a flogging that many an impressed sailor had to undergo, he was not court martialed, nor executed summarily like the men had shot, he was not stripped of rank and dignity, he was not forced to go into exile like Aaron Burr after his acquittal for treason, and he did not lose his military pension. For violating the most important provisions of the constitution, including the first and second amendments, while in the pay of the United States, it was a mere slap on the hand.

But to Jackson it rankled, and so he hoped that one day he would be vindicated. In fact, he has been, not merely by the Congressional award in 1844 of his fine with interest, but by the political reality and even by the narrative that is told today by historians.

The argument on either side has always been a question of constitutionality versus necessity, as first formulated by Edward Livingston. Those who felt Jackson’s imposition of martial law was not constitutional to this very day seem to argue that it was nevertheless necessary. Matthew Warshauer is certainly one example: “Can one violate civil liberties if doing so saves the government that provides those civil liberties? …However much one might like to disdain Jackson for military rule, he did in fact save the city in a victory that was unprecedented and perhaps impossible without martial law.” (Warshauer pp. 44-45.)

Do governments provide civil liberties? Or do the best of them merely stand aside and not infringe on civil liberties that the people are already endowed with? The declaration of independence seems to argue for the latter and to deny the former. Is the rise of American  nationalism referred to earlier in the text by Warshauer in fact just a rise of statism, having nothing to do with nationality or patriotism, but with the state’s supremacy over individual citizens?  And did Jackson win the Battle of New Orleans because he imposed martial law or despite his unpopular and unconstitutional wielding of absolute power? This depends on whether one acknowledges the contributions of Jean Laffite and the Baratarians.

 

James Wilkinson — What a real spy looks like

Warshauer distinguishes between unfortunate excesses to be deplored — the jailing of a Federal judge and a state senator in time of peace for expressing opinions or issuing writs — and the need for thwarting spies and saboteurs. But the belief that martial law is a good deterrent against spies or saboteurs (today known as terrorists) is misguided. In a war against the British, the enemy looked and acted just like us. It would not have been possible to tell who was a British sympathizer based on their place of origin or the accent they used when they spoke, the clothes they wore, their twirling mustaches or their overall manner. The man issuing passes was just as likely to be a British sympathizer as the lowliest citizen with a foreign accent. Foreign-sounding names like Louaillier and Laffite did not necessarily imply lack of loyalty, when real spies during that era had names like Arnold or Wilkinson, and British sympathizers were often called something like Patterson. The color of a person’s skin meant nothing when real spies — whether for England or Spain — had the rosy complexions and the clean shaven faces of Englishmen. You simply could not look at someone and tell that he was a spy, and while there were in fact spies (it was not all paranoia), no spy was ever caught thanks to the unconstitutional measures imposed by martial law.

It is true that when Andrew Jackson entered the city in December of 1814, there was a spirit of disaffection between the people of New Orleans and their American-imposed government, but it was not because they were sympathetic to the British. On the contrary, they hated the British fiercely, and it was only to the extent that the Americans behaved like the British that this disaffection carried over. Tax collectors and revenuers, men of the Revenue Cutter Service, were thwarting the commerce of the United States, first under the color of the Embargo Act, and later the Non-Intercourse Act,  laws which were in fact unconstitutional and contrary to the spirit of the American revolution. Governor Claiborne’s real difficulty was in getting rid of smugglers and privateers who fought the British and then sold their goods to the citizens of New Orleans at a fraction of the cost. This was galling both to the tax collector and to the American merchants who had bought British goods at full price despite the embargo, but it was in fact a service to nation in its fight against the British. The crux of the disagreement between the people of New Orleans and their state Governor and with Commodore Patterson of the Federal government was who should pay for waging war.  But to suggest that the citizens of New Orleans would not have fought to defend their city from the British unless they were conscripted under Jackson’s martial law is deeply misleading and offensive. 

Who fights better, conscripts or volunteers? You can lead a man to battle, but can you force him to fight? How helpful were the bales of cotton, the fencing and the muskets and cartridges that were confiscated, when not placed in the willing hands of their owners to do battle for New Orleans? How many men who wanted to serve were alienated by being forced to serve?  How many “foreigners” were sacrificed so that native born double dealers like Daniel Patterson could make money off stolen goods from Barataria? Wasn’t the Battle of New Orleans won largely through the generosity of Jean Laffite who donated flints and powder, artillery and trained men, who had learned professional shooting as privateers and could make important contributions to both tactics and strategic planning? Didn’t Andrew Jackson himself commend the dedication of Dominique You and Renato Beluche?

We don’t have to question the good intentions of  Andrew Jackson to note that what he did was wrong. The excesses under martial law that we deplore are the natural and inevitable consequence of absolute power, and even the most well-intentioned man will fall into them as a result of wielding that power. When President Madison asked that Congress approve a declaration of war against Britain, it was impressment of sailors by the British that served as a pretext. Can impressment of sailors by Andrew Jackson be justified as a response to that? Or was the willing contribution of privateers to the success of the Battle of New Orleans the real reason the war was won?

References

Davis, William C. 2005. The Pirates Laffite: The Treacherous World of the Corsairs of the Gulf. Harcourt.

Hunt, Charles Havens. 1864. Life of Edward Livingston. D. Appleton and Co.: New York.

Kennedy, Roger. 1999. Burr, Hamilton and Jefferson: A Study in Character. Oxford University Press.

Warshauer, Matthew. 2006. Andrew Jackson and the Politics of Martial Law. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.

http://www.revolutionary-war-and-beyond.com/abigail-adams-reveals-anger-toward-great-britain.html

http://www.historiaobscura.com/commemoration-of-a-hero-jean-laffite-and-the-battle-of-new-orleans/

Cobbett the Body-Snatcher, or What Happened to Thomas Paine’s Corpse

October 27, 2014 in American History, general history, History

Thomas Paine as he may have looked when Cobbett unearthed him.

Thomas Paine as he may have looked when Cobbett unearthed him.

Even  before Thomas Paine  had died, at least one of his “friends” had designs on acquiring his skull.

John Wesley Jarvis,  an artist who was a close associate of the  author of “Common Sense,” asked Paine once, in a rather morbid but friendly mood, if he would permit him to have his skull to study when he was dead, considering Jarvis had a “thing” for the study of craniology, and, being a younger man, would likely survive the American Revolution’s firebrand author. Paine replied “No, let me alone when I am dead; I should not like my bones to be disturbed.” However, Paine got only a decade of repose in the grave before his bones went rambling, and it is likely today those same remains are yet above ground, thanks to another “friend” who dug him up in the fall of 1819.

graveRadical newspaper editor William Cobbett, an on-again, off-again British resident of the United States, decided Paine’s forlorn final residence beneath a walnut tree on his New Rochelle, N.Y., farm was greatly ill-suited to someone he considered a fellow countryman, plus a revolutionary patriot, and all around “great man.” So the best thing to do, in Cobbett’s eyes, was to hire his printshop man Benbow plus a couple of others to head out with a covered wagon one night, and dig Paine up by lantern light so they could body-snatch the corpse and smuggle it away by ship to the country of his birth, where a suitable interment and ceremony would be held on sacred ground at St. Paul’s Church. Yet another friend of Paine’s happened to be riding by around that time, saw them in their nefarious act of grave-robbery, and alerted the local constables, but Cobbett’s men succeeded in dashing away with the coffin and mouldering contents. Cobbett, with Paine’s body packed in a probably musty-smelling large trunk, then left quickly for England by the ship Hercules as newspapers both bemoaned and applauded the act in America.

“Tom Paine has of late become literally a ‘bone of contention.’ Mr. Cobbett, it was reported, had formed a determination to ship off the rotting carcass of his fellow countryman, that it might finish the process of putrefication in the land where it germinated. Upon this, a very respectable writer observes_‘It is as it should be__let England be the sepulcher of her own blasphemy.’  The Democratic Press, and the National Advocate, take offence at such sentiments; and aver that Mr. Cobbett, if he has done the foul and ‘sacriligious’ deed, ought to be sent to the state prison,” wrote the editor of the Northern Whig of Hudson, N.Y.  on Oct. 19, 1819.

The National Advocate of New York opined that they hoped the report of Paine being disinterred  “is not true: we cannot bring ourselves to believe, that an act of sacrilege, so daring__so repugnant to every feeling of patriotism, has been committed by William Cobbett..remove the bones of a revolutionary patriot, from the soil which he eminently assisted in liberating, and send them to moulder in a land of slavery? What could have induced such an act? ….Whatever the errors of Paine may have been on the subject of religion, he is to be judged by a Higher Tribunal, whose rights no earthly power can usurp. As a patriot, he laboured indefatigably and successfully in achieving the Independence of America, and America is deeply indebted to him: let his errors be forgotten, and his good deeds, alone, remembered__and let no sacrilegious hand disturb his bones.”

Meanwhile, Cobbett’s “Igor” grave-robber, Benbow, sought to defend his actions at the New Rochelle farm by penning a letter to the National Advocate newspaper:

“Sir, In answer to numerous questions relative to the removal of the bones of the greatest man of the age, in which he lived, who lay in a state of degradation, and whom, as an Englishman, I claim as my countryman, I have to say we mean to raise a colossal statue in his memory, which will prove to you, in the first place, the value we as Englishmen set upon the merits of Mr. Paine; and on the other hand, will prove to you, as Americans, your ingratitude, neglecting, as you have done, the man, who had done more, ten times told, than any other person, towards emancipating America from British slavery. However, Mr. Paine’s remains are gone to the land where they will be honored; and, being instrumental in the removal, forms one of the happiest periods of my life.”

(Benbow appears to have had a very mean life indeed if he counts thieving a corpse from a grave at night like the resurrectionists of the period as the happiest time he had experienced.)

graverobberThe editor of the City of Washington Gazette in November, 1819, wrote that “It must be admitted that Mr. Paine, with a few honorable exceptions, has been treated very scurvily in the United States…..Mr. Paine believed in a future state…in his treatise on dreams & c. (he) expressly states that he expected to exist hereafter. In truth, he was of too philosophical a turn of mind, and had too logical an intellect, to believe anything else. His infidelity extended no farther than to an unbelief in the Divinity of the Christian system. “

Paine had thought he would be buried in the Quaker church cemetery near his New Rochelle farm, but upon his death in 1809,  that congregation refused him from being interred in their consecrated ground due to his unconventional religious beliefs, or lack thereof.

The public was so enthralled by the story of Tom Paine’s travels after death, one unknown author even wrote a witty and dark poem about it, which appeared in the New York Daily Advertiser. Some sample verses include what happened once Cobbett arrived in England with his moldy cargo:

“He grasps the atheist’s skull and cries—

Here are the bones of mighty Paine,

Bro’t in this box across the main—

His dreary grave I search’d and found,

And dug these reliques from the ground—

A spot neglected, wrapp’d in gloom,

A dismal, cheerless, hopeless tomb,

With briars and nettles overspread,

And covered with the hemlock’s shade.”

One wonders what Edgar Allan Poe would have done with this sort of inspiration: perhaps Paine would have quoth “Nevermore!”

Back to Cobbett & co., when he arrived at Liverpool, his luggage was taken from the vessel to the custom house to undergo the usual inspection. When the last trunk was opened, Cobbett observed to the surrounding spectators, who had assembled in great numbers “here are the bones of the late Thos. Paine!” This declaration exacted a sudden and visible sensation, and the crowd pressed forward to see the contents of the package. Cobbett remarked that “great indeed must that man have been, whose very bones attracted such attention.”

The customs officer took out a coffin plate, inscribed “Thomas Paine, aged 74, died 8th June, 1809,” and having lifted up several of the bones, replaced the whole and passed them. The captain of the Hercules did not know the trunk had human remains in it until he arrived in Liverpool.

To welcome the corpse thief Cobbett back home, some of his political friends in Liverpool decided to have a public meeting with a special dinner in his honor (it is not known if Paine was invited also), but the weather turned out to be treacherous with snow and ice, and not many turned out.  Cobbett gave a lengthy justification for unearthing and importing Paine, particularly in having once abused the very man whose bones he now intended to honor. This he did by citing he had had immaturity of judgment and want of experience at the time he had attacked Paine in print in Philadelphia years earlier, and because Paine was then supporting the enemies of his country.

In a life he wrote about Paine in the early 1800s, Cobbett ripped him with the following poisonous pen:

“How Tom gets a living now, or what brothel he inhabits, I know not, nor does it much signify. He has done all the mischief he can in the world; and whether his carcass is at last to be suffered to rot on the earth, or to be dried in the air, is of very little consequence. Whenever or wherever he breathes his last, he will excite neither sorrow nor compassion; no friendly hand will close his eyes, not a groan will be uttered, not a tear will be shed. Like Judas, he will be remembered by posterity; men will learn to express all that is base, malignant, treacherous, unnatural, and blasphemous, by the single monosyllable__Paine!”

At the Liverpool dinner, Cobbett said his conscience hurt him about this earlier nastiness, and when he learned how Paine’s bones had been dishonored in America, though he was the founder of her independence, he determined to give his former enemy a more respectful and suitable burial. With respect to his object in bringing the bones to England, Cobbett declared it was to have them exhibited in London to as many people as might choose to see them, thus raising a sufficient sum to create a colossal statue to Paine’s memory.

Later, Cobbett tried to proceed with the plan further by going so far as to try to hawk rings made of locks of hair carefully clipped from Paine’s skull. This last venture appears not to have found many takers.

Paine's death mask

Paine’s death mask

Within a year of the exhumation, Cobbett had gone bankrupt and had a stay in Newgate Prison, while Paine was exhibited by Benbow. Then the skeleton was stored away in a cellar at Cobbett’s home to enjoy some “quiet time” until Cobbett himself died.

In February 1836, the effects of the late William Cobbett Esq were put up at auction at his farm in the parish of Ash, near Farnham. Towards the end of the sale, a curious large box was brought forward. Auctioneer Piggott opened it, and stepped back quickly, aghast. It was Thomas Paine’s remains, wrapped in several papers. Piggott flatly refused to sell the contents, saying as he had never been a dealer in human flesh, he certainly wasn’t going to now sell human bones.  The coffin plate of Thomas Paine was exhibited but went unsold, too.

Thomas Paine’s travels were just beginning, but the mystery of everything that happened to the remains, including his current status, remains a bone to gnaw on for historians.

In the 1870s, the trail of the remains focused mostly on Paine’s skull and right hand, which had stayed in the London area after Cobbett’s death. The second host of the bones was Lord King, a religious and political radical; then they went to a friend of Cobbett’s named Tillett, and disappeared for some years. The next appearance was in the study of the Rev. Mr. Ainslie of Brighton, a conservative Unitarian preacher, who claimed he had the skull.

“As that skull would be invaluable to the admirers of Paine, most of whom are believers in craniology or some kind of cerebral philosophy, Mr. Ainslie has been approached in various ways, but has thus far steadily avoided conversing on the subject. As the Rev. Mr. Ainslie has a good deal of fighting to do with the orthodox of Brighton, there is some ground for a suspicion that he does not wish it to come out that he keeps for secret homage the sacred ashes of St. Tom,” wrote a writer with tongue planted firmly in cheek for the San Francisco Bulletin in 1872.

So where are Thomas Paine’s remains now? Were they sold to a rag and bone recycler in England, as one tale says? Were they made into buttons? Were they dumped in the Thames? Were they kindly reburied? Or does the skull at least still stare out with sightless eyes through a cabinet of curiosities in some macabre collector’s study, the skull that held the mind which one day long ago opined, “These are the times that try men’s souls.”

 

 

 

 

The Poison Pen Duels of William Duane and Peter Porcupine

October 16, 2014 in American History, general history, History

 

 

The Weekly Aurora and Editor William Duane, and at botttom, William Cobbett (Peter Porcupine) and the Porcupine Gazette

The Weekly Aurora and Editor William Duane, and at botttom, William Cobbett (Peter Porcupine) and the Porcupine Gazette

Some eight thousand  times a day, six days a week,  pressmen  cranked the heavy wooden press of the Weekly Aurora newspaper  of Philadelphia. They were printing platens of tiny type on the Aurora’s eight linen paper pages, much of it poison pen invective written by pro-Jeffersonian editor William Duane against mortal enemy Peter Porcupine (William Cobbett), the editor of the pro-Federalist paper The Porcupine’s Gazette, just a few blocks away.

Duane and Cobbett continued their written vendetta through their respective presses for over 15 years and even across the Atlantic, until, with the end of the War of 1812 and the Treaty of Ghent, the fiery Irishman Duane and prickly Brit Cobbett “buried the hatchet” in early 1815,  shook hands symbolically, forgave each other their lying slanders, and called a pax on their maddened mud-slinging.

The editors’ political battles began with the swearing in of President John Adams, whose Executive Mansion residence was just down the block from the Aurora’s press. Both Duane and his publisher, Benjamin Franklin Bache, despised Adams as a Federalist with British monarchist sympathies. The Aurora was a Jeffersonian Democrat political publication friendly toward the French, even during the US Quasi-War with France. Duane began writing lengthy editorials against presidential policies and cohorts, saying “the pen and the press are my formidable weapons,”  and he kept his press running scorching hot most of the time. Cobbett, a British emigrant and bookseller in Philadelphia, started the Porcupine’s Gazette the day Adams took the presidential oath, and keenly defended with his quill any critical press about the President or his party, especially coming from the Aurora. Cobbett took up the prickly “nom de guerre” Peter Porcupine for his essays, and chiefly delighted in shredding the Aurora opinions with biting vitriol. In the maiden issue of the Porcupine’s Gazette, Cobbett declared the Aurora and its editorial staff “his enemies,” declaring “engarde!” for a lengthy duel of type fonts, ink,  and paper.

Like boxers in a ring, both editors were well-matched: Duane and Cobbett were equally gifted writers, both thrived on provoking controversy, and both likewise found themselves the targets of such unfriendly responses as broken office windows and libel suits from readers who didn’t appreciate being victimized in the press. Both also served stints in jails and prisons for their published opinions. Both were called “crazy.” They thrived in testing the boundaries of a “free” press.

Duane, in conjunction with Bache, produced a noteworthy attack on Cobbett  in a June 1796 issue of the Aurora called the “History of Peter Porcupine” in which the authors deigned to give a formal account of the “celebrated manufacturer of lies and retailer of filth.”

“His usual occupation at home was that of a garret-scribbler, excepting a little night-business occasionally, to supply unavoidable exigencies…He took a French leave for France. His evil genius pursued him there, and, as his fingers were as long as ever he was obliged as suddenly to leave the Republic, which has now drawn forth all his venom for her attempt to do him justice. On his arrival in this country, he figured some time as a pedagogue; but as this employment scarcely furnished salt to his porridge, he having been literally without any bread to eat, and  not “a second shirt to his back,” he resumed his old occupation of scribbling, having little chance of success in the other employments which drove him to this country.”

Peter Porcupine countered “Their great object is to silence me, but I am sorry to tell them it is all in vain; for I am one of those whose obstinacy increases with opposition.”

Cobbett, not content to just nettle Duane and the Aurora, also made it his particular business to sully the reputation of noted physician Dr. Benjamin Rush, whom he called a murderer due to his bleeding practices while attending patients ill from yellow fever. Dr. Rush sued Peter Porcupine for $5,000 in damages, and as luck would have it, the judge who heard the case happened to have been libelled by Cobbett, too, so the case was found in the plaintiff’s favor, Cobbett was bankrupted, and soon went back home to England to regroup. Duane and Bache gloried in the finding, but not for long. Bache died of yellow fever, and Duane assumed ownership of the Aurora after marrying his publisher’s widow. Cobbett, now back in his British homeland, began publication of a new paper, the Political Register, targeting some British practices as well as his old arch-foe, William Duane. The Atlantic offered no defense from his pen.

In 1802, the Republican newspaper of Baltimore Maryland published an editorial examining the Duane-Cobbett feud thusly:

“On every occasion where the French government has been the subject of discussion, either in its concerns with this country, or its war, or peace with Great Britain, the Aurora man has discovered the strongest predilection for the plundering republic. This he has displayed particularly, in his many false, contradictory and blundering paragraphs, respecting the cession of Louisiana, the bloody scenes in St. Domingo, and the conduct of Le Clerc relative to the property in St. Domingo of American merchants. On all these subjects Duane has manifested a peculiar sympathy with the French; and it was consistent in him, because their conduct and principles are congenial with the depraved sentiments of his own mind, and their revolution has exhibited on a large scale, what he has experienced on a small one__the complete triumph of scoundrelism.

“On the ebullitions of his gall, he has often attacked the ‘noted’ Peter Porcupine (as he affects to call him) and this conduct is natural, for Peter’s enmity to the French republic is as well known as this united Irishman’s cordial attachment. When Porcupine’s house was attacked by the rabble of London, for refusing to illuminate for the peace, our jacobin editor could not suppress his exultation; and with the same spleen has he lately noticed Cobbett’s letters to the British ministers, who negociated the preliminaries with the French agent. But, for his own sake, this MERCENARY ALIEN should be cautious how he introduces the name of Porcupine to the public with disrespect, as it invites an examination of his own character contrasted with that of William Cobbett. Two characters cannot be more dissimilar; and whenever they are mentioned together, the contrast fixes itself on the mind, much to the disadvantage of the hero of Clonmel {note: Duane’s family was from Clonmel Ireland} __The one has always been a consistent, loyal subject; the other, ever since he has been known has been distinguished as a seditious traitor. The one detests the modern French, for their numerous and unexampled crimes against the rights and independence of other nations; the other vindicates them for the same reason. The one has been the scourge of Jacobins and mock patriots; the other their constant panegerist. The one possesses a rough, unequivocal, unaccomodating independence of mind, scorning to wear the livery of any man; the other has been the supple tool, and sycophant of a party  ‘no less intolerant, than despotic and wicked.’ The one has been unremunerated for numerous services, in the “defence of his country, of religion and social order; the other has been compensated, with a prodigality disgraceful to the United States, for his wicked labours in the cause of anarchy and atheism. The one has acquired and deserves the thanks of many good men, although they condemn SOME of his publications; the other has merited, though from the fatality of the times, he has hitherto escaped it, a ____.” [One can only imagine what epithet filled in the blank.]

Duane and Cobbett’s pugilistic press matches reached their peak in late 1806, when Peter Porcupine had the nerve to suggest in the Political Register the assassination of  his American rival, and said Duane’s earlier banishment from India “has cost us (Great Britain) millions in the other hemisphere (America), and greatly decieved am I,”  he opined, “if this cost has yet reached its amount.”  Duane wasn’t going to take that lying down, so in one of his typical long-winded rebuttals, he shot Cobbett down in the pages of the Oct. 27, 1806 Aurora:

“Cobbett knew how and by whom and for what purposes the millions were expended in America__he says the resistance of the Aurora to the views and policy of England cost her millions! Where are we to look for the expenditure of those millions? They were not lavished in supporting the Aurora certainly__there was no doing anything with such a man unless you take his life [referring to Cobbett’s statement advising someone should get rid of him] !”

Not content with that, Duane went on: “Millions were expended by England to oppose a single newspaper! And how expended?__Look at the rival newspapers__look at their columns__see English prejudices__English alliances__English laws__even English vices, fashions and follies how they are extolled, defended and held forth for invitation_go farther, look at the columns of those newspapers, opposed to the Aurora, and see the names registered in their advertisements, one of the prices of British devotion is to be found there…. Look at the facts. Why do the merchants shun the Aurora, which prints more papers, and has a more extensive circulation, and more readers, than any other paper in America__and go to papers which have little circulation out of the city, which have less in the union at large, and whose hostility to the American principles of the government are as open and unequivocal as their abject servility to British views!”

Then he took direct issue with Cobbett’s statement there is “no doing any thing with such a man unless you take his life.” Duane wrote, “The editor would be guilty of squeamish affectation or hypocrisy, if he did not most proudly exult in the sentiments conveyed by this pithy sentence. There is no doing with such a man__that is you can neither terrify him from the assertion of his principles and opinion__you cannot corrupt him__and the only mode in which you can get rid of him is by the hand of an assassin.”

Cobbett said in the same Political Register that “Of all the men in America, whether natives or foreigners, whether high or low in life, William Duane has been, and yet is, the most formidable enemy of England.”

Duane responded, “Upon the absurdity of this, no two men in America can form a different opinion; but it was necessary to the end in view that to justify an act of assassination, the object should be made of the greatest possible importance, therefore it is that the hyperbole is resorted to; the publication of Mr. Cobbett was not calculated for Philadelphia where we knew it would be laughed at; it was calculated for London__and by enhancing the supposed consequence of a vigorous and independent press in Philadelphia, and indirectly to obtain a similar credit of consequences for himself there.”

No attempt was ever made on Duane’s life, but he did occassionally suffer vandalism at the offices of the Aurora, when enemies broke windows overnight and kept the glass-installer busy.

When the two battling editors finally called their truce in early 1815,  US newspapers were amused but not overly surprised, given that in their late 50s Duane and Cobbett had become milder year by year in their attacks on each other, as each in turn went from radical extremes of political thought to meet more or less in the middle.

According to the Connecticut Mirror of March 27, 1815, “Cobbett…confesses in his paper that when he was in this country, he used to tell lies about Duane, and Duane, unwilling to be left behind in the race of magnanimity, in the Aurora of March 16, 1815, confesses that he lied about Cobbett,__”was his great opponent. We said very bitter things of each other, and some things, which, on both sides, were very false.” Duane continued that in those days of turbulence and terror, “To the violence of which Mr. Cobbett contributed so largely when he was the great opponent of the editor of the Aurora, much was no doubt said concerning Mr. Cobbett which was a matter of inference from the tenor and effect of his writings.”

The editor of the Connecticut Mirror reflected tongue in cheek that “So long as this course is pursued by these patriots, they will not only be secure of the goodwill of the Madisonian party in this country, but their mutual attachment will be beyond the danger of interruption. That sympathy which commences within the walls of a prison and is cemented by a course of lying and scurrility abroad against every thing virtuous and praise-worthy, will be as lasting as life, and will go in full vigour with its possessor to the grave, even if the lenity of the laws should suffer their existence to be lengthened to the ordinary age of man.”

Duane and “Peter Porcupine” remained friends and penpals for the rest of their lives.

So who were these mud-slinging fireballs of the press, and what were their backgrounds, other than that both came from humble origins, and were mostly self-taught?

Born near Lake Champlain, N.Y., in 1760, William Duane was raised by his mother in Ireland, where he learned printing by apprenticeship before he left for India in 1784. In India, he was editor of  the popular “The World” newspaper for a brief period before his unfavorable opinions about the East India Company government found him arrested, his goods confiscated, and himself on a swift ship back to England. Undaunted, Duane soon became editor of the “General Advertizer” and continued his controversial writings until disfavor prompted him to return to the United States in 1795. There he joined Benjamin Franklin’s namesake grandson, Benjamin Franklin Bache, as editor for the Weekly Aurora at Philadelphia, a post he would hold until his retirement in 1822. He died in 1834.

Cobbett was born in Farnham, Surrey, in 1763, and in his youth had been a farmer and then a British soldier who had served in Nova Scotia before being discharged in 1791. He taught himself grammar and essay writing, and then studied printing. After publishing a pamphlet critical of the treatment of enlisted men in the British Army, Cobbett was nearly indicted before he fled to France in 1792, only to have to flee again due to the French Revolution underway. He arrived in the US and moved to Philadelphia in 1793. He ran the Porcupine’s Gazette only a few years before returning to England in 1800, and in 1801 he started the Political Register, which appeared weekly from January 1802 until his death in 1835. He became a member of Parliament late in life.

TO COME: William Cobbett the Bodysnatcher, or What Happened To Thomas Paine’s Corpse

 

Talk at Laffite Society Meeting October 14, 2014

October 12, 2014 in Legal History

There will be a talk about the effect of the changing laws about privateering on the career of Jean Laffite  October 14, 2014 at 6 pm at the Laffite Society Meeting at the Meridian Towers in Galveston, Texas.

 

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The Effect of the Changing Laws Concerning Privateering on the Career of Jean Laffite

Today, very few people have a clear idea of what privateering is and how it differs from piracy, despite the fact that the United States constitution still has a provision for the issuing of letters of marque and reprisal. Many people think that the word “privateer” is a synonym for “pirate”. But before the War of 1812 privateering was a respectable way of life, and this perception changed after the war. Jean Laffite, who had been both a smuggler and a privateer under a letter of marque from Cartagena suffered considerably from a misperception that he was a pirate.

Some of the laws covered will include The Neutrality Act of 1794, the Embargo Act of 1807, the Non-Intercourse Act of 1809 and the Neutrality Act of 1817.

The talk will be preceded by a meeting of the Laffite Society at 6pm and will actually begin at 7pm.

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