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The Letter That Tried to Scuttle the Baratarians’ Pardon

October 10, 2015 in American History, general history, History, Louisiana History

 

Poindexter Letter To Monroe

Poindexter Letter To Monroe

If George Poindexter had been Sec. of War or President during the end of the War of 1812, the Laffites and Baratarians would never have been pardoned for their past smuggling offenses even though they had given service and assistance to General Andrew Jackson at New Orleans.

Poindexter, who served as a volunteer aide de camp with Major General Carroll at Chalmette, took time away from his role as a judge at Natchez, Miss., to assist Jackson in defending New Orleans from invading British forces.

As soon as he returned home to Natchez, he wasted no time in firing off a confidential letter about his New Orleans experiences to his friend, Sec. of War James Monroe. The content about the pardon process is interesting as it contains some new information:

“Even a band of pirates was drawn into our ranks who were under prosecution of their crimes, and who had been invited to join the British while they occupied the Island near Lake Barataria. You will I hope sir, pardon me for stating to you, the manner, the circumstances of their transition from piracy to Patriotism, in the notorious Lafitte and his banditti. Edward Livingston, whose character is better known to you than myself, had contrived to attach himself and one or two of his adherents to the staff of Genl Jackson, as Volunteer Aids DeCamp (sic). The pirates had previously engaged him as their counsel to defend them in the District Court of the United States at New Orleans, and were by stipulation to give him the sum of twenty thousand dollars in case he succeeded in acquitting them. Knowing as he did that the evidence against them was conclusive, and that an impartial jury necessarily convict them, he advised the leaders of them to make a tender of their services to Genl Jackson in case he would come under a pledge to recommend them to the clemency of the Executive of the United States. Their services were accepted, and the condition acceeded to. How far the country is indebted to them for its safety it does not become me even to suggest an opinion. It is, however, a fact perfectly well known that their energy has been drawn by Mr. Livingston, their counsel; and there can be but little doubt that everything of an official stamp which is presented by the government respecting them, will emanate from the same source. If they are redeemed from  Judicial investigation of their crimes with which they stand charged, his reward will be twenty thousand dollars of their piratical plunderings.

What the practice of Civilized Governments has been on similar occasions I am not fully prepared to say, nor do I remember an instance where pirates falling into the Country and under the power of one belligerent, have been offered protection and pardon of their offences, in case they would take up arms against the other belligerent. They are considered as enemies alike to both belligerents but I have thought it a duty incumbent on me as a good citizen to state the facts which came within my knowledge, as to the motives which led to the employment of these men, without intending them to have any other, than the weight which is your Judgment they merit.

It would seem to be an obvious inference from the past conduct of this band of robbers that if Louisiana should be again invaded, and they are enlarged, they would be restrained by no moral obligation from affording facilities to the Enemy.

I indulge the hope that you will pardon the freedom with which I address you on the present occasion, from a recollection, that when I last had the honor of an interview with you in Washington, you were so good as to allow me the liberty of writing to you confidentially. In that light, I wish you will view this communication, in so far as it may conflict with the wishes and opinions of General Jackson, relative to the grant of a pardon to the pirates, whom he has thought fit to employ in our service.”

Signed, George Poindexter

Poindexter’s rather snippy revelation about Livingston’s fee for representing the Baratarians may or may not have been true. It could have just been battlefield hearsay. If the fee was really $20,000 in 1814 dollars, it would be the close equivalent to $200,000 today.

The letter implies but does not say that Livingston influenced Jackson to accept the Baratarians’ service as a way to ensure he would get his enormous fee. Poindexter hatefully says “it does not become me even to suggest an opinion” relative to the Baratarians’ contribution to the safety of the country. He conveniently forgets the vital contribution of the Laffite flints and powder to Jackson, plus the Baratarian cannoneers’ service. Without them, Poindexter likely would have found himself cooling his heels in a British prison ship on Feb. 5, 1815, instead of comfortably at home in his Natchez mansion.

Thankfully, however, Poindexter’s letter was much too late to even have a chance to stop the presidential pardons for the Baratarians. The same day Poindexter wrote his letter, Monroe sent a letter to Gov. Claiborne enclosing the signed pardons. They had been rushed through the pardon process at record speed, especially considering President James Madison and his cabinet were basically dislocated in Washington at the time and conducting business somewhat haphazardly from various houses. By the time Poindexter’s letter was in Washington, the pardons were in Gov. Claiborne’s hands.

There also happened to be another reason the pardons were accelerated: Monroe was secretly something of an ally to the Laffites and their men, through their mutual friend, Fulwar Skipwith, president of the Louisiana State Senate in 1814, and former President of the short-lived Republic of West Florida in 1810.

Along with Magloire Guichard, Speaker of the House of Representatives in the Louisiana state legislature, Skipwith had sponsored a resolution to grant amnesty to “the privateers lately resorting to Barataria, who might be deterred from offering their services for fear of persecution.” This was done around mid December 1814, not long before General Jackson shut the legislature down due to civil unrest within it. Skipwith must have informed Monroe about this very soon after it happened, with Jackson accepting the services of the Baratarians who were freed from prison, plus others who had not been caught in the September 1814 raid on Barataria, like the Laffite brothers. Due to wartime blockades of sea traffic by the British, letters had to be sent by post rider back east, with the time to delivery often being as much as a month or more. The request for presidential pardons from James Madison must have been made before the Battle of New Orleans, given that Monroe enclosed the pardons in his letter to Claiborne on Feb. 5, 1814.

The real reason the presidential pardons were fast-tracked lies in an understanding of the web of influence and political power between the Laffites, Skipwith, and Monroe. Even if Poindexter’s letter trying to defuse any possibility of pardons for the Baratarians had been received in time for consideration, in all probability it would never have been read by President Madison.

Monroe and Skipwith were old friends, from at least their days together in France, where Monroe was ambassador in 1795 when he named Skipwith to be the US Consul-General to France. Both men worked in the Napoleonic court together, fine tuning the Louisiana Purchase. Both men were Masonic brothers. Also, both men shared strong ties to Thomas Jefferson, Skipwith by relation as a distant cousin, and Monroe as a neighbor and very close friend.

There is a question of how Skipwith became associated with the Laffites. The most likely manner occurred not long after the Virginian moved to a plantation in Spanish West Florida in 1809. He started running privateers, at about the same time the Laffites were setting up their own smuggling and privateering business. No paper proof has been found linking them, but the actions of Skipwith in 1814 favorable to the Laffites would seem to indicate that they were, indeed, associates of some kind. Thus the Laffites had friends in some very high places.

Only a handful of Baratarians ever retrieved their pardons. The Laffites never applied or received any. Nor did Dominique Youx, the main gunner at Battery No. 3, or Renato Beluche, also a gunner at Battery No. 3.

As for what happened to George Poindexter, the man who wanted to deny pardons to the Baratarians despite their service to Jackson, he became the second governor of Mississippi and had a moderately successful political career.

Skipwith and Monroe kept up their correspondence for several years and apparently were lifelong friends.

For further reading about the hidden gems of early American history, I heartily recommend perusing Daniel Preston’s fine “A Comprehensive Catalogue of the Correspondence and Papers of James Monroe.” Thanks go to him for providing the Poindexter letter copy from the Monroe Papers. For more about Fulwar Skipwith, the man with the memorable name, and the Republic of West Florida, see William C. Davis’ “The Rogue Republic, How Would-Be Patriots Waged the Shortest Revolution in American History.”

 

 

 

 

 

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 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 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

 

The Aurora Editor Snipes at Britain, Post War of 1812

September 30, 2014 in American History, European History, general history, History, Louisiana History

The Weekly Aurora of Philadelphia

The Weekly Aurora of Philadelphia

With one of those quill pens he so often had wielded to acidulously attack targets in his Weekly Aurora newspaper at Philadelphia, Editor William Duane  reflected at length in March 1815 about the Causes and Character of the Late War with Great Britain, in an exposition that flowed like a river of tiny type and took up three weeks’  worth of issues of his Jeffersonian Democrat newspaper, a publication which was widely read by both his admirers and his Federalist and British detractors. Duane included the British visit and offer to Jean Laffite in a portion of  this work, published March 28, 1815:

“Great Britain has violated the laws of humanity and honor, by seeking alliances, in the prosecution of war, with savages, pirates, and slaves.

…when the war was declared, the alliance of the British government with the Indians, was avowed, upon principles, the most novel, producing consequences the most dreadful_The savages were brought into the war, upon the ordinary footing of allies, without regard to the inhuman character of their warfare, which neither spares age nor sex, and which is more desperate towards the captive, at the stake, than even towards the combatant, in the field. It seemed to be a stipulation of the compact between the allies, that the British might imitate, but should not control the ferocity of the savages__While the British troops behold, without compunction, the tomahawk and the scalping knife, brandished against prisoners, old men and children, and even against pregnant women, and while they exultingly accept the bloody scalps of the slaughtered Americans; the Indian exploits in battle, are recounted and applauded by the British general orders. Rank and station are assigned to them, in the military movements of the Brtitish army, and the unhallowed league was ratified with appropriate emblems, by intertwining an American scalp with the decorations of the mace.

…the savage, who had never known the restraints of civilized life. and the pirate, who had broken the bonds of society, were alike the subjects of British conciliation and alliance, for the purposes of an unparalleled warfare. A horde of pirates and outlaws had formed a confederacy and establishment on the island of Barrataria, near the mouth of the river Mississippi. Will Europe believe, that the commander of the British forces, addressed the leader of the confederacy [Jean Laffite], from the neutral territory of Pensacola, “calling upon him, with his brave followers, to enter into the service of Great Britain, in which he should have the rank of captain; promising that lands should be given to them all, in proportion to their respective ranks, on a peace taking place; assuring them, that their property should be guaranteed, and their persons protected; and asking, in return, that they would cease all hostilities against Spain, or the allies of Great Britain, and place their ships and vessels, under the British commanding officer on the station, until the commander in chief’s pleasure should be known, with a guarantee of their fair value at all events?” There wanted only to exemplify the debasement of such an act, the occurrence, that the pirate should spurn the proffered alliance; and accordingily, Lafitte’s answer was indignantly given, by a delivery of the letter, containing the British proposition, to the American governor of Louisiana.

There were other sources, however, of support, which Great Britain was prompted by her vengeance to employ, in opposition to the plainest dictates of her own colonial policy. The events, which have extirpated, or dispersed, the white population of St. Domingo, are in the recollection of all men.Although British humanity might not shrink, from the infliction of similar calamities upon the southern states of America, the danger of that course, either as an incitement to a revolt, of the slaves in the British islands, or as a cause of retaliation, on the part of the United States, ought to have admonished her upon its adoption. Yet, in a formal proclamation issued by the commander in chief of his Brittanic majesty’s squadrons, upon the American station, the slaves of the American planters were invited to join the British standard, in a covert phraseology, that afforded but a slight veil for the real design. Thus, admiral Cochrane, reciting “that it had been represented to him, that many persons now resident in the United States, had expressed a desire to withdraw therefrom, with a view of entering into his majesty’s service, or of being received as free settlers into some of his majesty’s colonies,” proclaimed, that “all those who might be disposed to emigrate from the United States, would, with their families, be received on board his majesty’s ships or vessels of war, or at the military posts that might be established upon, or near, the coast of the United States, when they would have their choice of entering into his majesty’s sea or land forces, or of being sent as free settlers to the British possessions in North America, or the West Indies, where they would meet all due encouragement.” But even the negroes seem, in contempt, or disgust, to have resisted the solicitation: no rebellion, or massacre, ensued; and the allegation, often repeated, that in relation to those who were seduced, or forced, from the service of their masters, instances have occurred of some being afterwards transported to the British West India Islands, and there sold into slavery, for the benefit of the captors, remains without contradiction. So complicated an act of injustice, would demand the reprobation of mankind. And let the British government, which professes a just abhorrence of the African slave trade; which endeavors to impose, in that respect, restraints upon the domestic policy of France, Spain and Portugal, answer, if it can, the solemn charge, against their faith and their humanity.”

Duane took Great Britain to task for allying themselves with the “savage” Indians and their known depradations, then in having the lowness in character to try to associate with people some regarded as pirates, and, worst of all, trying to start a violent slave insurrection by promising the slaves their freedom for their help. For once, his exposition found friendly readers among most of  the general public of  the United States. Much of the lengthy opus was reprinted widely. The British, including his old arch-enemy journalist with a similar poison pen, William Cobbett, stayed silent on the matter. (By the spring of 1815, Duane and  Cobbett had reconciled and become friends after a bitter battle in print that had lasted for over 15 years).

The Aurora, once a powerful publication that could help sway presidential elections (Jefferson claimed it helped him gain office), had declined in its political pull by the time the War of 1812 ended. By late 1815, Duane published a letter to the editor from the same “pirate” he had disparaged in his exposition earlier that year: the mercurial newspaperman’s favor was as capricious as the wind.

TO COME:

William Duane and “Peter Porcupine,” the Epic Battle of the Word-Dueling Journalists

 

 

 

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

March 6, 2014 in American History, Caribbean History, general history, History, Louisiana History

A “Buccaneer” scene from the Battle of New Orleans, with Yul Brynner as Jean Laffite, at Battery No. 3.

Almost 200 years ago, privateer-smuggler Jean Laffite became a hero because he did something most people wouldn’t have done: in the face of extreme adversity, he had helped save New Orleans for the Americans, even though United States officers had destroyed his home base and seized his property a few months earlier.
Sometimes incorrectly regarded as a pirate, Laffite and his Baratarian associates were actually privateers sanctioned by the Patriot regime of Carthagena to prey on Royalist Spanish shipping in the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean. They smuggled prize goods past customs at New Orleans through their base ports of both Cat Island and Grande Terre, providing low-priced goods to the populace through both auctions and other sales.
“Though proscribed by my adoptive country, I will never let slip any occasion of serving her, or of proving that she has never ceased to be dear to me” wrote Laffite to Louisiana legislator Jean Blanque on Sept. 4, 1814, in an enclosure that contained British letters he had received from Commodore Nicholas Lockyer of HMS Sophie the day before at Grande Terre. Laffite also said the British represented to him a way to free his brother Pierre from prison. Pierre had been incarcerated at the Cabildo in New Orleans since early summer 1814 after being arrested on a grand jury indictment.
Lockyer had tried to bribe Laffite to aid the British in their plans to seize New Orleans, but Jean had stalled for time about a reply, so he could advise the New Orleans authorities about the imminent threat. Lockyer told his superior, Capt. William Henry Percy, that his mission to secure ships and assistance from Laffite had met with “ill success.”
Blanque gave the letters, including Laffite’s, to Louisiana Governor W.C.C. Claiborne. Perversely, Claiborne’s advisory council decided to allow US Commodore Daniel Todd Patterson and Col. George Ross to proceed with a raid on Grande Terre. On the morning of Sept. 16, US ships and gunboats under the direction of Patterson and Ross blew up Laffite’s home and Grande Terre to bits, confiscated nine ships in the harbor, and all the goods they could find, from wine to German linen to exotic spices. They also pursued fleeing Baratarians, and imprisoned some 80 of them, including Dominique You, who had made sure that none of the Baratarians fired on the American vessels, per Laffite’s instructions.
Almost as soon as the British letters arrived in New Orleans, somehow Pierre escaped from jail and quickly rejoined his brother at Grande Terre, where he, too, wrote a letter to Claiborne to offer allegiance to the US.
Jean and his brother Pierre then had left Grande Terre to hide out at the LaBranche plantation on the German Coast, slightly upriver from New Orleans. They would remain fugitives until a short while after Gen. Andrew Jackson’s arrival at New Orleans in December. Jean was subject to arrest on sight following the raid.
So what did Laffite do right before the raid, and afterward? Here is what he says he did, in his own words, in a letter to President James Madison written Dec. 27, 1815:
“I beg to … to state a few facts which are not generally known in this part of the union, and in the mean time solicit the recommendation of your Excellency near the honourable Secretary of the treasury of the U.S., whose decision (restitution of the seized ships and items in the Patterson raid) could but be in my favour, if he only was well acquainted with my disinterested conduct during the last attempt of the Britannic forces on Louisiana. At the epoch that State was threatened of an invasion, I disregarded any other consideration which did not tend to its safety, and therefore retained my vessels at Barataria inspite of the representations of my officers who were for making sail for Carthagena, as soon as they were informed that an expedition was preparing in New Orleans to come against us.
“For my part I conceived that nothing else but disconfidence in me could induce the authorities of the State to proceed with so much severity at a time that I had not only offered my services but likewise acquainting (sic) them with the projects of the enemy and expecting instructions which were promised to me. I permitted my officers and crews to secure what was their own, assuring them that if my property should be seized I had not the least apprehension of the equity of the U.S. once they would be convinced of the sincerity of my conduct.
“My view in preventing the departure of my vessels was in order to retain about four hundred skillful artillerists in the country which could but be of the utmost importance in its defense. When the aforesaid expedition arrived I abandoned all I possessed in its power, and retired with all my crews in the marshes, a few miles above New Orleans, and invited the inhabitants of the City and its environs to meet at Mr. LaBranche’s where I acquainted them wih the nature of the danger which was not far off…a fews days after a proclamation of the Governor of the State permitted us to join the army which was organizing for the defense of the country.
“The country is safe and I claim no merit for having, like all inhabitants of the State, cooperated in its welfare, in this my conduct has been dictated by the impulse of my proper sentiments; But I claim the equity of the Government of the U.S. upon which I have always relied for the restitution of at least that portion of my property which will not deprive the treasury of the U.S. of any of its own funds.
Signed Jn Laffite”

Two French honey-colored flints from the Laffite cache at Chalmette

Two French honey-colored flints from the Laffite cache at Chalmette

Diagram shows how the stone flint was positioned in the lock mechanism of a gun.

Diagram shows how the stone flint was positioned in the lock mechanism of a gun.

The interesting thing about Jean’s letter to the President is he considered the aid of his veteran artillery personnel to be the most important contribution to the defense of New Orleans, and he says nothing at all about what was truly his most valuable aid to the Americans_the supply of some 7,500 desperately needed gun flints, flints which Gen. Andrew Jackson himself said later were the only ones he had during the battles against the British at Chalmette. Indeed, in a letter to a friend in 1827, Gen. Jackson flat out stated that the Laffite cache was “solely the supply of flints for all my militia and if it had not been for this providential aid the country must have fallen.”
For those unfamiliar with firearms of that era, most were muskets, fowling pieces, some Kentucky long rifles, and a variety of pistols, all with the flintlock firing mechanism. Flintlocks require small specially shaped squares of flint to spark the charge into the gunpowder to fire the lead shot. Without a flint, the weapon is useless save as a club, and indeed many pistols of the time were fortified with brass wrap-arounds on the stock to make them heavier towards that end. If Jackson’s men had no flints, they would have only had cannons, swords, knives, bayonets and guerilla style hand-to-hand fighting to fall back on, whereas the British were fully supplied with flints and firearms. The British would have easily routed Jackson during the Battle of New Orleans if Jackson’s troops could not have fired back at them. Jackson was correct in his assessment of the value of those flints, he was not exaggerating at all. Sometimes the smallest things can make the biggest impacts.
It is not known exactly when Laffite delivered the flints to Jackson, but it was sometime after Dec. 22, as the Americans had insufficient flints during the night raid on the British camp on Dec. 23, and were seizing British weapons in that event.
On Dec. 22, Jackson sent Jean Laffite to the Temple area near Little Lake Salvador to assist Major Reynolds with blocking the bayous there, plus setting up fortifications on the ancient Indian shell mound area. He told Jean he wanted him back at Chalmette as soon as possible. On his way back to Jackson’s Line, Laffite and some of his men must have picked up the kegs of flints from a Laffite warehouse in New Orleans, or the immediate vicinity, as the flints were soon being distributed on Jackson’s line.
The combination of Laffite’s flints, the expert cannoneers Dominique You and Renato Beluche, Jackson’s tactical skills and leadership, and the logistical combined nightmare of the swampy ground and unusually cold weather proved overwhelmingly devastating for the British. The Battle of New Orleans was an extremely horrible defeat for them, as at the conclusion, the ground in front of Jackson’s Line at the Rodriguez Canal was called a literal “red sea” of the dead and dying English troops and officers.
The most prominent history of the New Orleans campaign is
”Historical Memoir of the War in West Florida and Louisiana” written by Jean Laffite’s friend and Jackson engineer Arsene Lacarriere Latour. There were some contemporary histories written by British participants in the New Orleans campaign. None of these say anything about receiving any type of assistance whatsoever from Jean Laffite, although British historian Tim Pickles of New Orleans makes the preposterous and undocumented claim that only Jean could have led the British through Lake Borgne to the Bayou Bienvenu. However, neither Jean nor Pierre were anywhere near that vicinity on Dec. 16, 1814. Some Spanish fishermen who knew those bayous thoroughly were there, because that’s where they lived. A few of them, named in Latour’s history, were the ones who aided the British, not either Laffite. History is the art of interpretation of the past, but facts are facts. Jean did not tell Lockyer he would help the British, he did not give them any ships or maps, or even geographical attack advice. He certainly didn’t stay neutral. His sentiments, as clearly stated in his letters in the archives, were wholly with the United States, his adoptive country, as proven by his actions.
In the end, the Laffites never got their ships back for free, or most of the goods that were taken in the raid. Ross had beaten Jean to the punch about approaching Washington authorities regarding proceeds from sales of the raid items, and he successfully lobbied for a congressional bill to approve the award to Patterson, Ross and their soldiers. That was not approved until 1817, by which time Ross had died, so Patterson was the one who benefitted from the $50,000 windfall.
Madison had promised the Baratarians a full pardon for anyone who fought for the US in the New Orleans campaign, but neither Laffite ever applied through the governor for one of these pardons. Medals, swords, and all sorts of praise were heaped on Gen. Jackson after Jan. 8, 1815, but the Laffites only got a few appreciative words from the general in newspaper articles.
Chalmette Battlefield is now a part of Jean Lafitte National Historical Park, and it will celebrate the 200th anniversary of that glorious victory day on Jan. 8, 1815. Let’s hope the ceremonies include some recognition of Jean Laffite, Pierre Laffite. and the Baratarians. It would be the proper and fitting thing to do.

The Short-Lived Military Camp on Grande Terre

December 3, 2013 in American History, general history, History, Louisiana History

 

This is a map drawn by Lafon in 1813 of Grande Terre, showing a proposed military battery which was never built.

This is a map drawn by Lafon in 1813 of Grande Terre, showing a proposed military battery which was never built.

Even people who are well versed in Louisiana history probably never have heard of Camp Celestine. The pretty name  makes it sound like a Girl Scout gathering place, but in reality it was a failed military post on the marshy dunes of  Grande Terre island during May through June of 1813.
British ships had started blockading the Balize at the mouth of the Mississippi River in May 1813 during the War of 1812, and the HMS Herald had been steadfastly harassing shipping to and from New Orleans as the main feature of the blockade. American authorities were worried that the British might get ideas about using the bayou approach to New Orleans plus they    wanted to end the smuggling that had been going on from privateers in that area, so they decided to set up a small military garrison on Grande Terre. For some reason, the Laffites and Baratarian privateers were concentrated then more heavily 12 leagues away, on Cat Island near the mouth of Bayou LaFourche, so the American military encountered no obstacles. Militia earlier had been mustered into federal service as the Second Battalion of Louisiana Volunteers, under the command of Major H.D. Peire, and it was members of this force that stood ready to defend the island from the British and smugglers.
On May 6, 1813, Spanish authorities said pirates in an armed boat captured a Spanish schooner below English Turn on the Mississippi River, carried her out through the unguarded Southwest Pass, and brought the prize to Grande Terre, unaware that the Laffites and Baratarians were elsewhere. The captain also didn’t know an American force was present, until it was too late. The prize and cargo were seized, but the pirates escaped in their ship, according to a May 18, 1813, letter about the incident written by  Diego Morphy, New Orleans,  to Juan Ruiz de Apodaca, captain general of Cuba.
Apparently, other privateers got enough warning to stay away from Grande Terre while the Americans were there, because no other ships were seized. Major Peire decided to take the offense, and make an expedition to Cat Island, using barges filled with all the American forces and supplies. Interestingly, at almost the exact same time, Capt. Clement Millward of the nearby HMS Herald had the same plan, and sent out his launches with about 100 men to attack the Cat Island privateers. The five privateer schooners manned by Baratarians near Cat Island fought back soundly, defeating the British and severely wounding the leader of the British contingent, Lt. Edward Handfield, who had his left shoulder shattered by a musket ball.  A squall rose up, and the British boats were separated from their ship; the American forces were near enough to be caught in the storm as well, and the barges upset, losing all the supplies and two of the volunteer militia men. The American men seem to have scattered during the storm, as shortly afterward back on Grande Terre, a court martial convened for a trial of 10 to 15 mutineers and of Major Henry of the Volunteers. Authorities must have looked kindly on these men, for none of them were sentenced to death. Their supplies and guns totally lost, the Americans quickly left Grande Terre to the sand crabs and returned to New Orleans, defeated. Camp Celestine as a military post was now just a minor footnote in history, and the Laffites and Baratarians soon took advantage of this departure and shifted all their operations from Cat Island to Grande Terre, given its closer proximity to New Orleans. The HMS Herald was absent from the Gulf Coast for a couple of months due to damage from a hurricane that hit her home base of Nassau, and when she returned to the Balize, she gave a wide berth to the French privateers.

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