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Pirates, Privateers and Ethics in the New Orleans Courtroom

November 18, 2017 in American History, general history, History, Legal History, Louisiana History, Nautical History

 

The old Spanish Courthouse where John Dick and John R. Grymes battled

The old Spanish Courthouse where John Dick and John R. Grymes battled

Ethics meant everything to attorney John Dick, an Irish emigrant to New Orleans. He felt compelled in May 1813 to ensure everyone else knew that, too, even if it meant possibly provoking a duel with his nemesis, District Attorney John Randolph Grymes, over a recently completed case involving a French pirate Grymes had represented in New Orleans District Court. So as soon as he was free of his sick bed, Dick proceeded to the offices of the leading newspaper in town, the Louisiana State Gazette, and gave the editor his lengthy exposition of just how badly he thought Grymes had neglected his official duty in order to profit from the purse of a pirate. The case involved the Spanish poleacre San Francisco de Paula versus the captain and crew of the armed French schooner Felix

The editor of the Louisiana State Gazette of May 29, 1813, prefaced Dick’s two page missive with the following:

“Publication of the following statement has been delayed by a variety of causes. At the period of its date, and for sometime afterward, the case to which the facts in the statement have reference, remained undecided. Consequently to have made the facts a subject of newspaper discussion would have been disrespectful and improper. This reason for delay was assigned by the writer through the public prints, early in the month of February (1813); and, at the same time, he pledged himself to a justification of his dispute with Mr. John R. Grymes, as soon as that justification could be made consistently with duty and decorum.
“When the case of the San Francisco de Paula was decided, an important change had taken place in the writer’s situation,_and his life, previously despaired of, was considered out of danger_then, he thought it better to delay his defense until freed from the trammels of a sick bed so he could give it his personal attention; but now, on due reflection, he presents it in its first form as written at the time of its date. This form is chosen by the writer in preference, as it displays his feelings and dispositions at that period, although he is aware of the imperfections necessarily included to so indigested a production….”

(Ed. note: the decision of the court was to restore the San Francisco de Paula and cargo to the libellants, so Dick won the case for his clients, but apparently the questionable ethics of his opponent still nettled him.)

Here, as follows, is most of Dick’s letter:

“New Orleans Jan. 27, 1813

TO THE PUBLIC

An urgent but disagreeable necessity forces me (John Dick), in defense of my own honor, to lay before the world the circumstances of a personal quarrel. Society is so regulated that in proportion as an individual becomes the object of suspicion or the theme of reproach, so if his utility impaired, his capacity to benefit the community or himself is enervated or destroyed. Impressed with this truth, and influenced by the intention of rescuing my character from the [taint]  that justly attaches to him who falsely or unnecessarily assails the reputation of another, I have thought it proper thus to address the public.

The following statement …is a history of my own motive and conduct, written in order that, if living when this meets the public eye, I may be justified to the world, and may not lose that utility which the loss of the world’s good opinion would deprive me; or that if dead, my character may rest in peace_unsullied by the malevolence of those who bear me enmity, free from the censure of the ignorant or misinformed.

I have been charged by Mr. John R. Grymes with making a wanton, and unwarrantable attack on his character and reputation. This charge is eminently serious; it involved everything that is dearest to man; and in its consequences, may lead to a catastrophe much to be deprecated. To Mr. Grymes I have no feelings of personal hostility, but I have regard for justice and the truth…feelings that now urge me to repel with vigor an unjust accusation. If I am indeed capable of a wanton aspersion of character_if I am capable of willful injustice, of knowingly perverting what I understand, I no longer deserve to live in the society of those who deem a strict and inviolable adherence to truth, the groundwork of all that is virtuous and honorable among men__I proceed to a development of my alleged offense and to my justification.

It was in the District Court of the Louisiana District on the 19th of (January 1813), in the case of the Spanish poleacre the San Francisco de Paula, that I found it necessary in the course of the argument to advert to the system of piracy practiced in our seas__this system, which mocks all lives human and divine, which banishes all the charities of life and dissolves all the sympathies of nature, which, if countenanced, confounds all the distinctions of morals, and bursts the ties of society asunder by giving a license to power to prey upon weakness__this system, I say, I considered likely to be influenced by the decision in the pending case; on the one hand that it might tend to suppress the evil, or on the other, that it might give increased energy to its aggressions on the morals and happiness of society.

After endeavoring to impress the court with the importance of this subject, and after calling its attention to the alarming influence and progress of piracy and illegal adventures within its immediate jurisdiction I went on to express myself nearly as follows:

“What, indeed, it may be asked, is the condition of the community when he whose duty it is to guard the law from infraction and to enforce it, is found active in giving efficacy to the conduct of its violators? When the sentinel, not content with sleeping on his post, gives security to illicit operations by becoming its defender, we may well say that it is time for the citizen and the neutral to look elsewhere for an enforcer of the laws that afford them security and protection. And where can they look with so much security, with so much certainty of success, as to the enlightened tribunal which I have the honor to address?”

The person alluded to in these observations was Mr. Grymes, the district attorney; and I think the following narrative of facts will demonstrate not only their truth and justice, but their necessity to the subject under discussion.

The Spanish poleacre San Francisco de Paula, from Palmyra in the Island of Minorca bound for Havana, was captured off Matanzas on or about the 21st of last June by the armed schooner Felix, alleged to be a French privateer duly commissioned. The Felix brought her prize into the port of New Orleans, where the captain of the policer instituted a suit in the district court of the US for retribution of vessel and cargo alleging that the armed schooner Felix was not a privateer duly commissioned, that she was illegally fit out, and her force illegally augmented within the waters and jurisdiction of the United States.

I was one of the counsels for the captain of the poleacre libellant, Mr. Grymes, district attorney of the US in and for the Louisiana District,  was one of the counsels for the captain and crew of the Felix, claimants.

In the progress of the cause it appeared in evidence that soon after the arrival of the San Francisco de Paula in the port of New Orleans, Captain Patterson of the navy, then commanding officer on this station in the absence of Commodore Shaw, applied to Mr. Grymes, as district attorney of the US, to institute a criminal prosecution against the said schooner stating that an examination of her papers, conducted with attentive scrutiny on his part, led him to consider the said schooner a Pirate. Upon this application, Mr. Grymes did not think proper to act; he saw no sufficient grounds for instituting a prosecution, and the Felix was permitted to go to sea without molestation.

It was further shown, by the testimony of one of the crew of the schooner Felix, that the said schooner had cleared out from Baltimore under the name of the Two Brothers; in ballast, and bound for Boston. That the witness shipped on board of her in the Chesapeake, at which time she was perfectly new, never having been to sea; that on getting to sea some arms and ammunition were produced, the name and character of the schooner were changed__she assuming the style and title of the French privateer Felix from Bayonne__that the Felix proceeded to Charleston, where she received an augmentation in her force of 22 men…These and other circumstances were related, all going to show distinctly and incontestably the character of the Felix, and affording full and satisfactory evidence that prosecution alone was wanting to condemnation of the vessel and punishment of the crew by the laws of the United States.

When the subject of this testimony was under discussion, Mr. Grymes, for the purpose of weakening its credibility and force, stated that it would have been sufficient to sustain a prosecution against the Felix, which would have been the most easy and ready means of obtaining restitution of the Spanish poleacre and cargo. In reply it was told to Mr. Grymes, that evidence struck different minds with different force that, as in the application made by Capt. Patterson, so in this case. He might have considered this evidence insufficient; that at the time of obtaining this testimony Mr. Grymes was counsel for the captain and crew of the Felix; that there was too much at stake (50-70,000 dollars) to risk its exhibition previous to trial for it was impossible to separate Mr. Grymes counsel for the claimants from Mr. Grymes attorney for the United States.

To show how entirely the conduct of the counsel for the claimants corresponded with these observations it is sufficient to state, that the testimony was disclosed to the acting collector of the customs while the Felix was yet in port__but in confidence, under an express injunction not to make it known to Mr. Grymes. Mr. Grymes was the only organ through which the collector could be expected to wage prosecution against the Felix; the conditions under which he obtained this information as a man of honor he could not violate; the district attorney was not consulted, the Felix rose at anchor in the Mississippi unmolested, and proceeded to sea without enquiry or interruption.

What evidence the counsel for the claimant had of the original outfit of the Felix I know not. From a circumstance, however, that occurred pending the case I have reason to believe it was full and conclusive. They were necessarily possessed of every means to obtain a correct knowledge of the facts in relation to the vessel. On our side, testimony was obtained with difficulty under every circumstance of disadvantage combating at every step the contrivances ingenuity had devised to smother enquiry. The result of the cause will show whether the efforts of the counsel were successful.  The circumstance I have above alluded to, inducing a belief that Mr. Grymes, with others of counsel, was in full possession of the facts relating to the original outfit and subsequent augmentation of the force of the Felix, is the following. After three or four days had been taken up in examining testimony on the part of the libeling, and while no positive proof had yet been exhibited going to maintain the grounds of the libel, Mr. Grymes, the district attorney and of course for the claimants , in speaking of the case in the clerk’s office previous to the opening of the court, declared distinctly, unhesitantly and without reservation in my presence, and in that of several others, that he had no doubt the Felix was fitted out within the waters and jurisdiction of the United States but that we__the counsel for the libelists_could not prove it! __Here I pause. I rest my case.

I have endeavored to exhibit the truth and have neither time nor inclination to enter into reflections which in a thousand forms the subject presents. I have consulted only my own justifications, and I leave to the impartial and reflecting to say whether in the observations I uttered I was guilty of an unwarrantable attack on the feelings, character, or reputation of Mr. Grymes_No_Not one of all who are capable of comparing the relative situations of Mr. Grymes, counsel for the claimant, and Mr. Grimes, attorney for the US, but will say, that his part in the cause was incompatible with his official station, that it must necessarily conflict with the duties of that station.

I I do not pretend to say that it was the duty of Mr. Grymes to commence prosecution against the Felix upon the application made to him by Capt. Patterson. The evidence that appeared conclusive to Capt. Patterson might, in a legal point of view, have been insufficient. Of this, Mr. Grymes, from his official station and professional habits, was the better judge, and the presumption is, that in declining to prosecute the Felix. I do say the application ought to have awakened suspicion and enquiry on the part of Mr. Grymes, that ethically it ought to have forbidden his occupying the station of an advocate for this very vessel where the charges against her were piracy and infraction of the laws of the United States. Here it became the duty of Mr. Grymes, as counsel for the captain and crew of the Felix, to smother all evidence tending to conviction; and to seek an acquittal from charges, which as attorney for the US it was his duty to strengthen and sustain, by every means in his power. What opposites of reflections must this singular conflict of character naturally suggest to an unbiased mind! It presents a duplicity of situation which nothing can reconcile, which neither propriety nor delicacy can excuse…”

Signed John Dick

Not content to stop there, Dick continued to harp on how Grymes had unethically represented the presumed pirates, whom he should have prosecuted to perhaps end in their being hanged in New Orleans, since, as Dick stressed, “Piracy by the laws of the US is punishable with death.”

It is unknown exactly what response Grymes had to this lengthy public attack on his ethical character, but this was only the opening salvo to a long and sustained enmity between the two men which boiled over sometime in the fall of 1814 with a duel in which Grymes was shot in the calf and Dick got a serious wound to one thigh which left him with a limp for the remainder of his life.

Both Dick and Grymes were close in age, and young in 1813 when the Felix case came about, 25 and 27, respectively. Although Dick was a rising star at the time in the New Orleans community, he was not as popular as the gregarious high stakes gambler Grymes, who seems to have been the friend of everyone else in town except Dick. According to a description in a Louisiana State Bar Association report, “The manner of Grymes was singularly calm, and even in his speeches; betrayals of feeling were rare. His arguments were distinguished by a quiet, logical method of prosecution, and were always free of declaration.  His voice was clear and musical, and under the most perfect control. Without appealing to prejudices or passion, he had yet a singular power over juries, rarely failing to gain a verdict.”

Grymes made something of a career after the Felix case of representing his friends, the privateer brothers Pierre and Jean Laffite, and their associates in court. He often battled legal cases against Dick in the small Spanish stucco style courthouse in the French Quarter. Some of these he won, some he lost. The most notorious Laffite case which Grymes lost was the Le Brave piracy case in 1819, which Dick, who had been District Attorney since February 1815 (assuming the role from Grymes), successfully prosecuted. The captain and men of the Le Brave were hanged, with the exception of two who received a presidential pardon.

For more about John Dick, and how once he himself had advocated for the Baratarian privateers, see my earlier Historia Obscura article “John Dick’s Letter to Monroe Honoring the Baratarians.”

John Dick was nothing if not a mercurial, impassioned individual.

Bicentennial of Jean Laffite’s Takeover of Galveston Is April 8

April 7, 2017 in American History, Caribbean History, general history, History, Louisiana History, Nautical History, Texas History

Jean Laffite in front of an early 1800s map of the Galveston area.

Jean Laffite in front of an early 1800s map of the Galveston area.


Privateer Jean Laffite, a hero of the Battle of New Orleans, took control of the Island of Galveston in a bloodless coup two hundred years ago this April 8, taking the small pirate base which had been used by Louis-Michel Aury as a point from which to prey against Spanish shipping. Although he had ostensibly taken the island on behalf of Spanish interests, Laffite actually would use it as a camp from which to nettle Spanish shipping for both himself and his brother, Pierre Laffite, plus some of the same corsairs who had been with them some years previously at Barataria in Louisiana.

Aury had first arrived at Galveston in July 1816 and set up a small settlement of crude huts up on the rise of a sandy beach on the higher eastern end of the island. Galveston was a rawboned kind of place at the time, mostly marshland crawling with so many rattlesnakes washed there from the mainland that the island had earned the nickname “Isle of Serpents.”

On a secret mission for the Spanish, Jean Laffite had arrived at Galveston on March 23, 1817, to find six ships in the harbor: Aury’s corsair, Belona, the frigate Cleopatra (commanded by General Francisco Xavier Mina), two captured Spanish brigs, a schooner named General Victoria which had been captured by a corsair armed in New Orleans and commanded by John Davis, and another schooner in the anchorage which had been captured by the General Arismendi, captained by Renato Beluche, Laffite’s old friend from the Grande Terre days. Another former Baratarian associate also was among the captains atGalveston: Johnny Barbe en Feu, who commanded Aury’s armed sloop Congreso Mexicano.

In a diary Jean made as part of his Spanish spying record, he wrote that he spent two weeks at Galveston discussing matters with both Aury and with Aury’s fractious associate, General Mina, who wanted to invade Mexico and the control of it from Spain. The Spanish had sought the help of the Laffite brothers due to the problem of constant depredations by Aury-led corsairs in the Gulf of Mexico on Spanish merchant ships, and Padre Antonio de Sedella had recommended to Don Diego Morphy, Spanish vice consul at New Orleans, that the Laffites were the best men to fix the problem in lieu of a Spanish fleet of war vessels which the King of Spain did not send.

Aury and General Mina each wanted control of the Mexico invasion, but agreed to go together in separate ships with their men to accomplish their goal. They sailed from Galveston on April 7, 1817, but not before burning the huts onshore. Jean Laffite and about 40 men were left with a few ships.

According to Laffite’s diary, “Seeing the port was abandoned by Aury, and in order to better execute the project that John Williams [code name for Arsene Latour, Jean’s friend] and he had planned with No. 13 [Pierre Laffite’s code designation], they named officers and established the administration under their direction. No. 13-2 [Jean Laffite’s code name] has agreed to provide them with men and supplies and to send the supplies immediately from New Orleans in case something should prevent his bringing them himself.”

For the next week, Jean Laffite set up residence on Galveston, which he named Campeche. The men there rebuilt the burned huts, then met April 15, 1817, on the schooner Carmelita, which belonged to Barthelemy Lafon. There all but Jean Laffite signed a document of fealty called the Registry of Deliberations, pledging an oath of allegiance to the Republic of Mexico.

Aury returned to Galveston on May 4 to find to his surprise he had been overthrown as leader in his absence. Although he intended to still be recognized as governor and treasurer general of the settlement, his complaints fell on deaf ears so he sulked about it for a bit, then left for greener pastures, winding up at a new base at Amelia Island off the eastern coast of Florida. The men had remained resolute against Aury, even in Jean Laffite’s absence, as Jean had left April 18 for New Orleans to report to the new Spanish consul.

Pierre Laffite sailed to Galveston and managed the operation there for a few months, but the climate and conditions did not agree with his sickly disposition. Pierre returned to New Orleans, with Jean again assuming control of Galveston, where he would mostly stay. The Laffite Galveston privateering base would go through encroachments by French settlers with the Lallemand Expedition, a massive hurricane in September of 1818 that nearly wiped out the base, and finally, threats of naval action against Laffite and his men by the United States, even though Galveston was outside US territory on land claimed by Spain.

The worst thing of all occurred in late 1819, after Jean had built the settlement back up from the hurricane devastation: the crew of one of his ships, the Le Brave, was found guilty of piracy. A ship’s article paper onboard bore Laffite’s signature. It was the only time his name was ever evidentially connected with a piratical action. The Le Brave captain and some members of the crew were found guilty of piracy and hanged in New Orleans in 1820, shortly after Jean Laffite abandoned Galveston, setting fire to the place, including his Maison Rouge home. All that was left were ashes.

After a temporary incarceration in Cuba, Jean Laffite proceeded on to Carthagena, Colombia, where he became captain of the General Santander privateer ship for Bolivar, harassing ships in the Caribbean until reportedly dying as a result of injuries suffered in a sea battle with two Spanish ships in 1823. Pierre Laffite left New Orleans for the Isla Mujeres area, where he was reported to have been killed in a land battle.

If the Laffites could see their wild and wooly Galveston today, 200 years later, they would not recognize it, with a seawall protecting the Gulf side, a strip of tourist spots and swank hotels all along the beach zone, monster cruise ships at the bayside dock, ornate Victorian mansions in the interior and the Strand’s downtown business district. They’d find a Walmart offering low- dollar goods akin to items they once sold from captured ships, but for prices in the neighborhood of a sailor’s pay for a couple of month’s work in 1817. Would they be surprised to find that there is an historical social group honoring their memory, the Laffite Society, on the island? Perhaps. In the end, they would still recognize two things at Galveston: the waves of the eternal sea, and the glorious sunsets over the Gulf Coast. Some things never change.

The True Tale of Mitchell, the Zombie Pirate

March 11, 2016 in American History, Caribbean History, general history, Louisiana History, Nautical History

mitchellhanging

Mitchell’s privateer ship, Cometa, with Gov. Gonzales hanging from the yard-arm.

When notorious Gulf Coast pirate William Mitchell came back from the dead in 1835, he looked like a zombie from Hell.

One-eyed, the man was covered with horrible scars, evidence of many deep and dangerous wounds he had suffered in his life. The worst of these the grey-haired 56-year-old bore in the front of his neck, where it appeared at some time a boarding pike or bayonet had been thrust completely through. According to the Philadelphia Herald of Oct.. 30, 1837, the pirate also “had a wound in the back of his neck, a musketball in his fore shoulder, had lost the calf of his leg from a splinter, and was otherwise marked upon his arms and legs.” Mitchell obviously had led a very hard “second life” after reportedly dying in 1821 on Great Corn Island off the Mosquito Coast in the Caribbean.

Several newspapers carried reports of his death in 1821. The Watchman of Montpelier, Vt. said in its August 7, 1821 edition that Capt. Mitchell had died on the first of May, and that he was “generally known by the term Pirate Mitchell as he has been several years privateering and pirating in the Gulf of Mexico, and on the coasts of South America. He was born at Bath, in England, and was several years an officer in the Spanish [Patriot] service.”

Much of the intervening time between 1821 and 1835 Mitchell had spent in various prisons, including at Norfolk, and the last two years at Philadelphia, where he was convicted on charges claimed by his wife of bigamy and assault and battery. He said he had wanted to keep her as a “Key West wife” since his legal wife (in New York) refused to accompany him, but apparently the second wife resisted. (Nov. 4, 1837, Gloucester Telegraph, Gloucester, Mass.)

Released from prison at Philadelphia on June 23, 1837, the ever-enterprising Mitchell soon got a ship, a long black schooner called the Blooming Youth, and began to try to recoup his treasure, buried on an island in the Bahamas. He was stymied in this effort late in November 1837 when the captain of the Revenue Cutter Dexter captured him and his six man crew on suspicion of piracy. Mitchell was taken to Mobile, but soon released. He had been suspected of having attacked the packet ship Susquehanna near the New Jersey coast earlier, but there was no proof.

By 1838, he was operating off Key West, attacking Spanish shipping in the vicinity, smuggling slaves into the coastal areas. He visited Mobile frequently.

The June 25, 1838 Mobile newspaper said Mitchell had died as the result of a bullet wound suffered in an escape attempt from the city jail.

“Mitchell, well known about our city as ‘The Pirate,” died this morning about 6 o’clock. Several days ago, he was imprisoned for a riot, and by some means made his escape. He was retaken yesterday and bound, but whilst on his way to the prison, he managed to unloose himself. In securing him, he made resistance, and the guard was obliged to shoot him down. He died from the wound received….He was notorious for having been engaged in several acts of piracy and it was supposed that he commanded the much dreaded ‘low, black schooner’ which overhauled the Susquehanna. At the time of his escape, he held a privateering commission in the service of Texas; and his purpose was to get on board of a boat at the wharf, and to reach a vessel lying at the Balize ready for the expedition. He had several companions leagued with him.” (July 2, 1838, Charleston Courier, S.C.)

This second “death” of Mitchell was no more true than the first, as the Charleston newspaper learned to its chagrin via the next day’s paper from Mobile that the obituary was a hoax perpetrated by one of Mitchell’s friends.

“The individual [Mitchell] whom we unceremoniously shot yesterday, is still among the living. There is no death so easy as that perpetrated by a newspaper. One has but to scribble off a few words and presto! an unhappy mortal is whisked off to eternity without having time to change his clothes for the journey. We beg ‘the Pirate’s’ pardon, and hope he may live a thousand years, and each day grow a better man.

“The best of the joke is, some of our enthusiastic phrenologists applied immediately for the head of the deceased,’ reported the Mobile newspaper. The jailer received the men with some consternation, told them to wait, and relayed their request to his prisoner, Mitchell, coming back with the answer “that Mr. Mitchell had use for his head-that he was very sorry to disappoint the gentlemen-hoped that they would not take it ill for refusing such a trifling request-but as they were the first comers, he should be happy to give them the preference, when he could conveniently dispense with the use of a head.” (July 3, 1837, Charleston Courier.)

Of course, newspapers throughout the United States reprinted the story of Mitchell’s death, but very few published the story of the fact that the second death, like the first, was a hoax.

By Oct. 5, 1838, Mitchell was once again active around the Key West area, very much alive, but a bit more physically handicapped as during the Mobile riot he had managed to get one foot partially crushed, so he now walked with a lurching limp. You can’t keep a good pirate down

In late 1840, Mitchell, in a Baltimore clipper, visited the port at Savannah, Ga., and said he and his crew of five men had been at the Bahamas to look for some money he had buried on what he called “Bull Key” about 20 years’ previous. However, as he had overheard the crew resolving to kill him when they had obtained possession of the money and divide it among themselves, he had refused to point out the spot, and they had finally steered for Savannah. The crew then libelled the Blooming Youth, and imprisoned the captain for not paying their wages. (Jan. 11, 1841 Augusta, Ga., reprint of a report from Savannah, Ga., dated Dec. 23, 1840)

Soon out of jail, Mitchell zealously worked to obtain assistance to make another treasure-retrieving voyage. He avowed he was never a pirate, but a privateer, and that he had been engaged in that capacity for many years, chiefly under the authority of the Brazilian flag.

The treasure he sought to reclaim was said to be worth $7.5 million, including $75,000 in Spanish coin, and the bulk of the remainder in bar gold. Mitchell said there also was a cross of pure gold, manufactured for a church in Havana, weighing 17 pounds; a diamond as large as an egg, and two watches made for the Queen of Portugal. (Ibid.)

Mitchell offered all his hidden wealth, one half to any firm in the city if they would advance money to fit him out, and ten thousand dollars to any young men who would accompany him as companions in the voyage.

According to the Savannah article of Dec. 23, 1840, Mitchell’s “endeavors were successful: a firm in good repute, of which the senior member is a communicant of the Baptist church, and the junior a quondam Methodist preacher, (I spare their names for their reputation’s sake, although the transaction is common talk here,) has chartered a fast sailing schooner, hired a captain at seven hundred dollars a month, and prevailed on a clerk of their own (a religious man) and one or two other young men, in addition, to accompany him. In the mean time, Mitchell has joined the Methodist Church, and promises it a share of the spoils_to the amount of seventy-five thousand dollars.”

Before leaving on the voyage, he met a young French girl of 20 years, a Methodist, and married her the next day. He was about 60. The Savannah newspaper writer noted that “she has probably caught the Captain Kidd infection, and fills her imagination with dreams of luxury and wealth.”

“Mitchell is a tall man, with grey hair, and a very sinister and forbidding aspect. He has lost the sight of one eye, and is lame from an injury to one of his feet, in a conflict with a mob at Mobile.” (Ibid.)

Mitchell and crew go searching for his buried treasure

“The chartered schooner, Magnet, sailed with seven men and Mitchell on board. Various views are entertained in relation to the enterprise. Some imagine that the old fellow is deranged, and that the whole matter will end in smoke. Others entertain serious fears that he desires to get possession of a vessel, that these men will be surprised by wretches in concealment on the key, or coasting in the vicinity, and that Savannah will never see them more. The captain goes well armed, however, for such a contingency.” (Ibid.)

The Savannah writer editorialized, “The worst aspect of the affair is the connection of church members and a church with this abandoned wretch. Admit that he be nothing worse than a privateer-yet he who takes advantage of a conflict between nations other than his own, to prey upon his fellow men, is no better-no, not a whit_than a pirate; and there is an old and true saying that ‘the partaker is as bad as the thief.’ Such circumstances afford triumphant material for those who are disposed to cavil at religious effort, and look upon professing Christians as hypocrites.”

Mitchell, the Magnet and crew returned to Savannah around Jan. 8, 1841, empty-handed, much to the consternation of the crew, and no doubt the Methodist backers as well. The captain took the Savannah to Boston, where the customs collector libelled her May 7, 1841, for forfeiture of the vessel for having been engaged in a foreign voyage while under a coasting license. (May 10, 1841 Boston Courier, United States District Court report)

“It appeared that while the vessel was lying at Savannah, the captain had been prevailed upon by Mitchell, a distinguished rover or privateer in the last war, to undertake an expedition to Cat Key, an island within the jurisdiction of a foreign power, for the purpose of digging up certain specie deposited there by Mitchell some eighteen or twenty years ago. The vessel was to receive $350 a month, and to draw a handsome proportion of the money to be exhumed.” (Ibid.)

Mitchell and the Magnet crew made several excavations and dug furiously for several days without so much as finding a single sixpence, according to the court report. Mitchell attributed the failure of the expedition to the erosion of that part of the island where he had buried the treasure. He claimed that the right spot was covered by the ocean.

The owner of the Magnet, a Mr. Lothrop of Cohasset, Mass., said the vessel had been out of his control as at the time it was under a charter party for the coasting trade, and that he neither consented nor knew of her illegal occupation. Results of the libel were not found, but the Magnet was back in business within a month after clearing Boston harbor.

As for Mitchell, he still had Methodist backers to pay back, and he seemed to have convinced them to finance yet another venture, possibly the one which failed to materialize with the Methodist Rev. Capt. Daniel De Putron, related in the Historia Obscura article “The Bizarre Case of the Wannabe Pirate.” The large schooner which was reported near the Balize in mid June 1841 may have been captained by Mitchell himself. De Putron had been waiting with his small schooner to join a larger ship when he was arrested and taken to New Orleans along with his Independence ship on suspicion of piracy. Among the possessions in De Putron’s trunk were a pirate flag and a copy of the recently published “A Pirate’s Own Book,” which ironically included a story about Mitchell’s colorful background near New Orleans.

if the top-sailed schooner that sped like the “Flying Dutchman” by the Balize indeed had Mitchell at the helm, he sailed into oblivion. Nothing more was ever published about any of his exploits after 1841, and no third obituary ever appeared. His true last anchorage is unknown.

So who was Mitchell, before he came back from the dead in 1835? He had been a privateer with a Cartagena commission, and had been associated with Jean Laffite at Grande Terre and Barataria for a time. His true nature was related in his own words to an American captain, Jacob Dunham, during Dunham’s visits in 1815 and 1816 to Old Providence Island near the Mosquito Coast of present-day Nicaragua. Mitchell believed in the War to the Death against the Spanish, and boasted that he had personally killed 87 Spaniards by 1816. In short, he was a sociopath, though he treated friends like Dunham well.

During Dunham’s first visit to Old Providence to trade goods, Mitchell invited him to dine at the home of a local planter, John Taylor, whose daughter, Sarah, was Mitchell’s “wife.” The dinner featured roast pig, poultry, and all the accompaniments, with a dish of roasted plantains used for bread as was the native custom.

“The next day, I was invited to dine on board Capt. Mitchell’s vessel. The table was elegantly furnished with silver platters, plates, knives, forks, spoons, pitchers, tumblers and with the exception of the knife-blades, every article on the table was pure silver. He showed me many valuable diamonds and large quantities of old gold and silver; and the least valuable article I saw on board his vessel was the schooner’s ballast, which consisted of brass cannon,” recalled Dunham in his autobiography, Journal of Voyages, published in 1850.

Over dinner, Mitchell told him a few months earlier [in late 1815] he had captured a small trading schooner, armed her for a privateer, and appointed a Capt. Rose to the command, to go on a cruise.

“While laying here [at Old Providence] I made up my mind to sail for New York…sell my vessel and cargo…retire to private life, thinking my means would support me. One morning, while contemplating my future enjoyments when I got settled in New York, I thought it would much disturb my mind to think that old Gonzales should boast that he had frightened Mitchell, who dared not attack him. He had sent me many saucy messages by trading vessels saying I dare not come to St. Andreas (island) to annoy him, as I had the inhabitants of Old Providence, who were afraid to resist me. These reflections so affected my mind that I immediately ordered my boat manned and went on board Rose’s vessel. I told Rose we would never leave these seas until we had made an attack on St. Andreas,” said Mitchell to Dunham.

The next day, Mitchell with Rose and 46 men sailed to attack the island, some 60 miles away, and arrived shortly after 11 at night. They found the guards sleeping and killed the soldiers, then stormed the governor’s house, where they found him still asleep in bed. The governor, along with his slaves, money and plate, were taken on board ship.

Mitchell proceeded to treat the governor politely, dining with him, feeding him the best the island had, and allowing him lots of Spanish cigars. On the 10th day after the governor’s capture, Mitchell said he gave the old man a good dinner, had a glass of wine with him, and then, not skipping a beat, told the governor he was going to hang him that afternoon.

“He laughed,” related Mitchell, “supposing it a joke, and that I had no intention of harming him. He was sitting in an armchair near the cabin door on deck, smoking a cigar, when I ordered one of the seamen to reave a yard-rope from the fore-yard, bring the end of it aft and put it round his neck. He was soon dragged from the chair to the fore-yard arm (of the ship).”

He told Dunham he let Gov. Gonzales hang for about an hour, then cut the rope and “let the old devil go adrift.”

Dunham said Mitchell should have spared the old man as he could never have done him much harm, to which Mitchell coldly replied, “I have served him the same as they will serve me when they catch me.”

This scary story starkly illustrated that Mitchell was a sociopathic killer with no remorse. Dunham managed to get along with him without incident, but noted that although Mitchell had some education and had the appearance of a gentleman, he could be “one of the greatest tyrants to exercise authority over (his men) that I have ever heard of.” Dunham related in his book that one time Mitchell scalded a ship cook to death with boiling water over a simple mistake, and when a crewman remarked that was a harsh thing to do, he shot the sailor dead.

As Dunham prepared to leave for the Mosquito Coast for more trading, Mitchell said he now was bound to New York to make his permanent residence, but needed to stop off at New Orleans first to smuggle some slaves via a pilot at the Balize. On his way, he would proceed along the Cuban coast to search for Spanish vessels to take as a last venture. His arrival at New Orleans after taking a prize would become his main claim to infamy as a very successful pirate who evaded the noose through New Orleans connections and legal shenanigans.

In early April, 1816 as Mitchell was approaching the Balize in his swift-saling Cometa privateer, the US Boxer under the direction of Capt. Porter captured the Cometa, arrested Mitchell, and sent a crew on board to take the ship and crew to New Orleans for adjudication. The Cometa was laden with treasure said to be worth from $50 to $60,000; one small basket contained an estimated $10,000 in jewelry. The captain’s cabin had a great quantity of beautiful china ware, and Mitchell’s wardrobe was extremely elegant, according to naval officer’s letter published in the July 10, 1816 American of Hanover, N.H,

The Cometa’s main gun was a 1648 dated “long tom” 12-pounder on a pivot, with five other guns, from 3 to 6 pounders, all brass.

Mitchell and his crew remained in prison in New Orleans until their piracy trial that June. During the trial, Mitchell freely admitted having killed the governor of St. Andreas, and avowed he was a privateer involved in the Venezuelan War to the Death against Spanish royalists. He claimed to have Carthagenian privateer papers, but the court thought those papers were forged. Nevertheless, Mitchell soon walked out of court a free man, ready to plunder again, thanks to his secret connection to the New Orleans Association. Mitchell happened to be commander of a fleet of privateers working for the New Orleans cartel headed by attorney Edward Livingston, and had garnered prize goods worth at least $100,000 for the association’s benefit. (“Privateersmen of the Gulf and Their Prizes” By Stanley Faye, Louisiana Historical Quarterly 22, 1939) [See more about Livingston in the Historia Obscura article “Edward Livingston: A Famous Man That Few Have Heard Of.“]

Following his piracy trial, Mitchell concerned himself with smuggling like his former partners the Laffites, but along the Lake Ponchartrain shore, rather than Barataria. In 1817, an armed force tried to take him and did shoot him in the shoulder, but he escaped. By early 1818 he was once again sailing in a small schooner around the Florida keys area, but then he decided to return to smuggling in the Barataria area, where he brought down the ire of Customs Collector Beverly Chew. In July 1818, at the Balize, Mitchell managed to steal Chew’s unguarded revenue cutter with her six brass guns, only to lose it to a US naval schooner in October of that year. Mitchell escaped again. [See more about Chew in the Historia Obscura article “Beverly Chew: The Man Behind The Curtain In Early New Orleans.”]

A year later, Mitchell and eight others in an armed boat were doing a series of attacks on small ships approaching the Balize, further nettling Chew and the revenue agents. Finally he tired of that and proceeded to Cuba, where he captured a schooner at Santiago de Cuba, and left to prowl around the Mosquito Coast before dropping out of sight in 1821 when his first death story appeared in the newspapers.

Mitchell had been a very lucky pirate and/or privateer in his time, with more lives than the proverbial cat. He made friends with the right people to avoid the noose, and always managed to elude full vengeance from his enemies. It was almost, one might say, like he had made a bargain with the Devil.

 

The Laffite Portrait Proves the Authenticity of the Laffite Journal

December 1, 2015 in European History, general history, History, Louisiana History

The 1804 portrait of Jean Laffite by Gros

The 1804 portrait of Jean Laffite by Gros

Baron Antoine-Jean Gros self portrait from 1820

Baron Antoine-Jean Gros self portrait from 1820

At least part of the Jean Laffite journal collection at Sam Houston Regional Library at Liberty, Texas can be proven authentic through association with a portrait of Laffite never a part of the archives of Sam Houston because it was lost in a house fire in 1959 at Spartanburg, S.C.. This portrait, showing Jean Laffite standing on the deck of a ship with a cannon nearby, is dated 1804 and signed “Gros”___for Baron Antoine-Jean Gros, art advisor to Napoleon and painter-chronicler of the Emperor’s military triumphs.

Gros was a well-known and highly respected French artist who specialized in historical Napoleon portraits under the tutelage of artist Jacques-Louis David. Gros had been introduced to Bonaparte in 1796 by Napoleon’s sweetheart, Josephine, in Milan when he was away from France for safety’s sake after the French Revolution. He returned with the Napoleonic entourage and became a valued member of the group’s artistic corps. He specialized in romantic, Rubenesque portraits of various officers and vast, mural-size paintings that have been called spontaneous and free in brushwork, spacious in atmosphere, and smouldering in emotive color by twentieth century art critics. Gros’ artistic star soared with Napoleon’s own comet of fame, and slowly declined in brightness after the French emperor’s death in 1821. Called the first great romantic painter, Gros by age 64 suffered from personal dissatisfaction in his later career. In despair, he drowned himself in the Seine in 1835.

The portrait of Jean Laffite which Gros created only exists today in the form of a 4 x 5 inch black and white negative in the Laffite Collection at Sam Houston, a negative which was used by Stanley Clisby Arthur in 1952  as a frontispiece black and white photo in his Jean Laffite, Gentleman Rover biographical book. Arthur had the photograph made during a visit to see the portrait, other paintings, and Laffite manuscript materials belonging to John A. Laffite, who was living in Kansas City, Mo., around 1950-51. The painting was on his living room wall, one of his KC neighbors recalled years later. Another black and white image of the same portrait was used as the frontispiece for the Vantage Press edition of The Journal of Jean Laffite, which John A. Laffite had privately published in 1958 after having the French journal translated to English.

Much controversy has ensued ever since among historians over the authenticity of the Laffite journal, and the Gros painting has been mostly overlooked through the years because it was lost, and because it appeared to be just a hastily done painting study, not a professional portrait.

(The Laffite journal and a few other holographic Laffite family materials escaped the house fire as they were in a trunk that was saved. All the paintings hanging in the house were destroyed. Strangely, even a part of the trunk’s contents was lost when they were caught in a fire at a radio and tv station in Spartanburg a feww months later in May 1960. The Laffite journal was in that second fire, and suffered fire damage along the edges, but survived intact. It and some of the other surviving parts of the Laffite Collection were sold by John A. Laffite in 1969 to collectors William Simpson and Johnny Jenkins of Houston for $15,000. Former Texas governor Price Daniel bought the lot in 1975 for $12,500, and donated all in 1978 to the newly created Sam Houston Regional Library.)

Everyone, including those in favor of the Journal’s authenticity, neglected to check on a simple way to assert the validity of the claim that the materials really were from famous New Orleans privateer Jean Laffite: all that needed to be done was to compare the Gros signature of the Laffite portrait to known Gros paintings of the same period. This seems simple, but until recently, it was not a quick thing to accomplish because Gros signatures were not easy to find to use for comparison purposes.

The majority of Gros paintings online are of small resolution, suitable for website galleries and web pages, but of utterly no use for checking the signature. This is especially true of some of Gros’ best known Napoleonic works, which are literally the size of walls. Even at high resolution, the signature on such works is often impossible to see. However, a few very high resolution scans of Gros art were examined, and signatures contemporaneous with 1804 were found. The Gros signature on the Battle of Aboukir painting (1806) at the Palace of Versailles is virtually the same as the signature on the Laffite portrait, and both signatures are found in the lower left corner of the artwork.

Gros signature on Laffite portrait

Gros signature on Laffite portrait

Gros signature on Battle of Aboukir painting

Gros signature on Battle of Aboukir painting

 

 

 

 

Gros 1804 signature on Jacques Amalric portrait

Gros 1804 signature on Jacques Amalric portrait

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some may question this and say “well, it could have been a painting forgery”, but the evidence is very much against this. The first American exhibition of Gros’ paintings and portraits was held in 1955 at Seligmann Gallery in New York, and at the time, the vast majority of Gros’s artwork were only to be found in France, and most of those in Paris. The Laffite portrait photograph was made before 1952, and it shows a worn, damaged painting that is coming loose at the top from its frame backing. The photograph of the painting in the Journal of Jean Laffite shows it in an expensive heavy gilt frame compatible with the early 1800s period. Also, there is no record that John A. Laffite ever tried to sell this painting before it was lost in the fire, so there was no motive to even try to forge it. Additionally, not all Gros paintings are signed, and the ones which are signed often are difficult to make out.

The next question would be where and when was the Laffite portrait made? Laffite is wearing a long coat, so that would indicate cold weather, winter or early spring, or maybe late fall. Gros was living in Paris at the Convent Capuchin in 1804. The closest harbor would have been Le Havre. Laffite was possibly the “Captain Lafitte” of the La Soeur Cherie ship which arrived in New Orleans in April 1804 and stayed there through early August. Gros was busy most of 1804 with painting the 17 by 23 foot mural Bonaparte Visiting the Plague Victims of Jaffa, which was exhibited at the Salon of 1804, held in September of that year in Paris. Gros was idle between September and Dec. 2, so if Laffite departed for France from New Orleans, he could have been at Le Havre by late September, and thus some time in the Fall of 1804 the portrait was created, probably in the space of a few hours. Gros received great honors for his Napoleon mural at the Salon of 1804, and was very popular for making portraits afterward, so it is quite significant that Laffite was able to commission him to do even the quick study shipboard painting. Even this sketch would have cost a hefty sum at the time, so it indicates Laffite was well off even when he was relatively young, in his early 20s. Also, he must have had some connection to Napoleon in order to even hire Gros. One possible clue is the extremely ornate presentation sword in scabbard that Laffite is holding. The portrait would seem to commemorate the occasion of getting the sword. Did Napoleon present it to Laffite? The answer, like the painting, is lost to history.

One way to verify a piece of art is to look into its provenance, or chronology of the ownership, custody or location of the historical artwork. The primary purpose is to provide contextual and circumstantial evidence for its original production or discovery, by establishing its later history, custody and places of storage. A particular value in establishing provenance is in helping authenticate objects. The back of a painting, for instance, may include significant provenance information.

In the case of the Laffite portrait by Gros, since it was lost to fire, and no notes were made about what may or may not have been on the back of the artwork/frame, that particular information is lost, too. It is not known if the portrait sitter was identified on the back. In his book, Stanley Clisby Arthur said the painting was assumed by descendants to be Jean Laffite, as it was among other effects of the corsair preserved by one of his sons (presumably Jules Laffite, who died in St. Louis, Mo., in the 1920s). John A. Laffite, the owner of the painting in the late 1940s- 1950s, claimed to be the great-grandson of Jean Laffite and grandson of Jules Laffite, but genealogical data has not corroborated this. It is unknown exactly when or how John A. Laffite got the Laffite Gros portrait, other paintings, photographs, and Jean Laffite manuscript materials which are featured in Arthur’s Gentleman Rover book and the Vantage Press Journal of Jean Laffite book. All that is known about its ownership history is that he had the Gros portrait from about 1949 until its loss in 1959.

The fact that the Laffite portrait had a Gros signature identical to that on other Gros paintings fits with the timeline presented in the Laffite journal, as Jean says in it he was born in 1782, so would have been 22 years old in 1804 when the portrait was done. As the portrait dates to the right time period, its association with the Laffite journal and miscellaneous copybooks, family photographs, etc. lends more weight to their authenticity as well. They are most likely exactly what they appear to be: holographic manuscript materials written by Jean Laffite and members of his family.

John A. Laffite was a retired railroad employee who knew no French and could not read the Laffite journal, which is mostly in an archaic Creole French mixed with Spanish and a bit of English.

The content of the Laffite journal includes some historical items that were not known until recently, and the signatures in the journal closely match an authentic Jean Laffite signature on the Le Brave ship’s document which has been in federal custody since 1819.

Only the subject of the Gros portrait could have written the Laffite journal, and that person was Jean Laffite.

 

 

 

Beverly Chew: the Man Behind the Curtain in Early New Orleans

November 19, 2015 in American History, general history, History, Legal History, Louisiana History, Nautical History, Texas History

Beverly Chew at the height of his power in New Orleans

Beverly Chew at the height of his power in New Orleans

Life was good for the New Orleans business firm of Chew & Relf in the early 1800s: young partners Beverly Chew and Richard Relf controlled a virtual monopoly of the banking, shipping, trading, insurance, and smuggling business in the port city until around 1809, when the Laffite brothers came to town, quickly and systematically cutting into the profits of Chew & Relf’s Gulf Coast network empire.

Jean and Pierre Laffite successfully snatched away the market share of the smuggling business from Chew, Relf and their cohorts Daniel Clark, mainly because since they were getting their goods and slaves from privateers’ captured Spanish prizes, they paid nothing for their wares and consequently could sell them much cheaper because there was no middleman to pay.

The Laffites made an enemy for life of Chew in particular, and he would strike back like a snake when a prime opportunity presented itself eight years later. He wielded much more power in New Orleans than most people realized, and could carry a grudge for years. Along with his partner and other backers, he controlled business in the city for more than 30 years in the early 1800s. Through study of his business connections, deals, and political machinations it is evident that Chew, not Edward Livingston as commonly supposed, was the true power monger behind the curtain of New Orleans, with the help of Relf. Moreover, Chew stayed at the top of the exclusive business elite in New Orleans through the 1830s.

Historian John G. Clark said “The elite which emerged in New Orleans between 1803 and the War of 1812 possessed power and responsibilities unprecedented in the almost 100-year existence of the city.’ (The Business Elite of New Orleans Before 1815)

Born in Virginia in 1773, Chew moved to New Orleans in 1797 from Philadelphia, where he had been an apprentice for prominent merchant Daniel William Coxe and associates, and also had learned financial finagling from Natchez plantation owner William Dunbar, who had traded cotton through Coxe.

According to historian Arthur H. DeRosier Jr., Dunbar used Chew and Relf in the early 1800s to ship bales of cotton through New Orleans, for pre-negotiated prices to Liverpool, seldom taking specie alone for the transactions. Every shipment of cotton included a list of goods Dunbar wanted, which Dunbar would resell for more in the American markets. He floated the real money (gold and silver specie) like so many chess pieces among his agents to make purchases as needed, or to stall payment until goods were delivered from England. Knowing exactly where all the specie, cotton, and goods were took a very careful system of bookkeeping, which Dunbar did well. His protégé, Chew, implemented this system himself upon Dunbar’s death in 1810. (William Dunbar: Scientific Pioneer of the Old Southwest)

Chew and Relf both came to Louisiana about the same time shortly before the turn of the 19th century, in league with the well-known Irish land speculator and businessman Daniel Clark, believed to be one of the wealthiest men in America, and the notorious double-dealing General James Wilkinson, who often was complicit with Spanish authorities.

Chew counted among his personal and confidential close friends the adventurer Philip Nolan, clandestine agent of Wilkinson re Spanish land grant schemes in Louisiana territory. In 1797, before moving to New Orleans, Chew wrote Nolan that he could draw from the Spanish king’s coffers at New Orleans any sum he would have named on account of the General, and it was reported and pretty generally credited then that Nolan had indeed received as much as $5,000. In 1798, Chew wrote to Nolan that he was departing on a voyage to Bilbao, Spain, saying “respecting the connection we have so long contemplated, you will find my wishes for it undiminished, and will be able to make it much more advantageous on my part than when I last saw you.” Details about Chew’s dealings with the Spanish authorities have not been found.

In mid 1804, as President Thomas Jefferson sought input about who to recommend for positions in New Orleans, an unknown letter writer advised that “Beverly Chew of Virginia, connected with M.D. Clark, is a man of very respectable standing and most deservedly so_He loves his Country and is a zealot in its support__He has served Gov. Claiborne essentially.” One wonders if the writer happened to know that Jefferson was a distant cousin of Chew’s. Chew also was a kinsman of Mississippi territorial governor William C. C. Claiborne. Letters of the late 1700s and early 1800s between Jefferson, Coxe, and Dunbar make it look like Jefferson was at least partially responsible for placing Chew in New Orleans to assist Claiborne and learn about Spanish and French plans for the port city.

Claiborne named Chew a justice of the Court of Common Pleas at New Orleans in 1805, and a short time later, appointed him as first postmaster of New Orleans, a temporary position of a few months. This came after an incident in 1803 when the New Orleans City Council had barred Chew and Relf from importing West Indian slaves into the US, largely because when his own slaves were arrested for theft of some whiskey and tobacco from someone named Bond, Chew had admitted in court to accompanying the slaves that night. In 1805, Chew simply skirted the law by having slaves smuggled up the Bayou LaFourche to be sold  there, out of the court’s jurisdiction. The Laffites would later use the same bayou to transport both slaves and goods for smuggling into New Orleans, and may have studied the methods Chew had earlier employed.

“The firm of Chew & Relf …engaged in enterprises that circumvented the law. After the importation of African slaves was outlawed by federal law in 1808, they often acted as middlemen for other firms, some as distant as Charleston, S.C., that wished to import slaves….They used their business contacts with Spanish officials in West Florida to facilitate the landing of slave ships and the distribution of their cargoes at Mobile,” according to Junius P. Rodriguez, in The Louisiana Purchase: A Historical and Geographical Encyclopedia.

Chew counted among his close business associates John Forbes of West Florida, an internationally known trader of long-standing with the British. Forbes was a loyalist who had been with the well-entrenched West Florida frontier firm of Panton, Leslie & Co., earlier. He sold mostly trade goods which came from Britain, including guns, lead and gunpowder. He had a post at Mobile, from which goods could be sold to avoid the New Orleans duties. He was associated with Chew as both a personal friend and merchant through at least 1816.

Despite their often illegal smuggling and other questionable business activities, Chew and Relf never were charged with any crimes as they had their hands in almost every major New Orleans business: they were originators, original shareholders, and members of the board of directors of the New Orleans Insurance Co., insuring vessels, cargoes and specie. Plus they were exclusive agents of the London-based Phoenix Fire Insurance Co. Banking interests formed a major part of their portfolios: Chew was on the board of directors of the Bank of the United States New Orleans branch as well as major stockholder of the Bank of Louisiana. Additionally, in 1805, Chew was on the board of directors of the US Bank of Philadelphia branch at New Orleans along with his good friend Thomas Callender.

Phoenix Fire Insurance which Chew & Relf sold

Chew and Relf had started their New Orleans Anglo-American empire quite early, in 1801, when they joined with land speculator and business dynamo Clark. They dealt in goods for Reed and Forde of Philadelphia, freighted and leased vessels to St. Domingue, Bordeaux and London; received English goods on consignment, and bought and sold staples and groceries on their own account. In one deal, William Dunbar forwarded 3,000 pounds sterling in notes on London endorsed by Chew and Relf to a Charleston, S.C. slave trader as half down, with the balance paid to Chew and Relf. They had a store on St. Louis Street, between Royal and Chartres streets, which served as a “one-stop” shop for a myriad of needs.

According to historian Ernest Obadele-starks in Freebooters and Smugglers: The Foreign Slave Trade in the United States, “Chew and Relf were part of a solidly entrenched business circle that dominated the town (New Orleans) politically, set its social tempo, and controlled economic development by legal, extralegal or illicit means.”

Chew’s British business connections remained solid through all of the War of 1812, but oddly no one in New Orleans ever questioned his loyalties. When almost every other trader was financially hard hit by embargoes and British blockades of US seaports, Chew & Relf did not suffer major losses, not even when their financial backer, Daniel Clark, unexpectedly died in 1813.

In 1810, Chew had increased his political power in the city by marrying Maria Theodore Duer, a relative of the immensely powerful Livingston family of New York, and a cousin to Edward Livingston of New Orleans.

President James Madison appointed Chew as vice consul for Russia at New Orleans in July, 1812, to handle commercial reciprocity between US and Russia since Russia was said to take a favorable view of the American effort to defend neutral shipping rights. Madison either overlooked or was unaware of Chew’s ties to British concerns.

Sensing that the war between the US and England might prove problematic to his business interests, Chew tried to hedge his bets by pushing westward with land speculation in Louisiana. Rapides Parish records files of Oct. 24, 1812, show that Beverly Chew claimed a tract of four hundred acres of land on the left bank of Bayou Rapides, sold to him by a man named Fulton, with the land having been inhabited and cultivated as required by law of the time. No records are available regarding what use Chew made of this property, nor if he later sold it to someone else.

In the summer of 1813, and while his backer Clark was ill, Chew decided to make a trip back east to visit relatives and business concerns in the Philadelphia and Virginia areas. On July 24, 1813, Chew, his wife, and their daughter arrived at Philadelphia from New Orleans on board the brig Astra, making the voyage following a stop in Havana in only eight days. They passed the British blockading squadron around the Cape Henlopen side, without incident as the ship was in ballast.

While Chew was gone from New Orleans, Relf took care of Clark, who died suddenly after appearing to be getting better. A second will which Clark had made disappeared immediately after his death, leaving his original 1811 will, which named Chew and Relf as his co-executors. Clark’s mother, Mary, was named sole inheritor in the original will, but she never received a penny of the estate. Chew and Relf claimed after paying debts and expenses due to wartime, there was no money left, but their business did not suffer any such losses, and no formal accounting of the estate expenses was ever made. The second, missing, will had named different executors and had given a major bequest to Daniel’s sole heir, a daughter named Myra. The controversy over the Clark estate and what happened to all the money would be the focus of an extended and famous Supreme Court battle waged by the Clark daughter, Myra Clark Gaines, in later years.

During the British invasion of Louisiana in 1814-1815 and subsequent Battle of New Orleans, Chew served as a volunteer rifleman under General Andrew Jackson in Beale’s Rifles.

In late 1816, Chew was appointed customs collector for the Mississippi River port at New Orleans following the resignation of P.L. B. Duplessis. He set to his new role with a special fervor against smuggling interests other than the ones which boosted his own bottom line.

Chew must have felt elated in August 1817 that finally he could do something to strike back at the Laffite brothers, considering they had interfered with his business concens for years in the New Orleans and Gulf Coast area. Now that they had set up a privateering enterprise just outside US territory at Galveston, Chew saw a way to convince Secretary of Treasury William H. Crawford to get rid of the Laffite threat to commercial shipping heading to and from New Orleans.

The customs collector felt confidant he could sway Washington politicos to his wishes because for several years, he had been the top leader among the handful of business elite that controlled New Orleans and all the trade that plied the Gulf Coast of Louisiana. His new role as customs collector was only the tip of the iceberg in terms of what he manipulated directly or indirectly through banking, insurance, shipping, and trade interests.

In his lengthy letter to Crawford of August 1817, Chew pointed out, “I deem it my duty to state that the most shameful violations of the slave act, as well as our revenue laws, continue to be practiced, with impunity, by a motley mixture of freebooters and smugglers, at Galveston, under the Mexican flag; and being, in reality, little else than the re-establishment of the Barrataria (sic) band, removed somewhat more out of the reach of justice.…Among the most conspicuous characters…at Galveston, were many of the notorious offenders against our laws, who had so lately been indulged with a remission of the punishment, who so far from gratefully availing themselves of the lenity of the government to return to, or commence an orderly and honest life, seem to have regarded its indulgence almost as an encouragement to the renewal of their offences. You will readily perceive I allude to the Baratarians, among whom the Lafittes may be classed foremost, and most actively engaged in the Galveston trade, and owners of several cruisers under the Mexican flag. Many of our citizens are equally guilty, and are universally known to be owners of the same kind of vessels.”

(The Baratarians had been given presidential pardons for their aid and service to General Andrew Jackson in the concluding battles of the War of 1812, culminating with the Jan. 8, 1815, Battle of New Orleans, a decisive victory against the British forces, due in no small part to the skill of the Baratarian gunners and the flints and powder provided by the Laffites.)

Chew proceeded to go on at length about the supposed crimes and revenue avoidance perpetrated by the Galveston parties, which is ironic, as it is a case of the pot calling the kettle black. No one in Washington knew it, but Chew himself had long been a very successful coordinator of smuggling slaves and goods in the New Orleans area, West Florida territory, and southern seaboard. He had started early: between 1804 and 1807, he and his longtime business partner Relf had sold around 430 slaves, many of which were obtained via illegal channels. Almost all had been smuggled.

As a customs agent, Chew benefitted from the fees collected at customs, while at the same time he also participated in his own smuggling operations. He frequently overlooked slave importations any time he could profit personally. Although he ordered that all ships arriving from the Laffites’ base at Galveston be searched, it was not because they were importing goods into New Orleans, but because he suspected that they were not authorized by the Mexican government as privateers. Without a valid letter of marque or commission, the ship and cargoes could be seized by the customs agents, and Chew, of course, would profit.

Secretary of Treasury William Crawford outlined specific instructions for the conduct of US revenue officers which Chew zealously overstepped whenever it suited him. Crawford wrote “While I recommend, in the strongest terms, to the respective officers, activity, vigilance, and firmness, I feel no less solicitude that their department may be marked in prudence, moderation and good temper. Upon these last qualities, not less than the former, must depend the success, usefulness, and consequently, the continuance of the establishment, in which they are included. They will always remember to keep in mind, that their countrymen are freemen and, as such, are impatient of every thing that bears the mark of the domineering spirit. They will, therefore, refrain, with the most guarded circumspection, from whatever has the semblance of haughtiness, rudeness, or insult…They will endeavor to overcome difficulties, if any are experienced, by a cool and temperate perserverance in their duty__by address and moderation rather than by vehemence or violence.” Crawford’s express intent that smugglers be treated in a gentlemanly manner was blithely ignored by Chew.

Chew’s series of letters to Crawford about the Laffite problem at Galveston went on to discussion at Washington, with Congress reviewing documents in January 1818 consisting mostly of Chew’s complaints about Jean Laffite’s occupation of Galveston Island and how he was using it as a base to launch attacks against shipping in the Gulf of Mexico, plus the “pirates” were engaged in smuggling slaves into the United States. John Quincy Adams followed Chew’s invective avidly, agreeing that after Louis Aury left, Galveston became, “indisputedly” piratical in nature. Adams further went on to publish diatribes in the press under his pen name Phocion in which he called Galveston an “association of adventurers, renegades and desperadoes from the four corners of the earth, whose sole aim was the indiscriminate plunder of commercial shipping.” Adams asserted the right of the US to “constitute itself the protector of its own seas and protest the renewal of the scenes of horror such as when ‘Lafitte’ held Barataria.”

Monroe came out with a presidential proclamation about Galveston and Aury’s new base at Amelia Island, but he repeatedly suspended orders to seize Galveston, which must have made Chew apoplectic with anger.

When US authorities finally did move against Galveston in early 1820, it was not with warships, but diplomacy through Commodore Daniel T. Patterson of New Orleans, with encouragement to end the privateering establishment there. Beset by turmoils within and without Galveston from others, the Laffites left voluntarily, with a safe conduct pass from Patterson. They didn’t leave because the US wanted them to go: they went because privateering was becoming much less profitable and the captains who served them were turning more unmanageable.

Chew’s friends back in New Orleans, however, took the news as a sign of their custom agent’s political clout to get things done. Even two years later, in 1822, his friends were still crowing about how Chew had almost single-handedly vanquished Galveston, as evidenced in this editorial in the Louisiana Advertiser:

“The banditti who infested Galvestown (sic), and the coast of Western Louisiana have been driven away by the vigilance of our officers and, we do not believe, there is at this moment a piratical rendezvous from the Cape of Florida to the Isthmus of Darien…They have been totally expelled from the American shore by the vigilance of our collector, his subordinate officers, and our small naval force. As resulting from the prostration of the ancient system of smuggling and the breaking up of the haunts of the villains who were engaged in it, the principles of an honourable and legitimate commerce begin to flourish. We have thus traced the progress of this improvement in our character, and amelioration of our commercial morality; and for their instrumentality in producing such results we openly affirm that Beverly Chew, and the officers under the control of his department, are eminently entitled to the lasting gratitude of the citizens of New Orleans, and of every honest inhabitant of the Gulf of Mexico.”

Chew did not stop engaging in  illegal activities just because he had become a well-respected port collector. According to Obadele-starks, “In June 1824 Chew authorized the ship Ceres to enter New Orleans with slaves despite the fact its crew presented no manifest. In 1825, he informed the New Orleans major of his intent to allow a free African family from Port au Prince into Louisiana although they lacked the legal documents to enter the country.” Additionally, Chew turned a blind eye to some other slave cargoes in that time, especially when the owners were friends and fellow church members of his.

Chew had served as collector for over 12 years when new President Andrew Jackson refused to re-appoint him, naming another New Orleanian in his place in 1829. Jackson’s chief of surgery during the campaign against the British, New Orleans physician Dr. David C. Kerr, recalled that “So virulent was Chew in his opposition to Jackson, that he even refused permission to hoist a flag on the church of which he was vestryman or to have bells rung on the 8th of January” in honor of Jackson’s great victory. The antipathy between the men could possibly be explained by the fact that in 1828 while still customs collector, Chew had been unanimously elected president of the United States Bank of New Orleans. Jackson was extremely opposed to the US Bank.

Even though Chew was employed as a bank president after his dismissal, his cronies lamented Jackson’s cruelty in casting him aside in his old age. According to the May 18, 1829 issue of the Courrier de la Louisiane, a group of Chew’s friends gathered together at the Exchange Coffeehouse to express their “regrets at the removal of that gentleman as collector” with Thomas Urquhart acting as chairman and John Hagan, secretary. They lauded Chew to the highest degree, saying he was a skillful, able and efficient officer as collector at the port of New Orleans; that he always had at heart the interest of the government, and the punctual observance of the laws; and that he had endeared himself to the public by his constant and strict attention to these interests; and by his gentlemanly deportment.

The friends said “we sympathize with him that after so many years devoted to the public service, he retires into private life without fortune, and with a large family, dependent upon everyone, that at his late period of life, must find new channels, through which to earn them a support,” and agreed to gather subscriptions from the public sufficient to offer Chew a suitable present upon which shall be inscribed “what their hearts may dictate as our feeling and their judgment.”

Chew stayed in the banking industry, resigning from the Second Bank of the U.S. to become cashier of Canal and Banking Co. of Louisiana in 1831. A year later, in 1832, he assumed the presidency of that financial institution.

He still kept his old ways about meddling in land speculation while he had some money and power, as in 1836, he was a member of the Texas filibusters group called the Native American Association, involved in the Texas revolution to seize lands from Spain.

From 1834 until the end of his life, in 1851, Chew would be plagued with lawsuits and trials over the Daniel Clark will and the unsettled rights of Daniel’s daughter, Myra Clark Gaines, to her inheritance. The tangle of legal testimony and lawyers would reach all the way to the Supreme Court and become one of the longest running cases in history (it ended in 1891), but neither Chew nor Relf would ever present a word of testimony in court, letting their attorneys handle it all.

The collective attorney fees and court expenses ate through whatever financial gains Chew had had, so that by his death, he had hardly anything in his estate to leave his heirs. Probate records show that Chew died with no funds to afford his children a “liberal education,” and advised them to sell ten lots of land in Lafayette, Jefferson Parish. The land speculator who had once held the purse-strings of New Orleans and ruled the city’s business for over 30 years died virtually broke.

In a coda to this story, Chew’s remains are not still at rest in the Girod Street Cemetery in New Orleans where he was entombed. Due to severe vandalism, in 1957 that cemetery was deconsecrated and all the remains were relocated in an anonymous mass tomb at Hope Mausoleum in New Orleans. The site of Chew’s first tomb is now beneath the Superdome parking garage.

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/

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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