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New Book Reveals Explorer William Clark’s Dubious Past

September 17, 2016 in American History, general history, History, Louisiana History

clarkbook
Spying, smuggling, and possibly abetting treasonous conspirators against the United States are not actions most historians would associate with explorer William Clark of Lewis and Clark 1803-1806 Expedition fame, but a little-known 1798 journal he left behind tells a fascinating tale of an almost completely different side of the man.

“The Unknown Travels and Dubious Pursuits of William Clark” by Jo Ann Trogdon (University of Missouri Press, Columbia, 2015) expertly reveals the story behind Clark’s journal of a trip he made on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers from Louisville, Ky. to New Orleans in 1798 by meticulously filling in the concise nature of his entries through research of the people with whom he associated.

This is a tale of high adventure and smuggling duplicity on a journey Clark charted in a personal logbook which mostly stayed overlooked for some 70 years in the Missouri State Historical Society Archives  at Columbia before Trogdon discovered it and began to do meticulous research in such archives as the Archivo General de Indies for the back stories of each entry in that journal. Her book is a richly told, vivid account of the political machinations and economic factors behind what was then Spanish Louisiana, and the players in the Spanish Conspiracy, the plot by traitorous General James Wilkinson and cohorts to get Kentucky and western territories to secede from the US and join Spain.

Famous for his later arduous journeys with Meriwether Lewis across the Louisiana Purchase territory and back in 1803-1806, Clark’s exploits on the lower Mississippi River show he was daring and adventurous by himself in his younger days.

This book is unique in its method of using a courtroom style procedure of point-by-point inquiry and evaluation of evidence presented through letters, documents, and journals to question what Clark’s intentions may have been during his adventure, considering foremost Clark’s almost dogged admiration for General Wilkinson, the American general who was unparalleled at planning covert missions down the Mississippi and into Spanish territory.

Trogdon’s wonderful book is a rich tapestry of life on the lower Mississippi and at New Orleans during the rule of Spanish Louisiana, and the Spanish Conspiracy which the devious General Wilkinson earnestly worked to make a reality while hiding his true colors from US authorities. Trogdon gives all the evidence and players behind the master plot. During his 1798 voyage, Clark played a role in this conspiracy by illegally smuggling Spanish silver coinage upriver to some unknown party. The extent to which Clark knew what was involved with the money, which was a payment from the Spanish to Wilkinson, is the question which is a focus of this book. Was Clark a traitor too? Perhaps. Was he a spy? Maybe. The reader is left to judge and decide.

Although all accounts are true and reported minutely, this book is not a dry-as-dust work of academia but reads more like an historical thriller, particularly in the account of how an incident at the Balisa at the mouth of the Mississippi River with Clark caught in the middle on an American ship almost made an international conflict erupt between Spain and the US.

“The Unknown Travels and Dubious Pursuits of William Clark” is that rare book that entertains and informs both the casual reader and the serious student of history, plus has everything that a professional historian could desire from such a work, particularly with the complete transcript of Clark’s logbook for comparison in the back, footnotes, a bibliography and index. An extra plus is the entertaining tracework history in the addenda about how the Clark journal wound up in the Columbia archives.

Trogdon helpfully gives back stories for all the main players in the book, to aid with fully understanding what went on in 1798. For example, in 1795, Manuel Lisa accompanied Clark from New Madrid on behalf of Wilkinson. Lisa was a courier for the governors of Spanish Louisiana territory at the time, and was trusted to carry Spain’s top-secret correspondence to Wilkinson.

Many major players involved with New Orleans business were associated with Clark, such as Daniel W. Coxe, a Philadelphia merchant, and his protégé, Virginian Beverly Chew, who would soon become a major player in the Crescent City. On the return trip to the East Coast in 1798, Clark sailed with Coxe and Chew and then traveled homeward with Chew, once they had docked. The subtle but pervasive nuances of all these interactions are multilayered. For anyone who loves historical detection, this is truly a stellar read and a worthy addition to the bookshelf for continued reference.

One Vote Made Thomas Jefferson President

May 18, 2016 in American History, general history, History, Legal History, Louisiana History

Claiborne and President Thomas Jefferson with a map of the Louisiana Purchase

Claiborne and President Thomas Jefferson with a map of the Louisiana Purchase

 

Astonishingly, only one vote from a very young Tennessee state representative handed Thomas Jefferson the presidency of the United States in the 1800 Election.

The 25-year-old who cast that ballot was William C. C. Claiborne, who as a direct result of his vote that spring of 1801 was appointed governor of the Territory of Mississippi a few months later by a grateful Jefferson. The Federalist governor in place, Winthrop Sargent, had faced heavy criticism for his authoritarian rule of the territory, and the residents there did not mourn his removal from office although Sargent bitterly complained in the press.

In the Presidential Election of 1800, the US Constitution had not required that electors should designate on their ballots the person they voted for as president, and the one voted for as vice president, but that the one having the highest number of votes should be president, and the one having the next highest should be vice president. This made the end vote of the Electoral College confusing, although the popular vote had given the Jefferson-Burr ticket a majority.

Incumbent President John Adams had lost the popular vote dramatically to candidates Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, which threw the final decision into the Electoral College. But the Electoral College gave Jefferson and Burr an equal number of votes, so the House of Representatives had to decide which of them should be president, the choice to be made by ballot, and each state would have but one vote.

According to a historian writing in 1830, “the contest was extremely animated, for on this occasion the great federal and republican parties came into violent conflict…when they were returned with an equal number of votes to the house of representatives, it was supposed of course that the public voice would be obeyed, and Jefferson made president. The federal party, however, determined to support Colonel Burr; they knew very well the political sentiments of every member of the house of representatives, and they early ascertained that the election depended on the vote of Mr. Claiborne, the sole representative from the state of Tennessee.”

Claiborne was thought to be especially vulnerable to being influenced as he was young with grand ambitions, plus the most important factor was he was poor. Members of the Federalist Party sent several delegations to the holder of the key vote to try to bribe him with various offers. Claiborne refused all of them, saying he thought it proper and honorable to obey the public voice on the matter.

The ballots began to be cast in eary 1801, and the states were equally divided on the first ballot; several other ballots took place, and the result was the same, when the House adjourned.

News of the tied vote spread like wildfire. The importance of Claiborne’s vote was so critical to the contest that when Congress began voting again, he went armed to the House, as no one could predict what violence might erupt. The public was barred from the proceedings as a safety precaution.

For several days and sometimes long into the nights, the votes were the same. All in all, a total of 36 ballots had been cast, with the same number of votes for Jefferson and Burr. On every vote, Claiborne had voted for Jefferson, and declared that he felt satisfied that Jefferson was the choice of the people, and that he intended to stick with that vote, no matter what the consequences.

On the last vote, the Vermont representative turned in a blank ballot, voting for no one, and Claiborne had the tie-breaking vote for Jefferson.

A native of Virginia born in 1775, Claiborne did not have the advantages of inherited wealth like some of his fellow Virginians in the late 1700s, but he made up for that by careful studies and through associations with benefactors who helped him attain important political positions while he was still a very young man.

He had attended Richmond Academy, and the College of William and Mary, then worked as a clerical assistant studying law in Congress at New York City, and then at Philadelphia. Among the prominent people at Philadelphia who noted Claiborne’s industriousness was Thomas Jefferson, who offered to lend him some books for his studies.

Claiborne returned to Richmond where he passed the bar, then at the request of his friend and later Tennessee governor General John Sevier, Claiborne moved to Sullivan County, Tennessee, where he soon was named one of the five members of the Tennessee delegation to form the newly-minted state’s constitution. Gov. Sevier made one of his first acts the appointment of Claiborne as a judge of the supreme court of law and equity of the state, citing his universally acknowledged merits despite the fact Claiborne had not quite turned 22 years old.

Even at that young age, Claiborne set his sights high, aiming to become district judge of Tennessee. He asked his influential friends in Virginia  William Fleming and Edmund Randolph to recommend him to President George Washington for appointment in 1797. Fleming said in his letter to Washington that Claiborne’s “superior talents, great sobriety, and intense application to business distinguish him from the generality of young gentlemen of his age and should he be so fortunate as to succeed in his application, I am persuaded you will never have cause to regret the appointment.”

Claiborne did not get the district judge position as Tennessee Congressman Andrew Jackson told President Washington in his letter regarding the matter that “Mr. Claibourn (sic) is an amiable young Man, but perhaps not possessed of sufficient Experience to fill such an important office (district judge).”

Somewhat ironically, when Jackson vacated his representative seat to run for senator later in 1797, Claiborne successfully ran in the special election for Jackson’s former post in the House of Representatives, winning by a large majority over more seasoned and wealthier opponents. Only 22 years old, he was the youngest man who had ever appeared on the floor of Congress. He was re-elected to a full term in the House in 1798.

Jackson and Claiborne’s lives would intertwine more than a few times in subsequent years, and they never were on friendly terms. Jackson had been an enemy of Sevier, who was one of Claiborne’s mentors.

In 1803 at the transfer of Louisiana territory from France to the United States, President Jefferson furthered Claiborne’s prominence by naming him and General James Wilkinson to accept the transfer on the part of the US. From the outset, it was understood that Claiborne was tacit governor of the Territory of Orleans, and he moved from Natchez, Miss., to New Orleans.

In 1804, Jefferson officially appointed Claiborne governor of the Territory of Orleans, although he noted in his letter that Claiborne had not been his first choice for that honor. Jefferson had wanted his old friend, the Marquis de Lafayette, for the post, but Lafayette had turned him down. An earnest applicant for the governorship had been Andrew Jackson, who must have fumed that the young man he had considered inexperienced had won the job over him, in a large part due to that presidential vote.

When Louisiana became a state, in 1812, Claiborne had gained enough respect and admiration from the French and American citizens there that he easily became the first governor.

According to a biographical entry in “The National Portrait Gallergy of Distinguised Americans” when Louisiana was invaded by the British, Gov. Claiborne “voluntarily surrendered to General Jackson, when he arrived, the command of the militia of his state, and consented himself to receive his orders, a measure which he thought a just tribute to the military experience of General Jackson, and which he adopted, also, to avoid to his state all the expenses of the equipment and movements of her militia, which would have fallen upon her alone had he kept the command.”

Jackson made sure Claiborne and his select group of militia were nowhere near Chalmette, the main scene of the action which would culminate in the Battle of New Orleans on Jan. 8, 1815. On Dec. 23, 1814, Claiborne and his corps had received orders from Jackson to go to Gentilly to occupy the important pass of Chef Menteur as it was feared the British might try a diversion there. Claiborne and his group stayed there and fortified it, remaining at the spot through the whole contest and missing any action against the British.

Upon the expiration of his term as governor in 1817, Claiborne was elected to represent Louisiana in the Senate of the United States but before he could do so, he fell victim to liver disease on Nov 23, 1817, at the age of 42. He had lived a relatively brief life, but had left many legacies of his skill as both a statesman and patriot.

As a youth, Claiborne had written to President Washington that the “primary object of my life is to be useful to my Country,” and that “I shall labour to acquire the esteem of the present, and of after Ages for good and virtuous Actions.”

If Claiborne had been appointed district judge by Washington, he would not have been seated as a representative during the dramatic House vote of 1801. Burr, not Jefferson, may have won by a tie-breaking vote. The Louisiana Purchase may not have occurred. The Lewis and Clark Expedition would not have happened. Everything which evolved from Jefferson’s presidency would not have occurred, or would have happened differently. The value of one vote, and one man’s decision, in Claiborne’s case, was enormous.

 

 

Patterson’s Mistake: the Battle of Lake Borgne Revisited

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

Battle on Lake Borgne

Battle on Lake Borgne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For related articles, see:

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

The Case of the Spanish Prize Ship at Dauphin Island

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

 

The First Battle of New Orleans Poem

September 16, 2014 in American History, general history, History, Louisiana History

jacksonportrait

Andrew Jackson After the Battle of New Orleans, 1815, from a miniature

The following is believed to be the first poem written about the Battle of New Orleans, published in the New Orleans Gazette in either late February or early March 1815, and reprinted widely in newspapers throughout the United States in April and May, 1815. The author, sadly, is unknown, but from the content of the poem, was likely an American soldier who served with Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans.

THE RETREAT OF THE ENGLISH

 

-A YANKEE SONG-

 

The English mustered mighty strong’,

And bro’t their choicest troops along,

And thoght it but a little song,

To take our town of Orleans.

 

From Plymouth and the Chesapeake,

From Portsmouth, too, and Cork, so sleek,

All came to take a Christmas freak

In our gay town of Orleans.

 

See Cochrane, who is stiled Sir Knight,

With Gordon too, that naval wight,

And Packenham, all full of fight,

To have a dash at Orleans.

 

With Gibbs and Keane and Lambert too,

And others, who kept out of view,

Making, in all, a pretty crew,

To take our town of Orleans.

 

To Ile au Chat their fleets first steer’d,

Where near a hundred sail appear’d;

And, from their numbers, many fear’d

Th’ impending fate of Orleans.

 

They entered Bayou Bienvenue,

Where there were traitors not a few,

To help them on and bring them thro’

To this our town of Orleans.

 

They to the Levee quickly come,

And made, a tho’ they were at home_

Indeed, they were but eight miles from

The very town of Orleans.

 

The news at last to Jackson came;

His mighty soul was in a flame;

He swore an oath, I dare not name,

He’d save the town of Orleans.

 

The town was in a mighty rout’;

He ordered all the forces out

His troops so steady and so stout,

To fight and bleed for Orleans.

 

Away went Jackson at their head,

And many a gallant man he led;

All swore they’d fight till they were dead,

To save the town of Orleans.

 

The English camp he’s soon among;

And found them near five thousand strong,

From swamp to river stretch’d along

Against the town of Orleans.

 

And now began a bloody fight;

The English heroes tried their might,

But many think, the coming night,

Did save these foes of Orleans.

 

Then Jackson, not to risk the town,

Reined for a while his spirit down,

And trenches dug, and raised a mound,

To save the town of Orleans.

 

The English grown twelve thousand strong,

The Twenty eighth again came on,

And tho’t our lines would soon belong

To them, as well as Orleans.

 

Repuls’d:-on New-Years next they came,

But on that day were serv’d the same,

And met a loss, they do not name

From those who fought for Orleans.

 

But ‘twas the Eighth they tried their might,

And brought their army all in sight,

And swore our men would at the sight,

All fly toward New-Orleans.

 

That morning’s sun did rise in blood:

For all our men right valiant stood,

As every honest Yankee should,

Against the foes of Orleans.

 

The muskets and the cannons roar,

Our men most dreadful volley pour;

A rolling fire, unknown before,

Upon the foes of Orleans.

 

Sir Edward led the eager crew,

And pointing to the town in view,

Gave them the sack and pillage too,

If they would get to Orleans.

 

But see! his threatening spirit’s fled;

And Gibbs too lies among the dead,

With many more who boasting said,

They’d dine that day at Orleans.

 

Such carnage ne’e was known before;;

More than three thousand stain our shore,

And some assert a thousand more

Of the proud foes of Orleans.

 

Soldiers! you’ve had no vulgar game!

Wellington’s troops here yield their fame;

Invincibles was once their name,

But this they’ve lost near Orleans.

 

A bloodless victory, on our side,

May well increase our general’s pride;

For see_the field is only dyed

With English blood near Orleans.

 

The proud, but disappointed foe

Is now well taught our worth to know,

And all they ask, is but to go

Far__far away from Orleans.

 

See how these heroes scour the plain!

Their boats can scarce their haste restrain,

So anxious now their fleet to gain,

And get away from Orleans.

 

Aboard, and sick of Yankee sport,

They’re dressing up a long report,

To suit their gracious sovereign’s court,

Of their great feats near Orleans.

 

Here’s to the EIGHTH! a brilliant day!

‘Tis pride to have been in that affray,

Which drove these Englishmen away,

From this our town of Orleans.

 

Here’s to the gallant GENERAL! who

Has saved our town and country too!

A braver man the world ne’er knew

Than he who fought for Orleans.

 

Brave Sons of Tennessee! a toast!

Of you your country well may boast,

She cannot find a braver host

‘Mong those who fought for Orleans.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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