Thursday, January 5, 2012

History: The Battle of New Orleans and the Brothers Laffite

Sunday marks the 197th anniversary of the decisive battle fought on Chalmette plain that ended the War of 1812. We refer to the Battle of New Orleans as occurring on January 8, but in fact skirmishes, feints and brutal gore took place for almost a three week period beginning before December 21 and ending with a definitive surrender by the British on or around January 15. Unfortunately, most people today believe that the Battle of New Orleans was a futile waste of life, the Treaty of Ghent having been “signed” on December 24. As we’ve discussed before, the Treaty was not ratified by the U.S. Congress until after January 8. This was due to a clause ante bellum in the Treaty that would cede all territory occupied by the British on or after December 24th to their sovereignty. This included the areas in and around New Orleans.

But that piece of misinformation is just one of the many puzzling things to come out of one of America’s most easily forgotten “darkest hours”. So let’s pick another one to examine, and let’s keep it close to our seafaring hearts. May I suggest where the heck Pierre and Jean Laffite were over the course of those fateful three plus weeks?

At the Centennial of the battle, it was popular to attribute much of the victory to the combined efforts of one brilliant General and a rag-tag, polyglot group of local Louisianans, volunteers from Kentucky and Tennessee, enslaved and free blacks and, of course, pirates. The seamen of Barataria as a group and the Laffite brothers in particular were singled out as one of the most influential reasons for the victory. At that time, as was the case only a few years after the war, “the Laffite brothers” was translated in popular culture and imagination as “Jean Laffite.” The tide has turned now, with modern historians claiming that the Baratarians had little if any impact at Chalmette plain – William C. Davis, for instance, claims that only two percent of Jackson’s forces were actual Baratarians – and the brothers who commanded them had even less. I would argue that the truth is somewhere in between these two radically different opinions. But let us first examine what the experts have to say.

Lyle Saxon, who’s Lafitte the Pirate was first published in the late 1920s, is certainly the least reliable of our sources. His book is more storytelling than history and, although it is a wonderful read, it is full of the myths and legends about the Laffites – and Jean in particular – that are now so engrained in the popular imagination that they have become de-facto facts. Even so, his only comment on what the Laffites were up to amounts to no more than a paragraph explaining that “Pierre Lafitte was given a position of trust on [January 8]…” and Jean was in the Gulf, guarding against a “rear attack”. He goes on to defend Jean against the label of evading service, but he has nothing further to say on the matter.

In The Baratarians and the Battle of New Orleans, masterful historian Jane Lucas deGrummond argues that – as her title implies – those pirates from Grande Terre were a big part of Andrew Jackson’s victory on Rodriguez Canal. DeGrummond was a more than capable researcher who sighted sources religiously and argued with a very convincing voice. Still, in the thirty plus pages devoted to the three weeks of battle, she has nothing to say about any contribution made by the Laffites aside from them providing a significant amount of flints, shot and gunpowder to the effort.

Next we have Jack C. Ramsay, Jr. In Jean Laffite, Prince of Pirates, he devotes a full chapter to the Battle of New Orleans. Though his overview lacks the detail of deGrummond’s, it is concise enough. This makes the omission of any specific action by the Laffite brothers during the fighting particularly glaring. He brings them back to the fore of his narrative only at the end of the chapter, noting that General Jackson praised their “courage and fidelity” in his famous speech on January 21.

The definitive modern work on the Laffite brothers is William C. Davis’ The Pirates Laffite, and Davis puts a new spin on what the siblings were up to at Chalmette. The entire book, well researched and documented to be sure, is skewed toward Pierre. Davis is not an apologist but a sympathizer; he is clearly trying to return Pierre’s memory to our consciousness, it having been overshadowed by Jean’s for almost 200 years. It is a commendable endeavor to be sure but it has a fatal flaw: wherever there is ambiguity in the record as to which Laffite a document or memoire is referring to, Davis gives the nod to Pierre.

So it is that Davis presents us with Pierre not only as close, personal advisor to Andrew Jackson but as tracker for General John Coffee in the swamp beyond Rodriguez Canal. Late in the battle of January 8 he is a commander of men, sent with General Humbert to assist General Daniel Morgan on the west bank of the Mississippi. Pierre even delivers a speech to Morgan’s men, penned by Jackson himself. Meanwhile Jean, whose mission to General Reynolds at Little Lake Barataria is well documented by orders written in Jackson’s hand, is skulking around Grande Terre and presumably up to no good. Davis mentions that Jackson’s orders of December 22 required Jean to return to Chalmette as quickly as possible but then seems to toss that fact out the window. Like the proverbial baby with the bath water, he throws Jean back into the ignominy of evading service that Saxon once argued so vehemently against.

What then is the truth of the matter? Were the Baratarians a help or a hindrance, or of no consequence at all? And what of their leaders, the men who spelled their last name differently than any other “Lafitte” in Louisiana? As I said early, the truth must be somewhere in the middle.

The Baratarians were most effectual as artillerists, on Battery Number 3 in particular. These two twenty-four pound guns, commanded by Renato Beluche and Dominique Youx, were the bane of the British throughout the fighting. Also, most of the sailors aboard Commodore Patterson’s frigates Carolina and Louisiana were Baratarians; both ships bombarded British encampments on Chalmette with great success. The brothers themselves, aside from providing men and material, were certainly put to active duty if not directly on the line or aboard ship. Were the Laffite brothers heroes? Oh no. Were they at the battle with men they knew and called “brother”? Most definitely. Anything more specific than that is open to interpretation.

Header: Fredric March as Jean Laffite in The Buccaneer c 1938


Capt. John Swallow said...

One must suspect those who omit facts about the brothers Laffite and the Baratarians as history (especially American or British history) hates to admit that their "heroes" were either aided or beaten by Pyrates or those associated with them - let alone "swamp rats" as most folk in the Bayous were less than affectionately referred to.

Ye can bet that the tales o' the Laffites providing powder & flint (never mind manpower) to Gen. Jackson is the truth - why else would Jackson have anything to do with them? It seemed in the best interest o' the Laffites & their men to side with the Americans ("lesser o' two weevils" as they say) and they were fighting for their new homeland.

There are few things more dangerous than a man defending his home or a woman defending her children...

Pauline said...

I could not agree with you more.

As Davis noted in his book, perhaps one of the largest contributions to the war effort as a whole was made by Jean Laffite. By convincing his men to fight for the U.S., and then publicly making the offer of their service, he got the Creole, Haitian and Native citizens - always distrustful of the Americans - behind Jackson, and the U.S. cause.

There's no question that Laffite - and I'm pretty sure it was Jean more than Pierre - passionately backing the American cause put Jackson squarely in a corner. He would have looked like an idiot, at the very least, had he not accepted the arms and manpower the Laffites offered.

Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Wait, I thought it happened just like in that fine documentary film, "The Buccaneer" with Yul Brynner and Charleton Heston:

I love your final paragraph here. As you say, the truth is usually somewhere in between the various conflicting versions of the story... "The truth is out there."

I also agree with both Captain Swallow's comment above and your reply. If I may add one other thought, Andrew Jackson was a lot of things (not all of them good, as you have discussed before) but if there is one thing that Jackson was NOT, it was an idiot.

Pauline said...

Thankee, Timmy!

As the good Captain notes, a lot of the "controversy" probably has more to do with Americans (then and now) not wanting to put too much store by the aid of pirates, smugglers and - perhaps the unspoken prejudice - French people.

Capt. John Swallow said...

Aye, Timmy!

"It's all true...give or take a lie or two" ;]