Monday, April 23, 2012

Ships: Commodore Patterson's Own

Today is officially the end of NOLA Navy Week, but the celebration of the U.S.’s victory in the War of 1812 will continue until January of 2015. To commemorate the end of a week of ships and sailors down on the bayou, I’d like to offer a brief overview of the two American ships that helped General Jackson defeat the British on Chalmette plain.

Both Louisiana, a purpose-built sloop of war rated for 16 guns, and Carolina, a schooner of 14 guns, were under-manned when Daniel Tod Patterson, then Commodore of the New Orleans Naval Station, took over their command in 1814. Carolina was largely crewed by New Englanders fresh from merchant service, none of who had much if any experience working artillery. Louisiana, on the other hand, was a ghost ship. Thanks to the raid on the Laffite brothers’ Baratarian strong hold in September, both ships were full to bursting with guns, ordinance and black powder. What they had in might, however, they lacked in men.

This was, in large part, due to Andrew Jackson’s reluctance to include those “hellish banditti” from Barataria among his forces. The sailors and artillerists from Grande Terre were either imprisoned along with Dominique Youx, who was bent under heavy chains in the Calabozo, or in hiding for fear of joining their brethren. The Laffites themselves were far to the north in Donaldsonville. Renato Beluche, one of the luckier of the privateers, had managed to get his ship La Popa away from those captured by Patterson as they cruised toward the Balize.

By November there was no question that the British were on their way to New Orleans with their battle cry for the attack being “beauty and booty.” Even the Ursuline sisters in their sheltered convent knew what that was about. Patterson could not reasonable find capable men to crew Louisiana and work Carolina’s guns on such short notice; all the merchant ships who could had left the area taking the local sailors with them. He was shrewd enough to know not to cut off his own nose to spite his face, however – even if Jackson wasn’t – and we can reasonable imagine that it was the Commodore who began the dialogue about using the Baratarians to crew the American ships.

If Patterson did start the dialogue it probably wasn’t with General Jackson, at least at first. He would have been swatted away like a fly at that point. Knowing that, it’s probable that Patterson instead approached Louisiana Governor William C. C. Claiborne and Jackson’s aid, personal friend and long-time resident of NOLA, attorney Edward Livingston. Somehow these men managed to change Old Hickory’s mind. The Baratarians were released from prison and their warrants set aside, provided they agreed to serve either aboard ship or by land. Legend even speaks of a covert meeting between Jackson and the Laffite brothers. This initial meeting was, if it ever happened, so secretive in fact that we have no reasonable historical record of where or even when it took place.

Regardless, Patterson had the seasoned men he needed and just in time. As the British hunkered down on Villere plantation, Carolina and Louisiana slipped down the Mississippi, dropped their anchors and began a near constant bombardment of the enemy. British soldiers, already soaked through by the cold, December rains, were made even more miserable by the constant cannon fire. The threat of death or dismemberment from the persistent guns made it impossible for the British even to build fires to cook over or keep warm by.

Eventually, the British got lucky. Their own guns were trained on the ships, using shot heated before being placed in the cannons, and they hit Carolina’s powder magazine. She literally blew up and sank where she sat. Surprisingly, only one man was lost.

Louisiana kept up the bombardment, which assisted the work of the artillerists on Rodriguez Canal. Toward the end of the high-pitched battle on January 8, 1815, the British managed to cross the river and head up the west bank bent on taking Louisiana and turning her guns on Jackson’s line. Louisiana packed on her sails but found herself in an unfortunate and ill-timed dead calm. Patterson, an able and seasoned seaman, did not let a lack of wind deter him. Within minutes he had men in boats literally rowing Louisiana out of harm’s way via her cables. Moments later the British forces surrendered to Jackson.

Louisiana continued in the service until 1821, when she was broken up and some of her timbers used on other ships.

Both the schooner Carolina and the sloop Louisiana, under Patterson’s capable command, figured prominently in the U.S. victory at the Battle of New Orleans. And their crews, whose names are largely forgotten today, came not just from Yankee shores but from the ranks of those “hellish banditti” whom New Orleans always embraced.

Header: U.S. schooner Alligator, whose lines and sails were similar to those of her contemporary, Carolina


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! And Huzzah! for Daniel Tod Patterson and crews of the Carolina and the Louisiana.

Pauline said...

The story of Louisiana and Carolina and the Battle of New Orleans is one of my favorites from the War of 1812. Largely, I think, because of how much of it remains unknown.