Wednesday, December 12, 2012

History: The Battle of Lake Borgne

I've written about the Battle of Lake Borgne here before. Fought entirely on water and, for the most part on December 14, 1814, the events leading up to the battle are just as interesting as those that followed. The entire dance began on December 8th, and no one - to my mind - has written about this brief but critical conflict with more enthusiasm than Dr. Jane Lucas deGrummond in her 1961 publication The Baratarians and the Battle of New Orleans. Her zest for the subject is clear in not only her descriptions but the way she addresses some of the characters as if they were not historical figures but old friends. She never calls Lieutenant Thomas ap Catesby Jones by his full name, for instance, but refers to him throughout by his familiar naval nickname: Tac Jones.

I could paraphrase until I was blue in the face but why bother? Here, for your enjoyment, is Dr. deGrummond's recitation of the Battle of Lake Borgne:

While Jackson thought all his orders were being executed, Admiral Cochrane's invasion fleet approached Chandeleur Island. On December 8, his 74's anchored off that island while the rest of the fleet took a position between Ship and Cat Islands. Only the lighter vessels could navigate from this point which was the entrance to Mississippi Sound - the shoal coastal waters between Mobile and Lake Borgne.

Cochrane had a good understanding of the area, not only from maps and books published a few years earlier by English observers in America but also from information which certain Spaniards, formerly residents of New Orleans, gave him. This was confirmed by Spanish fishermen who had a village of 20 or 30 huts about one mile from the mouth of Bayou Bienvenu which emptied into Lake Borgne.

The British could not attack New Orleans from the mouth of the Mississippi. Vessels dependent upon sails could not hope to pass Fort St. Philip and English Turn against the strong current of the river. Neither could they enter Lake Pontchartrain and attack New Orleans from the rear because Cochrane thought Fort Petites Coquilles defending the entrance to Lake Pontchartrain had 40 pieces of artillery mounted and 500 troops. These would be sufficient to annihilate any force that tried to enter the lake through Rigolets.

Cochrane decided to bypass the Rigolets and attack New Orleans from a point which he could reach by crossing Lake Borgne and ascending Bayou Bienvenu. The mouth of this bayou was 60 miles from where his ships were anchored. His plan was to land all the troops on Isle-aux-Pois which was midway between the ships and the mouth of the bayou. He had only enough small vessels to transport one-third of his troops at a time. From Isle-aux-Pois the landing craft, guided by Spanish fishermen, could transport troops in relays the 30 remaining miles to Bayou Bienvenu.

Meanwhile, Tac Jones and his five gunboats had been studying the concentration of British ships between Ship and Cat Island. The British sighted the gunboats on December 12. They would have to be captured because Cochrane's troops had to be ferried 60 miles in open boats. Jones saw that the British had discovered him and scurried before the wind, hoping to make the 50 miles to Fort Petites Coquilles on the Rigolets.

In hot pursuit was Captain Lockyer (the same Captain Lockyer who had been sent to Jean Laffite) with 45 barges, 43 cannon and 1,200 sailors and marines. The flotilla pursued the gunboats two days.

On the morning of December 14, Jones and the gunboats had bad luck. The wind died away completely at 1 A.M. The gunboats were between Malheureux Island and Point Claire on the mainland. Jones stationed the gunboats in line across the channel and waited.

About 9:30 Captain Lockyer saw Commodore Porter's old gig, the Alligator, trying to join the five gunboats. He detached four boats with nearly 200 men to capture this cockle-shell. In his report he described his splendid prize as "an armed sloop."

One hour later the enemy came within range and the gunboats deliberately opened fire. The battle lasted three hours. Ten Americans were killed and 35 wounded. All the gunboat captains except one were wounded. The British captured the gunboats at a cost of 17 men killed and 77 wounded. They returned to Cat Island with their prisoners and captured gunboats.

Jones and the other wounded were put on the Gorgon, a large storeship. There a tall and gentlemanly individual conversed freely with them "respecting his future arrangements for the discharge of his duty." He was to be the future "collector of the revenue of his Britannic Majesty in the Port of New Orleans."

Dr. deGrummond's noticeable eagerness to describe each place by name is typical of southeastern Louisianan and indeed Gulf Coast storytelling. The names fascinate us just as much as the story does. What a marvelous job of including detail the Doctor has done here. I could read it over and over and, in the end, feel sorry only for the unfortunate dead and wounded. Oh, and that poor, unnamed guy who anticipated growing very wealthy off the "revenue of his Britannic Majesty in the Port of New Orleans."

Don't count your eggs before they're in the pudding, dear sir.

Header: The Battle of Lake Borgne by Thomas L. Hornbook via Wikimedia 


Timmy! said...

That poor, unnamed guy reminds me of Peter Ustinov's character in the movie "Spartacus", Pauline...

Pauline said...

Oh, what a wonderful analogy. Now every time I read that I'll imagine that guy looking like Lentilus Betiatus.

Calliope Street said...

Another great tale, P. I shall think of it next time I wet a line in Lake Borgne. Speaking of Baratarians, I watched "The Buccaneer" last night on Netflix streaming. I clicked the icon expecting to see the 1958 Yul Brynner version and (lo!) up came the credits in glorious black and white! It was the 1938 version with the comically French-fried Frederic March in way-too-snug britches in many scenes. This was a first for me (I saw the remake as a kid in New York). Very pirate-y with lots of yo-ho-ho's and pirate choruses. Most entertaining. And to boot, the Louisiana State Museum got a big fat opening credit line. We served as historical advisors to Mr. DeMille and, in gratitude, he also donated a ton of Buccanneer-related movie crap to our collection -- scripts, posters and lobby cards, set and costume designs, etc. I wrote about it for the winter issue of Louisiana Cultural Vista magazine and will share a link if you like. Should be up in a week or so. So that's the news from Lake Woe-B-Borgne today. Yours faithfully, A.

Pauline said...

Oh, Arthur, what a great story. I've only seen the Frederic March version once but I do have a couple of lobby cards from the film. Allegedly worth some kind of paper money, I guess.

I'm still crusted that the Yul Brynner version isn't out on DVD. It should be by all accounts but it is a complete bear to find anywhere - even YouTube. Although someone recently up-loaded some scenes that were previously unavailable. I plan to post those here as we near the 198th anniversary of the Battle of NOLA.

Please do share your article if you can at all. Would love to pass the link along to the Brethren.

Calliope Street said...

Aye-aye, P., will send that link. Thankee!

Undine said...

Hi, Pauline. Just to let you know it's Awards season, and you're included again. Pity these things don't include a cash bonus, like the Nobel.

Pauline said...

Holy hogs! You are too kind to me as usual, my dear friend. I have to agree though; a cash bonus would come in awfully handy this time of year.