Thursday, January 10, 2013
People: The Battle of New Orleans and the Brothers Laffite
We refer to the Battle of New Orleans as occurring on January 8, 1815, but in fact skirmishes, feints and brutal gore took place for 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 was a futile wast of effort and life, the Treaty of Ghent having been signed (signed is the word used in almost all cases when discussing this myth; rarely does the word ratified come into play) on December 24, 1814. Please see this excellent post at History Myths Debunked and just stop that nonsense already.
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. Another that is in ongoing debate among scholars of such things is where, just exactly, were Pierre and Jean Laffite 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. Nearly 100 years ago, as was the case only a decade 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. William C. Davis, for instance, claims that only two percent of Jackson's forces were actual Baratarians.
I would argue that the truth is somewhere in between these two radically different opinions. But let's first examine what the experts have to say.
Lyle Saxon, whose Lafitte the Pirate was first published in the lat 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 ersatz facts. Even so, Saxon's 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 sited sources religiously and argued with a very convincing voice. Still, in the thirty plus pages devoted to the three weeks of battle, her book 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 lives of 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 battlefield. 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, but it has a fatal flaw: wherever there is ambiguity in the record as to which Laffite a document or memoir is referring, Davis gives the nod to Pierre.
Thus, Davis presents up with Pierre as not only close, personal adviser to Andrew Jackson but as tracker for General John Coffee in the swamp beyond Rodriguez Canal. Late in the battle of January 8, Pierre is a commander of men, sent with General Humbert to assist General Daniel Morgan on the west bank of the Mississippi. The elder Laffite brother 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 surviving 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 bathwater, he throws Jean back into the ignominy of evading service which 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 earlier, the truth must be somewhere in the middle.
The Baratarians were most effectual as artillerists, on Battery Number 3 in particular. These twenty-four pound guns, commanded by Dominique Youx and Renato Beluche, were the bane of the British throughout the fighting. Also, most of the sailors aboard Commodore Patterson's 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? That is a loaded question. But were they at the battle with the men they knew and called brothers? Most definitely. Anything more specific than that is open to interpretation...
Header: A 1950s postcard featuring New Orleans' famous "Pirates' Alley" from the author's collection