Thursday, January 10, 2013

People: The Battle of New Orleans and the Brothers Laffite

Since I'm still recuperating, I'm pulling a post from the archives. Of course I'm tweaking it a little, because I just can't help myself; enjoy!

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


Timmy! said...

it was fun to read that one again, Pauline. I'm glad that you are starting to feel a little better, anyway. Take it easy and keep on recuperating.

Pauline said...

It's an interesting subject, I think, and certainly one worth revisiting now and then. And thanks; I'll do my best to "lay low."

Capt. John Swallow said...

Hmmm...perhaps we shold start a new show - "Pyrate Mythbusters" LOL
Another great (re)post.

I think there is an important note that is often sidestepped in the whole in the whole "what did the Brothers Laffite really do..." - not so much "were they there" or "how many Baratarians were really there" (because really, would anyone have counted or bothered to differentiate between a "Baratarian", a Freeman, a Houma or a Cajun?). Their biggest contribution was supplies (and in some instances surprise)! Flints, powder, shot, armaments large and small...and likely food, field dressings and other necessities that the Laffites would have ready access to through their network o' trade.

Whether Jean or Pierre were on the battlefield at any time is less relevant (Beluche and Youx certainly seem to have been there to represent them).

Pauline said...

Captain: Pirate Mythbusters! I'm in!

Well spoken as always sir. If there was anything Jackson and Patterson lacked from the get-go (aside from sailors) it was war material. Few authorities can dispute that the Laffites provided that aplenty.

Of course, some one argue that all these points are moot as it was the prayers of the good sisters at the Ursuline convent that saved the day after all.

Even a pirate has a hard time trumping God... :)

DaleBurr said...

I have read in at least one account that the Baratarians shocked the British when they approached the wall and the pirates (or privateers) met them as a boarding party. I'm not sure how accurate this is, but it paints a fantastic picture!


Pauline said...

That one is too good not to believe, Dale. If it isn't true, it absolutely should be!

Pam Keyes said...

Hi Pauline, I may have posted before about this, but when one is talking about the Battle of New Orleans and the Laffites, one has to totally credit the outcome of the battle to the flints and powder supplied to Jackson by Jean Laffite from the Baratarian storehouses sometime between Dec. 23 and 28, 1814. In later years, Jackson himself noted that the only flints and powder he had during the end battles came from Laffite. In that vein, I am reminded of the childhood rhyme about the horseshoe nail. Without gun flints, Jackson's men could not have used any of their guns against the British.
Although there are some who chafe at the name attached to Chalmette Battlefield's park, I think it is entirely fitting that it is known today as Jean Lafitte National Historical Park.
Incidentally, Gene Smith is going to give a talk about Jean Laffite and the Battle of New Orleans at the first annual Laffite Seminar to be held at Texas A&M's Galveston campus (Pelican Island) this March 9. Hosts will be the Laffite Society of Galveston Island.

Pauline said...

Well said, Pam, as always. When there were Tennesseeans showing up half-clothed and without weapons - much to General Jackson's dismay - that material supplied by the Laffites counted for more than just a lot.

Thank you for the information about the seminar at Texas A & M. What a worthwhile trip that would be.

Pam Keyes said...

Pauline, I've already booked my flight and hotel to Galveston for the seminar, wouldn't miss it for the world.