Jean Lafitte: Gentleman Pirate Of New Orleans
"Trust men and they will be true to you; treat them greatly and they will show themselves great."
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Lafitte had always had an evacuation plan just in case one was warranted. His men knew that if there was ever cause to leave Barataria Bay they should re-group on Last Island on Bayou Lafourche, sixty miles-some west of The Temple. Within days, the entire community reassembled, hungry, wet, dirty, some bleeding, but alive. They hated America.
But, Lafitte advised them to strain their feelings. "Remember," he held up a finger to enunciate, "this is Claiborne's doing, and Claiborne is not the whole nation. There is still General Jackson."
Lafitte had heard through his friend Blanque that the famous soldier Andrew Jackson was on his way toward the city. Fresh from having squelched an uprising of Indians at Mobile Bay one encouraged no doubt by British marauders Jackson was expected to arrive any day to commandeer the defense of New Orleans. The tall, bone-thin Tennesseean with arms and legs resembling overlong tree branches he was referred to as "Old Hickory," a name he personally liked was known for his straightforwardness and fairness of play; if anyone would understand and accept his terms, Lafitte believed, it would be Jackson. He would ask attorney John Randolph Grymes to seek audience for him once the general arrived.
Bitter over the country's deceit, Lafitte determined not to show his feelings in front of his men; he had preached too long about the sanctity of the American ideal to back down now. He still expected that idealism to show itself in all its glory. With his kingdom in smoke, the end of the world had not yet come; he could rebuild; but first he needed to prove to his men and more so, to himself that there was a place for them on the American shores.
Jackson's arrival on December 2, 1814, brought a sigh of relief to New Orleans. The army and navy that had been in place up until that time, even though strong enough to roust a thousand island pirates, would be no match for the many, many thousands of British expected to march onto Louisiana soil any day. (Well-substantiated rumors claimed that a fleet of fifty British warships and 12,000 troops under the command of General Sir Edward Pakenham had left Jamaica and were nearing the Gulf.) Jackson brought with him only 1,800 men, but he had already contacted other militia units based around Louisiana to expediently join him; an army of 2,000 Kentucky Rifles were hurrying south to meet him.
Immediately, things began to happen. Jackson blockaded all bayous between New Orleans and the Gulf, reassigned customs agents to battle divisions, relayed scouts to check on British movements and established artillery batteries on the outskirts of the city. At a town session in the Cabildo, Jackson demanded that the city fathers appropriate funds and materials for defense. He also insisted that the French Creoles, as well as other non-unionists living within the city, be convinced that this is their war, too. Those flames that the English vowed they would subject New Orleans to knew no distinction of race, creed or color.
Jackson deliberated. He could not and would not put up with dissenters. In essence, "Old Hickory" was taking over: that was the way he was used to and that was the way it was to be. Suffering from a bout of malaria contracted in the swamps of Alabama, he was jaundiced, gaunt and haggard, but his determination was as strong as the "old hickory" tree that weathered so many storms it no longer feared the gales.
Mayor Nicholas Girod, who because he was a Frenchman himself, maintained that he could convince the French peoples to lend their support where needed.
This brought up the subject of Lafitte. Jackson scoffed. Admitting that he had already received a request from Lafitte imploring his attention, he went on to say that he had declined the offer from "that hellish banditti." The soldier was his 40s, had seen war and devastation; had served his State of Tennessee as representative in peace and his country as warrior in times of conflict; had seen heroes and cowards; had experienced victory and defeat. But, he refused to pander the whims of a pirate seeking absolution from crimes he should have known better not to commit. "We don't need nor want Lafitte," Jackson summarized. Subject closed.
The corsair, having heard this response from lawyer Grymes, decided to take action into his own hands. Jackson's opinion of him was, no doubt, based on only one source of information: Claiborne. The general needed to hear the truth for himself and for the good of the country. History doesn't know for sure how Lafitte made contact with him; the most colorful story is that he simply barged into the general's headquarters one day at Maspero's warehouse. But made contact he did, sometime around December 17, according to Edwin Adams Davis in Louisiana - A Narrative History. By the time their meeting adjourned, Jackson had completely reshaped his opinion of the buccaneer.
Jackson needed men and he needed ammunition. His army was a frayed militia straight from months of fighting Indians at Mobile and, without pause, were yanked to New Orleans. Tired and without time to re-provision, their powder horns were dry and their flint boxes empty. And no matter how good the musket man, their weapons were useless without flint chip and gunpowder. Twelve thousand British troops were disembarking at Barataria Bay and would not recoil from slingshot. Jackson required firepower of the deadliest kind.
Lafitte had what the general needed. Even though his warehouses had been dissipated at Barataria, he had storehouses-full of both materials as well as armament of all kinds in warehouses hidden throughout the swamps.
To the general he was frank, the way he knew the general wanted to hear it. "You want flints? I have 7,500 flints available at a snap of my fingers. You want powder? I have kegs-full. You want rifles, axes, men? They're yours. I have a thousand fighting men, eighty of which are now rotting in the Cabildo. Jackson," he raised that commanding finger, "I and my followers want to fight for America, but as free men, not as indentured servants. For a pardon for me and my Baratarians, we will help you send the enemy to hell. That is my promise."
It didn't take Andy Jackson long to consider. He liked Lafitte's manners, his honesty, his guts. "Friend," he extended his palm, "I give you my word." According to many, the two men became, from that moment, mutual admirers.