Jean Lafitte: Gentleman Pirate Of New Orleans
The Battle of New Orleans
"Gentlemen, the British are below the city! We mist fight them tonight."
Gen. Andrew Jackson
With the first sighting of British masts over the waters of Lake Borgne in mid-December, Jackson's unit commanders hastily convened at his headquarters above Maspero's to review and finalize battle plans. Commodore Patterson and the others were surprised to see Lafitte stroll in among them, dressed in leather cape and his rapier at his side. What amazed them was the way Jackson seemed to dote on this "pirate," soliciting his advice on many subjects, including the layout of the swamp region and strategic points of defense within it. Lafitte was afire, his powers of command evident in that room.
Even with the arrival of the expected company of long rifles from Kentucky, Jackson's forces remained outnumbered. At most, he had mustered close to 3,800 militia, some townsmen and Lafitte's corps in all, about 4,600 men and one-third of what was marching and sailing up to attack them. The British were trained fighting machines comprised of, says Davis, "the Royal North Britain Fusiliers, the Old Fighting Third, the Royal Highlanders and other noted British units which had fought under the Iron Duke of Wellington."
As couriers rode into New Orleans hourly, reporting the size of the Redcoat army and their ever-nearness, the city began to panic. Certain members of the government not Claiborne started screaming surrender, but Jackson wouldn't hear it. Sensing a growing hysteria, he installed martial law and established a curfew. When a judge protested, Jackson threw him out of town.
Recruiting officers continued to sign up volunteers throughout the hours; any manjack over the age of 15 came forward butchers, bakers, candle stick makers, Negro slaves and freed men; laborers and gentlemen; John Blanque signed on, so did John Randolph Grymes and Mayor Girod and Governor Claiborne. Each man was given a spare of flints and gunpowder (now in abundance thanks to Lafitte). But, still the Americans were ghastly undersized. Lafitte's privateers began to pour from the bayous, loaded for bear.
Activity began on December 23 with a lake battle between Patterson and the British ships. Patterson was forced to retreat. On the Villiere Plantation that same evening, Jackson's ragtag crew surprised and drove back a company of British regulars. Urging his men on, Jackson discovered the Baratarians to be excellent fighters and afraid of nothing.
Throughout the ensuing days and over the turn of the new year, Jackson dug in seven miles south of the city on the Plains of Chalmette, a narrow strip of land between the Mississippi River and the swamps, an area through which the enemy's regiments of foot would have to march to reach New Orleans. While his men constructed barricades of earth and pickets, Jackson's cannon batteries exchanged artillery fire with British vanguard gunners. Dominique Youx's cannons never missed a target to play havoc with several British emplacements, driving them many yards back.
Because he knew the swamps, Lafitte commanded a brigade of sharpshooters in and around The Temple. There were some night skirmishes as the defenders drove back bands of surprised British into the marshlands.
But, what became known as the Battle New Orleans occurred when the main body of British General Pakenham's army appeared on the Plains of Chalmette the evening of January 7, 1815. By morning, they were 7,000 strong. Through the fog they faced to where they knew the Americans crouched, their muzzles loaded, behind their man-made ramparts. Rockets burst through the pea soup to land hissing and sizzling among Jackson's forces, a strategy meant to unnerve them. "They're only rockets!" Jackson called out. "Keep your heads low and they don't part your hair."
The Baratarians present at Chalmette were totally undisturbed by the menace. Much so that they attracted the attention of "Old Hickory." While his own men shuddered in the gloom and abhorrence of what was to come, there were Pierre Lafitte, Dominique Youx, Chighizola, Gambi and a dozen others making coffee! Legend claims that Jackson approached them, complimenting the aroma of the coffee bean, where upon Dominique Youx instantly offered him some in a tin cup. "It's hickory flavored, mon generale!" he saluted. Jackson roared.
The men could hear the steady reports of rifles from the woods on the other side of the Mississippi where American marksmen, Jean Lafitte leading a detachment of them, were holding back a regiment of Redcoats determined to cross the river to join the main attack.
Suddenly, through the fog over Chalmette, the unearthly shrill of bagpipes tuned up. Jackson leaped on the ramparts, saber in hand, ready to give the command to fire.
"A slight breeze moved the fog away before him," Harry Albright states in New Orleans - The Battle of the Bayous. "There were the British Redcoats heading straight for the point he had determined would be their objective...The red-coated infantry with their white cross belts and glittering bayonets, and the Scottish regiment with its tartan plaided trousers, created an unforgettable picture of war."
The British advanced, their bagpipes blaring. They came...within 150 yards.... American muskets readied...one-hundred yards...American muskets aimed into the fog...fifty yards. American muskets fired. Three-thousand squirrel guns and long rifles exploded at once, and the first line of British folded. The spot where Jackson had built his defenses was a natural bottle-neck between the river and the Rodriguez Canal and if the British were determined to pass they would have to charge the bottleneck. In one brilliant move, "Old Hickory" had taken the advantage away from an overwhelming army and forced it into a death charge. As the forthcoming lines of British fell, they created literal stumbling blocks for the men behind them. Tripping over their fallen comrades in the obscurity, face-on into a swarm of bullets, British gallantry waned.
Dominique Youx's and other American artillery pieces boomed and tore large swatches in whatever order still existed in the enemy ranks. General Pakenham, seeing the discombobulation, tried vainly to restore confidence. "Onward!' he cried, "onward, lads!" until a bullet silenced him forever. The few Highlanders and Dragoons who reached the American ramparts had their chests blow in by the ferocious return of a dozen Yankee pistoleers.
After an hour of hell, these Englishmen who had charged so gallantly against Napoleon's forces at Waterloo, turned tail and ran.