6 Myths About the Battle of New Orleans

6 Myths About the Battle of New Orleans

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MYTH #1: The Battle of New Orleans was fought after the formal end of the War of 1812.
Contrary to popular belief, Great Britain and the United States were still officially in a state of war when they clashed in New Orleans. While British and American diplomats negotiating in Ghent, Belgium, agreed to a peace accord on Christmas Eve in 1814, the treaty stipulated that “orders shall be sent to the armies, squadrons, officers, subjects and citizens of the two powers to cease from all hostilities” only “after the ratifications of this treaty by both parties.” Great Britain ratified the Treaty of Ghent within days of its signing, but the document did not arrive in Washington, D.C., after its slow trans-Atlantic ship journey until February 14, 1815, more than a week after news of Jackson’s victory reached the capital. The U.S. Senate unanimously ratified the treaty on February 16, 1815, and President James Madison, displaced from the White House after its burning by the British, signed the agreement in his temporary home, the Octagon House. The exchange of ratified copies between the two countries then brought the War of 1812 to its official conclusion, more than a month after the Battle of New Orleans.

MYTH #2: The Battle of New Orleans was the final military engagement of the War of 1812.
While Jackson’s stunning victory was the last major battle of the War of 1812, it wasn’t the final time that British and American forces traded shots. Driven from New Orleans, the British fleet sailed east along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico and launched an amphibious assault on Fort Bowyer, which guarded the entrance to Mobile Bay. American forces inside the fort had repulsed a smaller British attack in September 1814 but could not withstand the larger onslaught that began on February 8, 1815. The fort’s commander surrendered three days later. Thirteen Redcoats died in the battle along with one American. British plans to seize the port city of Mobile were abandoned when news of the peace treaty finally arrived.

MYTH #3: The Battle of New Orleans was a one-day conflict.
The fight for New Orleans was actually a drawn-out affair that lasted more than a month. British ships first clashed with American gunboats on Lake Borgne near New Orleans on December 14, 1814. Three days before Christmas, British troops landed on the east side of the Mississippi River, and the following evening Jackson halted the Redcoats by ambushing them in their camp. The two sides dueled several times before British General Edward Pakenham ordered an all-out assault on Jackson’s heavily fortified position along the Rodriguez Canal on January 8, 1815. Even after suffering a calamitous defeat, the British continued to bombard Fort St. Philip near the mouth of the Mississippi River for more than a week and did not withdraw from the vicinity of New Orleans until January 18.

MYTH #4: The Battle of New Orleans was only fought on land.
Jackson’s exploits overshadowed the key roles played by the navies in the Battle of New Orleans. The fight in southern Louisiana was ultimately for control of the Mississippi River, the economic lifeline to the North American interior, and it was the Royal Navy under British Vice-Admiral Alexander Cochrane that managed the campaign against New Orleans. The British victory on Lake Borgne allowed the Redcoats to stage an amphibious landing that threw New Orleans into a panic and prompted Jackson to impose martial law in the city. British attempts to sail up the Mississippi River, however, were ultimately repulsed by American forces at Fort St. Philip.

MYTH #5: Kentucky riflemen were responsible for the American victory.
Days before the main battle on January 8, upwards of 2,000 untrained Kentucky militiamen arrived in New Orleans, ready to defend the city. Most of the poorly equipped riflemen, however, lacked an important accessory—a rifle. Fighting with makeshift weapons, the Kentucky volunteers had little impact on the fight and even infuriated Jackson by taking flight in the midst of battle. “The Kentucky reinforcements, in whom so much reliance had been placed, ingloriously fled,” the general wrote the day after the battle, “thus yielding to the enemy that most formidable position.” Although cannon and artillery fire from the army regulars ultimately inflicted the most damage on the British forces, a popular 1821 song penned by Samuel Woodworth, “The Hunters of Kentucky,” rewrote history by exaggerating the role of the backcountry marksmen. Even though the tune lionized the fighting men Jackson once cursed, its popularity among his political supporters on the frontier persuaded “Old Hickory” to adopt it as his campaign song on his way to winning the White House in 1828.

MYTH #6: Pirate Jean Lafitte was a battlefield hero.
The French-born pirate and privateer Jean Lafitte plied the waters of Barataria Bay and the Gulf of Mexico in the early 1800s and remains a legendary figure in New Orleans. Courted by the British, Lafitte instead offered his services and weapons to Jackson in return for pardons for some of his men arrested by the United States. The Baratarian pirates composed only a small percentage of the American forces on January 8, but their experience manning cannons on privateering ships proved valuable along the artillery batteries. Lafitte was hailed as a hero in the war’s aftermath, but there is no evidence that he was anywhere near the front lines fighting alongside his men during the main battle.

Battle of New Orleans

The Battle of New Orleans was fought on January 8, 1815 [1] between the British Army under Major General Sir Edward Pakenham and the United States Army under Brevet Major General Andrew Jackson, [2] roughly 5 miles (8 km) southeast of the French Quarter of New Orleans, [5] in the current suburb of Chalmette, Louisiana. [2]

United States

United Kingdom

285 dead
1,265 wounded
484 captured [4]

The battle took place 18 days after the signing of the Treaty of Ghent, which formally ended the War of 1812, on December 24, 1814, though it would not be ratified by the United States until February 16, 1815, as news of the agreement had not yet reached the United States from Europe. Despite a large British advantage in numbers, training, and experience, the American forces defeated a poorly executed assault in slightly more than 30 minutes. The Americans suffered roughly 60 casualties, while the British suffered roughly 2,000.

Maspero's Coffee House and the Battle of New Orleans

Maspero’s Exchange, also known as Maspero’s Coffee House and now called the “Original Pierre Maspero’s,” is located at 440 Chartres Street, on the corner of St. Louis and Chartres Streets, nearest the river and Canal Street. The original 1788 house at this address was destroyed in the 1794 fire. The present structure was allegedly built between 1795 and 1810. According to the National Park Service, it was originally known as the Exchange Coffee House, and it served as a meeting place for planters, merchants, and privateers.

In a room on the second floor at Maspero’s, Andrew Jackson reputedly planned the defense of New Orleans with Jean Lafitte in late 1814. Many New Orleanians believed that Jean and Pierre Lafitte used the second floor for their headquarters. Both Maspero’s Exchange and the Absinthe House have disputed over the years where Andrew Jackson met with Jean Lafitte before the Battle of New Orleans. Both historic buildings claim the distinction.

In 1950, the owner of Maspero’s Exchange filed suit against the Absinthe House over the right to post a historical plaque on the building. That same year the Absinthe House installed a marker which read: “Old Absinthe House. Legend has it that Andrew Jackson and Gov. W.C.C. Claiborne met here with Jean Lafittte on the secret floor to plan for the defense of New Orleans. The Battle of New Orleans was fought Jan. 8, 1815.” In February 1951, a Judge in Civil District Court, Parish of Orleans, State of Louisiana, dismissed Maspero’s lawsuit, ruling: “Legend means nothing more than hearsay or a story handed down from the past.” Both Maspero’s and Absinthe House still lay claim to the legend.

In the early 1900s, only a small wrought iron balcony appeared on the St. Louis Street side. Later in the 20th century, a cast iron gallery was added to the Chartres Street side.

20 Myths from American History We’re Here to Debunk

Even before the internet came to spread myth and falsehood with extraordinary speed legends and myths became a part of American history. Today myths spread unchecked. One of the reasons for their growth is sloppy research, leading to circular reporting, with unconfirmed and inaccurate accounts appearing on multiple sites, citing each other as sources when they cite sources at all. It is possible to present history with differing interpretations of the same event or events and remain true to events, but recreating the event or creating new out of whole cloth is another thing altogether. After several decades of folklore and unverified tales passed down as folklore, much of what most think they know about their history is wrong.

The life and death of David Crockett of Tennessee is shrouded in myth, much of it of his own creation. Wikimedia

Some of these myths have long been debunked but never completely go away. George Washington and the cherry tree is an example. Both David Crockett and Daniel Boone are remembered, in part, for their courage against Indians on the frontier, though neither was a particularly enthused Indian fighter. Edison improved the lightbulb, he didn&rsquot invent it. Assembly line manufacturing was in use long before Henry Ford installed it in his River Rouge Plant. Gunfighters and quick draw gun battles were scarce in the American West, with most communities enacting laws making the carrying of guns in town illegal. Here are 20 more myths of American history.

Some historians have reported Washington as standing over 6&prime 6&Prime, though he told his tailors he was six feet in height. Wikimedia

1. George Washington&rsquos height has long been exaggerated

Some biographers have placed Washington as one of the tallest of the American Presidents, with estimates of his height ranging as high as 6&prime 6&Prime and as short as an even 6&prime. Washington, in letters to tailors in London, described himself as being six feet in height and &ldquoproportionally made&rdquo. Yet in other letters Washington frequently complained about the fit of his clothes, including overcoats, though the precise nature of his complaints &ndash sleeves too short, breeches too full, etc &ndash were not recorded in his letters. Other observers also wrote of Washington&rsquos stature, and while it is safe to assume nobody measured him with a ruler, the consensus was that he was 6&prime 2&Prime in height.

Upon his death the doctors who had attended his final illness measured the corpse and reported it as being over 6&prime 3&Prime and ½ inches, which led to some confusion among historians. Regardless of whether his own claim of being six feet tall or whether he was two inches taller is true is largely irrelevant, he was a big man for his day, both in height and in body mass. The average man reached a height of about five and a half feet in 1790. Many men were, obviously, much shorter, and Washington would have appeared to be of gigantic proportions, especially when mounted on horseback.

6.4 The People's History of The Battle of New Orleans

1. Why did General Jackson come into James Roberts section of the country to enlist soldiers?

2. What did General Jackson promise to Roberts and other slaves?

3. What was Roberts response?

4. What did Calvin Smith tell General Jackson about the slaves?

5. Why did Calvin Smith offer his slaves to General Jackson?

6. What were the thoughts of Captain Brown about the slaves?

7. How far did General Jackson's Army march?

gallinippers vs mosquitos

8. What kind of problems were they having with the swamps in Louisiana?

9. Why were the white Kentuckians dying in the swamps?

10. What did Jackson threaten to do with the white devils?

11. What were Roberts thoughts about the British when he first saw them?

12. What did Jackson and British General Packenham do when they first met?

13. What did Packenham mean when he said he had ten to Jackson's one?

14. How long did Packenham give Jackson to make up his mind?

15. Who was Pompey, and what his idea that he suggested to Jackson?

16. Who was Jackson talking about when he mentioned if Packenham liked his wooly-headed boys?

17. What was Packenham's response?

18.This day, said the exulting Packenham, I will either eat my dinner in the city of New Orleans, or in h--l! What did Roberts say about this?

19. What did Roberts say that the British should have done to win the battle?

20. What mistake did Packenham do in attacking the fort?

21. What injuries did Roberts sustain?

22. Describe Roberts battle experience.

23. What occurred after Packenham was shot on the fort?

24. What orders did Roberts and the other soldiers carry out for the dead and wounded after the battle?

25. How many slave soldiers were killed during the battle?

26. Jackson praised the soldiers during a speech in New Orleans two days later. What did he tell the slaves to do after the speech?

27. What was Roberts reaction?

28. What were the reaction of some of the whites when they heard that Roberts was contending(wanting) for his freedom?

29. What was Captain Brown's reaction to this argument?

30. Why do think Jackson wanted to go to the Kentucky Tavern?

31. What did Jackson say in a speech about the slaves?

32. What did the Ladies ask Jackson to do with the slaves?

33. What did Calvin Smith want to do to Roberts after reading the letter from Jackson?

6 Slaves Fought For The ConfederacyAmerican Civil War

The Misconception: The black Confederate soldier is often used as proof that, &ldquoHey, Southern slavery wasn&rsquot so bad. And if the Civil War was about preserving a racist institution, why would African-Americans fight for the Confederacy?&rdquo After all, thousands of black fighting men couldn&rsquot have been wrong.

But Really: Those thousands of fighting men never existed. Black people served in the Confederate Army, but they did so as cooks, transporters, laborers, and servants. The three black regiments which were actually formed in the South were used as fodder for newspaper photos like the one above, roundly shunned from actual service, and never saw combat. One of those regiments, the 1st Louisiana Native Guards, surrendered to and (in part) later joined the Union.

Certainly, there were exceptional circumstances under which a black man might have been thrust into soldierly duties, but the Confederacy&rsquos own laws prohibited black people from bearing arms or enlisting as soldiers. Just weeks before the war&rsquos conclusion, a narrow vote in the Confederate Congress decided in favor of enlisting black people as soldiers. However, the war ended before any significant recruitment occurred.

Evidence for any widespread African-American combat service in the CSA is near non-existent. Of over 200,000 Confederate POWs taken by Union forces, none were black. Photos of black Confederates have been proven to be forgeries. Other photographic evidence of black people in CSA uniforms or attending Confederate reunions is often presented without context regarding their backgrounds or service record.

Stepping into Myth

Brogan-style shoes worn by private Page Lapham of 2nd Company,Washington Artillery of New Orleans. – Courtesy of The Museum of the Confederacy

One of the most persistent legends surrounding the Battle of Gettysburg, which took place 150 years ago, is that it was fought over shoes.

After the battle, Confederate general Henry Heth, a Virginian whose troops were the first to engage on July 1, reported on why he had sent a portion of his division into the small Pennsylvania town. “On the morning of June 30,” Heth wrote, “I ordered Brigadier General [Johnston] Pettigrew to take his brigade to Gettysburg, search the town for army supplies (shoes especially), and return the same day.” That parenthetical phrase “shoes especially” has taken on a life of its own over the years, slipping into myth.

So what are the real reasons for the battle? No question, Union and Confederate armies collided unexpectedly at Gettysburg. And yes, Heth’s men were short on shoes. A rumor had even been circulating that shoes were to be found in Gettysburg. But there was no shoe warehouse or factory in town. Shoes, in fact, were only part of the reason that Heth’s men, in his own words, “stumbled into this fight.”

After Pettigrew encountered Union troopers on June 30, Confederate general A. P. Hill sent Heth to Gettysburg the next day to reconnoiter. His mission: to find out whether the soldiers in town were harmless home guard troops or the more fearsome Army of the Potomac. Heth was not supposed to start a battle in fact, he was under specific orders from Robert E. Lee not to do so. The Virginian started one anyway.

Nothing about war is simple, of course, and in the same way that Heth stumbled into battle, one can also stumble into a fierce historical argument. Heth’s decisions were angrily debated by Lost Cause historians after the war, part of a larger, often very personal battle over who was to blame for Gettysburg. John S. Mosby wrote in 1908 that Heth and Hill were not interested in shoes at all, but in battle, glory, and prisoners. “If Hill and Heth had stood still,” Mosby wrote, “they would not have stumbled.”

Nothing about war is simple, of course, and in the same way that Heth stumbled into battle, one can also stumble into a fierce historical argument.

Why, then, the focus on shoes? For some early historians, it may have been a way of distracting readers from more prickly questions surrounding the Confederate defeat. Besides that, the sometimes exaggerated image of shoeless soldiers conveniently underscored the Lost Cause notion of nobility achieved through suffering. By calling attention to the ragged state of Johnny Reb, these writers also called attention to how the underfed, underequipped Confederate army had still managed to triumph in battle. This couldn’t last forever, of course Gettysburg was proof of that. And while no one argued that Lee lost the battle because his men did not have enough shoes, the image of a shoeless soldier speaks for itself.

Finally, from a literary standpoint, the phrase “shoes especially” represents the perfect detail, quickly translating abstract historical forces into blisters on aching feet and the smell of new shoe leather. Gettysburg readily lends itself to being read as a three-act tragedy, dominated, as many have argued, by Lee’s hubris. That it started by accident, over something so “pedestrian” as shoes, is too perfect for writers to ignore. Shelby Foote certainly did not, crafting a scene in The Civil War: A Narrative (1963) in which A. P. Hill airily dismissed the possibility that the Army of the Potomac was in Gettysburg.

In Foote’s dialogue, Heth was quick to take him up on that. “If there is no objection,” he said, “I will take my division tomorrow and go to Gettysburg and get those shoes.”

“None in the world,” Hill responded.

Get the full story on the Gettysburg Campaign, with images, maps, and more in Encyclopedia Virginia. Or read more from Brendan Wolfe on Gettysburg in the EV Blog.

Saving New Orleans

By Autumn 1814, the United States of America, barely 30 years old, was on the verge of dissolving. The treasury was empty, most public buildings in Washington, including the Capitol, the White House (then known as the President's House) and the Library of Congress, had been burned by a victorious and vengeful British Army, in one of the most dramatic incursions of the War of 1812. Festering tensions—arising out of Britain's interference with neutral America's lucrative maritime commerce—had erupted into hostilities in June of 1812. American seaports from the Atlantic to the Gulf of Mexico were blockaded by the British Navy, and the economy was in ruins. The U.S. Army was stymied and stalemated the Navy, such as it was, had fared little better.

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Then, as leaves began to fall, a mighty British armada appeared off the Louisiana coast with the stated purpose of capturing New Orleans, America's gateway to the great Mississippi River Basin. The misfortune would have split the United States in two. New Orleans was as nearly defenseless as a city could be in those days, with only two understrength Regular Army regiments totaling about 1,100 soldiers and a handful of untrained militia to throw against nearly 20,000 veterans of the British Army and Navy, who were descending upon it as swiftly and surely as a hurricane.

Orders from the secretary of war went out to the legendary Indian fighter Gen. Andrew Jackson, then in nearby Mobile, Alabama. He should go immediately to New Orleans and take charge.

Central to the British design for the capture of Louisiana, which had been admitted to the Union in 1812, was an extraordinary scheme devised by Col. Edward Nicholls to enlist the services of the "pirates of Barataria"—so named for the waters surrounding their barrier island redoubt—who were for the most part not pirates at all but privateers, operating under letters of marque from foreign countries. Under the agreed concessions of maritime law, these official letters, or commissions, allowed privateers to prey on the merchant shipping of any nation at war with the issuing country without—in the event they were captured—being subject to hanging as pirates.

In the Gulf of Mexico, a large gathering of these ruthless men had set up operations on Grand Terre Island, Louisiana, which lies about 40 miles south of New Orleans as the crow flies. The leader of this band was a tall, handsome, magnetic Frenchman named Jean Laffite, who, using his blacksmith shop in New Orleans as a front, came to run a phenomenal smuggling business for the grateful citizens of New Orleans, rich and poor alike, who had been harmed for years by an American embargo on international trade—a measure intended to deprive Europe of raw materials—and by a British blockade designed to stifle American commerce.

It was to the Baratarians that Colonel Nicholls dispatched his emissaries from HMS Sophie to see if they could be enlisted into the British effort against New Orleans. On the morning of September 3, 1814, the Sophie dropped anchor off Grand Terre. Through spyglasses the British observed hundreds of sleepy-eyed, ill-dressed men gathering on a sandy beach. Presently a small boat was launched from the beach, rowed by four men with a fifth man in the bow. From the Sophie, a longboat was likewise launched, carrying its captain, Nicholas Lockyer, and a Captain McWilliams of the Royal Marines. The boats met in the channel, and Lockyer, in his best schoolboy French, asked to be taken to Monsieur Laffite the response from the man at the prow of the small boat was that Laffite could be found ashore. Once on the beach, the two British officers were led through the suspicious crowd by the man in the bow, along a shaded path, and up the steps of a substantial home with a large wraparound gallery. At that point he genially informed them, "Messieurs, I am Laffite."

Jean Laffite remains among the most enigmatic figures in the American historical experience, right up there with Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, Kit Carson, Wyatt Earp and Wild Bill Hickok. The youngest of eight children, Laffite was born in Port-au-Prince in the French colony of San Domingo (now Haiti) around 1782. His father had been a skilled leatherworker in Spain, France and Morocco before he opened a prosperous leather shop on the island. Jean's mother died "before I could remember her," he said, and he was raised by his maternal grandmother.

His older brothers, Pierre and Alexandre, would figure prominently in his life. After a rigorous education beginning at age 6, Jean and Pierre, two and a half years his elder, were sent away for advanced schooling on the neighboring islands of St. Croix and Martinique and then to a military academy on St. Kitts.

Alexandre󈟛 years Jean's senior—returned occasionally from his adventures as a privateer attacking Spanish ships in the Caribbean and regaled his younger brothers with stories of his exploits. They were so captivated by his tales that nothing would do but for them to follow him to sea.

When Jean and Pierre arrived in Louisiana from Haiti in 1807, they came as privateersmen—a barely respectable and an unquestionably dangerous business. Laffite, then in his mid-20s, was described as dark-haired, about six feet tall, with "dark piercing eyes," a furious vertical crease in his brow and a comportment something like a powerful cat. He was also said to be intelligent, convivial and a gambling and drinking man.

Joseph Sauvinet, a Frenchman who had become one of the principal businessmen of New Orleans, quickly recognized the value of a resourceful man such as Laffite. Sauvinet set up Jean and his brothers in the smuggling business, with instructions on how to avoid U.S. Customs by offloading their goods downriver below a bend called English Turn, from where the cargo could be transported to Sauvinet's warehouses for resale in New Orleans.

Laffite and his men chose as their base of operations the remote Barataria Bay. It must have seemed a paradise, a place of breathtaking natural beauty and serenity. In addition, Grand Terre was elevated enough to provide protection from all but the worst hurricanes.

Under Jean's stewardship, the privateers captured more than 100 vessels and their cargoes, the most valuable of which were slaves taken in the waters around Havana, which had become the center of the slave trade in the Western Hemisphere.

With the exception of Laffite, who still attired himself as a gentleman, the rest of the Baratarians—there would be probably more than 1,000 of them—dressed like swashbuckling pirates: red-and-black striped blouses, pantaloons, tall boots, and colorful bandannas tied around their heads. Many wore gold earrings, and all carried cutlasses, knives and pistols.

As business grew, the Baratarians became increasingly outrageous. They posted fliers in broad daylight on buildings throughout New Orleans, announcing their booty auctions, held in the swamp halfway between Grand Terre and New Orleans. These were attended by the city's most prominent men, who bought up everything from slaves to pig iron, as well as dresses and jewelry for their wives.

Meanwhile, Laffite began to squirrel away large stores of arms, gunpowder, flints and cannonballs at secret locations. These munitions would prove critically important when the Battle of New Orleans broke out.

The British delegation that came to enlist Laffite in the attack on New Orleans handed over a packet of documents signed by Capt. W. H. Percy, the British senior naval commander in the Gulf of Mexico. Percy threatened to send a fleet to destroy the Baratarians and their stronghold because of their privateering activities against Spanish and British shipping. But if the Baratarians would join with the British, he said they would receive "lands within His Majesty's colonies in America" and the opportunity to become British subjects with a full pardon for any previous crimes.

A personal note from Colonel Nicholls to Laffite also requested the use of all the boats and ships of the Baratarians and the enlistment of Baratarian gunners and fighters in the invasion of Louisiana. The privateers' assistance, Nicholls informed Laffite, was crucial. Once New Orleans was secured, the British planned to move the army upriver and "act in concert" with British forces in Canada, as Laffite later recalled, "to shove the Americans into the Atlantic Ocean." The British officers indicated that His Majesty's forces also intended to set free all the slaves they could find and enlist their help in subduing the Americans.

The two Englishmen next offered Laffite their pièce de résistance: a bribe of 30,000 British pounds (more than $2 million today) if he would convince his followers to join with the British. Playing for time against the threatened British assault on his stronghold, Laffite told the two envoys he needed two weeks to compose his men and put his personal affairs in order. After that, Laffite promised the Englishmen, he and his men would be "entirely at your disposal."

As he watched the British sail away, Laffite must have considered taking the bribe. He must have also considered the British promise to free his brother Pierre, who had been charged with piracy and was locked in a New Orleans jail facing the hangman's noose. On the other hand, Jean, though a Frenchman by birth, apparently considered himself something of a patriot where America was concerned. After all, the country had been good to him. He had amassed a fortune (though in blatant contravention of its laws) by smuggling on its shores. He promptly sat down with pen and paper and proceeded to double-cross his newfound British friends.

Laffite's letter to the U.S. authorities amounted to a declaration of patriotism. Addressing himself to his powerful friend Jean Blanque, a member of the Louisiana legislature, Laffite revealed the entire British scheme: a huge fleet containing an entire army was at the moment gathering for an attack on the city.

If Laffite thought that the New Orleans authorities were now going to forgive him for smuggling, however, he was mistaken. Blanque delivered Laffite's communiqué to Louisiana governor William C.C. Claiborne, who convened the legislature's recently organized Committee of Public Safety. Most committee members insisted that the letters must be forgeries and that Laffite was a lowdown pirate simply trying to get his brother out of jail. But Gen. Jacques Villeré, head of the Louisiana militia, declared that the Baratarians had adopted the United States as their country and that they could be trusted. In any event, Cmdre. Daniel Patterson and Col. Robert Ross announced they were going ahead with their expedition to oust Laffite from Grand Terre.

Laffite, who had been anxiously on the lookout for the return of his messenger, was both surprised and delighted to see in the messenger's pirogue none other than his brother Pierre, who had magically "escaped" from jail. (The magic probably had something to do with bribery.) Laffite's spies in New Orleans also returned with the unpleasant news that Patterson's flotilla and army were assembling at New Orleans to put him out of business. This prompted Laffite to write another letter, this time to Claiborne himself, in which Laffite candidly admitted his sin of smuggling but offered his services and those of the Baratarians "in defense of the country," asking in return a pardon for himself, Pierre, and any other of his men who were indicted or about to be. "I am a stray sheep," he wrote, "wishing to come back into the fold."

When Andrew Jackson saw Laffite's offer to bring his Baratarians to the defense of New Orleans in exchange for a pardon, Jackson denounced the Baratarians as "hellish Banditti."

Laffite, for his part, was well aware that his time limit to join the British invasion had expired and that several of His Majesty's warships now lay off Barataria Bay. Now the Americans, too, were organizing a force against him. Accordingly, he ordered most of the Baratarians to sail from Grand Terre with whatever of value they could carry, including munitions. He put his brother Alexandre, a.k.a. Dominique You, in charge of the island with about 500 men, instructing him to fight the British if they attacked and, if that proved unsuccessful, to burn all the warehouses and ships at anchor. Laffite then fled with Pierre, who had become ill, to a friend's plantation northwest of the city.

The American attack on Barataria came the next day, September 16, 1814. Jean's instructions to his men had been to not resist the Americans. As the ships, headed by the schooner-of-war Carolina, neared, word rang out that they were American. The Baratarians began to scramble for any means of escape—pirogues, rowboats, gigs—and headed into the trackless marshes.

"I perceived the pirates were abandoning their vessels and were flying in all directions," said Patterson. "I sent in pursuit of them." Most got away, but about 80, including Dominique, were captured and thrown into a lice-infested New Orleans jail known as the calaboose. The Americans burned the Baratarians' buildings󈟸 in all—and sent the captured goods up to New Orleans to be cataloged and filed for themselves as claims in the prize court. It was quite a haul for Patterson and Ross—estimated at more than $600,000 at the time—and that was the end of Barataria, though not of the Baratarians.

On November 22, Jackson finally responded to calls from New Orleans by saddling up with his staff and journeying overland from Mobile, personally scouting possible landing sites for a British invasion. By that time the general had become wracked with dysentery. When he arrived in New Orleans nine days later, gaunt and pallid, he could barely stand, but he was cheered by grateful crowds.

To some his appearance might not have inspired confidence: his clothes and boots were filthy from more than a week on the trail, his face was prematurely wrinkled for his 47 years, and his great head of hair had gone gray. But later that day, when he appeared on the balcony of his headquarters on Royal Street, there was something in his voice and his icy blue eyes that convinced most in the crowd that the city's salvation had arrived. Jackson "declared that he had come to protect the city, that he would drive the British into the sea, or perish in the effort."

Soon, events began to overtake New Orleans. On December 12, the British invasion force arrived offshore. Laffite, for his part, was still persona non grata in the city and, with an arrest warrant hanging over him, remained in hiding.

Just before 11 a.m. on December 14, the battle began on Lake Borgne, about 40 miles from the city. British sailors and marines quickly boarded American gunboats positioned there. The British suffered 17 killed and 77 wounded and captured five American gunboats with all their armaments and several boatloads of prisoners. Ten Americans had been killed and 35 wounded.

Jackson was once again faced with the question of what to do about Laffite and his Baratarians, many now scattered in hiding throughout the swamps. After a series of complex negotiations involving the Louisiana legislature and a federal judge, Laffite was escorted to Jackson's Royal Street headquarters. To his surprise, Jackson beheld not a desperado in pirate garb but a man with the manners and mien of a gentleman.

Nor did it hurt Laffite's case that Jackson, who already had commandeered many of Laffite's cannons, had found that New Orleans could offer very little in the way of ammunition and gunpowder. Laffite still had munitions in abundance, squirreled away in the swamps. Again he offered them to Jackson, as well as the services of his trained cannoneers and swamp guides. Jackson concluded that Laffite and his men might well prove useful to the cause.

The Baratarians, accordingly, were organized into two artillery detachments, one under Dominique You and the other under the Laffites' cousin, Renato Beluche. Laffite himself was given an unofficial post as aide-de-camp to Jackson, who instructed him to supervise the defenses leading into the city from Barataria Bay.

On December 23, Jackson was shocked to learn that a British force had massed at a sugar plantation south of New Orleans. In a bold move, American soldiers attacked the British at night, slaughtering them with musket fire, tomahawks and knives. Their assault left the field strewn with British casualties—and slowed their advance.

Jackson moved his forces back a mile and began his defenses. All Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, Jackson's men labored to build and strengthen his soon-to-be-famous parapet. While walking the lines of the main fortification with his friend Edward Livingston, a prominent Louisiana lawyer, Laffite saw something that might have caused a shiver of fear to flow over him. At the far left end of the line, where it entered the cypress swamp, the rampart abruptly ended. Everywhere else, Laffite told Livingston, the army could fight from behind a rampart, but here the British were afforded an opportunity to get behind the American position—which was precisely what the British intended to do. Jackson immediately agreed with this assessment and ordered the rampart extended and manned so far back into the swamp that no one could get around it. Laffite's advice might well have been the best Jackson received during the entire battle.

The fortification took an incredible effort, and when it was at last finished two weeks later, it was more than half a mile long, behind which lay a berm seven or eight feet high, bristling with eight batteries of artillery placed at intervals. In front of it, the men had dug out a ten-foot-wide moat.

On the morning of December 27, when the sun had risen enough to present a field of fire, the British battery opened on the Carolina, positioned in the Mississippi downriver of Jackson, at point-blank range. The warship blew up in a fantastic roar of smoke and flame. Another American vessel, the Louisiana, was able to avoid a similar fate by having her sailors pull her upriver. They anchored her right across from Jackson's ditch, his first line of defense.

Jackson decided to meet the British attack head-on. This was no easy decision, considering that his people were outnumbered in both infantry and artillery. But Jackson trusted his two Tennessee commanders, John Coffee and William Carroll, and had faith in the courage and loyalty of their men, with whom he had fought the Creek War. Likewise, he had come to trust the Creole fighters of Louisiana under their French-speaking officers.

Lastly, Jackson, who now looked upon Laffite's Baratarians as a godsend, ordered Dominique You and his cutthroat artillerists to come at once to the barricade. The Baratarians responded resolutely, with squat Dominique You, smiling his perpetual grin and smoking a cigar, leading the way. They arrived ready for a fight about dawn on December 28.

When the British army came into view, it must have been both a magnificent and a disturbing sight. With drummer boys beating out an unnerving cadence, there soon appeared thousands of redcoats in two columns, 80 men abreast. They pressed forward until midafternoon, with American rifle fire—especially from the Tennesseans' long rifles—and the artillery taking their toll. Finally, the British commander, Gen. Sir Edward Pakenham, had seen enough he called off the assault and took his army out of range of the American guns.

Much of the effective American artillery fire probably was the work of Laffite's Baratarian gunners. Laffite himself, some accounts say, had supervised the installation of two of the largest and most powerful guns in the line, the 24-pounders, which Jackson had ordered dragged down from New Orleans a day or so earlier. If so, Laffite had thus deliberately placed himself in a perilous position had he been captured by the British, he would surely have been hanged for his double cross, if not on piracy charges. One gun was commanded by Dominique You and the other by Renato Beluche.

Then came New Year's Day, 1815. At 10 a.m., the British artillery began blasting away. Singled out for particular attention was the Macarty plantation house, Jackson's headquarters, wrecked by more than 100 cannonballs during the first ten minutes. Miraculously, neither Jackson nor any of his staff was injured. Covered with plaster dust, they rushed out to form up the army for battle.

According to the German merchant Vincent Nolte, the main British battery, situated near a road that ran through the center of sugar cane fields, "directed its fire against the battery of the pirates Dominique You and Beluche." Once, as Dominique was examining the enemy through a spyglass, "a cannon shot wounded his arm he caused it to be bound up, saying, 'I will pay them for that!'. He then gave the order to fire a 24-pounder, and the ball knocked an English gun carriage to pieces and killed six or seven men." Not long afterward, a British shot hit one of Dominique's guns and knocked it off its carriage. While it was being repaired, someone asked about his wound. "Only some scratch, by gar," he growled, as he ordered his other cannon loaded with chain shot that "crippled the largest British gun and killed or wounded six men."

By noon, two-thirds of the British guns had been put out of action. General Pakenham had just learned that a 2,000-man brigade of British reinforcements had arrived in the Mississippi Sound. It would take a few days to transfer them to his army after that, Pakenham determined to go all out at the Americans, now a force of about 5,000. For the British, the matter of supplies was becoming desperate. Their army of 8,000 to 10,000 men had been on the Mississippi for nine days and had devoured their provisions, in addition to ransacking the surrounding plantations for food.

With New Orleans just a few miles in the rear, Jackson had no such problem, and Laffite's supply of munitions seemed endless. Still, Jackson was fearful. He was outnumbered his position on the Rodriguez Canal was just about the only thing standing between the British and New Orleans. On January 7, he spent most of the afternoon in the heavily damaged Macarty house, observing the British encampment. "They will attack at daybreak," he predicted.

On Sunday morning, January 8, the final battle began. Despite heavy fire from the Americans, the British came on relentlessly. Then, on Jackson's left, the British 95th Regiment waded across the ditch in front of Jackson's line and, since no fascines or scaling ladders had yet arrived, began desperately trying to carve steps into the rampart with their bayonets. Meanwhile, against orders, the leading companies of the British 44th stopped and began to shoot at the Americans, but when they were answered by a ruinous volley from Carroll's Tennesseans and Gen. John Adair's Kentuckians, they ran away, setting into motion a chain of events that would soon shudder through the entire British Army. "In less time than one can write it," the British quartermaster E. N. Borroughs would recall, "the 44th Foot was swept from the face of the earth. Within five minutes the regiment seemed to vanish from sight."

At one point Jackson ordered his artillery batteries to cease firing and let the clouds of smoke blow away, in order to fix the British troops clearly for more of the same. In Battery No. 3, he observed Capt. Dominique You standing to his guns, his broad Gallic face beaming like a harvest moon, his eyes burning and swelling from the powder smoke. Jackson declared, "If I were ordered to storm the gates of hell, with Captain Dominique as my lieutenant, I would have no misgivings of the result."

In only 25 minutes, the British Army had lost all three of its active field generals, seven colonels and 75 other officers—that is, practically its whole officer corps. General Pakenham was dead, cut down by American rifle fire. By now the entire British Army was in irredeemable disarray. A soldier from Kentucky wrote, "When the smoke had cleared and we could obtain a fair view of the field, it looked at first glance like a sea of blood. It was not blood itself, but the red coats in which the British soldiers were dressed. The field was entirely covered in prostrate bodies."

Even Jackson was flabbergasted by the sight. "I never had so grand and awful an idea of the resurrection as on that day," he later wrote, as scores of redcoats rose up like dim purgatorial souls with their hands in the air and began walking toward the American lines. "After the smoke of the battle had cleared off somewhat, I saw in the distance more than five hundred Britons emerging from the heaps of their dead comrades, all over the plain, rising up, and. coming forward and surrendering as prisoners of war to our soldiers." These men, Jackson concluded, had fallen at the first fire and then hidden themselves behind the bodies of their slain brethren. By midmorning, most of the firing had ceased.

Laffite, who was returning from an inspection of his stores of powder and flints deep in the swamp, got to the grisly field just as the battle ended, but he did not know who had won. "I was almost out of breath, running through the bushes and mud. My hands were bruised, my clothing torn, my feet soaked. I could not believe the result of the battle," he said.

On the morning of January 21, the victorious troops marched in formation the six miles from the battlefield to New Orleans. Two days later, Jackson's army was drawn up on three sides of the city’s parade ground. The Tennesseans and Kentuckians were there, too, as were Laffite's red-shirted Baratarian buccaneers. Bands played, church bells pealed and a celebratory cannonade roared from the banks of the levee.

Laffite felt a particular gratitude "at seeing my two elder brothers and some of my officers lined up in the parade. whom the public admired and praised with elegies and honor for their valor as expert cannoneers."

On February 6, President Madison sent out a proclamation pardoning Laffite and all the other Baratarians who had fought with the Army. Laffite assumed this also freed him to recover the property that had been confiscated by Commodore Patterson and Colonel Ross following their September raid on Grand Terre. Patterson and Ross disagreed they had the property now and were backed up by the Army and the Navy. Laffite's lawyers filed suit, but Ross and Patterson began to auction off the property anyway, including 15 armed privateering ships. Laffite persuaded his old partners—who remained among the wealthiest and most influential citizens of New Orleans—to surreptitiously repurchase them for him, which they did. Laffite resumed preying on Spanish shipping under letters of marque from Cartagena.

In 1816, with some 500 of his men, he relocated to Galveston, 300 miles to the west. The Galveston enterprise quickly became profitable, and by 1818, Laffite had made arrangements to sell his captured goods to various merchants in the interior, as far away as St. Louis, Missouri. It wasn't long before the authorities in Washington got wind of his doings President James Monroe sent a message to the effect that Laffite and his crews must depart Galveston or face eviction by U.S. troops.

Then, in late September 1818, a hurricane roared through Galveston Island, drowning a number of Laffite's men and wiping out most of the settlement's houses and buildings. Laffite set about rebuilding, managing to keep the authorities at bay for another two years. Finally, in 1821, he abandoned the Galveston redoubt and for all intents disappeared.

What became of him after Galveston has been the subject of much contradictory speculation. He was reportedly killed in a sea battle, drowned in a hurricane, hanged by the Spanish, succumbed to disease in Mexico, and murdered by his own crew.

If you believe his own journal—scholars disagree about its authenticity—Laffite had departed Galveston for St. Louis. There, he found God, married a woman named Emma Mortimere, fathered a son and settled down to the life of a landlubber.

According to the disputed memoir, at some point a chagrined Laffite, now turning portly, grew a beard and changed his name to John Lafflin. During his later years, he settled in Alton, Illinois, across the river from St. Louis, where he began writing a journal of his life. He lived there until his death in 1854 at the age of about 70.

He wrote in the memoir that he never got over the shabby treatment he felt he had received from the federal government and from the city he had risked his life and treasure to defend. And he mused bitterly over what might have happened if, instead of siding with the Americans, he had taken the British bribe. Answering his own hypothetical, he concluded that the Americans would have lost the battle, as well as Louisiana—and that there would have been no president of the United States named Andrew Jackson. The very name of Jackson, wrote Laffite, "would have tumbled into oblivion."

From Patriot Fire by Winston Groom. Copyright 2006 by Winston Groom, published by Knopf.

Winston Groom is the author of numerous histories, including 1942: The Year That Tried Men's Souls, Shrouds of Glory and A Storm in Flanders, as well as the novel Forrest Gump.

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Sunday, July 31, 2005

The Myth of the American Minuteman

While I'm talking history here, there's another myth that seems beloved by both high school history books and the right wingnut fringe: the myth of the American Minuteman. The myth goes like thus: The American Revolution was won by militia who mustered whenever the British soldiers came near, then went home afterwards. These militia defeated the British by firing from behind trees instead of by marching in easy-target columns like the British.

The reality was a bit more complex. First of all, the majority of the militia were not armed with useful military weapons. The most common weapons owned by militiamen were fowling pieces and flintlock rifles (common only on the frontiers). Fowling pieces were basically single-shot muzzle-loading shotguns, not designed to fire ball rounds but it was possible to use them to do so (though they were horrifically inaccurate if you did so). Flintlock rifles were accurate in the hands of a trained sniper (which most Colonials were *not*, they rarely hunted, instead relying on farming and barnyard animals for their food) but took a very long time to load, perhaps two minutes in a combat situation. Furthermore, neither of these allowed fixing a bayonet. Since the slow rate of fire meant that hand-to-hand combat was a near certainty, soldiers with military-grade weapons capable of fixing a bayonet had an enormous advantage.

The other issue is with those military grade weapons. These were smoothbore muskets. At 100 yards, you were lucky to hit within six feet of what you were aiming at. However, they made up for this lack of accuracy with rate of fire. A well-trained musketman could let fly one round every 15 seconds. Thus the proper use of musketmen was to stand them in ranks facing the enemy, and have each rank take turns letting lead fly. The goal was to keep so much lead in the air that the enemy had to keep his head down until you were amongst his ranks with your bayonets, at which point the enemy became sashimi.

The reality was that the Battle of Long Island showed George Washington that militia were basically useless against well trained musketmen. The militia fired their one shot, then ran, and never quit running because when you have people with long knives stuck on the ends of their muskets running after you getting ready to give you an unwanted proctology exam, and you have no long knife of your own, well. Washington barely got off the island with his own life, and that was only because the British troops weren't exactly marathon runners (they'd been on ships for a long voyage over the ocean, after all) and were loaded down with gear and ammo, while the American militia men threw down all their gear and ammo and ran for their lives.

From thence onward, militia were only used as skirmishers and snipers. The rest of the fighting was basically done by professional soldiers fighting in ranks with military-grade weapons (including bayonets). Indeed, there was only three brigades of Virginia militiamen amongst the two armies (French and American) that cornered Cornwallis at Yorktown, and they were employed primarily as snipers, where their ability to pick off British officers from long distance made them valuable but their inability to fire rapidly meant little absolute firepower. In addition, since the Pennsylvania flintlocks were basically modifications of a German Jaegar rifle, as the German mercenaries became more widely used in the American conflict any "sniper gap" in favor of the Americans was gone -- the German snipers were every bit as good as the Americans.

In the end, the majority of the American Revolution was fought with professional soldiers, and was won because the expense of shipping and provisioning an enormous army overseas (the British eventually had over 60,000 soldiers in North America as part of the effort to put down the revolution) was unsustainable given the limits of the British tax system and the lack of a draft for replenishing British manpower. The militia were basically irrelevant to the outcome -- far more important were the "Sons of Liberty", a terrorist organization which terrorized farmers and merchants into not selling goods to the British thus forcing the British to supply their forces via long expensive overseas supply lines (albeit the militia helped in this effort by preventing the British from sending out foraging parties to simply steal the goods). After the battle of Lexington and Concord, which was a disaster for the British primarily because of poor discipline and poor tactics on their part (doctrine said that if the enemy was sniping at you from behind the trees, the proper thing to do was for your skirmishers to fix bayonets and go turn him into sashimi, but the British had left their skirmishers at home that day) the only other battle where militia were important was Cowpens, where the militia won the day only because of the fog of war, not because of their military firepower. Basically, Morgan's regulars had thought they'd received an order to retreat, the British regulars gave chase running right by the militia who had previously retreated to the side in order to reload, then Morgan got his soldiers turned around and shooting again at the same time that the militia decided to chime in from the side and rear of the British, and the British, under the delusion they were beset on all sides by regulars who could kill them, largely surrendered -- although the militia, lacking bayonets, actually could have been swiftly chopped down by the British if the British had but known that the soldiers behind that huge cloud of smoke on their flanks were militia rather than regulars.

But the myth of the Minuteman still lives on, even though it *is* a myth. It's unclear why this is so. Perhaps it is like a lot of other myths that Americans cherish not because they're true, but because they make you feel good to be an American. In the end, feeling good about yourself, not truth, appears to be most important to the majority of Americans. The cult of self esteem is not a recent invention. indeed, the whole deal about George Washington and the Cherry Tree originated in 1806 via a hagiography by Parson Mason Locke Weems, sort of a combination of the Judith Miller, Karl Rove, and Pat Robertson of his era. Making Americans feel good about their leaders and their national exceptionalism seems to have been a primary goal of American propagandists from day one of this nation's existence.

Watch the video: Sink The Bismarck - Johnny Horton