Minuteman, April 2019
President Tim Ernst introduced guest speaker Howard Jones, who is a veteran of the US Marine Corps, and a graduate of the University of Oregon. He retired as an entrepreneur in the battery industry. Howard served as a Commissioner on San Mateo County’s Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCo). He was Commander General (2014-16) of the Military Order of the Stars & Bars (MOS&B); the founder of the California Society, MOS&B; the former President of the Silicon Valley Chapter, Sons of the American Revolution; and President of the Peninsula Civil War Round Table. Howard is proud of both his American heritage and his Southern heritage. He is distantly related to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Robert E. Lee, J.E.B. Stuart, and Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Howard Jones spoke on “Jean Laffite and the Battle of New Orleans,” which took place in 1814-1815 at the conclusion of the War of 1812. Technically, the War of 1812 was already over because a treaty had been signed by Britain and the United States. However, the treaty had yet to be ratified by Britain or by the US senate, and history would have been significantly altered if Britain had won this battle.
In 1803, the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon Bonaparte, the Emperor of France, for $15 million. The Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of the U.S. The Louisiana Territory had been under French rule from 1682 to 1762. Following the French and Indian War, the territory to the west of the Mississippi River was ceded to Spain, which controlled it from 1762 to 1801. In 1801, a secret treaty transferred it back to French rule, although Spain appeared to be administering it. Finally, in 1803, a cash-starved Napoleon sold it to the United States to pay off his war debts. New Orleans was an interesting place in 1803 – maintaining the law was challenging as its residents had divided loyalties. There were different groups of people who lived there, including Americans, French, Spanish, Acadians (“Cajuns” from Nova Scotia), Germans, Irishmen, and a large contingent of free Blacks. People tend to think of New Orleans as a Gulf city, but it is actually 82 miles from the Gulf (as the crow flies), and 113 miles by river.
By 1814, the British had blockaded all of our major ports, and trade was nearly nonexistent. New England was the most populated part of the country, and also the wealthiest. The New England States opposed the War of 1812, and were threatening to secede from the United States. At the same time, the British, with sixty ships carrying a contingent of 14,450 soldiers and sailors (seasoned veterans of the Napoleonic War) were descending upon New Orleans. The British would be opposed by only 1,100 American soldiers and a handful of militiamen. Earlier, President James Madison had appointed Andrew Jackson to the rank of major general, and ordered him to raise an army in Tennessee to fight the British and their Creek Indian allies. Jackson responded by routing the entire Creek nation, effectively taking them out of the war. Jackson then returned to Tennessee to recruit a new Army to oppose the British invasion fleet that was descending on New Orleans.
In the meantime, the British attacked both our capitol in Washington, DC, and the City of Baltimore. The British never intended to occupy either city; these attacks were merely a diversion to remove American attention from their real target – New Orleans and its population of over 25,000. The British did not consider Napoleon to be the legitimate ruler of France, so all of the transactions he made (including the sale of the Louisiana Territory to the United States in 1803) were considered null and void in their eyes. There are many historians who believe that the British would never have given back the Louisiana Territory once they had overrun our meager defenses. So, the Battle of New Orleans was much more than an asterisk for the history books – it was one of those defining moments in our nation’s history.
When Major General Edward Pakenham led the British assault on New Orleans, he knew full well that a treaty to end the War of 1812 had been negotiated between the two countries, and he also knew that neither county had ratified it. A provision of the secret treaty in 1801 between Spain and France was that the Louisiana Territory could never be sold to a third power – it was to revert to Spain. Once New Orleans was captured, the British would demand that the Americans cede the entire Louisiana Territory over to them – hemming in the US.
Howard Jones then gave background on Jean Lafitte, and the role that he played in the battle. There were actually three brothers who played a part in this story: Jean Laffite, Pierre Laffite, and Dominique Youx (AKA Alexander Laffite). There was also a cousin named Renato Beluche. Pierre Laffite was 12 years older than Jean Laffite, but Jean was always the leader. Dominique Youx’s specialty was artillery, and Renato Beluche captained one of Laffite’ ships. The origins of the Laffite brothers are unknown. Some say that the family came from France, where it engaged in smuggling over the Pyrenees Mountains that separate France and Spain. Others say that the family came from Port-Au-Prince in what is now Haiti. In any case, Pierre Laffite was the first to come to Louisiana – he was a successful slave trader who operated in Pensacola, Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Jean Laffite arrived later as the captain of his own ship, and he would become the undisputed leader of the three brothers.
Jean Laffite never admitted that he was a pirate – he always insisted that he was a privateer who possessed a Letter of Marque from the Republic of Cartagena (now part of Colombia). The Letter of Marque authorized him to attack Cartagena’s enemies (primarily Spain), and plunder their cargos. As a privateer, he was required to split the proceeds with the Republic of Cartagena, but that probably never happened. Jean Laffite set up his base of operations on Grand Terre Island at the entrance to Barataria Bay in the Louisiana Territory. Grand Terre Island was the last deep water port before entering Barataria Bay. The bay was so shallow that Laffite would unload his ships at Grand Terre and move the cargo to the New Orleans markets with pirogues (dugout canoes) through a series of hidden bayous. He had 1,000 men who worked directly for him, and he controlled another 1,000 pirates through a number of agreements.
At this time, there was no income tax, and the US Government made most of its money by imposing duties on imported goods. Of course, all of Laffite’s merchandise was “duty free,” and the cost-of-goods-sold was zero – he would advertise auctions of stolen property with posters in New Orleans, and then meet the city’s merchants half-way at an island called “the Temple.” It was a win-win situation for the pirates, the merchants, and the people of New Orleans, but not for the U.S. Government. Both Jean and Pierre Lafitte were revered by the people of New Orleans, and they could walk openly in the city. The brothers opened a “blacksmith shop” as a fence for stolen property, and they purchased a grand residence in the French Quarter. They retained the best lawyer in New Orleans for any contingencies. However, the Laffite brothers were challenged by a new US governor who vowed to eliminate the pirates – William Claiborne – who was appointed as governor of the Louisiana Territory by the United States. Claiborne was a no-nonsense governor who wanted to eliminate the pirates, and bring law and order to the Territory.
Incoming Governor William Claiborne sent six US warships against the pirates of Grand Terre Island. Some of the pirates were captured, but the majority of them simply melted into nearby swamps. Claiborne soon found charges that “would stick” against Pierre Laffite, and had him locked up in an ancient Spanish jail; he was chained to the wall to prevent his escape. Pierre was accused of aiding and abetting piracy, and no bail was offered for this offense. No amount of legal maneuvering by the Lafitte’s attorneys could get him released.
The British were convinced that an alliance with Jean Laffite was the key to victory at New Orleans. Laffite could not only tell them where to attack, but he could also guide them through the maze of swamps to get there. As a result, they sent a delegation comprised of two navy captains to meet with Laffite at his home base on Grand Terre Island. The British threatened to attack him and completely destroy his operation because of his piracy against Spanish and English shipping. However, they offered British citizenship along with a generous gift of lands in North America, and a complete pardon for any past crimes if he would assist them in the conquest of New Orleans. Laffite was offered a generous bribe of 30,000 British pounds ($2 million US dollars) if he could convince his fellow-pirates to join in the fight. They even offered him a captaincy in the British Navy to seal the deal. Despite the attractive offer, Jean Laffite wanted no part of the British scheme to conquer North America, so he stalled for time so he could inform the Americans of the British offer, and offer his services to the Americans. Governor Claiborne dismissed the alleged British offer as another one of Laffite’s tricks. Laffite had learned that Claiborne was about to dispatch US warships to destroy him and his Baratarians, so he offered his services to Claiborne in defense of his adopted country. What he asked for in return was a complete pardon for any Baratarian who participated in the forthcoming battle. This offer was dismissed by both Claiborne and Andrew Jackson; however, they would soon realize that they could not beat the British without his help.
When the British did not get a response from Laffite, they sent their fleet to Laffite’s home base on Grand Terre Island. In anticipation of an attack, Laffite had all of the powder and munitions removed from the island, and he left his half-brother, Dominique Youx, in charge of 500 Baratarians to defend the island. Dominique Youx was ordered to fight the British, but not the Americans. Ironically, it was the Americans who attacked first, and most of the Baratarians disappeared into the swamps. Meanwhile, the British Invasion armada of 60 ships assembled at Negril Bay, Jamaica, in November of 1814, under the command of Admiral Alexander Cochrane. In addition to the 10,000 sailors and 1,500 Marines of the fleet, there were also 8,000 battle-tested soldiers and another 2,700 soldiers sailing close behind them. Admiral Cochrane decided the best way to attack New Orleans was to cross Lake Borgne, and then march four miles overland to reach the city. However, Lake Borgne was shallow, and all of the men and supplies would have to be rowed for about 35 miles to reach the opposite shore. This proved to be a fateful error.
In the meantime, Andrew Jackson finally arrived from Mobile. He was carried by stretcher, and appeared frail from dysentery and the affects of a bullet wound to his shoulder. However, from the moment he arrived, he instilled confidence in his motley collection of defenders. Jackson had a battalion of local businessmen, lawyers, planters, and their sons totaling 287 men; two regiments of poorly equipped Louisiana State Militia; 210 free Blacks; a motley collection of Tennessee Volunteers numbering about 1,800 men; and two regular US Regiments with a total of 796 riflemen. Jackson could field slightly less than 3,000 men against about 14,000 seasoned British veterans.
On December 12, 1814, the British invasion fleet arrived at the entrance of Lake Borgne. A panicked Governor Claiborne and Laffite’s attorney urged Jackson to meet with Laffite and accept his offer to join the fight. Jackson finally relented, and agreed to meet with Jean Laffite. General Jackson was immediately impressed with Laffite’s appearance and demeanor. Once Jackson learned that Laffite had over 7,500 flints, thousands of muskets, and enough powder to defend against a prolonged siege of the city, he struck a deal with Laffite. Shortly thereafter, Laffite’s brother Pierre magically escaped from jail.
The British cleared Lake Borgne of a small fleet of American gunboats, leaving the way open for the invasion. Admiral Cochrane publically stated that he would be having his Christmas dinner in New Orleans that year. The British invasion achieved total surprise as 1,600 Redcoats landed at Villiere’s plantation, just four miles south of New Orleans, with more Redcoats on their way. When Jackson learned of the invasion, he was a few miles north of New Orleans. He immediately marched his small army towards the sound of gunfire vowing, “I will smash them – so help me God!” At this point, each army had about 2,000 men. Jackson armed the Schooner Carolina, which had an entire pirate battery under the commander of Dominique Youx (Laffite’s half-brother), and moved it downstream towards the battlefield. At this point, British General John Keane could have marched unopposed to New Orleans and taken the city. However, he made the fateful decision to wait for reinforcements at LaCoste’s plantation. That evening, Jackson led 2,000 men in a three-pronged attack, and took the British by surprise. The Redcoats were decimated by the surprise attack, which included a relentless artillery barrage by the pirates under Dominique Youx. The American attack of December 23, 1814 undoubtedly saved New Orleans.
At this point, British General Edward Pakenham arrived in Louisiana as general in charge of all North American operations. He was a brilliant tactician, as well as the brother-in-law of the Duke of Wellington. He received secret orders to seize as much territory as he could before the Treaty of Ghent ending the war was ratified. On December 28, 1814, Pakenham ordered a reconnaissance-in-force to test the American line for any sign of weakness. He decided on a two-pronged attack to breach the American earthworks. He also ordered Lt Col. Mullins to construct ladders in order to scale those same earthworks. After the surprise attack at LaCoste’s Plantation, Jackson ordered his troops to fall back to a fortified position behind the Rodriguez Canal, a former millrace that was empty and no longer in use. It was 15 feet wide and 4 feet deep, and the Americans worked tirelessly to dig it out further until it was 8 feet deep. They created huge earthworks on the north side of the canal, extending to the Mississippi River on the west, and to impenetrable swamps on the east. It would be extremely difficult for anyone to breach or flank this line.
The British began an artillery attack on the American lines on the Rodriguez Canal. The British exchanged artillery fire with Laffite’s pirates for 3 hours until their ammunition ran out. Thanks to Laffite, the Americans were able to continue firing. Pakenham then ordered a full out assault on the American line – only to discover that the ladders had been forgotten. By the time the ladders were finally brought to the front, it was too late. The American line had held. A few Redcoats did make it to the top of the earthworks, but they were either killed or captured. All of the senior British officers, including Pakenham, were killed in the battle. It should be noted that at least 50 pirates anchored the center of the American line. The British did attempt to mount another attack on the west side of the Mississippi, but they were unsuccessful. Luck played a big part for the Americans in that skirmish. Three days after the main battle, the British convened a council of war, and they decided it was too costly to continue the war. The British left the battlefield for good on January 19, 1815, and the Louisiana Territory was saved. During the Battle of New Orleans (December 14, 1814 to January 18, 1815), the Americans suffered 13 dead, 30 wounded, and 19 missing or captured. The British losses were 285 dead, 1265 wounded, and 484 missing or captured.
A grand ball was held in New Orleans to celebrate the unlikely American victory. Both Jean and Pierre Laffite were in attendance, and they were treated like heroes. The pirates who fought in the battle received full pardons from a grateful President Madison. But Jean Laffite knew that it would never be business-as-usual for the pirates again, so he said goodbye to his wildly successful operation in Barataria. Jean Laffite moved his operation to Galveston Island, but it never rivaled the operation in Barataria. No one knows what happened to the Laffite brothers after that. The leading theory is that Pierre Laffite died of fever in 1821 at sea, and was buried on a small island in the Caribbean. In 1823, Jean Laffite was mortally wounded in battle, and was buried at sea. Dominique Youx returned to New Orleans to lead a normal life, and he was buried in 1830 in St. Louis Cemetery #2. The era of the pirates came to an end. As the former Spanish colonies gained their independence, the ships carrying gold and silver to Spain disappeared, as did the pirates.
There are still plenty of Laffite descendants in Louisiana and Texas today. Sadly, Jean Laffite had only one known son, who died of yellow fever as a teenager, but Pierre Laffite had many children, and there may have been children fathered by Dominique Youx. Clearly, the Laffites were a colorful family, and an integral part of our country’s history. We owe all of them a debt of gratitude for saving our nation at the Battle of New Orleans.
After studying about Jean Laffite, Howard Jones journeyed to Barataria to understand it better. After a convention in Baton Rouge, he took the opportunity to book two extra nights at the Woodland Plantation in the town of Port Sulphur. Woodland Plantation was once a thriving sugarcane plantation. He was interested to learn that its original owner was a one-time partner of Jean Laffite in certain nefarious operations. It is located about 50 miles south of New Orleans, and about 30 miles before the end of the road in Venice, Louisiana. Howard drove south on the highway towards the town of Venice, where Highway 29 ends, and just before the Mississippi divides into three branches to enter the Gulf of Mexico. He saw the small, picturesque towns of Jean Lafitte, Barataria, Lafitte, as well as Grand Isle (next to Laffite’s island of Grand Terre). President Ernst presented the SAR Certificate of Appreciation to Howard Jones for his fascinating presentation of Jean Laffite and the Battle of New Orleans.