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History -   A Pirate, a Marshal, and the Battle of New Orleans

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As the War of 1812 intensified, it garnered the attention of everyone in New Orleans. Even the feud between Claiborne and the Lafittes moved off the
center stage.

Prior to this development, the region had felt comfortably detached from the early battles and developments of the war. After all, Louisiana was a long way from the Great Lakes region of the United States’ border with Canada — where the fighting began.

General Andrew Jackson, known as Old Hickory, defended the city of New Orleans from the British attack during the War of 1812.What’s more, since Louisiana didn’t become a state until 1812, it’s been said that many of its residents did not yet feel a strong enough bond with the citizens of other far-away states to take the war personally.

But when the British soldiers took control of Washington, D.C., in August 1814, and burned the White House, the people of New Orleans were abruptly shaken into reality. The war’s focus soon moved squarely toward their city because the British figured they could stop much of America’s North/South trade and control the country’s western frontier by taking New Orleans and then sailing their ships up the Mississippi River.

Barataria was an important approach to this influential port city, and the British were well aware of this.  They offered Jean Lafitte a large sum of money and a captaincy in the Royal Navy for his allegiance.

Although he continued to tussle with Governor Claiborne, who considered him nothing more than a scoundrel, Lafitte felt an undeniable allegiance to the United States. He spurned the Redcoats’ offer.  He then sent a letter to Claiborne stating his loyalty to America and his willingness to fight for her. In his correspondence, he also requested that the governor cease harassing him and his men.

Claiborne received the letter with skepticism. His advisors were split over a proper course of action, but he decided against accepting Lafitte’s offer. Furthermore, he sent the warship Carolina and several accompanying vessels to Barataria to destroy what the privateer referred to as his “kingdom by the sea.”

Fires were set and residences were destroyed. Most of the inhabitants were forced to retreat deep into the swamp. The date was Sept. 16, 1814.  Lafitte was deeply hurt, but he told his men that he still believed in the American ideals of freedom and justice under law. He also felt his predicament was Claiborne’s doing — not that of the entire nation. So, he turned to rebuilding his empire and biding his time.

Lafitte saw his patient hope rewarded when the federal government sent General Jackson to New Orleans on Dec. 2 to command the city’s military defenses in the face of an imminent British attack.

In Jackson, Lafitte saw a man who was frank and honest. And somehow the swashbuckler managed to meet the general in person in mid-December and gain his trust.

Knowing Jackson was short on fighting men as well as munitions, Lafitte proposed his 1,000 men — plus flints, gunpowder, rifles and axes. He told Jackson that he and his men were willing to fight for America as free men.

Lafitte has been quoted as saying, “For a pardon for me and my Baratarians, we will help you send the enemy to hell. That is my promise.”

Jackson accepted his terms. According to many observers, the two men became friends and mutual admirers from that first meeting.

While Claiborne and Lafitte never warmed to each other, Marshal Duplessis soon found himself on Lafitte’s side, even though he had spent so much time previously trying to arrest the renegade.

Lafitte returned to Barataria to prepare his men for battle. Meanwhile, Jackson organized a defense strategy to use against the British.

All policing and civil matters were now under Jackson’s authority, and the general declared the city to be under martial law and he enforced a curfew on
the citizenry. Marshal Duplessis fell in line but Governor Claiborne was less subordinate since he formally held the position of commander in chief of the state’s militia.

Jackson’s authority was supreme. In one instance, a district judge objected to his edict of martial law, so the general arrested him and threw him out of town. This landed Jackson in hot water many years later.

The southern coastal waters were now reportedly brimming with English warships. To better monitor enemy forces, Claiborne and Duplessis traveled to Pensacola, Fla., 210 miles east of New Orleans, where they witnessed the British naval contingent performing maneuvers off the coast and preparing for battle.

It is here that the marshal proved invaluable to Jackson. He strongly sensed that it wouldn’t be long before the British attacked New Orleans.  Wanting Jackson to receive this intelligence first-hand and as quickly as possible, Duplessis used his Creole connections to send a four-page letter to Jackson dated October 17, 1814. 

He forwarded the letter at great professional risk because he did not inform Claiborne of his actions.  He recognized Jackson’s authority over the governor and he didn’t want his information to get bogged down in regular government channels.

Claiborne, on the other hand, still adhered to normal procedures when sending intelligence to key New Orleans decision makers, as if there was no martial law.

“The governor was bound by the many-tentacled grip of diplomacy, but the marshal was under no such competing pressures,” Turk said. “My feeling is Duplessis saw this as the utmost national concern so In his correspondence to Jackson, Duplessis noted the need for several shore defenses, and he suggested several areas that he believed were prone to invasion.

Once back in New Orleans, the marshal continued to aid the general. Jackson still did not have the complete cooperation of all the city’s officials, so the work of Duplessis and several others was crucial to his command.

“Although such moves created tension with the courts, Duplessis carried Jackson’s orders between a patchwork system of military veterans and citizens,” Turk said.

For his efforts, Duplessis was complimented by Jackson in the general’s report to Secretary of War John Armstrong in late December, 1814. Wrote Jackson:

All my officers in the line did their duty, and I have every reason to be satisfied with the whole of my staff ... Captain Reid, my other aid, and Messrs. Livingston, Duplessis and Davezac, who had volunteered their services, faced danger wherever it was to be met, and carried out my orders with the utmost promptitude.

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