Jean Lafitte
Historic Resource Study (Chalmette Unit)
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Southeastern Louisiana is a region composed of myriad waterways and landforms all mutually impacting one another. New Orleans has always been surrounded by wet lowlands fed by closely adjacent rivers, lakes, and canals. Historically, the presence of numerous watery approaches has affected the security of the city, making it ever vulnerable to enemy ships plying the Gulf of Mexico. Several routes have drawn the attention of offensive and defensive strategists, namely Lakes Borgne and Pontchartrain north and east of the city; the Mississippi River; and Barataria Bay south of New Orleans. The fact that the intervening lowlands were intersected by a plethora of canals and bayous of varying depths made the country around the city appear even more accessible for potential enemies.

Especially inviting in 1814 seemed the route via Lake Borgne. Despite the shallowness of the water, a few deep channels existed that promoted navigation, particularly of flat-bottomed craft. Average depth of the lake was nine feet; its shores offered numerous passages in the form of bayous and inlets. Those located on the southeast shore afforded determined adversaries a more or less unobstructed approach to New Orleans. One of these, Bayou Dupré, twisted through the marshlands to a point within two miles of the Mississippi and but ten miles below the city. Yet another, Bayou Bienvenue, came within five miles of New Orleans, and approached the property on which the 1814-1815 Battles of New Orleans occurred. [1]

The area encompassing the Chalmette battlefield represents an old section of Louisiana formed of centuries of sediment as the Mississippi River sought to reclaim the region from the Gulf of Mexico. The cumulative deposits formed natural levees, ridges of terrain that bordered the stream and gently sloped away into swampland. Around Chalmette the natural levees rose to a height of approximately 10 feet with the ground behind extending for almost two miles3and sometimes farther3before reaching a belt of cypress swamp. At the battleground proper the extent of dry land was restricted to approximately 1,500 yards, a factor of profound significance in the course of events at that point. Beyond the cypress swamp lay the wet marshlands or "prairies" bordering Lake Borgne. In 1814 this variegated landscape was intersected by numerous canals and drainage ditches by which means overflow water was conducted from the Mississippi through bayous into Lake Borgne. [2]

The sedimentary mass composing the riverbanks, formed over eons by river deposition, consists of a variety of soils affected ultimately by the proximity of the Gulf of Mexico. Saline deposits, as well as marine fossils, exist in the soil of the area, indicative of the ever-present action of the water through the region. Texturally, the soils run from sands to clays, both possessing the high mineral and organic content conducive to good agricultural production. Geologists have identified six types in the country immediately adjacent to New Orleans. One of these, Yazoo Clay, has been indicated as the predominant soil in the vicinity of Chalmette and the battlefield. Characteristics of Yazoo Clay include its dark brown color and the loamy consistency of its topsoil. Six inches below the surface the loam turns into a brown clay of waxy texture. Because of the relative dearth of sand and silt, the topsoil of Yazoo Clay readily lends itself to being tilled. The soil type seems especially endemic to places where the Mississippi overflowed its banks and the water subsided with no current, making Yazoo Clay well-suited for agricultural pursuits. [3] Historical accounts bear out the existence of clay soil in the vicinity of the battleground. The British artillerist Alexander Dickson complained of it, noting that

after a continuance of dry weather [the clay] becomes quite firm and hard, but the operation of only a few hours rain, renders it so soft and greasy, that in the Fields a man is over the shoes every step. Nor are the roads a bit better, for being all unpaved, the rain renders them deep and boggy. [4]

At the place where the Mississippi River fronted the battleground the stream was between 800 and 1,000 yards wide. In the winter of 1814-15 the river was high, so that it approximated the level of the adjoining terrain. Inundation, which occasionally occurred, was partly checked by the presence of a man-made levee, or low embankments of earth, raised along the bank. [5] "Should this yield to the increased pressure of the river," recorded an observer, "its waters rush with impetuosity through the break and sweep away every thing in their course." [6] At least two sources commented upon the presence of great numbers of immense tree trunks entangled along the banks of the Mississippi, these having originated far upstream and been carried down by the current. [7]

In 1814 the tracts bordering the river and encompassing the battleground were used for agricultural purposes. Few roads existed, and these mainly stretched along the high ground near the river. A major artery of land transport lay next to the levee; this road followed the Mississippi southeast to the settlements at English Turn and northwest into New Orleans. Beyond the levee, the terrain was flat, gently sloping downward toward the cypress swamp for a distance of between 1,000 and 1,500 yards. This interval comprised the extent of cultivable ground and was intersected at places with drainage ditches and rail fences. [8] The ditches averaged 5 to 6 feet wide and 4 to 5 feet deep. They generally bordered either side of the small auxiliary roads, or lanes, that separated the plantation properties from each other. More ditches were situated to drain every three or four acres of the sugar cane fields which occupied most of the ground. Like those delineating property boundaries, these ran from the levee to the swamp, a distance of between 1,000 and 1,500 yards. Besides rail fences there were some made of pickets several feet high with points imbedded 2 or 3 feet into the earth. Fences were often raised to border the drainage ditches; along the lanes separating plantations they were erected on either side of the road. [9]

Several properties composed the acreage of the New Orleans battlefield and its environs. These were, from upstream, the Macarty, Rodriquez, Chalmette, Bienvenue, De La Ronde, Lacoste, and Villeré plantations. The engagement of December 23, 1814, occurred on the De La Ronde, Lacoste, and Villeré properties, while those of December 28, 1814, January 1, and January 8, 1815, took place on the Rodriquez, Chalmette, and Bienvenue holdings, although cognate operations occurred on all the tracts. Like most of the others, the Chalmette Plantation occupied a somewhat rectangular piece of ground that stretched more than 1,000 yards along the Mississippi and ranged between 1,000 and 1,500 yards inland to the cypress swamp. The neighboring Rodriquez property was a wedge-shaped tract of small proportion, bordered on the Chalmette side by an old millrace, or canal, that ran from the levee well into the swamp. [10] The flat terrain of Chalmette was interspersed by buildings and groves near the river, but the vast majority of land was given over to sugar cane, which in December, 1814, had been harvested so that most of the broad fields were filled with stubble. Farther downstream the river turned gently to the left, and the structures and groves of adjacent plantations could be seen along the Mississippi. On the north end of the Chalmette property stood the cypress swamp. At the Rodriquez side of the tract the swamp was closest to the river, about one-half mile distant. As it trended toward the Bienvenue Plantation, the swamp line arced radically inland, so that the plain between river and swamp became almost two miles across. Thereafter the line turned back toward the Mississippi, so that at Lacoste's and Villeré's the interval between stream and wood was approximately one mile. [11]

The Chalmette tract, like the others, was traversed by several wet ditches. Three proved significant in the course of the battles. A double ditch and fence ran perpendicular from Rodriquez Canal to skirt the swamp for 550 yards before the fence turned sharply into the woods. Approximately 400 yards east of the canal another ditch ran diagonally from the swamp to the river; 150 yards farther another ditch paralleled its course to the levee. As indicated, most of the cultivated land contained fields of sugar cane. Part of that at Chalmette was so planted, particularly the ground lying between the first and second ditches. Between Rodriquez Canal and the first ditch grew an abundance of weeds and sedge grass, most of which had been cut. Some tall sedge grass remained along the ditch as did numerous bushes, serving to partly obscure the view eastward from Rodriquez Canal. [12]

Besides sugar cane, other staples grown in the area included corn, rice, indigo, cotton, and tobacco. Garden vegetables found in the region below New Orleans comprised lettuce, carrots, onions, sweet potatoes, turnips, and cabbages. The cypress swamp encompassed more than cypress trees, and included some of the following: sycamore, poplar, sweetgum, black willow, hackberry, tupelo, persimmon, pumpkin ash, red maple, box elder, American elm, winged elm, walnut, willow oak, and overcup oak. At least three species were encountered but rarely3American holly, honey locust, and red mulberry. In addition, domestic fruit-bearing trees, mostly peach, orange, and fig, abounded on the plantations. [13]

The Macarty property3that bordering the Rodriquez tract on the north (west)3held a profusion of ornamental garden growth, as several contemporary maps and pictures attest. [14] According to one source, the Macarty garden

covers not less than 4 acres, is laid out in square walks & flower beds in the old French style. It is entirely enclosed by a thick hedge of orange trees, which have been suffered to run up to 15 or 16 feet high [as of ca. 1818] on the flanks and rear, but which are shorn down to the highth [sic] of 4 or 5 feet along the [levee] road. The walks are bordered by very large myrtles cut into the shape of large hay cocks, about 8 feet high & as much in diameter. There are so many of them, and they are so exactly equal in size & form that the effect is curious if not elegant. [15]

The garden fronted the Macarty house, "a mansion surrounded entirely by a portico or gallery of two stories" with an exceptionally large roof. [16] The hedge bordered the front and sides of the Macarty property, and on the south side ran from the levee road back to the northwest corner of the Rodriquez house, which, judging from the maps, was devoid of such ornamental shrubbery. A few trees stood behind the Rodriquez house, however. [17]

Most of the historical maps do not show what kinds of ornamental vegetation surrounded the Chalmette mansion and outbuildings. The mansion was situated about 140 yards from the levee road. According to a sketch diagram prepared by the British artillerist Alexander Dickson, the land fronting the house to the levee road consisted of an ornamental garden divided by walkways into squares in a manner similar to that at Macarty's. The whole was encompassed by a "high Laurel Hedge." [18] An illustration of the battlefield by Hyacinthe Laclotte does not show all of the Chalmette buildings, and instead depicts only their ruins after their having been demolished by the American artillery. Nonetheless, Laclotte's drawing shows nothing of the hedge that Dickson reported, only a few trees and bushes near the chimney of the destroyed structure; a few more trees and bushes were depicted on the interval of terrain lying between Rodriquez Canal and the Chalmette complex. [19]

The next plantation below Chalmette was that of Bienvenue, which also stood on the ground occupied by the British army in 1814-15. Little is known about the decorative flora that surrounded it, but it, too, was presumably embraced within hedges of laurel in proximity to numerous orange trees. "We found oranges still on the trees," wrote one British soldier," and as the store houses which our troops occupied were full of sugar, we converted these oranges into good wholesome Marmalade." [20] Adjoining the Bienvenue plantation stood that of De la Ronde. Like the others, it consisted of a mansion house behind which were warehouses, outbuildings, and slavequarters. Maps of the De la Ronde property indicate that the plantation house had a garden with hedges bordering its front toward the river in a manner typical of all these houses. The next tract, that of LaCoste, had a similar, though by no means identical, garden arrangement, as did LaCoste's eastward neighbor, Villeré, although the latter's complex of outbuildings stretched rather linearly along the road fronting the Mississippi. [21]

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Last Updated: 05-Sep-2004