Jean Lafitte
Historic Resource Study (Chalmette Unit)
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British strategy against New Orleans in the autumn of 1814 seemed but a natural course of action to complement previous military successes in the War of 1812. After their victory at Washington, British attention turned southward as London strategists sought to realize a grand plan for concluding the war that had been waged with the United States over the past two years. The southern design, if successful, would seal off the Mississippi River, thereby destroying interior commerce, while simultaneously militarily occupying a broad tract to be used for bargaining in any peace negotiations. Capturing the port city of New Orleans, the key to the British strategy, was left to the British military and naval command headquartered in North America. [1]

While the British high command deliberated over the best means to capture New Orleans, United States civil and military officials remained almost oblivious to the foreign threat on the southern coast. There the preoccupation had been with British- and Spanish-incited Indians, notably the Creeks, whose depredations in the region north of the Gulf of Mexico had caused widescale destruction in that area of American settlement. Sent to quell the Indian disturbances was Major General Andrew Jackson, formerly of the Tennessee Militia, but since May, 1814, and his return from subjugating the southern tribesmen, commander of the Seventh Military District embracing Louisiana, Mississippi Territory, and Tennessee. Jackson was not completely ignorant of British objectives, however, despite assurances from his government that British operations in the South posed no threat. [2]

Anticipating military action of some kind, Jackson requisitioned munitions to be shipped to New Orleans during the summer of 1814, though they ultimately were delayed for several months. He also sought men for his command from the states that stood to lose most from an invasion of the lower Mississippi. From Georgia, Kentucky, and Tennessee, Jackson by late November garnered 10,000 militia, some of whom went to garrison posts in the Creek country. Nearly 4,000 more were mustered from Mississippi and Louisiana, and Jackson ultimately had more than 2,300 regulars, making his aggregate force more than 16,000 strong. [3] In November, 1814, with 4,000 of these men, Jackson struck the Spanish post of Pensacola in Florida, capturing the place which had harbored renegade Creeks and which might yet serve as a point of British assembly preparatory to a strike against New Orleans. Three days after taking Pensacola, Jackson led his army west to defend Mobile and New Orleans. [4]

Most of the militia missed Jackson's victory at Pensacola; many were stationed at remote outposts while others were in the process of mustering in in their home states. Tennesseans under Brigadier General John Coffee fought at Pensacola and were enroute overland to Mobile despite pervasive sickness in the ranks. Though they were largely unarmed, other Tennessee troops under Brigadier General William Carroll moved south via the Cumberland, Ohio, and Mississippi rivers. And Kentuckians commanded by Major General John Thomas similarly journeyed south by river mostly unequipped. The interested regular army complement consisted of troops assigned to the Seventh Military District, notably the Second, Third, Seventh, Thirty-ninth, and Forty-fourth Infantry regiments, besides some artillerymen. In addition to the land forces, Jackson had limited naval resources at New Orleans: six gunboats, a sloop, and a few lesser vessels under Master Commander Daniel T. Patterson. But virtually all lower river traffic, including Patterson's flotilla, remained at a standstill because of a British naval blockade at the mouth of the Mississippi. [5] With such an assortment of men at his disposal Jackson hoped to thwart the British designs on the southern coast, and specifically against New Orleans. There the British army would meet its strongest test, ending, wrote Secretary of War James Monroe "its inglorious career in such a repulse as will reflect new honor on the American army. " [6]

New Orleans was particularly vulnerable to attack in the autumn of 1814. Situated near the mouth of the Mississippi, the city held prime importance to the interior states who shipped their produce through its port to the coastal states as well as to a growing world market. [7] These facts had long been known to the British, who as early as the 1770s schemed to block the mouth of the river and attack the city via Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi from the north. That plan, never executed, was predicated on the belief that the defenses of New Orleans were weak under the Spanish administration and that the populace would support Britain against Spain. Similarly, a detailed British strategem prepared in 1773 called for an attack on the city from above, although no defenses on the lower river could impede a naval squadron advancing by that route. [8] In 1782 the city's defenses consisted of "an old and ruinous stockade seven feet high without a ditch" with two dilapidated batteries and a few mounted guns scattered about elsewhere. With Great Britain and Spain at war with each other, New Orleans appeared as an easy target for a British force. Instead, the British post of Pensacola fell before Spain's soldiers and a British counterattack never materialized. Similar unfruitful plans for assaulting the city were prepared by the British in 1796. Thus, the 1814 British objective was not without precedent. [9]

Added incentives for the British to attack New Orleans were its relatively remote geographical location from the political center of the United States. Further, the diverse ethnic population was of doubtful loyalty to the central government and might easily be swayed to support a foreign invasion. By capturing the city, the interior states of Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee, and parts of others might be held hostage to the dictates of Great Britain. In 1812 a British thrust against New Orleans was proposed as a diversion from military activities in Canada. [10] And in 1813 London proposed an assault that would send warships up the Mississippi to act in concert with an army debarking from vessels in Lake Pontchartrain. "The City," wrote an exponent of such an attack, "is not defended by works of any kind, and should our force be proportioned to that of the Enemy and the landing fortunately made good, there can be little apprehension of the consequences. " [11]

Yet the Americans were cognizant of the state of the defenses of New Orleans, many of which had been allowed to deteriorate drastically during and following the Spanish administration. In 1813 efforts were geared toward improving fortifications at The Balize near the mouth of the Mississippi, at Fort St. Philip at Plaquemine Turn on the river, and in the bays and lakes around New Orleans. It was generally believed that the British army would land at Mobile where existing Spanish defenses might protect a debarkation. A movement up the Mississippi was viewed as unlikely because of the difficulty in holding and supplying a post along its banks. The most direct approach involved crossing Lakes Borgne and Pontchartrain and establishing a foothold on the Mississippi above or below the city, although such a landing "would be attended with great difficulty and inconvenience. " [12]

Any such planned approach, of course, had to consider the state of the city's defenses, which were indeed marginal in 1813-14. Little had been done to improve on the derelict fortifications built and maintained by the Spanish and turned over to American authorities in 1803. As of 1813 the permanent works defending New Orleans numbered six: the battery at The Balize, Fort St. Philip, Fort St. Leon at English Turn on the Mississippi, Fort St. John near the city on Lake Pontchartrain, Fort St. Charles at the lower edge of the city, and the partially completed Fort Petite Coquille guarding the Rigolets Pass between Lakes Borgne and Pontchartrain. Most of the works were in disrepair, and lacked supplies, garrisons, and requisite artillery materiel. A flat-bottomed naval frigate designed to mount forty-two cannon and operate in the shallow waters around the city had been under construction, but this work was suspended by the Navy. Only Patterson's gunboats made up the naval defense of New Orleans in 1814. [13]

Fears of British intervention, preceded by fears of British-inspired Indian attack, caused Louisiana Governor William C. C. Claiborne to petition state citizens for assistance in defense of the state. Only about 470 men protected New Orleans proper in the summer of 1814, a force soon doubled by the arrival of U. S. regulars in the vicinity. In September, 1814, a Committee of Defense was organized in New Orleans to cooperate with state and national officials in improving defenses around the city. Fortifications were begun at key strategic points in the surrounding bays and bayous, and Claiborne stationed volunteer troops and artillery at English Turn, Barataria, and Bayou Lafourche, Fort St. Philip, and English Turn. [14] The Governor's preparation of the militia had occurred at Andrew Jackson's urging in response to entreaties made him at Mobile, where Jackson believed the British planned to land their army. Jackson further directed an inspection of all fortifications in the vicinity of New Orleans. Despite Claiborne's efforts, there arose much disagreement over defensive matters in the legislature, particularly between the memberships of the Committee of Defense and the Committee of Public Safety, and the Governor's attempts to achieve cohesion in purpose remained thwarted. [15] In November, one state legislator nonetheless addressed the issue of defense with renewed urgency, specifying proposals for immediate execution to defend the city against the British. [16] But mere recognition of obvious defensive needs did not ensure their fulfillment; in some instances undisciplined militiamen refused to do the hard labor needed for improving the works and were more interested in pillaging local inhabitants. Such was the case attending the raising of an earthen parapet at English Turn on the left bank of the Mississippi where Governor Claiborne had to personally address the soldiers to achieve their cooperation in erecting the defense. [17] In a series of general orders Claiborne had further sought to put his militia in readiness and to encourage the organization of veterans units composed of men whose advanced age would normally exempt them from military duty. Other special units of cavalry were formed, along with a battalion of free men of color composed largely of refugees from Santo Domingo but including some former Louisiana slaves. But the state militia in November, 1814, represented a discordant element of heretofore unknown military potential. [18]

Existing defenses and defenders notwithstanding, Jackson, Claiborne, and others concerned over the prospects of an imminent enemy invasion had to ponder the probabilities of where such an assault would occur. Discounting the likelihood of an approach up the fortified Mississippi, the logical routes to the city from the east remained through Lake Borgne to the Gentilly Plain, a high, dry stretch of terrain that separated impenetrable cypress swamps and afforded a direct road into New Orleans; through Lake Pontchartrain to Bayou St. John immediately above the city; and across Lake Borgne to dank bayous leading to the Mississippi below the City and navigable only to small boats. Lesser approaches lay to the west, through Bayou Lafourche and the so-called Lake Barataria, the latter feeding into a labyrinth of bayous entering the Mississippi near the city that historically had served the interests of smugglers. [19]

The advantages and disadvantages of these different approaches were in the mind of General Jackson when he arrived in New Orleans from Mobile on the morning of December 2, 1814. Responding to repeated requests for his presence, Jackson had traveled across Lake Pontchartrain to Bayou St. John, and so gained familiarity with that access route into the city. From the gallery of his improvised headquarters on Royal Street the General assured city residents of his determination to protect New Orleans and drive the British away while calling upon them for support during the emergency. Later that day he reviewed five companies of New Orleans militia and, evincing his concern over the city's safety, directed Governor Claiborne to obstruct all adjacent coastal bayous running inland from the sea. He still reasoned that if an assault came it would be from Mobile or nearby Pascagoula, resulting in a drive on the city from above, perhaps even from Baton Rouge. Existing defensive conditions of New Orleans worried him. Years later he recalled that he had found the place "destitute of every means of formidable defence." He particularly lamented the lack of artillery and munition supplies, a deficiency that could portend disaster if the British struck. [20]

Two days after his arrival in New Orleans Jackson, plagued by dysentery, descended the river to inspect the defenses. Already he realized the great urgency of raising appropriate field works, and he appointed as his Principal Engineer A. Lacarriere Latour, who had formerly served Brigadier General James Wilkinson in the region. Lewis Livingston was appointed Assistant Engineer. Both men accompanied Jackson downriver. At Fort St. Philip, where the river's bend slowed upstream-bound traffic, he directed the placement of more ordnance along the rampart and the razing of an old wooden barracks that could easily catch fire from enemy hotshot. He also ordered work to begin on two new batteries, one across the river from the fort and the other a short distance upstream along the left bank. Each would contain 24-pounder cannon and with Fort St. Philip contribute to producing an effective cross-fire against ascending enemy craft. Jackson did not visit the works at The Balize, having earlier entrusted their visitation to his inspector general, Colonel Arthur P. Hayne. Enroute back to the city he stopped at English Turn where on the left bank work on an epaulement between the river and the swamp near Bayou Terre aux Boeufs was proceeding. Back in New Orleans, he proposed that the legislature urge planters to lend their slaves to help raise earthworks to defend the river. With Claiborne's assistance the request was honored.

On December 11 Jackson took his entourage east to inspect the defenses along Gentilly Plain. Here an enemy advance might easily be thwarted because of the narrowness of the road leading to the city and the dense cypress swampland on either side. At the junction of Bayou Sauvage with Chef Menteur Pass between the lakes he ordered the erection of a battery to be garrisoned by five companies of militia infantry and supported by one company of dragoons. Word went north to Generals Coffee and Carroll, and to Major Thomas Hinds with a contingent of Mississippi dragoons, to hasten their men toward New Orleans. Other troops were sent to augment the garrison of Fort St. Philip, and Jackson established express procedures for receiving intelligence of British movements off The Balize, accomplished through the strategic positioning of boats and messengers between the river's mouth and English Turn.

Command of English Turn was given to Brigadier General David Morgan, who had been placed in charge of Louisiana and Mississippi forces by Governor Claiborne. The commander of the fort at Petite Coquilles was advised to spike his guns and blow up the post should the British threaten to overrun him. Meantime, the obstruction of all bayous leading from the lakes to the Mississippi proceeded according to Jackson's instructions. Under the direction of Colonel Pierre de la Ronde, a local planter and militia commander, and later under Major General Jacques Villeré, who commanded a division of Louisiana militia and was also a plantation owner, trees were felled across the entrances of bayous and earth-filled frames were sunk in the beds of any that appeared navigable for small craft. In some instances small batteries were erected and guard detachments posted. Finally, to prevent the unlikely approach of the British through Lake Barataria, the bayous reaching the Mississippi from the west were likewise blocked and small batteries placed at prominent points, such as at the shell midden known as The Temple. Despite Jackson's personal direction, much of the construction proceeded slowly and haphazardly and some details were overlooked altogether. Three important watercourses running into Lake Borgne—Bayous Sauvage, Terre aux Boeufs, and Bienvenue—remained free of obstruction. [21]

Such oversights could perhaps have been avoided had Jackson obtained all the men and supplies he had earlier requested. As of December 12 the troops at his disposal in the immediate vicinity of New Orleans were placed as follows:

In Fort St. Charles Capt. Humphreys ['] Company Corps of Artillery.

In Barracks 7th Regiment U. S. Infantry

On Marignys Canal. Capt. Gordons Company of Volunteer Infantry from Rapide [s].

In the Fauxburgh St. Mary. Capt. Smith ['] s Dragoons and Capt. Griffith ['] s Company of Mounted Volunteer Rangers from Feliciana.

At Declouets house lower Fauxburgh, Captain Dubuchet[']s Hussars from Tech[e].

At Fort St. John a Detachment from the 7th Infantry of 1 Sub. 1 Sergt. 1 Corporal and 19 privates.

On the Lafourche Capt. Hicks ['] Company of Louisiana drafted Militia.

At Barataria Capt. Dupas ['] Company of Louisiana drafted Militia.

At English Turn a Detachment of the Louisiana drafted Militia. Under Col. Alexander Declouet. [22]

In addition, guards composed of various units of local militia were stationed at all bayous determined to be accessible to the British. Most of these men were ill-supplied, some were without arms, and many were undisciplined. Contrary to popular conception, Jackson did not immediately meld the diverse ethnic populations to his support. Many resisted his imposition of new restrictions on free commerce as well as his stubbornness and intolerance of their work performance. The diversity in language and culture was not easily to be overcome, and there existed much resentment toward the free black militia units. Consequently, disciplining and training troops with little inclination to the physical labor required for erecting defenses proved difficult at best. Their numbers, together with those of the available regulars, totaled about 2,000. Still enroute to the city were the Tennesseans under Coffee and Carroll and the Mississippi dragoons, four troops commanded by Major Hinds. So, too, were General Thomas and 2,300 Kentuckians. The continued absence of these reinforcements agitated Jackson, as did his lack of arms and ammunition. A supply scheduled to reach New Orleans from Pittsburgh had not yet arrived; in fact, Carroll's troops descending the Mississippi on flatboats reached Natchez on December 13 to find a keelboat laden with arms for Jackson. He outfitted his command with some of the weapons and ammunition. [23]

Besides these conventional forces, Jackson also attracted unconventional ones in the form of the Baratarian privateers led by the redoubtable Jean Laffite. Laffite had his headquarters at Grand Terre Island at the entrance of Barataria Bay. From there he and his followers had managed a lucrative trade in smuggling that only recently had been threatened by a destructive raid led by Commander Patterson. Having spurned a British offer promising reward for his intimate knowledge of the bayou country and for the services of his men and equipment, Laffite approached a dubious Jackson and succeeded in cementing a working relationship that would end further government action against the Baratarians and legally absolve them for past wrongs. "Mr. Lafitte [sic] solicited for himself and for all the Baratarians," wrote Lacarriere Latour, "the honour of serving under our banners, that they might have an opportunity of proving that if they had infringed the revenue laws, yet none was more ready than they to defend the country and combat its enemies. " [24] The Baratarians brought to Jackson's forces knowledgeable, trained, and seasoned fighters, many of whom were skilled artillerists. Some formed units of their own under designated Baratarian leaders; others joined existing companies for service at Petite Coquilles, Fort St. Philip, and Fort St. John. They also furnished valuable munitions and war materiel. In particular, wrote Jackson later, "I procured from them 7500 flints for pistols and boarding peaces [ sic], which was solely the supply of flints for all my militia and if it had not been for this providential aid the country must have fallen. " [25] Laffite claimed to have had enough ammunition to furnish an army 30,000 strong. During the crisis, he was able to provide powder from his own munitions depot in Barataria. [26]

Jackson's anticipated land forces easily outnumbered his naval component at New Orleans. Only six small gunboats and several smaller craft guarded the waterways. The gunboats, a survival of former President Thomas Jefferson s "Mosquito Fleet" naval policy, were in the charge of Commander Patterson, who on Jackson's advice dispatched one to Fort St. Philip and the remaining five to ply the waters of Lake Borgne. These latter boats mounted twenty-three guns and carried 182 sailors. Two other vessels, presently unmanned, guarded the river before New Orleans—a schooner, Carolina, and a ship, Louisiana. [27] The gunboats on Lake Borgne formed the first line of defense for the city. The principal mission of the force was one of reconnaissance and intelligence—to discover and report on the approach of the enemy. Secondly, the boats were to defend the post of Petite Coquilles, which in turn guarded the strait from Lake Borgne into Lake Pontchartrain. They were also to guard against British attempts to gain entrance into any of the bayous bordering Lake Borgne's western and southwestern shores. If, in spite of their limited capabilities, the gunboats failed, then the British would assuredly gain a foothold within striking distance of New Orleans. [28]

Although he anticipated the approach of the British presently, Jackson did not know precisely where the enemy fleet was located. He still expected the attack to come via Mobile, but he did not know the size of his opposing army. In fact, nearly 9,000 British soldiers were enroute to New Orleans, a force constituted from troops already in service in America augmented by troops from Ireland and France as well as black regiments brought from the West Indies. Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane commanded the fleet of well-armed warships and transports bringing the soldiers to Louisiana. Overall command of the New Orleans campaign rested with Lieutenant General Sir Edward Pakenham, who was enroute from London. The original plan of attack, as devised by the British cabinet, called for secretly assembling the troops at Barbados, then striking in diversion at the Carolina coast while the main force converged on New Orleans. But through a variety of circumstances this strategy changed and Cochrane's fleet of fifty ships sailed instead from Jamaica, reaching the Chandeleur Islands in Mississippi Sound on December 8. [29]

Commander Patterson was apprised of the British position and word went directly to Jackson in New Orleans. As the fleet rested the British officers weighed the different approaches to the city, finally determining that an ascent of the Mississippi was unfeasible because of the unmanageable current of its high water. Other routes were deemed difficult and time consuming, and defensive works protected the Rigolets and Bayou St. John. Instead, the approach would be made across Lake Borgne and through the bayous to the Mississippi below the city. On December 13 Jackson received news that the British had gun barges with which to maneuver on the lakes, and that it appeared they intended to land their troops soon. At the time, the city was defended by less than 2,000 men. [30]

The first action between the British and Americans occurred, not unexpectedly, on Lake Borgne on December 14. Two days earlier British sloops and frigates had anchored outside the shallow lake-inlet in preparation for landing troops. That night forty-two heavily armed launches and three unarmed gigs with nearly one thousand seamen aboard advanced in three divisions into the waters of Lake Borgne. Next morning the advancing flotilla was sighted by the Americans under Lieutenant Thomas Ap Catesby Jones who, on instructions from Commander Patterson, had anchored his gunboats near the Malheureux Islands. Jones's command totaled 182 seamen; his gunboats mounted twenty-three pieces of ordnance. Since the 9th the American vessels had watched British warships maneuvering near Dauphine Island and between Ship and Cat Islands. Jones at once directed a boat to Bay St. Louis to destroy supplies stored there, but the British attacked and nearly captured it. The brief diversion allowed Jones to head his gunboats toward the Rigolets to protect the post at Petite Coquilles. But dying winds prevented the passage. Lacking maneuverability, Jones abandoned his plan, taking anchor instead near Malheureux Island Pass.

On the morning of the 14th the British launches closed in on the American position, capturing the tender, Alligator. Jones aligned his gunboats in the channel, preparing to meet the invaders, but forceful currents caused several to drift away. The British closed to just beyond gun range then stopped for a time before advancing. At the approach, the American craft unleashed a powerful artillery fire which the British vessels quickly answered. Within an hour one British barge collided with an American gunboat and hand-to-hand combat ensued with the British suffering severe casualties. Two other barges were sunk in the melee before the British temporarily pulled back. But when Lieutenant Jones received a disabling wound the enemy pressed the attack and succeeded in capturing all of the boats. American casualties in the Battle of Lake Borgne numbered six killed and thirty-five wounded; the British suffered seventeen killed and seventy-seven wounded, many of whom died later. The capture of the American craft left the coast without naval defense and allowed the British to freely choose their point of debarkation. The defeat also ended Jackson's primary means of gaining intelligence of British movements. [31]

After the Lake Borgne battle Jackson made judicious distribution of his available forces. He notified Coffee, Carroll, and Thomas of what had transpired, then sent a regiment of militia to bolster the battalion on Gentilly Road, the most likely point, he believed, for the British to strike. He ordered Major Lacoste at Chef Menteur to erect a redoubt with ditch and to arm it with two field guns. Two regiments would stay to defend the city, but another was posted downriver on the right bank while more volunteers took station among the plantations on the left side of the Mississippi. At English Turn Morgan commanded still other volunteers, while additional militia units were being organized above New Orleans. Two artillery units, one Baratarian, the other composed of volunteers from the city, augmented a garrison at Fort St. John commanded by Major I.B. Plauche. On December 17, three days after the naval defeat, work began on two batteries of 24-pounders along Bayou St. John. At Fort St. Charles Jackson posted his regulars plus another Baratarian company. On December 17 he learned that Major Walter H. Overton was progressing with the works at Fort St. Philip, improvements all the more urgent with news that the British had captured the defenses at The Balize. Overton reported that British spies had been operating on the river around his post. [32]

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Last Updated: 05-Sep-2004