Jean Lafitte
Historic Resource Study (Chalmette Unit)
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In the decades following the Battle of New Orleans the site of the January 8 encounter became a local and regional attraction for visitors. Although the property remained in private ownership and for many years lacked any form of official recognition, it nonetheless represented an important epic in American history whose significance was immediately apparent. The battle site commanded a great amount of attention, particularly as the concept of "Jackson Day"—January 8—became standardized in later years. Because of the early interest generated, there exist numerous first-hand accountings that provide evidence of the later appearance and condition of the battlefield property.

One of the earliest such renderings was that of Samuel Mordecai, who visited the scene on April 22, 1815, less than four months after the battle. Mordecai located the area of the British encampment by "observing a line of small spots among the clover where fires had been kindled."

At one place the ditch [of a battery?] still retained a bloody stain and the smell was extremely offensive. I have since learned that the enemy made a breastwork here of hhds [hogsheads] of sugar—which probably caused the appearance and smell. The house in which the British headquarters were held, was perforated with cannon balls. Many of these must have been sent from the Caroline and other vessels, which greatly harrassed the enemy. [1]

Two days later Mordecai was ushered over the American part of the field by several battle participants. He noted that "the house in which Genl Jackson established headquarters... bore many marks of the enemy's balls. One remained half buried in a position wall over his bed." [2]

The earliest known changes in the appearance of the battleground were reported by the artist and architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe during a visit in 1819. Latrobe, whose son had served as an engineer officer and had helped erect the batteries on the right of Jackson's line, noted that the river had already eroded away part of that end of the position to include that on which the advance redoubt stood. Latrobe took the occasion to prepare a significant sketch map of the right end of the line as it appeared in 1819, as well as two drawings showing relative positions of existing structures to the line. [3] The line, wrote Latrobe, "is now visible only as the somewhat elevated bank of a narrow canal from the Mississippi to the swamp." [4] Comparing Jackson's feat with that of Hannibal over the Romans, Latrobe commented that

this ditch and something of a bank extending from the river road to the swamp will probably remain for many years, because the ditch serves as a plantation drain. But the soluble quality of the earth and the exceedingly heavy rains of the climate would otherwise, in a few years, destroy every vestige of a work which saved the city and the whole country of the delta from conquest. [5]

A few years later, in 1825, a German visitor walked along the line, but was clearly more intrigued with the area mansion houses than with learning the rudiments of the battle. Duke Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar Eisenach registered his interest in the homes along the river which, he noted, were almost universally built behind a garden about 100 yards in length with an entrance walkway lined with carefully manicured laurel and China trees. Most of the homes were two-storied with galleries and piazzas. [6] Bernhard saw the Macarty house headquarters of Jackson as well as the British headquarters at Villeré's, which he described as "not very large and... not very much ornamented." Behind the house were two brick structures, one containing a sugar mill, the other sugar boiling apparatus. Stables and cabins for house servants stood nearby, while huts for the field slaves stood some distance away. Bernhard also remarked on the changing course of the Mississippi, which during the years since the battle had inclined to the right leaving the Villeré mansion farther back from the bank. [7]

Changes were less perceptible in the area of the January 8, 1815, battle some distance upstream. In 1827 Andrew Jackson briefly returned to the scene of his triumph, but his biographer described nothing of the appearance of the battlefield at the time. [8] One of the better descriptions of the ground was provided by Joseph H. Ingraham, who came to New Orleans in the early 1830s. Ingraham's observations were extensive but offered nonetheless a contemporary view that additionally remarked on an element of the post-battle society that had evolved near the site:

Following our guide a few hundred yards... down the river-road, we passed on the left hand a one story wooden dwelling-house situated at a short distance back from the road, having a gallery, or portico in front, and elevated upon a basement story of brick, like most other houses built immediately on the river. This, our guide informed us, was "the house occupied by General Jackson as head-quarters: and there," he continued, pointing to a planter's residence two or three miles farther down the river, "is the mansion-house of General, (late governor, Villeré) which was occupied by Sir Edward Packenham as the head-quarters of the British army." [9]

"But the battle-ground—where is that sir?" we inquired, as he silently continued his rapid walk in advance of us.

"There it is," he replied after walking on a minute or two longer in silence, and turning the corner of a narrow, fenced lane which extended from the river to the forest-covered marshes—"there it is, gentlemen,"—and at the same time extended his arm in the direction of the peaceful plain, which we had before observed,—spread out like a carpet, it was so very level—till it terminated in the distant forests, by which and the river it was nearly enclosed. Riding a quarter of a mile down the lane we dismounted, and leaving our horses in the road, sprang over a fence, and in a few seconds stood upon the American breast-works....

The rampart of earth upon which we stood, presented very little the appearance of having ever been a defence for three thousand breasts; resembling rather one of the numerous dikes constructed on the plantations near the river, to drain the very marshy soil which abounds in this region, than the military defences of a field of battle. It was a grassy embankment, extending, with the exception of an angle near the forest—about a mile in a straight line from the river to the cypress swamps in the rear; four feet high, and five or six feet broad. At the time of the battle it was the height of a man, and somewhat broader than at present, and along the whole front ran a fosse, containing five feet of water, and of the same breadth as the parapet. This was now nearly filled with earth, and could easily be leaped over at any point. The embankment through the whole extent is much worn, indented and, occasionally, levelled with the surface of the plain....

We walked slowly over the ground, which annually waves with undulating harvests of the rich cane. Our guide was intelligent and sufficiently communicative without being garrulous. He was familiar with every interesting fact associated with the spot, and by his correct information rendered our visit both more satisfactory and agreeable than it otherwise would have been.

"Here gentilhommes, j'ai finde some bullet for you to buy," shouted a little French mulatto at the top of his voice, who, among other boys of various hues, had followed us to the field, "me, j'ai trop—too much;" and on reaching us, this double-tongued urchin turned his pockets inside out and discharged upon the ground a load of rusty grape-shot, bullets, and fragments of lead—his little stock in trade, some, if not all of which, I surmised, had been manufactured for the occasion.

"Did you find them on the battle-ground, garcon?"

Iss—oui, Messieurs, me did, de long-temps."

I was about to charge him with having prepared his pockets before leaving home, when Mr. C. exhibited a grape shot that he had picked from the dark soil in which it was half buried. I bought for a piccaiune, the smallest currency of the country, the "load of grape," and we pursued our walk over the field, listening with much interest to the communications of our guide, conjuring up the past scenes of strife and searching for balls; which by and by began to thicken upon us so fast, that we were disposed to attribute a generative principle to grape-shot. We were told by our cicerone that they were found in great numbers by the ploughmen, and disposed of to curious visitors. On inquiring of him if false ones were not imposed upon the unsuspecting, he replied "No—there is no need of that—there is an abundance of those which are genuine."

"I'm got half a peck on un to hum, myself, I'se found," exlaimed a little negro in a voice that sounded like the creaking of a shoe, bolting off at the same time for the treasure like one of his own cannon-balls. What appalling evidence is this abundance of leaden and iron hail strewed over the field, of the terrible character of that war-storm which swept so fearfully over it. Flattened and round balls, grape of various sizes, and non-descript bits of iron were the principal objects picked up in our stroll over the ground.

The night was rapidly approaching—for we had lingered along on this interesting spot—and precluded our visit to the oaks, to which it had been our intention to extend our walk; and as we turned to retrace our steps with our pockets heavy with metal, something rang to the touch of my foot, which, on lifting and cleansing it from the loam, we discovered to be the butt-piece of a musket. [10]

Contemporary information regarding the battlefield also came in the mid-1840s from other visitors to the scene. Often, however, the impulse was to wax patriotic rather than descriptive. One commentator, noting the dearth of any monument at the site, observed that "if there is no lofty structure of granite or marble, to perpetuate the glorious achievement, it has a holier, a more enduring memorial in the heart of every true American...." [11] In 1846 a British tourist reported that the levee was in process of being strengthened along the riverfront, "for the Mississippi is threatening to pour its resistless current through this battle-ground, as, in the delta of the Ganges, the Hoogly is fast sweeping away the celebrated field of Plassy." [12]

More substantive depiction came in the account of a militia soldier bound for the Mexican War whose regiment encamped at Chalmette. "The plain itself is a magnificent place for the marshalling of large bodies of men.... The entrenchments are still visible tho the peaceful pursuits of agriculture are fast obliterating the lines..." He reported that the British dead were located on the field where Pakenham had formed his troops for opening the assault, an act, he said, that typified "the sublimity of bravery." [13] A Mississippi soldier who also stopped at Chalmette enroute to Mexico in July, 1846, described his regiment's encampment on ground recently vacated by volunteers from Kentucky and Ohio:

Our tents were pitched on the ground where the British lines were drawn up on the 8th [of January, 1815], but we had a full view of the ground upon which the Americans were stationed, and as it was surveyed by the eye, the recollections of that celebrated battle where American arms achieved such a splendid victory, seemed to arouse every heart and nerve every arm for the conflicts...we confidently anticipate.

Despite torrential rains the Mississippians remained at Chalmette for two days until severe flooding finally forced them out of their tents. On July 17 they abandoned the Chalmette site for drier quarters in New Orleans. [14]

Historian Alexander Walker probably offered the most specific description of the battle scene at mid-century. Jackson's line, wrote Walker in 1855,

becomes more distinct as it approaches the swamp, the ground near the river having been more exposed to the action of the plow and the tramp of men and cattle. The river having caved some hundred or two feet, the line of the levee has been slightly changed, and the road has worn away the mound and the vestiges of the redoubt on the extreme right. [15]

Walker described the area of the British attack as:

an unbroken level, usually when not in cane, covered with a luxuriant growth of stubble or weeds, and cut into numerous small ditches. Solitary live oaks, reverently spared by the plowman, loom out grandly at long distances apart from the grey or brown plain. [16]

The swamp appeared much the same as it had in 1815, still protruding in the manner which had facilitated the British approach. That stretch of the line occupied by Coffee's Tennesseans remained largely intact forty years after the battle. [17] The Macarty house, surrounded by pruned cedar, cypress, and orange trees, had changed little, and was still "scarred in many places with marks of the severe cannonade." [18]

During the Civil War the old Chalmette lands again served as an encampment area, first for Confederate, then Union, troops. One soldier, Private Elisha Stockwell, Jr., of Company I, Fourteenth Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry, observed that the battlefield, "a dead-level piece of land with ditches every few rods square," had previously been used for truck gardening. [19] Descriptive renderings on the grounds seem to have become scarcer later in the century as attention commonly focused on structures in the vicinity related to the battle. The Macarty house, it was noted, was "changed and modernized" by 1891. [20] But the most attention seems to have been lavished on the old British headquarters at Villeré's, downstream from the January 8, 1815, battleground. By 1885 the structure was in decay, its doors and window panes removed and weeds growing on its roof. [21] A few years later the house was described as having been built of the "choicest timber" with hand-forged nails and hinges.

The doors and shutters are of solid cypress and the large and curiously shaped hinges of wrought iron. The same fanciful hinges are on the low doors between the connecting rooms.... There are virtually no rear rooms..., but on the side facing the woods is the long dining-room, which connects with the parlor facing the river. ... The arrangement of the rooms has been little disturbed. In the corner towards the city facing the river is the bedroom the general [Pakenham] occupied.... One of the main charms of the... [parlor] was the large open fireplace.... [22]

A short distance from the Villeré house stood the so-called Pakenham Oak, a tree that, according to legend, sheltered the British commander before he died. Pakenham's entrails were supposedly interred at the base of the tree along with the bodies of several other officers killed in the January 8 battle. In 1886 some bones from these burials were recovered with pieces of belts identifying the remains as British officers. Five years later the tree was described as being 12 feet in diameter and "of interest outside of its mortuary significance." [23]

By the turn of the century visitors came to the New Orleans battlefield via electric streetcar to Jackson Barracks and then by carriage or foot along the river to the site. [24] There they saw an unfinished monument, the eroded embankment of Jackson's line, and the broad field across which the British advanced. [25] By then, however, the resources, intermixed with homes and pathways utilized by the local populace in routine daily activities, were beginning to experience the threats to their integrity which ultimately impacted them so severely at mid-century. As early as 1905 a New Orleans newspaper prophesied of the historic terrain:

But a few generations from now and careless persons engrossed in the absorbing occupation of getting on in the world will pass you by and never know the story your soil holds. Men will sweat and toil and fight for industrial supremacy in your midst, where Old Hickory, in a rain of bullets and blood, drove the British back to the river.... [26]

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Last Updated: 05-Sep-2004