Volume I - No. 3
A NATIONAL MILITARY PARK FOR "OLD HICKORY"
By Roy Edgar Appleman,
In June of this year. the Louisiana legislature passed an Act approved by the Governor, which directed the State Parks Commission to purchase lands on which was fought the battle of New Orleans. It was on this historic occasion that Andrew Jackson and his motley collection of troops successfully defended the city in December, 1814 and January, 1815 against Sir Edward Pakenham and his veteran English troops of the Napoleonic Wars.
The Act carried an appropriation of $300,000 to be expended in acquiring the desired areas. The legislation provides that such lands may be purchased as will be needed for the purpose "of establishing a National Military Park to commemorate the victory of the battle of New Orleans and to meet the requirements of the National Park Service of the United States Department of the Interior; to authorize the State Parks Commission of Louisiana to transfer such lands to the National Park Service of the United States Department of the Interior; . . . . " It was further provided that the transfer of the lands acquired by the state to the United States should be subject to such conditions as will insure their use by the federal government in the establishment and development of a National Military Park.
The battle of New Orleans, Andrew Jackson, Governor Claiborne, the Louisiana bayous, and Jean Lafitte, the pirate leader, collectively were the subject of a recent motion picture, "The Buccaneer." The characterization of Andrew Jackson given in this film will long remain in the minds of many a vivid and forceful delineation of "Old Hickory", a leader who was an heroic representative of the old frontier and of American democracy.
The action of the Louisiana legislature will make possible and insure the preservation and development of an area associated with one of the most colorful, dramatic, and historic events that ever occurred on Louisiana soil; an event which had broad ramifications and direct connection in making Andrew Jackson President of the United States, and all the resultant effects that followed on our political institutions and way of life.
Chalmette National Battlefield Site under the administration of the National Park Service already exists in recognition of the importance of the battle of New Orleans in our national history. It includes a portion of Jackson's line of defense. But it is a small holding, containing only 18 acres, with a frontage of 450 feet at State Highway No. 1 which tapers down over a length of 2650 feet to a frontage of 135 feet at the Mississippi River. This area is inadequate for proper development and interpretation and it does not include many of the most historic features and sites associated with Jackson's defense of New Orleans.
Strangely enough, the battle of New Orleans was fought after the War of 1812 officially had been ended by the signing of the Treaty of Ghent on December 24, 1814. In a sense, Chalmette is a memorial to man's conquest of space. If present day conditions had prevailed, the battle of New Orleans would never have been fought. On Christmas Eve, 1814, Captain John Derby's Salem ship "Astrea" was hurrying home from Europe with news of peace. Today it would be flashed from continent to continent in less time than it has taken to write this sentence, and the fighting below New Orleans would have ended with the preliminary engagement of December 23.
The project of the British for capturing New Orleans was a most difficult one because of the physical features of the terrain below the city. The river was shallow, with mud flats and sand bars constantly shifting in the numerous channels where they emptied in to the Gulf of Mexico, making it unsafe to attempt any approach to the city by way of the Mississippi with the British men-of-war. Swamp and forests presented an almost insurmountable obstacle by land. After careful consideration of all the factors involved, the British decided to approach New Orleans by way of Lake Borgne which lay to the southeast of the city. The few small boats on the lake were captured without difficulty. The small guard which had been left at the mouth of the bayous leading toward New Orleans was captured before it could fire a gun. A British advance party was able to follow a course from Lake Borgne along the Bienvenu and Mazant Bayous and the Villere drainage canal to a point on the Mississippi River only seven miles below New Orleans. Here Major Villere and his entire company were captured on December 23.
A portion of the British Army was now only a few miles away and not a soul in the city knew of the imminent danger which threatened. Fortunately, Villere escaped his captors and made his, way into New Orleans during the day. Immediately the bell in the cathedral sounded the tocsin and soon the Place d'Armes was filled with excited people. In an incredibly short time Jackson had his men under march downstream to meet the British. That very night he attacked their encampment at the De la Ronde plantation. After considerable fighting Jackson withdrew his forces, a short distance up-stream to a line along the Rodriguez Canal which he began to fortify the following day. This line was defended and held until the British abandoned their attempt to capture New Orleans.
On December 28 the British tested Jackson's line which still was incomplete. The attack was made on the American left near the cypress swamp, and had it been pressed the British could easily have broken through. Pakenham was of the opinion, however, that his artillery would have to be brought up, and the next few days were spent in achieving that objective. During the night of December 31 the British were able to get about 23 guns in place most of them being about 700 yards in front of Jackson's line. On New Year's, Day, 1815, after the fog had lifted sufficiently to disclose the American breastworks, English guns opened the famous artillery duel which followed between the newly placed British batteries and the American guns along the Rodriguez Canal, The British guns outnumbered the American and at first delivered a greater intensity of fire. Slowly the tempo of the American fire increased. The superiority in accuracy of fire of the American gunners was as unexpected as it was destructive. The American line suffered little damage, but by noon the British batteries were completely silenced. During the cannonade Jackson's headquarters at the McCarty plantation house behind the Rodriguez Canal was struck 100 times in about 10 minutes. This is some indication of the rapidity of the British fire, which was directed too high, however, most of the shots passing over the American breastworks. The poor marksmanship of the Pakenham gunners in this, duel was a source of much humiliation to British arms.
The main battle occurred January 8 when Pakenham made a frontal attack on the left center of Jackson's line, the main body of his troops striking in front of batteries 6,7 and 8. This would be just south of the present State Highway No. 1. The result was ghastly. Hundreds of British veterans were cut down. It was as if a deadly scythe had swept along their ranks. The ground in front of battery No. 7 was covered with the dead and dying. Among those killed on this fateful day were Major General Gibbs, who fell only 20 yards from the American position, and Sir Edward Pakenham himself, a brother-in-law of the Duke of Wellington, Napoleon's conqueror. Pakenham fell mortally wounded 300 yards from the American line while trying to rally his, disorganized troops. About one fourth of the British Army, or nearly 2,000 were killed or wounded in the battle of New Orleans. The American loss was negligible. Probably there has never been another engagement on American soil between two bodies of troops in which the killed and wounded were so great on one side and so slight on the other.
In the meantime,the British had succeeded in transporting several hundred troops to the western side of the river where they advanced some distance above the point where Jackson's line was situated on the north bank. The disastrous results of the main attack on the north side of the river, that on which New Orleans, was located, induced General Lambert, on whom the command had devolved, to withdraw his forces from the south bank of the Mississippi and eventually to abandon all efforts to capture New Orleans.
Jackson's successful defense of New Orleans was truly remarkable, and could hardly have been anticipated. The men who fought along the river bank and in the cypress swamp a few miles below the city were a motley group. Present were Kentuckians, Tennesseeans, Creoles, sailors, pirates, and negroes. The latter, in fact, fought on both sides, those with the British having been recruited in the West Indies while the expedition was fitting out at Jamaica. One of Jackson's gunners, Flaujeac by name, had been an artillerist for Napoleon. Jean Lafitte, the famous pirate leader of Barataria Bay was perhaps the most picturesque individual who participated in the battle of New Orleans. It was he who noticed the weakness of the left of Jackson's line and induced him to extend it into the cypress swamp in order to prevent the British from turning the American left flank. It is said that men stood knee deep in water in this portion of the line during the fighting of January 8.
Pierre and Jean Lafitte were natives of Bordeaux, France. They were men of the world and could speak fluently English, French, Spanish, and Italian. They came to Louisiana probably about 1807-1808. When the law prohibiting the importation of slaves went into effect in 1808 the Lafitte brothers set up an establishment in New Orleans and engaged in the business of smuggling in slaves and various kinds of British goods. The British had recently broken up pirate nests in Guadaloupe, and as a result a great number of the freebooters in 1810 established a new rendezvous on Grande Isle in Barataria Bay, situated along the southern coast of Louisiana west and south of New Orleans. The Lafitte brothers first became the commercial agents, and later the chiefs, of the pirates. In 1811 the Barataria privateers took out letters of marque in Venezuela and ran up the flag of Cartagena. They were soon powerful enough to walk the streets of New Orleans with impunity and to hold public auction of their captured goods near the city. Efforts to break up Lafitte's Barataria settlement were unsuccessful. Finally a large reward was offered for the capture of the Lafitte brothers. Pierre was arrested and placed in jail in New Orleans, from which he later escaped.
When the British decided on the campaign against New Orleans they sent an emissary to treat with Jean Lafitte, offering him a Captaincy if he would lend his ships and men in the attack on New Orleans. Lafitte informed the American authorities in New Orleans of the British proposal, and offered to pledge all his resources in defense of the city. Governor Claiborne was induced by some of his aides to place no credence in Lafitte's offer, and instead of expressing gratitude for the proffered aid he permitted an expedition to proceed to Barataria Bay and destroy the pirate settlement. Despite this treatment, Lafitte placed himself and his men at the disposal of General Jackson in the defense of New Orleans and rendered valuable service. Several years later Lafitte came into prominence again when he occupied Galveston, ostensibly as Mexican Governor.
The physical appearance of the area where the battle of New Orleans was fought has suffered many changes in the last 123 years. Of the old plantation buildings which stood in 1814-15, all are gone with the exception of the Lacoste house. Modern railroad lines and highways bisect the historic field. Commercial enterprises have encroached on the site, seeking waterfront terminal facilities below New Orleans. Even the river itself has made many changes in the landscape with the passage of time.
Jackson's breastworks, and line of battle extended from the Mississippi River to a cypress swamp about one mile away. Eight batteries were erected along this line. Since 1815 800 feet of the line has been lost in the river, which at this point has constantly encroached on the land Battery positions 1, 2 and 3 were situated in the part of the line which has disappeared in the "Father of Waters." A fine ante-bellum mansion, now abandoned and despoiled of its interior woodwork, is situated only a few hundred feet east of Jackson's line, the Rodriguez Canal, and the boundary of the present national area, on ground where the British attack was received by the deadly fire of the Americans. This structure, commonly known as the Beauregard mansion, is said to have been built in the 1840's for a Spanish nobleman, the Marquis de la Trava, by the famous architect, Gallier, and was originally called "Bueno Reposito." Shortly after its construction for De la Trava the estate became the property of Rene Beauregard, a nephew of General Pierre Beauregard of Civil War fame.
In order to formulate a sound program of land acquisition priorities, based on historical importance, the National Park Service has had in progress during the last three months an exhaustive research study relating to the battle and battlefield of New Orleans. The research has been done chiefly by Francis Wilshin, Junior Research Technician, Vicksburg National Military Park. Mr. Wilshin has made extensive use of materials in the various libraries and historical societies in New Orleans. Among the materials used by Mr. Wilshin were thirty-two original letters written by Jean Lafitte. Many contemporary maps were used, the most important being one prepared by Major A. Lacarriere Latour and published along with other maps in his Historical Memoirs of the War in West Florida and Louisiana, 1814-15. Major Latour was General Jackson's Chief Engineer and held the regular position of Principal Engineer, 7th Military District, United States Army. Among the contemporary maps in the British Archives relating to the battle of New Orleans that drawn by John Peddie is one of the most useful. A map prepared in 1935 by D. C. W. Ricketts is invaluable in a present day study of the terrain and for locating features on the battlefield. By working backward from 1935 to 1814-15 using all known surveys made during that interval, Mr. Ricketts was able to establish all the original positions of the American and British Armies in the series of battles below New Orleans. Certain existing remains were tied in with Latour's map of 1815 and even the change in the shore line of the Mississippi River in the battlefield area was calculated.
Old maps have been found which name and locate the plantations which were situated on and in the vicinity of the battlefield. These included the McCarty, Chalmet, De la Ronde, Lacoste, and Bienvenu plantations. Jackson's headquarters were established on the McCarty plantation. The Chalmet plantation, from which the battle subsequently took its, name, was, situated immediately in front of the American line of breastworks, the plantation house and buildings being about 500 yards distant. These buildings were destroyed by Jackson just before the battle of January 8 so that they would not afford protection for the British troops. The Bienvenu plantation buildings just beyond were destroyed by hot shot from the American batteries during the battle. Ignace Martin de Line de Chalmet died a few months following the battle which resulted in the utter ruin of his plantation. An examination of the American State Papers has disclosed that many of the plantation owners made claims for and received compensation from the United States Government for damages suffered in the battle.
The ruins of the De la Ronde plantation house, which was the most pretentious of all those in the Chalmet area, still stand at the head of the magnificent allee of De la Ronde Oaks. According to the best available information this imposing mansion was built in 1805 and named "Versailles" by the owner, Pierre Denis de la Ronde. This mansion was two stories high, contained sixteen rooms, and had galleries and colonnades on all four sides. It was of brick construction, covered with white cement. The famous De la Ronde Oaks, sometimes mistakenly called the Pakenham Oaks or the Versailles Oaks, probably the finest in the United States, were planted by Pierre Denis de la Ronde in 1783 with slave labor on his twenty-first birthday. An avenue of pecan trees was planted in the rear of the mansion site, but it has long since disappeared.
The recent action of the Louisiana legislature will now permit the acquisition of most of this historic area for public ownership. Its subsequent transfer to the federal government will make possible the development and interpretation of the area for the benefit and inspiration of the American people. Preliminary negotiations have already taken place to effect close cooperation between the Louisiana and the United States governments in arriving at an historically sound program of land acquisition. Thus by reason of the patriotic and public spirited action of the people of Louisiana, another outstanding historic site will be accorded perpetual protection, preservation, and development under the administration of the National Park Service.
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