Pirates of the Baritaria

Barrancas John Frost
Fort Barrancas explodes. The Spanish were rather miffed with the British for the speed of their evacuation. Photo Credit: John Frost.

As the war entered its final stretch, Andrew Jackson was having a grand old time bouncing around the south. An attack on Mobile was repulsed, and while many of his militiamen kept wandering off, Jackson still decided he had enough men to launch an abrupt invasion of Spanish Florida in November. While Jackson seemed to already perceive Florida as a part of the United States that just didn’t know it yet, there were actually some practical reasons for the attack. While the Spaniards were nominally neutral in the war, they had been sheltering both British troops and the shattered survivors of the Creek Red Sticks. After looping up with his fellow Tennessean John Coffee, Jackson barreled into the startled alliance on November 7th.[1] Frantically the British evacuated, setting fire to the fort’s powder magazine as they were sent blasting off again. Unfortunately for Jackson, his triumph was short lived. Word soon reached him, Admirals Cochrane and Cockburn were on their way south, with a new army and commander in tow.

Edward Pakenham
Edward “Ned” Pakenham. Like a more literary Ned, he was both honorable and in for a bad time. Photo Credit: The National Park Service

Before he was assigned the command, Sir Edward Pakenham had been really hoping he wouldn’t have to go to America. He was a career soldier, the brother in law of the Iron Duke Wellington himself, and had fought his way through the Iberian Peninsula.[2] While he had played second fiddle to his superior brother, Pakenham himself was no slouch as a soldier. A pair of grim neck wounds had first knocked his head to one side, and then conveniently centered it again. He was liked by both his men and the politicians in Parliament, and had served as head of the military police in Spain. He also really, really, didn’t want to go to the United States. Writing to his mother in 1814, he noted that, “I think I have escaped America, and shall consider myself lucky to have been spared such a service”.[3] Clearly he knew this was an unhealthy country for generals; but Ross had died outside of Baltimore, and Brock was stone dead in Canada, and Wellington wanted to go to the United States even less than Packenham did.[4] Stuck in his role as the Mitt Romney of generals, Pakenham nevertheless accepted the commission as Major-General, and hastened to catch up with the invasion force assembling in Jamaica. The combined force was one of the larger fleets the British had assembled, along with a collected army and Marine Corps of almost 11,000 men, under the command of Admiral Cochrane[5]. Setting out a little behind the main forces, Pakenham wouldn’t actually see battle until the war was technically over.

Initially thinking the attack would strike at Mobile, Jackson soon realized the British were aiming for New Orleans. In fact some British agents were already in the area laying the groundwork, scouting the land, and most importantly looking for allies. Unfortunately for the British the Creek and other tribes were now extremely reluctant to back them up. Between the extremely harsh terms Jackson had imposed on everyone and the generally minimal materiel that the British actually provided, this was an understandable point of view at the time.[6]

Jean Lafitte Rosenberg Library
Jean Lafitte, seen here smuggling at least four bars of gold under his hat. Photo Credit: Rosenberg Library

Still hopeful, some agents reached out to the Lafitte pirates, lurking on the outskirts of New Orleans. Pirates aren’t exactly known for their loyalty, and the Lafitte brothers had plenty of bones to pick with New Orleans. Pierre Lafitte had been in prison after a very silly and public arrest, and there was a standing bounty on the Baratarian pirates. After firing a warning shot, the British ship HMS Sophie flagged down Jean Lafitte’s ship in early September. The offer made to Lafitte and his colleague Dominique You must have tempted them. 30,000 Pounds, land in reconquered portions of the United States, and a commission as a pardoned captain in the Royal Navy didn’t come along every day. Lafitte asked for two weeks to consider the offer. Instead of accepting, Jean quickly alerted Governor Claiborne in New Orleans of the threat. There are plenty of guesses about Jean’s motives, but most of them likely stemmed from his practical thoughts on the war. It seemed unlikely that the British were going to win so decisively that they could just hand out land willy-nilly to a bunch of pirates, and Jean Lafitte was optimistic that he could leverage an offer of assistance to the Americans in exchange for a pardon.

Unfortunately, the Americans decided to not so much look this gift horse in the mouth as shoot it in the face, and within two weeks the American Commander Daniel Commodore Patterson had responded to Jean Lafitte’s friendly warning with a full blown invasion of the Baratarian camp.[7] Most notably, all eight of Lafitte’s ships were seized in the raid, and Lafitte and his men were forced to hightail it inland. Governor Claiborne was stunned at the choice, and appealed to Jackson to overturn the raid. At the very least, Jean Lafitte’s offer to defend the city represented the only major naval asset the Americans would have against a sea borne invasion. Needs be damned, Jackson hadn’t planned on bending when it came to pirates. Responding publicly to Claiborne Jackson asked, “can we place any confidence in the honor of men who have courted an alliance with pirates and robbers?”

The Buccaneer, a totally realistic depiction of the Battle of New Orleans. Shirts optional.

Yet by December 1st Jackson had to admit there was no way around Lafitte. Surveying the city he found that his “Commodore” Patterson had two ships, and no additional men to crew the other eight seized from the pirates. The city itself was guarded by about a thousand militia, including a company of freed black soldiers, and there was very little in the way of fortifications. Jackson needed time, more than anything. And for that matter, he needed supplies. Lafitte could get him both. What finally broke his resolve was a chance meeting with Jean and Dominique themselves.[8] The pair argued their case, and finally Jackson had to admit that their courage to meet him alone was very impressive. With a small army of Creek warriors, Tennessee militia, French speaking Louisianans, and a fleet of pirates in its defense. New Orleans braced for an attack. On December 12, 1814 the British fleet was sighted, and the final battle of the war began.

[1] In fairness to Jackson, he sent over an ultimatum to the garrison first. The Spanish tried to literally shoot the messenger.

[2] As it happened, he was also something of the glue that held Wellington’s marriage together. The Iron Duke’s relationship with his wife deteriorated quickly after the war.

[3] Albright

[4] Working behind the scenes, the Duke was actually pushing hard for a peace by this time. He was rightly convinced that Napoleon might make a surprise resurgence in France, and didn’t want the British distracted by an American sideshow.

[5] Not to be confused with medical nightmare Vice Admiral Cockburn, who would actually go on to have a great time conquering the Georgian coastline. Though it’s usually overshadowed by the Battle of New Orleans, Cockburn actually smashed three forts along Cumberland County, Georgia. Offering freedom to any slaves who signed up with him, Cockburn would evacuate with almost 1,500 people who opted to join Britain or relocate to a British territory.

[6] Of course, such a stance was based on the Charlie and the Footballish hope that this time, surely the United States was done shredding treaties and burning villages.

[7] Most American sources the author found try their best to forget this happened.

[8] In the best casting choice in human history, the Buccaneer has Charlton Heston as Andrew Jackson, while Yul Brynner plays Lafitte.


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