Piracy and The War of 1812

When people talk about the War of 1812, you’ll hear a lot about Andrew Jackson or the British. Perhaps if they’ve really researched and done their homework, you’ll hear about the fact that the war was also against the Shawnee war chief, Tecumseh, and his brother Tenskwatawa, both of whom led the Indian Confederation consisting of many tribes in the Midwest and South. Their hope was that a British win would spell an end to the theft of their homes and territory. Most don’t even consider that Canada was still at that point a British Colony and thus was invaded several times by the fledgling United States. It was truly a war fought from four directions, with the US in the center. The last thing that people outside of what is now Louisiana thinks to mention is Jean Lafitte, The Pirate Prince of Barataria and how he, his brother, and their men turned the tide of the Battle of New Orleans. To explain all that however, we need to look back at the Napoleonic War and the crimes against America’s that were perpetrated by both the British and the French.

While America had declared itself neutral in the Napoleonic War, both England and France had enacted blockades of each other’s respective ports and the ports of all countries allied with each country. America, believing herself to be secure in that neutrality lost a great many ships as they were raided for goods by the French attempting to trade with Britain, or raided for sailors by the Brits. There was a two-month high seas scuffle called the Quasi-War in which France backed off.

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Unfortunately, the British did not back off. They continued to board American vessels looking for British Naval deserters, often either misidentifying the men as deserters or simply not caring at all before taking them back to their ship and letting the American trade vessels go. This enraged the American population, and they demanded action to be taken. Andrew Jackson however decided to go the way of George Washington and employ the tactic that worked during the revolutionary war. They would embargo the British.

Thus, the Embargo Act of 1807 came to existence, forbidding trade and land locking all American ships. An extreme miscalculation, Jackson failed to consider that the British had found other ports to trade with and sell their goods. This Act fell apart within two years at the end of Jackson’s presidency and was replaced with the more unfortunately named Non-Intercourse Act. This act strictly forbid trade with France and England but was completely unenforceable. It was already too late as a thriving black market and significant smuggling trade had already deeply rooted in the hole that the Embargo Act of 1807 left in the American Economy.

Smuggling in and out of Canada had been an issue since the Revolutionary War, but with the Embargo Act in effect, the smugglers stepped up their trade to unprecedented levels. The border between Canada and America was and had always been a lawless haven of thieves, criminals, and outlaw gangs, and the US Revenue department simply could not stop what was happening. Despite overseeing collecting duties and taxes, the fledgling IRS had no idea how to curb the smugglers on the northern border, much less stop them from bringing in supplies that the American people desperately needed. What was happening in the south was even more extreme if only for it’s level of organization and finesse.

With the rise of the embargo act came the Pirate Prince of New Orleans, Jean Lafitte, and his floating black-market trade. Utilizing the many small islands dotting the Mississippi Delta, he and his brother Pierre created an empire of smuggling, piracy, and trade. Largely overlooked by the locals and lauded as heroes by the common people as well as the aristocracy, they ruled over the Isle of Grande Terre in Barataria Bay with their growing army of men. Conflicting stories arise from that time, some describing the group as a merciless band that raped and murdered all in their path, and others describing them as gentlemen pirates, helpful and kind. The truth may well lay in the middle.

Unlike a fair amount of his constituents, Governor Claiborne despised the pirates and sought to put an end to their black market. Unfortunately for the Governor and his men, when they went to raid Jean and Pierre’s operation, it had already moved on from where it had been, navigating up and down the river with ease to evade arrest. In a lucky break for the Governor, Pierre was arrested unloading a large cargo totaling over $4,500 of goods, an enormous bounty for the time and was imprisoned for several months before trial.

On September 3rd, 1814, Colonel Nicholls of the British Navy dispatched Capt. Lockyer and Capt. McWilliams to meet with the Pirate Lafitte. They fired once on the island, waking it’s occupants, and then flew the white flag off the bow of the HMS Sophie. Quietly, Jean Lafitte joined the men on the meeting boat, and upon demands to be taken to Lafitte, he led them through the settlement to his own home before identifying himself as the one they were seeking. McWilliams and Lockyer had quite the offer for Jean Lafitte. They carried with them a thick packet filled with a missive from Percy and containing an enormous bribe and an equally large threat.

Percy demanded the service of Jean Lafitte and all his men. In the packet were details of their plans to take down America with the use of the Mississippi River as a point of egress. All that stood in their way was New Orleans and the American Army there. Jean was promised his brother Pierre’s freedom and a salary of 30,000 pounds, well over 2 million dollars in today’s money. If he refused, Percy would order the island to be blasted off the map and all the inhabitants killed. Playing for time, Lafitte asked for 2 weeks to get his affairs in order and the British left thinking that he was on their side.

After Lafitte saw the British Emissaries sail away, he immediately sat down and penned a letter to American authorities which was carried by one of his more influential allies to the Committee of Public Safety. Claiborne was incensed and promptly posted a reward of $500 for Jean Lafitte. In true New Orleans style, Lafitte’s men papered the town with a $5,000 reward for Governor Claiborne. This did not deter Lafitte as he continued to write this time directly to Claiborne. Jackson also turned up his nose at the offer of assistance for pardons for Lafitte and his men.

When the British finally made their move, the Lafitte brothers and their men made their way into town and stood tall and bold before Jackson. The former president was expecting filthy pirates, worn from the evasion of the authorities, but instead faced a gentile Jean Lafitte, well dressed, clean, and possessing charm, strong wit, and class. However, the most important thing that Lafitte possessed was arms and ammunition as well as gunpowder. Items desperately needed by Jackson. Pardons were issued and luckily for Lafitte, his gamble paid off.

Pakenham was sure that this battle would be an easy victory. Confident with the knowledge that as this battle was occurring a peace treaty was being brokered and would likely be signed. He entered the last battle of the war determined to fight and bring back the final victory for England. Nothing short of a missive directly from the Crown itself was going to stop him. Pakenham and his troupes entrenched themselves at a plantation south of New Orleans and traded shots with the Americans on December 23rd until darkness and the low dense winter fog of Mississippi made seeing impossible.

On December 26, the initial battle broke out in all seriousness. Jackson was surprised to see the battle lines redrawn in the night, Pakenham’s men in better position to fight off the Americans. Despite this, Jackson pressed on, counting on Lafitte to attack from the swamps. Jackson expected that this would be a quick battle, easily destroying Pakenham and overtaking his forces. Two days later the fighting forces regrouped, and Jackson was forced to face the bitter truth that despite the addition of Lafitte and the Baratarians, without reinforcements, it was unlikely that the Americans would win.

After several battles including an impressive New Year’s artillery duel, the Battle of New Orleans was set to commence. Pakenham believed victory to be in sight. He dispatched a small contingent to sneak around the west bank of the Mississippi River and overtake the gunners there, in which they would then turn those guns on the unsuspecting American flank. The main force was to keep Jackson and his troops occupied. Pakenham could find no fault with his plan as he had no idea that a regimen from Tennessee had arrived to support Jackson, and his troops which with the support of 1300 free men of color local to the area, Pakenham’s forces now outnumbered Jackson’s men two to one.

Though undermanned and with less guns than Pakenham’s forces, Jackson’s main advantage was surprisingly the adeptness in which Lafitte’s pirates handled the heavy artillery weapons. Pakenham foolishly rode into battle to lead his forces and had his horse shot out from under him. Quickly mounting another horse to rejoin his troops, the next bullet spelled his end. By the time the battle was over, the British forces had lost three generals and seven colonels as well as nearly 2,000 of their troops in the span of half an hour. Jackson’s forces lost roughly 100 men. Pakenham had expected a slaughter, but he had not expected his troops to be the ones lost.

Despite Jackson’s concerns of the British regrouping and attacking again, by February celebrations were the order of the day as Jackson and his troops scored a massive victory. Ego and political attacks against Jackson began almost immediately. He took credit for the success of the Battle and the fighting in the area, snubbing Lafitte during the victory celebration while including other members of the American Military. Madison and Monroe were quick to accuse Jackson of resource mismanagement and life moved on fully. Lafitte and his men received their pardons and Jean Lafitte moved on to Galveston, Texas. Jackson returned to the east coast. Pierre Lafitte remained in New Orleans with his blacksmith shop and went on to marry his octoroon mistress.

February 16, 1815 saw the official end of the the War of 1812 when Congress ratified the Treaty of Ghent. Despite some historians believing that the war had ended in December of 1814, before the Battle of New Orleans, only England had enacted the treaty at that time and cross Atlantic travel was not a quick thing. Regardless of the overwhelming victory at the Battle of New Orleans, the War of 1812 ended in a draw with only the Native Americans as the actual losing faction of the War. Smuggling and Piracy never actually ended, but the brothers Lafitte would never again play such an obvious role within the New Orleans community, the glory of the battle going entirely to Jackson, and further alienating them from a love for the US.


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