Presidents and Pirates
Andrew Jackson, the 7th president of the United States, was known for many massive accomplishments. Among those, he founded the Democratic Party, eliminated the National Bank, and most monumentally, was victorious as General in the Battle of New Orleans. Actually in New Orleans, he’s forever linked in history as the famous General who fought alongside the infamous Pirate Jean Lafitte on the brutal Chalmette Battlefield.
War of 1812 and the British Invasion
Although the Americans claimed their Independence after the Revolutionary War in 1776 against the British, there was an even greater World War being waged between Britain, France, Spain, and the Netherlands. The British, after defeating General Napoleon of France, had their sights on the US again this time using various pressures including trade and territory expansion tactics. On June 18, 1812, the US declared war on Britain and once again, the British were coming. The War of 1812 officially lasted two years from June 18, 1812 to February 18, 1815 and the Battle of New Orleans would mark the last major battle and it would be waged on the Chalmette Battlefield.
From Pirates to Patriots
During this time, the people of New Orleans weren’t officially Americans as most still identified with being part of France and thus saw the War of 1812 as an “American” War. General Andrew Jackson along with his Tennessee militia and regulars had barely arrived in New Orleans on December 2, when shocking news arrived that the British were already on American soil. You can probably imagine Jackson’s horror in figuring out how to fight against an invasion from the most powerful naval force in the world with over 11,000 trained British troops with his force of just a few thousand outgunned and outclassed militia. Jackson needed to swiftly build an army and the unlikeliest allies would come in the form of Pirate Laffite and his Baratarian Pirates.
In a secret meeting, General Jackson and Governor Claiborne (the first governor of Louisiana and former mortal enemy of Pirate Lafitte) met with Pirate Lafitte to discuss an allegiance to save New Orleans from the impending invasion. After some tense negotiations, Pirate Lafitte agreed to help wage war on the condition that his Baratarian pirates, some who were imprisoned, would be released and pardoned of all crimes…Jackson agreed. On December 23, 1814, General Jackson’s new army strode through the streets of New Orleans and what a sight it was. The “Army” consisted of about 4,700 troops who were of every race and class imaginable including the Baratarian Pirates who just earlier were feared by citizens as thieves and murderers. Some of the soldiers were also called “dirty shirts” by the British due to their ragtag uniforms. Not the “Army” that Jackson would have envisioned, but as they marched through the streets, the Pirates would soon become Patriots of New Orleans and none to soon as the British Redcoats were only 9 miles away with over 7,000 trained troops.
Battle of New Orleans and the Fight for Independence!
The British are coming! The British are coming! The British are here…Jackson knew the odds were stacked against him and his men, however he had a few aces up his sleeve. The first being Pirate Lafitte and his Baratarian Pirates. Lafitte, his brother Pierre and their pirates were masters of the swamps and bayous…it was their backyard. British Redcoats, with their bright-red and elaborate uniforms, were highly-skilled, trained in the European customs of war. Redcoats were used to straight lines of formation and organized battle tactics, this was useless in the hostile, chaotic environment of swamps in the Barataria region where British naval forces, ground troops invaded. Jackson’s second ace were his expert sharpshooters of his Tennessee, Mississippi, and Kentucky militia. The Pirates and militia, engaged in an early form of “Guerilla” warfare tactics where the militia, with their “dirty shirt” uniforms, would blend in the bayous while snipers would take out each bright-red Redcoat as they stepped in the dirty bayous.
Jackson and Lafitte’s troops did admirably in fighting off the southern invasion in the Barataria Region, but it was the Chalmette Battlefield that marked the end of the war. Battles were being fought since December 23, however it wasn’t until early January that the fighting would intensify to its bloody conclusion. General Jackson had already withdrew his men to the Rodriguez Canal, a ditch stretching 15 feet wide separating the Chalmette and Macarty Plantations which would become known as the Chalmette Battlefield. The ditch was fortified with a mile-long shoulder-high rampart resting between the Mississippi River below and the almost impenetrable Cypress Swamps above leaving the only option of a head-on attack for the British.
Christmas Day marked the arrival of the commanding British General Sir Edward Pakenham and on January 1, 1815, ordered his artillery to break through the rampart with a head-on assault. Days of fighting ensued, however the British, with their bright-red uniforms were perfect targets for the crack shot Tennessee and Kentucky militia even during evening battles and early morning fog. January 8, 1815 marked the final blood-soaked day of war. General Pakenham, sensing demoralization of his troops and wanting to take advantage of the darkness, sent an all out assault on the rampart in the early morning hours however some of his junior officers forgot to bring ladders and bundles of sticks to scale the ditch. One hour later at 9:30 am, over 2,500 British troops were killed on the bloody-red battlegrounds and stunningly, only 71 Americans perished. Both General Pakenham and his other in command General Keene, were mortally wounded. The war on Chalmette Battlefield was over however unbeknownst to Jackson, the War of 1812 had officially ended on January 8, 1815 when the Treaty of Ghent was signed between the US and Britain. And on that day, General Jackson became a hero and Jean Lafitte and his Pirates became Patriots.
Although most of the glory and attention is focused on Chalmette Battlefield, one cannot forget about Chalmette Cemetery which is located next to the Battlefield. Created in May 1864, this burial ground includes over 15,000 headstones of veterans stretching decades of war. Veterans going back to the Civil War, Spanish-American War, War of 1812, World Wars I and II, and all the way up to the Vietnam War. The national monument is a testament to the sacrifices made by the valiant soldiers and should be a required destination when visiting Chalmette Battlefield. Get Location
Photos by: NOLA4ever