An offer to Help
As the War of 1812 intensified, it garnered the attention of everyone
in New Orleans. Even the feud between Claiborne and the Lafittes moved
Prior to this development, the region had felt
comfortably detached from the early battles and developments of the war.
After all, Louisiana was a long way from the Great Lakes region of the
United States’ border with Canada — where the fighting began.
What’s more, since Louisiana didn’t become a state until 1812, it’s been
said that many of its residents did not yet feel a strong enough bond
with the citizens of other far-away states to take the war personally.
But when the British soldiers took control of Washington, D.C., in
August 1814, and burned the White House, the people of New Orleans were
abruptly shaken into reality. The war’s focus soon moved squarely toward
their city because the British figured they could stop much of America’s
North/South trade and control the country’s western frontier by taking
New Orleans and then sailing their ships up the Mississippi River.
Barataria was an important approach to this influential port city, and
the British were well aware of this. They offered Jean Lafitte a
large sum of money and a captaincy in the Royal Navy for his allegiance.
Although he continued to tussle with Governor Claiborne, who considered
him nothing more than a scoundrel, Lafitte felt an undeniable allegiance
United States. He spurned the Redcoats’ offer. He then sent a
letter to Claiborne stating his loyalty to America and his willingness
to fight for her. In his correspondence, he also requested that the
governor cease harassing him and his men.
Claiborne received the
letter with skepticism. His advisors were split over a proper course of
action, but he decided against accepting Lafitte’s offer. Furthermore,
he sent the warship Carolina and several accompanying vessels to
Barataria to destroy what the privateer referred to as his “kingdom by
Fires were set and residences were destroyed. Most of the
inhabitants were forced to retreat deep into the swamp. The date was
Sept. 16, 1814. Lafitte was deeply hurt, but he told his men that
he still believed in the American ideals of freedom and justice under
law. He also felt his predicament was
Claiborne’s doing — not that of the entire nation. So, he turned to
rebuilding his empire and biding his time.
Lafitte saw his patient hope rewarded when the federal government
sent General Jackson to New Orleans on Dec. 2 to command the city’s
military defenses in the face of an imminent British attack.
Jackson, Lafitte saw a man who was frank and honest. And somehow the
swashbuckler managed to meet the general in person in mid-December and
gain his trust.
Knowing Jackson was short on fighting men as well as
munitions, Lafitte proposed his 1,000 men — plus flints, gunpowder,
rifles and axes. He told Jackson that he and his men were willing to
fight for America as free men.
Lafitte has been quoted as saying, “For
a pardon for me and my Baratarians, we will help you send the enemy to
hell. That is my promise.”
Jackson accepted his terms. According to
many observers, the two men became friends and mutual admirers from that
While Claiborne and Lafitte never warmed to each other,
Marshal Duplessis soon found himself on Lafitte’s side, even though he
had spent so much time
previously trying to arrest the renegade.
Lafitte returned to Barataria to prepare his men for battle.
Meanwhile, Jackson organized a defense strategy to use against the
All policing and civil matters were now under Jackson’s authority,
and the general declared the city to be under martial law and he
enforced a curfew on
the citizenry. Marshal Duplessis fell in line but Governor Claiborne was
less subordinate since he formally held the position of commander in
chief of the state’s militia.
Jackson’s authority was supreme. In one
instance, a district judge objected to his edict of martial law, so the
general arrested him and threw him out of town. This landed Jackson in
hot water many years later.
The southern coastal waters were now reportedly brimming with English
warships. To better monitor enemy forces, Claiborne and Duplessis
traveled to Pensacola, Fla., 210 miles east of New Orleans, where they
witnessed the British naval contingent performing maneuvers off the
coast and preparing for
It is here that the marshal proved invaluable to Jackson. He
strongly sensed that it wouldn’t be long before the British attacked New
Orleans. Wanting Jackson to receive this intelligence first-hand
and as quickly as possible, Duplessis used his Creole connections to
send a four-page letter to Jackson dated October 17, 1814.
He forwarded the letter at great professional risk because he did not
Claiborne of his actions. He recognized Jackson’s authority over
the governor and he didn’t want his information to get bogged down in
regular government channels.
Claiborne, on the other hand, still
adhered to normal procedures when sending intelligence to key New
Orleans decision makers, as if there was no martial law.
“The governor was bound by the many-tentacled grip of diplomacy, but
the marshal was under no such competing pressures,” Turk said. “My
Duplessis saw this as the utmost national concern so In his
correspondence to Jackson, Duplessis noted the need for several shore
defenses, and he suggested several areas that he believed were prone to
Once back in New Orleans, the marshal continued to aid the
general. Jackson still did not have the complete cooperation of all the
city’s officials, so the work of Duplessis and several others was
crucial to his command.
“Although such moves created tension with the
courts, Duplessis carried Jackson’s orders between a patchwork system of
military veterans and citizens,” Turk said.
For his efforts, Duplessis
was complimented by Jackson in the general’s report to Secretary of War
John Armstrong in late December, 1814. Wrote
All my officers in the line did their duty, and I have every
reason to be satisfied with the whole of my staff ... Captain Reid,
my other aid, and Messrs. Livingston, Duplessis and Davezac, who had
volunteered their services, faced danger wherever it was to be met,
and carried out my orders with the utmost promptitude.
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