Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Jean Lafitte: Gentleman Pirate Of New Orleans


"A hero cannot be hero unless in an heroic world."

Nathaniel Hawthorne

Celebration animated New Orleans block by block as a rider galloped street by street crying "Victory is ours! The city is saved!" The bells of St. Louis Cathedral pealed, siege guns around town roared a throaty amen. Women and children who had cowered all night in the darkness of their homes, listening to the far-off cannonfire, fearing invasion and the loss of their men, now emerged into the daylight shouting, weeping, cheering. From the balconies over the streets they waved the American flag. Wives of the soldiers were given transport to the battlefield to see if their husbands still breathed. The nuns in the Ursuline Convent, who had prayed all night before Our Lady of Prompt Succor, lifted their voices in the "Te Deum," the hymn of jubilation. Mts. Claiborne and Mrs. Grymes headed a committee of women who brought medicines, gauze, blankets and food.

British casualties were enormous 2,600 corpses lay on the narrow field. Jackson, who had lost only thirteen men, begged the British to allow his troops to assist in the removal of the bodies, a favor that was gratefully accepted. Jean Lafitte, who had returned from the battlefield across the river by early evening, helped tend to two of his own privateers who had caught English shrapnel.

The next several days saw sporadic gunfire, but the British Army had had the heart cut out of it. "The English soldiers had met a type of fighting that was different from anything they had ever seen before," writes Robert Tallant, "and they had no defenses against it." By the morning of the 19th, scouts reported that the Redcoats had completely disappeared from the area and were heading back to the bay. Jackson pursued, but after capturing only eight straggling soldiers, decided to call it quits. The British sailed away never to bother American shores again.

A curious footnote to this episode in history: The Battle of New Orleans was actually fought after an armistice had been signed overseas; virtually, the War of 1812 had been over nearly a month, but means of communication lacking in those days, the players in Louisiana's southern bayous had not yet been informed. Still, this fact doesn't diminish the bravery of the Americans who saved New Orleans. Had the British broken through that day, they would have burned the city to the ground. Nor does it take away from the fact that many Englishmen died in vain.

A Grand Celebration and Ball was held on January 23 to honor the victors. A mammoth flag hung over the ballroom read JACKSON AND VICTORY! THEY ARE BUT ONE! On the dance floor were many curious sights that night, among them Andy Jackson reeling with his wife Rachel (she had been brought in from their home in Tennessee) to the popular "Possum Up a Gum Tree" and Dominique Youx, drunk, tantalizing and in his pirate's garb, demonstrating a mazurka. Jean Lafitte, as usual, was a "lion among the ladies," to quote Lyle Saxon. One uncomfortable moment came when Governor Claiborne introduced his wife to Lafitte. She blinked her eyes, thought a moment, and blurted, "But you're Monsieur Clement!" remembering the time he had used the alias at the dinner party. But, the strangest tableau was that of the King of Corsairs and the governor laughing together in a corner about the respective warrants they had issued on each other's heads.

For their heroism, Jackson had delightedly fulfilled his promise to see that the Lafittes and their brigands were exonerated of all criminal charges. Of Jean's and Pierre's efforts, he wrote Washington of their "courage and fidelity," praising as well the "gallantry" of Dominique Youx and Beluche. Due to Jackson's support, President Madison soon issued a proclamation granting a full pardon to Lafitte and his Baratarians, restoring to them the full rights of citizenship.

Before Jackson departed New Orleans, he wrote Lafitte a personal letter: "I do an act of justice, and at the same time one very agreeable to my feelings to state the services you have rendered during the late invasion of your country...Sir, to one of those to whom the country is most indebted, I feel great pleasure in giving this testimony of your worth, and to add the sincere promise of my private friendship and high esteem." It was a testimony Lafitte would always cherish.

Throughout the year1815, Lafitte came and went at will, much as he had done before, but now without a price on his head. He was even seen dining with Claiborne. Citizens clamored around him wherever he went, pointing him out, applauding him when he entered a public place. Children told their parents they wanted to be a hero like Jean Lafitte when they grew up. He continued to attend the quadroon balls and was often seen in the arms of a lovely at the theatre and emporiums. But, civil life was not for him. Most of his comrades had returned to Barataria as simple fishermen and there were very few in town he could drink with man-to-man, hurrahing the old days and relive the salt of the sea, the tropical nights, even in memory. The gentility of high society proved far too tame. He grew bored.

Lafitte wanted his ships and provisions restored. Attorney Grymes, acting on his behalf, insisted to the government that it open its warehouse doors and return the "private property" to the Hero of New Orleans. While the government agreed, yes, it was grateful for Lafitte's devotion, it contended that the contraband had been taken from Barataria when Lafitte was still a pirate. Lafitte felt rejected by a country he served, bitterness seeded. When eight of his ships were put on the auction block, he was forced to buy them back.

Now the public began wondering: WHY? Why did he want the ships? Why did he make many trips down to Barataria? Why was he beginning to invest large amounts of money to re-fit his vessels? Why was he acting like he wanted so badly to return to sea? Upper-crust New Orleans began turning its back; maybe he was nothing but a pirate after all. What hurt him most of all was discovering how many people really felt that perhaps he fought the Battle of New Orleans just so to get his ships and booty back.

Rumors grew ugly. When a government auction was held to sell off some of the trinkets and wares taken from his Grande Terre warehouse, a set of jewelry of a unique kind was found among the stock. The pieces seemed to match those of a wealthy and popular Creole woman who had taken a voyage to France several years back, was supposed to return, but completely disappeared. Lafitte grew angry at the gossip. He had never touched a ship belonging to the United States!

Then he remembered. There was that one time that one time! one of his lieutenants had disobeyed him and sunk an American ship. He had hanged the transgressor as a stark warning to others, but had kept the plunder concealed in his island warehouse.

How to defend himself now? he asked. He loved America had fought for it chanced dying for it but these latest whisperings had penetrated his shell to even make him begin to wonder. Maybe he was, after all, nothing more than a pirate. In 1817, Jean Lafitte left New Orleans for the last time.