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A Pirate and a General Joined Forces on the Battlefield

One man has ammunition and gunpowder hidden all over the swamps. The other has barely stepped foot in a swamp.

One man has an arrest warrant out for him from the U.S. Government. The other was sent to New Orleans by the U.S. Government.

One man is bribed by the British to help capture New Orleans. The other is trying to figure out how to thwart it.

A movie? A crime thriller? Nope, just a sliver of American history: An unlikely collaboration between a rogue(ish) French pirate, John Lafitte, and General Andrew Jackson to save New Orleans—and ultimately a young American democracy—from the British.

The War of 1812 supposedly ended December 24, 1814 with the signing of the Treaty of Ghent in Belgium, though it wouldn’t be official until Congress ratified it (which would take until February). In the meantime, thousands of miles away, the Brits kept up attacks and plans for Mississippi River access just in case America took the peace process for granted. If the British captured New Orleans they could easily move up into the rest of Louisiana, and maybe even more of the United States.

The idea to enlist help from the pirates of Barataria—Lafitte and his men—to take New Orleans first came from the British. Lafitte, though a Frenchman by birth, was surprisingly loyal to America. Shortly after a meeting with the British, he sent a letter to U.S. officials outlining the invasion plan. The Americans didn’t believe his supposed loyalty. He was an outlaw, after all.

Eventually, Lafitte ended up at Jackson’s New Orleans headquarters on Royal Street, wooing him with much needed ammunition and gunpowder as well as trained cannoneers and swamp guides. A partnership formed. The men would spend Christmas 1814 together and New Year’s, too, battling the Redcoats.

Reeling from the impact of brutal holiday skirmishes, both sides regrouped on opposite sides of the Rodriguez Canal (which divided the Chalmette and McCarty plantations), seven miles south of the city. Dawn was breaking on January 8, 1815 as British forces moved toward the Americans—subtly, of course, with drums, bugles, and flags. American artillery quickly broke up the neat British infantry lines moving across the field.

Within 25 minutes, the British Army had lost their entire officer corps and America had proven that a patchwork army could take down soldiers of an age-old empire. Maybe, just maybe, this young democracy was going to work out after all.

The Chalmette Battlefield, part of the Jean Lafitte National Park and Preserve, is accessible by car or the Creole Queen as part of a riverboat cruise. Walk what’s left of the canal and ramparts that initially divided opposing forces. Visit the cemetery and learn more about the men who died there. See what historians have to say about the War of 1812 and how the Battle for New Orleans might ultimately have been a battle for our country’s democratic experiment.

By the way, President James Madison later pardoned all the pirates of Barataria, including Lafitte, for any earlier crimes.

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