Ahoy Mateys, gather ‘round for the tale of a scallywag named Jean Lafitte who demonstrated that one man can take down an army with some ingenuity, wit, and iron-clad will power.
Jean Lafitte was the name, and pirating was the game. Born around 1780 in France, by age 25 Lafitte was operating a warehouse in New Orleans, Louisiana to distribute goods smuggled by his brother Pierre. By 1810 the operation was moved to an island in Barataria Bay, Louisiana following the U.S Embargo Act of 1807, and had become quite the successful venture. Since Lafitte and his brother were auctioning off stolen goods they had no overhead and thus could charge less than competing merchants could. This practice was good for making money, but bad for making friends. At this point, most of the merchants were like ‘these dudes need to gtfo’.
Based on an account against Pierre Lafitte, he was indicted by a grand jury and arrested, tried, convicted, and jailed for “having knowingly and wittingly aided and assisted, procured, commanded, counselled, and advised persons to commit acts of piracy”. Who was the person who gave an account against Lafitte? Well, one of the city’s leading merchants of course. Surprise, surprise.
So now Pierre is in jail and Jean is operating their piracy/smuggling business solo. During this time the British have increased their patrols of the Gulf of Mexico and have established a base at Pensacola. On September 3, 1814 the British ship HMS Sophie fired on a pirate ship, which turned out to be the worst move they could have made. After waving a white flag in defeat, British Captains Nicholas Lockyer and John McWilliam met with Lafitte to deliver him a package. This package contained 2 things:
- A letter with the seal of King George III offering Lafitte and his men British citizenship and land grants if they helped the British fight the Americans (War of 1812) and return any property that had been looted from Spanish ships (an allie of England at the time). If Lafitte didn’t agree, the British would destroy his operation.
- A letter from Lieutenant Colonel Edward Nicholls telling him that this is a good deal and he should take it.
Lafitte, the crafty man, told the British that he needed 15 days to mull this offer over. In reality, he flipped around and told the Americans that the British gave him this offer and he wanted to help the U.S win the war. Was he doing this out of the kindness of his own heart? No, no, he was a pirate don’t forget! Lafitte believed that the U.S would win the war and was confident that he could defeat the U.S. more easily than he could the Brits. He also knew the Americans were planning to invade his operation to prevent him from siding with England and he was trying to show them that he was not their enemy. Ah, that makes more sense. He also reminded them that his brother was in jail and should be released, Pierre coincidentally “escaped” shortly after.
Counterintuitively, the Americans responded by invading Lafitte’s compound and seizing his men, ships, and stolen goods. Unsurprisingly, Lafitte himself escaped safely. The Louisiana Governor Claiborne realized that they messed up with the invasion. He wrote to future President Andrew Jackson claiming that the capture of Lafitte’s ships destroyed a potential first line of defense against the British. Jackson himself traveled to New Orleans and discovered that this was indeed the case. The city barely had any defenses, and the ones that they had were not equipped to fend off our cousins from across the pond. Realizing this, Jackson met with Lafitte to potentially broker a deal for his men to arm the ships that the Americans had seized. Ever the businessman, Lafitte agreed to help defend the city as long as his men that served be fully pardoned by the United States. Not willing to let this golden opportunity slip through his fingers, Jackson agreed. With Lafittes and his men’s help, the U.S defeated the British who were better equipped in nearly every way (not the first time *cough* Revolutionary War *cough*). Much like running into your significant other cheating on you at a restaurant, the Brits were repulsed to see Lafitte and his men on America’s arm. After the British were swatted down, Jackson thanked the Lafitte brothers for their courage and fidelity and fully pardoned them and their men. The Brits that Lafitte screwed sulked away with their tail between their legs, probably feeling pretty stupid that they attacked New Orleans unneccesarily since peace had already been reached.
Sources/Where to head to learn more:
Jean Lafitte on Wikipedia
The War of 1812 on History.com
Jean Lafitte on American Battlefield Trust
Searching for Lafitte the Pirate on New Orleans French Quarter Website