In 1812, the United States was a bit more than a generation old, having finally wrested itself from control of Great Britain in 1782. Meanwhile, Great Britain was again at war with France (in fact, they’d spent at least 226 full years between 1066 and 1812 at war with France,) but since the outbreak of the War of 1812, Britain had instituted a naval blockade to choke off neutral trade to France, an act which President Madison considered a violation of international law. Further, to man the blockade, Britain forcibly impressed* American merchant sailors into the Royal Navy. This enraged the American public, as did British political support for a creating a large, “neutral” Native American state that would cover much of Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan by allying themselves with the Indian Confederacy, under Shawnee chief Tecumseh. Many warriors, left their tribes to follow Tecumseh’s brother, Tenskwatawa, the Shawnee medicine man, who had a vision of purifying his society by expelling the “children of the Evil Spirit”, that is, the American settlers.
* Kidnapping sailors to fight as part of the crew of the enemy. Generally applied to the Royal Navy
On June 18, 1812, President Madison had enough. He signed the American declaration of war into law.
After a couple of defeats the fortunes of the Americans turned around, and in the Battle of Lake Erie (1813,) Tecumseh was killed and the Indian Confederation fell apart. From then it was a matter of time, although in 1814, British raiders set fire to the White House. Diminutive first lady Dolley Madison remained as long as possible, tossing priceless relics into a waiting wagon before being driven to safety. Less than a day after the attack began, a sudden, very heavy thunderstorm put out the fires.
After that, England, facing problems at home, lost interest, although fighting was to continue for a few more months. Peace negotiations began in August, 1814, and the Treaty of Ghent was signed on December 24 later that year.
However, because of the glacial state of communications at the time, news of the peace wouldn’t reach America for some time, and unaware that the treaty had been signed, British forces, on Dec 15, 1814, launched an invasion of Louisiana, hoping to capture control of the Mississippi River.
Defense of the New Orleans area was given to Gen Andy Jackson. Jackson declared martial law in New Orleans and ordered that every available weapon and able-bodied man be brought to bear in the city’s defense. His force soon grew into a 4,500-strong patchwork of army regulars, frontier militiamen, free blacks, New Orleans aristocrats and Choctaw tribesmen. Facing them were almost 9000 members of the British army.
Jean LaFitte was a French buccaneer who carried out legal raids on Spanish ships under authorization from Columbian government officials in Cartagena, thus making him a privateer. By 1809, he and his brother, Pierre, had established a blacksmith shop in New Orleans that reportedly served as a depot for smuggled goods and slaves brought ashore by other bands of privateers. From 1810 to 1814 this group probably the nucleus for Laffite’s illicit colony on the secluded islands of Barataria Bay south of the city. Laffite’s group preyed on Spanish commerce, illegally disposing of its plunder through merchant connections on the mainland.
Because Barataria Bay was an important approach to New Orleans, the British offered Laffite $30,000 and a captaincy in its Royal Navy for his allegiance. Laffite pretended to cooperate, then warned Louisiana officials of New Orleans’ peril. They didn’t believe him. Still protesting his loyalty to the U.S., Laffite next offered aid to the hard-pressed forces of Gen. Andrew Jackson in defense of New Orleans if he and his men could be granted a full pardon. Jackson accepted, and in the Battle of New Orleans (December 1814–January 1815) the Baratarians, as Laffite and his men came to be known, fought with distinction. Jackson personally commended Laffite as “one of the ablest men” of the battle, and Pres. James Madison issued a public proclamation of pardon for the group.
After the war the pirate chief returned to his old ways, and in 1817, with nearly 1,000 followers, he organized a commune called Campeche on the island site of the future city of Galveston, Texas, where he served briefly as governor in 1819. From this depot he continued his privateering against the Spanish, and his men were commonly acknowledged as pirates. When several of his lieutenants attacked U.S. ships in 1820, official pressure was brought to bear on the operation. As a consequence, the following year Laffite suddenly picked a crew to man his favorite vessel, “The Pride,” burned the town, and sailed away.
In February 1823, Lafitte was cruising off the town of Omoa, Honduras on his schooner General Santander. Omoa was the site of the largest Spanish fort in Central America, built to guard the Spanish silver shipments from the mines of Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras. On the night of February 4 Lafitte decided to go after what he thought were two Spanish merchant vessels . The night was was cloudy with low visibility, and the Spanish ships turned out to be heavily armed warships who immediately returned fire.
Wounded in the battle, Lafitte is believed to have died just after dawn on February 5. He was buried at sea in the Gulf of Honduras.
An interesting sidenote: For several years, Louisiana governor Wm. Claiborne tried to capture Lafitte, eventually offering a $500 reward for Lafitte’s head. When he saw the reward poster, Lafitte immediate had a poster of his own printed offering $5000 for the governor’s head. Neither ever collected.