In celebration of the city’s Tricentennial, NolaVie and New Orleans Historical bring you the series Who Did it Better: New Orleans Then and Now. In it, we look at aspects of the city’s history and their parallels in the present. Today we go to The Battle of New Orleans, in a segment we call Pirates and Nuns.
It won’t be your usual New Orleans costume party. When re-enactors gather at Chalmette Battlefield this weekend to celebrate the Battle of New Orleans, they will be keeping it real, right down to the last gold epaulet and Springfield musket, which, in its day, could fire three shots per minute.
The event will capture the diversity and individuality of present-day New Orleanians, too, who still like to dress up. You’ll see all kinds of characters, since Major General Andrew Jackson’s army in 1815 was an unlikely mix of state militias, Native Americans, free people of color, and real pirates. He had to have a translator on hand when he addressed his troops, because so many of them spoke only French. And even the characters offstage weren’t your usual military advisors: He got a little divine intervention from the Ursuline nuns.
But first, a quick historical recap. The Battle of New Orleans took place on January 8, 1815. The badly outnumbered American defenders overwhelmed an army of 10,000 seasoned British troops in a fight that took place five miles downriver in Chalmette. The British hoped to take control of the lower Mississippi River in this final skirmish of the War of 1812 – one that, ironically, took place after the Treaty of Ghent had officially ended the war. Communication was a little slower in those days.
Anyway, had the outcome been different, we might all be speaking with British accents. But Jackson won, and went on to become our 7th president, while Pakenham was killed in the fray, and his body shipped home in a barrel of rum.
As with any good New Orleans story, we like to applaud the more unlikely heroes. So here are a few details about those pirates and nuns.
Privateers Jean and Pierre Lafitte and their men operated on the wrong side of the law in the years before the battle. Legend has it that the Lafitte Blacksmith shop in the French Quarter served as a front for their ill-gotten goods, and in 1814 a $1000 bounty was put on Pierre Lafitte’s head after he escaped from the local jail.
But later that year, the brothers managed to remediate their reputations. British officials had asked them to serve as allies and guides for the upcoming battle. Instead, Jean Lafitte reported the offer to the American authorities, and volunteered to join Jackson. “I am the stray sheep, wishing to return to the sheepfold,” he wrote to Louisiana governor William C.C. Claiborne.
At first Jackson wasn’t so thrilled, calling Lafitte “a hellish banditti.” But he reconsidered because of the pirates’ much-needed weapons and knowledge of the area. In late 1814, Jackson met with the Lafitte brothers to strategize the Americans’ defense. Where they met remains a matter of contention: The second floor at Maspero’s Exchange on Chartres Street or a secret room at Absinthe House on Bourbon? Both claimed the distinction. They still do.
There is no doubt, however, that the pirates’ participation helped turn the tide of the battle. Jackson was so impressed with the artillery skills of pirate Dominique You that he said: “I wish I had fifty such guns on this line, with five hundred such devils as those fellows.”
On Feb. 6, 1815, President James Madison granted Jean Lafitte and his Baratarians full pardons for past crimes due to their role in the defense of New Orleans. That made them one of the city’s first, if not last, scoundrels turned heroes.
Equally uncommon assistance to the American effort came from the Ursuline nuns. On the night before the big battle, they placed their wooden statue of Our Lady of Prompt Succor above their chapel entrance. There, all night long, the Ursuline sisters and New Orleans citizens prayed.
The Mother Superior vowed to hold an annual Mass of Thanksgiving in honor of Our Lady of Prompt Succor if the Americans were spared loss of life. They were still at prayer on January 8 when a courier arrived at the church and made a dramatic entrance, proclaiming that General Jackson was victorious. And that plea for sparing lives? The Americans had just 71 casualties, with 13 dead, the British lost 13 men, while the British had more than 2500, with 700 dead.
The Ursuline nuns kept their promise, and a Mass of Thanksgiving celebrating the American victory has been held ever since. Jackson and his staff attended the first one, at St. Louis Cathedral, with hundreds of people packed inside the church and thousands standing outside.
Nowadays, the annual Jan. 8 thanksgiving mass is held at the National Shrine of Our Lady of Prompt Succor on State Street, where the original statue of our Our Lady resides these days. The Chalmette Battlefield is now part of the National Park Service’s Jean Lafitte National Park and Preserve.
Our thanks go to the University of New Orleans history department and Mary Ann Wegmann of the Louisiana State Museum for research used in this piece.