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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Pirates helped win the decisive battle in a war that had already ended

Illustration for article titled Pirates helped win the decisive battle in a war that had already ended
Image: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

We explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 6,000,157-week series, Wiki Wormhole.


This week’s entry: Battle Of New Orleans

What it’s about: The decisive battle of a meaningless war that was already over. The War Of 1812 is mostly remembered for two things: The first is that the war was a stalemate between Britain, who were trying to reclaim their lost colonies, and the fledgling U.S. of A., defending their honor as a new country, with one eye on taking Canada. Neither side succeeded, although the Brits did burn Buffalo and storm Washington D.C. The Americans didn’t gain the upper hand until the second thing: a battle that was fought while, unbeknownst to the participants, a peace treaty has already been signed thousands of miles away.

Biggest controversy: That the battle even took place had to be controversial at the time. Peace talks had begun in August of 1814, but British War Secretary Henry Bathurst, privately worried the talks would fail, sent secret orders to Major General Sir Edward Pakenham to continue fighting and to press every advantage. While most of the Britain’s war effort had been based out of Canada, attacking from the south made some sense. New Orleans was a key port, and lightly defended. The British Navy had sixty ships in the Gulf of Mexico; five American ships defended the Crescent City, and it had no defensive fortifications. A naval assault seemed like it would be easy.

Strangest fact: It wasn’t. Jean Lafitte, a French pirate who had been marauding in the Caribbean, and had previously refused an offer to join the British side, took it upon himself to round up a pirate fleet to defend the city. (Lafitte was probably motivated less by patriotism than the thought that if the British won, their far more powerful navy would be patrolling the waters, while he and his fellow pirates were able to operate comfortably under less-strict American control).

Brevet Major General Andrew Jackson was also marching south with just over 2,000 men, outmanned and outgunned by the 14,450 British soldiers and sailors set to take the city. But Jackson attracted some powerful (and some unlikely) allies: By the time the British arrived, he had nearly 5,000 men, drawing from the Army, Navy, Marines, four states’ militias, local Choctaw warriors, and Lafitte’s pirates.

Thing we were happiest to learn: Jackson’s ragtag band of misfits beat the rich kids from the other side of the 3,000-mile-wide lake. The general had earthworks built to defend the city and protect newly-installed artillery batteries. The two sides exchanged artillery fire, and the British actually broke through the American line at one end, but Pakenham was unaware of this, so he waited to assemble his entire force, and ran them up the middle.


Nothing went Pakenham’s way. A canal the British built to get boats into the Mississippi collapsed. Heavy fog rolled in as the British attack began, but dispersed just in time to expose the troops to American artillery fire, which killed or wounded most of the British officers. Those that survived realized they had forgotten the ladders and fascines (a bundle of wood used as a makeshift bridge across soggy terrain) needed to cross the Americans’ own canal and scale the earthworks. By the time they realized their mistake, Jackson’s infantry arrived and began mowing down British soldiers. Two failed assaults by the Brits saw Pakenham and his second-in-command dead. The third-in-command, Major Wilkinson, led another charge up the embankments, and died for his trouble, but not before impressing the American soldiers with his bravery. Finally, the general leading the rear guard sounded the retreat. By the Americans’ official count, the British lost 2,084 men—285 dead, 1,265 wounded, 484 captured (most pretended to be dead and surrendered after the battle). The American side lost only 13 dead, 30 wounded, and 19 captured or missing.

Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Native Americans fought on both sides, but they all ultimately suffered the same fate. As with most conflicts in early American history, rival Native American factions were recruited by both sides. The Choctaw were loyal to the U.S., the Hitchiti to Britain. Among the Choctaw serving alongside General Jackson was Brigadier General Pushmataha Mushulatubbee, universally praised as the “greatest of all Choctaw chiefs.” The Choctaw nation spread across Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida, but just sixteen years after the battle, now-President Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, forcing tens of thousands of indigenous people off of their land and onto the poor farmland of Oklahoma. The Choctaw were the first to go. The Hitichi—who had already been pushed out of Georgia and into Florida—followed a few years later, where they integrated into the Creek Confederacy, although they’ve been able to maintain their language and culture to this day.


Also noteworthy: Jackson’s fame in the Battle Of New Orleans more or less led directly to his election to the U.S. Senate and then the White House. But Lafitte, the pirate captain, made it to the big screen. Cecil B. DeMille directed The Buccaneer in 1938, in which Fredric March plays Lafitte as a swashbuckling hero. Twenty years later, DeMille produced a remake of his own film. Recovering from a heart attack (and in what would be the last year of his life), DeMille asked son-in-law Anthony Quinn, who had played a supporting role in the original, to direct. Yul Brynner played Lafitte, and Charlton Heston played Jackson. DeMille wasn’t happy with the result, critics panned the film, and Quinn never returned to the director’s chair. Heston was probably worried about being typecast; he had previously played Jackson in 1953 biopic The President’s Lady.

Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: There’s plenty to read about New Orleans, given that the city is richer in culture and history than just about anywhere in America. But one small subject worth reading up on is Lake Pontchartrain. The brackish estuary that forms the city’s northern border became a household name when its banks overflowed during 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, and nearly destroyed the city. While New Orleans has rebuilt and rebounded in the wake of the disaster, experts worry it could take 25 years to rebuild the Pontchartrain levees strong enough to withstand a Category 5 Hurricane. In the meantime, the estuary’s habitats are threatened by rising sea levels, and conservationists are pushing for extensive wetland management to protect the waterway.


Further Down the Wormhole: We can’t stop talking about pirates. Buccaneers weren’t uncommon in the Gulf Of Mexico in the early 1800s, but one of the most notorious, Spanish plunderer José Gaspar, never actually existed. His story changed from one telling to the next, whether he was a sailor who led a mutiny, or a nobleman framed by a jilted lover who turns to a life of crime. But all agreed that he was the terror of the Spanish Main, who fought alongside Lafitte, hid a huge pile of treasure, had a private island for the women he captured, and walked the plank rather than surrender. Of course, none of that actually happened, and we’d expect no less from the history of Florida, which wouldn’t be complete without a few Florida Man stories, real and imagined. Some small bits of that history have been preserved through the years by time capsules, sealed containers that allow our forebears to send artifacts of their era into an unknown future. On March 2 of this year, we’ll open the Yahoo! Time Capsule, giving us a glimpse into the far-off world… of 2006. We’ll take a look at that long-forgotten bygone era next week.

Host of the podcast Why Is This Not a Movie? His sixth book, The Planets Are Very, Very, Very Far Away is due in fall 2021. He tells people he lives in New York, but he really lives in New Jersey.