THE CONTROVERSY ON LAFITTE'S BIOGRAPHY
Read before the Louisiana Historical Society, February 24, 1920, by Mr. Caspar Cusachs.
At the last meeting of the Society a biographical sketch of Lafitte, the Louisiana pirate, taken from De Bow's Review, (October 1851), was read before the Society. In the following review a controversy arose. The author, a literary Louisianian, having died before it appeared, De Bow published the criticisms and contradictions. We think it is due to our members who attended the lecture of the first sketch to reproduce the contradictions hereafter cited. The Philadelphia Bulletin published an article asserting that Lafitte returned to his native land, with his American wife, and died there. In Louisiana Pierre Lafitte, the devoted brother of the famous Jean Lafitte, who was domiciled at his blacksmith shop on St. Anne street, was said to have been married, but Jean Lafitte, the hero of as many romances as of daring feats, was never known to have been tied down to one wife, though he was tender hearted where the fair sex was concerned.
Professor Ingraham had written a life of Lafitte, previous to 1851. This work, in two volumes, was considered highly and the Professor thought it incumbent on him to take up the matter. His letter and De Bow's editorial note preceding it will follow:
The History of Lafitte*
"We cannot refrain from extracting from the Philadelphia Bulletin the following, which seems to shed further light upon the history of this remarkable personage. It will be perceived that the writer expresses the belief that he could obtain other and more satisfactory data from the family of Lafitte, now living in their native province. We trust that he will do so and that eventually we shall be enabled to sift out the facts from the multitudes of fictions which in regard to him have gained currency and credit. Though there was a good deal of romance mixed up in the sketch that we published last October, which was from the pen of a gentleman now deceased, several of the statements in it which were controverted are being corroborated from other sources.
"Circumstances made us acquainted at one period of our life with the real facts of Lafitte's history, verified in a manner that left no loop hole for falsehood to creep in. Since then, we have read most of the novels that have been written respecting him, and greater libels were probably never penned, for they represent Lafitte either as a romantic hero, or as a human fiend, when, in fact, he was neither. On the contrary, he was a man who had been goaded by great wrongs to seek revenge, which he did in that wild Arab way which so often characterizes seamen, and which is nourished in the blood, partly by the loneliness of the sea, and partly by a life free from the conv entionalities of cilization. For a true sailor has, as Hermenn Melville says, a spice of the wild morality of the desert, and is, as it were, the Bedouin of the great deep.
"Jean Lafitte was born on the Garonne, and not at Marseilles, and was, from his very boyhood, accustomed to the ocean, for belonged to a family which, for many generations, had furnished some of the most skilful seamen and daring privateersmen of Baydnne. In the great war of the French Revolution, when the commerce of his native province was almost destroyed, he embarked as lieutenant on board a private armed vessel, which, after running a brilliant career, was finally captured by a superior force and carried into an English port. Here Lafitte, with the other officers and crew, was cast into prison. Time passed; his captain, his brother lieutenants, the common men even, obtained freedom—but Lafitte himself remained a prisoner. His friends, however, and relatives were active in trying to procure his discharge. Several times were prisoners of equal rank sent into English ports, through the agency of his old captain, in order to be exchanged for him, but it was not until many long years had passed that Lafitte found himself free. This long detention raised in him an almost savage thirst for vengeance against England, and on his release, he returned immediately to privateering, principally for the harm he might thus do to English ships.
"The pacification of Europe after the treaty of Fontainbleau deprived him of the means of legally carrying on his revenge. But long years of solitary brooding in prison, and night watches after on the lonely sea, had destroyed to a great extent, his reverence for human laws; he had, in a word, become an Arab at heart. He determined accordingly to continue his career. Yet he refrained from attacking any but English vessels, since it was only against England that he sought revenge. His relations in France, heard of his course with inexpressible pain, and remonstrated with him earnestly, especially one who had been a sort of guardian in his youth, and who 102
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now expostulated with him almost with tears. But Lafitte was inexorable. At least his early friend called in the aid of religion, and reminded the erring man of the awful destiny he was preparing for
himself in eternity. The reply was characteristic: 'If I do go to ,'
wrote Lafitte savagely, 'I will drag plenty of Englishmen with me.' His relatives, aware of how great had been the provocation, could say no more. But, from that hour, for many long years, the name of the wandering outlaw ceased to be spoken in the household of his fathers; and children in whom ran blood kindred to his own grew up to manhood ignorant of his very existence.
"The subsequent career of Lafitte is well known. Though he committed acts of piracy only on British vessels, he paid no regard to the revenue laws of any nation. For a long period he had under him quite a considerable force at the Island of Barataria. But his early education, which had been strict, asserted its power at last; old memories were reawakened, and he sighed to return again to civilized life, to lay down the brand of the pirate, to pass his days in quiet. The volcano of passion or insanity, for it was as much the last as the first, had burned out in that fiery heart. He made his peace with the United States, as is popularly known, just before the battle of New Orleans. Subsequently he returned to his native land, where he died not many years ago. His wife, whom he married in America, is still living, or was, at the time we heard of the narrative we have given.
"We should have to violate the sanctity of private life, if our authority was to be given. At the time we heard of the history of Lafitte, we were told the name of his old captain, of the privateer in which he was captured, and many other facts which we have since forgotten. We regret that we did not take these details down in writing. We could possess ourselves of them, however, in a month or two, for his relatives still live in their native province; and perhaps we may do this yet."
From Pontotoc, Mississippi, came the following letter:
"In common with the readers of the 'Review,' I have noticed with lively interest, the controversy which has sprung up in relation to the fact of the celebrated Lafitte's identity, and the still more important, and to Americans, still more interesting fact of his participation in the battle of New Orleans. This is a matter about which there should be no conflict of history. Lafitte was there, or he was not there. History should assert either the one fact or the Controversy on Lafitte's Biography
other with entire certainty. And without presuming on my own part to determine the point affirmatively or negatively, I will communicate the following incident, merely as a matter of evidence to give conviction or confirmation to the opinion of others. The fact to which I allude was communicated to me in private conversation by the late Robert L. Cobb, Esq., of Columbia, Tennessee. Here a question may be suggested as to who Robert L. Cobb was? This question may be very easily and satisfactorily solved. Robert L. Cobb in the early part of his life was a physician, and at the time of the battle of New Orleans, was surgeon to one of the regiments which composed General Coffee's brigade. He was a scientific, skilful and meritorious gentleman in that department. After the war of 1812 he prepared himself for the bar and located in Columbia, Tennessee, where he died some years since. As a lawyer he was learned, able and gifted, and for many years he had an extensive and lucrative practice, while as a man of integrity, probity and honor, no man ever stood higher in that intelligent and public spirited community. But to the incident— It is this: 'A short time previous to the battle of New Orleans, General Coffee's brigade was stationed at Fort Adams, which was not, I think, far from the vicinity of Baton Rouge, in Louisiana. And while there, they were greatly destitute of the necessary military stores such as hats, shoes, blankets, and comfortable clothing of every description. While in that condition, General Coffee, from some source or other, received information that one or more of Lafitte's 'warehouses' had been discovered among the bayous and passes in the bottom beyond the river from his camp, and that they were filled with such articles as he needed for his soldiers. General Coffee determined that if this information was correct, as Lafitte was then an outlaw, with his hand against all nations, that he would rifle his warehouses and appropriate such articles as he needed for the use of his troops. For the purpose of ascertaining the truth of this information General Coffee ordered Captain Gordon's company of spies—a celebrated company—to leave the camp as secretly as possible, and to go with the individual who brought the information, a guide, and ascertain the truth or the falsity of his statements. This order was given about 11 o'clock A. M., and Gordon's Company left the camp about noon. In the course of about two hours, that is, about 2 o'clock in the afternoon, a runner or messenger came from General Jackson to General Coffee with the information that the British had either appeared on the coast, or had landed, or had driven in the gunboats on the Mississippi—(which I will not pretend to state positively)—that he expected an attack on the city hourly, and that he must hasten with all his available forces to the defense of New Orleans. General Coffee immediately recalled Gordon's spy company, put his brigade in motion, and hastened to General Jackson's assistance.
"During the busy scenes that followed, leading a life of constant activity, excitement and peril, General Coffee soon forgot all about the expedition of Gordon's spies upon Lafitte's warehouses, until it was recalled to his mind afterwards in a very peculiar and significant manner. General Coffee had not been thrown with Lafitte before, nor during the battle of the eighth. But they met at a ball that was given by the citizens of New Orleans to the officers of Jackson's army shortly after the battle was over. Coffee did not arrive at the hall till late and most of the officers of his brigade had preceded him, and were standing about the rooms when he arrived, noticing every object of interest and notoriety which presented itself, 'beautiful women, and brave men, etc., etc.,' Among these objects of interest was the celebrated Lafitte—the 'Baratarian pirate.' Mr. Cobb was standing but a few feet from Lafitte when General Coffee entered, and witnessed an introduction which occurred between them. When Lafitte's name was called, Coffee immediately recollecting that he had been associated with Lafitte's name, in some way or other, in endeavoring to recall the circumstances to his mind paused, and exhibited a good deal of hesitation in his manner. Lafitte, who appeared to be on the alert for slights, noticed this and attributing Coffee's hesitation to a repugnance of recognizing him as a gentleman on account of his previous reputation, immediately drew himself up with haughtiness, and in a hasty manner advanced a step or two, and exclaimed with peculiar emphasis: 'Lafitte, the pirate.' Coffee discovering the error he had committed, advanced to Lafitte and taking him by the hand, apologized for the tardy manner in which he recognized the introduction, and explained the cause of his hesitation.
"This is the incident related to me by Mr. Cobb, as having occurred under his own observation. He related it to me as being true, and I believe him incapable of telling a falsehood about anything. He further informed me that it was as well understood according to his recollection that Lafitte was a participant in the battle of New Orleans as that General Jackson was there. He added: T did not see him in the battle, nor did I see General Jackson in the battle, but I know he was there, so I know that Lafitte was there, and I saw him afterwards.'
"This conversation occurred in Columbia, Tennessee, in the month of January, 1840. He moreover gave me a description of Lafitte's person, but it was by way of comparison with a gentleman then living in Columbia, and as the impression made on my mind as to Lafitte's personal appearance is associated with that individual, the description of Lafitte might in truth turn out to be that of another man, were I to attempt it.
"I have thrown off this letter hastily and crudely, and it is at your disposal. If you think the facts relative and worthy of publication, you can publish it. Individually, I have no wish to appear in print.
"Respect full v,
"W. H. K."
Editorial note preceding Professor Ingraham's letter: "A note with which we have been favored by Professor Ingraham is an amusing comment upon the controversy which has sprung up in regard to this traditional and historical personage, about whom we suffered ourselves to be put out of temper, though upon our word of honor, we never cared a pinch of snuff whether his reputation were that of a pirate or a pedlar. We simply published in the first instance a graphic, though highly embellished sketch, which was furnished us by a literary gentleman of Louisiana, the correctness of which we said was vouched for, using his own language, by a number of authorities who were set forth. Every one could Weigh the value of these authorities, and the paper was published as every editor in the Union is accustomed to publish, upon its own merits. What has restored our good humor, however, is that we observed in the columns of the very journal, which called us so severely, and, as we think ungenerously, to task, in classing ours among 'other fictitious works,' and italicizing its claims to veracity before even the ink of the criticism had dried, a notice under the editorial head most nattering in its terms and associating the Review in rank and 'scientific' position with 'Silliman's journal,'—certainly one of the most veracious journals in America. This opinion of our labors, corresponding with a great many others from the same source, for which we have always entertained the most grateful feelings, we try to flatter ourselves comes from the heart; though the other is quite disagreeable enough upon the old principle, to be nearer the truth. The Delta has gained laurels enough in its own short career, (and none more than ourselves have rejoiced over them), to leave a few for its 106
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neighbors. Even the 'PIRATE' Lafitte—we ask pardon of his memory, whilst we dismiss him,—cannot rob us of these."
"Aberdeen, Miss., September 1, 1852. "That Lafitte was ever a 'blacksmith' I cannot in justice to my taste in the slection of a hero, for a moment entertain the idea. The romantic young ladies who have fallen in love with him, and the amateur juvenile buccaneers, who have admired him as a darling corsair, would never forgive me, should it prove so. It is not to be questioned that there have been very clever blacksmiths, citizens good and true, and our own day has produced a learned blacksmith. There is Vulcan also, who has doubtless done much to ennoble the profession; but as modern heroes of romance do not usually
'On thundering anvils ring their loud alarm, And puffing low the roaring bellows blow,'
I must beg leave to protest against Captain Lafitte being biographed into a blacksmith! To exchange his picturesque costume for a leathern apron; that Damascus blade for a rusty iron hammer, those 'jewelled fingers' for sooty fists; that dark flowing plume for unkempt locks,
'With cinders thick besprint;'
his quarter-deck for the mud floor of a forge; and the
'Glad waters of the dark blue sea,'
for a cooling trough; and all the buccaneering splendor of his aristocratic person for
'Sinewy arms and shoulders bare,' His ponderous hammer lifting high in air; While bathed in sweat from forge to forge he flies, Mid sulphurous smoke that blackens all the skies!'
I must positively protest against smutting the fair fame of the pirate of the Gulf by admitting for a moment he possibility of such a thing. A blacksmith! the hero of the Mexique seas, a blacksmith! Two volumes of sentiment, rose colored at that, thrown away upon a shoer of horses and peradventure of asses. Not even Vulcan's fame, God though he were, nor Venus' smiles celestial as she watches her sooty lord forging thunderbolts, not even the fact that he was the son of Jupiter and the brother of Neptune, the god of the sea, on which Lafitte achieved his romantic name, can induce me to consent Controversy on Lafitte's Biography
for a moment that this chivalrous and very gentlemanly pirate should be a blacksmith down to posterity. What would become of all the romances that make him the fighting Adonis of the seas. We shall next learn that Ivanhoe was a tailor, the Red Rover a cobbler, that the 'last of the Mohicans' sold old clothes. We should handle these two volumed novel heroes, especially nautical gentlemen, my dear Mr. De Bow, with the softest doe-skin encased fingers.
"But to reply more seriously to your inquiry: I have every reason to believe Lafitte to have been, if not gentle born, well born, and educated with some degree of refinement. At this late day I cannot furnish you with very authentic information that would serve as data for a faithful biographical memoir. Seventeen years ago I gathered from various sources, from persons who knew Lafitte well, and from others many facts which I wove into the fabric of my romance. Since then other facts have been related to me, all of which have led me to the conclusion that he was an intelligent man, brave and chivalrous, with the bearing and amenities that distinguished the courteous Creole,—and a Creole he was, undoubtedly, by birth and education. He first prominently made himself known by certain smuggling operations, by which he introduced rich freights into New Orleans, furtively conveyed from the Gulf through bayous. In these enterprises he was aided by the means of merchants who in a few years were enriched by this unlawful commerce. When at length M. Lafitte, who was in their confidence, and had also made great gains, learned that he was watched and that efforts were being made to entrap him into the custody of the law, he abandoned this perilous pursuit, and with his two or three small vessels lent his aid to one of the struggling republics of the Spanish main. Success in arms seems to have rendered him bolder and more ambitious, for in the following year we hear of him actually buccaneering on the coast of Texas, and carrying on a system of spollation,—respecting no flag that came into his power. Some depredations upon the coastwise navigation of Louisiana drew down from General Claiborne a proclamation upon him, appended to which was a large reward promised for his head.
"Such, so far as I could ever obtain it, is the outline of his career up to the beginning of our war with Great Britain; and this outline I filled out in the novel, with the usual free creations of the romancer's pen. Although authentic enough, for fiction, it wants the rigid verification a biography calls for.
"At the time the war broke out, (1812-1815), Lafitte had his rendezvous at Barataria, a picturesque bay on the Gulf coast, less than fifteen leagues from New Orleans. His sympathies were enlisted on the side of the Americans, and it is a matter of well authenticated history that when the English Commander would have bribed them to conduct them by the secret avenues of the bayous to the city, he refused their bribes of gold and naval rank with disdain; and in the face of the proclamation for his head hanging over him, he presented himself before Governor Claiborne and volunteered his arms, vessels, and men in the service of his native State.
"That he was in the battle of New Orleans, as asserted by you, and served one or more guns with his crews, there can be no question. I have had pointed out to me on the field the very spot on which he was posted, it having been close to the river, on the extreme right of the American line. The account in the novel is faithful to the narrative of his conduct there as told to me. If you have at hand a copy of Marbois' History of Louisiana or Latour's, you will in one, or perhaps both of them, find a correspondence between Governor Claiborne and President Madison, in which the fact of his presence in the battle and his gallantry in maintaining his position, is not only stated, but is, I think, advanced as good ground for the clemency of the Executive. But it is so many years since I have thought of the subject that I have quite forgotten where I found many of my facts made use of in the novel; and it is barely possible I may be incorrect in referring you to Marbois, as I have no copy by me to verify my reference. Col. Chotard, of Natchez, commanded in the defence of New Orleans a troop of Mississippi horse, the only cavalry, I believe, in the battle. A letter to him would no doubt elicit what knowledge he possesses on this point. Governor Poindexter of Louisivlle, was also in the action as aide to General Jackson. Either of these gentlemen could give certain information touching Lafitte's presence at the lines on that day.
"That there were two brothers is probable, though questionable; yet, that there were others of the name is quite likely, as it is by no means an unusual name, either in the south, or in France. There is but one Lafitte, however, who has any romantic or historical interest at all associated with his career; and this personage is the veritable Baratarian chief, known as the 'Pirate of the Gulf,' the velvet capped, sabre armed, lofty browed, glossy locked, chiselled lipped, tender, sentimental, courteous, throat-cutting Lafitte. Whatsoever harmonizes not with the chivalrous character of this Baratarian hero and salt-sea gentleman should be set down to the credit of his obscure namesake to whom you allude, and the events of whose life you conjecture have crossed and mingled with those of the true romance man. This personage may have been his brother, for aught that I know, and also have been a learned or unlearned blacksmith, and like old Vulcan, have forged his more warlike brother's cutlasses and cannon. A sword has been presented to me by a gentleman of New Orleans, Duncan Hennen, Esq., which was taken from Lafitte at the time of his capture; and if one might venture an opinion from the rude, massive, cleaver-like fashion in which it is made, it was doubtless fabricated by this leather aproned brother—a first effort unquestionably on the anvil-beating brother's smithy skill. Moreover, a six-pounder, which once belonged to Lafitte, was a few years since presented to me by a friend as a trifling souvenir of my hero. It has such a very fierce bull-dog look about the muzzle and so rough a coat that I have set it down as a first effort at rough casting of the hypothetical brother aforesaid. Mr. Tooke, who ought to know, says in his Pantheon, that immortal English classic, how that Vulcan wrought a trident for his brother Neptune. Why then should not Lafitte, the junior, cast a cannon or forge a two handed iron sword for his brother?
"Had I now at hand all the alleged facts I once collected in relation to Lafitte, I could not offer them to you as authentic, not regarding them as sufficiently genuine material for a faithful memoir. I found in my researches, twenty years ago, romantic legends so interwoven with facts that it was extremely difficult to separate the historical from the traditional. I am very sure that the same cause will make it impossible to arrive at the truth of his life. His only biographer at last must be the romancer!
"There is to be found in Mr. Timothy Flint's History of the Valley of the Mississippi, a chapter, the perusal of which suggested to me the idea of writing the novel of Lafitte. I enclose a copy of the chapter. Mr. Flint was contemporary with Lafitte, was a keen hunter of testimonies and is to be regarded as good an authority touching him as any one now to be found. He says, in brief space, all that I believe can be said with certainty respecting him; and he asserts, as you will perceive on reading this extract, that he was at the battle of New Orleans.
"A curious instance of the strange mixture of magnanimity and ferocity often found among the semi-savages of the borders, was afforded by the Louisianian, Lafitte. This desperado had placed himself at the head of a band of outlaws from all nations under heaven, and fixed his abode upon the top of an impregnable rock,* 110
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to the southwest of the mouth of the Mississippi. Under the colors of the South American patriots, they pirated at pleasure every vessel that came in their way, and smuggled their booty up the secret creeks of the Mississippi, with a dexterity that baffled all the efforts of justice. The depredations of these outlaws, or as they styled themselves, Barritarians, (from Barrita, their island), becoming at length intolerable, the United States government despatched an armed force against their little Tripoli. The establishment was broken up and the pirates dispersed. But Lafitte again collected his outlaws and took possession' of his rock. The attention of the Congress being then diverted by the war, he scoured the gulf at his pleasure, and so tormented the coasting traders, that Governor Claiborne of Louisiana, set a price on his head. This daring outlaw, thus confronted by the American government, appeared likely to promote the designs of its enemies. He was known to possess the clue to all the secret windings and entrances of the many mouthed Mississippi; and in the projected attack upon New Orleans it was deemed expedient to secure his assistance. The British officer then heading the forces landed at Pensacola for the invasion of Louisiana, opened a treaty with the Barritarian to whom he offered such rewards as were best calculated to tempt his cupidity and flatter his ambition. The outlaw affected to relish the proposal; but having artfully drawn
from Colonel N the plan of his intended attack, he spurned his
offer with the most contemptuous disdain, and instantly dispatched one of his most trustworthy corsairs to the Governor, who had set a price for his life, advising him of the intentions of the enemy and volunteering the aid of his little band, on the single condition that an amnesty should be granted for their past offences, Governor Claiborne, though touched by this proof of magnanimity, hesitated to close with the offer. The corsair kept himself in readiness for the expected summons and continued to spy and report the motions of the enemy. As danger became more urgent and the steady generosity of the outlaw more assured, Governor Claiborne granted to him and his followers life and pardon and called them to the defence of the city.
"They obeyed with alacrity and served with a valor, fidelity, and good conduct not surpassed by the best volunteers of the republic."—("Timothy Flint's Valley of the Mississippi.")
Controversy on Lafitte's Biography
"The close of Lafitte's adventurous life is involved in an obscurity as profound as that which envelops his early days, and doubtless
'A corsair's name he'll bear to other times,'
whatever be the result of the researches now so diligently being made into his early history and subsequent career.
"J. H. INGRAHAM."
"J. D. B. De Bow, Esq."