Louisiana’s Lake Borgne I

The Battle of Lake Borgne, Thomas Lyde Hornbrook

The War of 1812 had become the War of 1814 and, admist a chill, mid-December dawn, Lieutenant Thomas ap Catesby Jones must have braced his feet against the gently swaying deck of his gunboat flagship as he surveyed his nutshell command—four other tiny gunboats and one miniature tender—which he had just deployed across the entrance to Louisiana’s Lake Borgne.

In the distance, a swarm of ship’s boats, gigs, barges, and pinnaces inched toward his own miniscule flotilla. Obviously British, they were patently bent on doing the American formation grievous harm, and young Tom Jones had served in the gunboat navy far too long to have been anything but apprehensive about the outcome of the impending battle. Moreover, he had only to reread his orders to remind himself that Commodore Daniel T. Patterson—U.S. naval commander at New Orleans and Jones’ immediate superior—didn’t think much of his chances either.

Those orders had told Jones to notify General Andrew Jackson promptly of the enemy’s approach. Then, if threatened by attack, Jones was to retire to the Rigolets, the narrow channel that connects Lake Borgne and Lake Pontchartrain, where he was to engage the enemy and fight him “to the last extremity.”

Through a raised long glass, Jones could clearly see his oncoming foe: a broad line of boats, now not more than six miles distant, at least 40 of them, strung out from north to south in a rough line abreast. Such a force would pit perhaps half a hundred British guns and a thousand men against his own 23 guns and 182 men. Moreover, a fickle wind and contrary current had already played havoc with his chances.

His squadron was anchored, all right, and he was prepared to fight to that last, painful extremity—but Jones and his men were not off the Rigolets. Wind and tide had conspired to select quite a different battle site, much further to the east—the entrance to Lake Borgne. There, unable to retreat further when the unpredictable wind gave way to a flat calm, a trapped and angry Jones had stationed his little gunboats to await the impending attack.

One can safely assume that, as he paced the deck of his flagship, Jones cursed the fast-moving current tearing at the moorings of his little fleet. Under its influence, two gunboats—his flagship included—had dragged their anchors some distance across the Lake’s silted bottom before finally fetching up in decent holding ground. Set well to the eastward, both boats were now far out ahead of the planned north-south line. Jones found himself furthest east and, therefore, in the most exposed and dangerous position.

A glance off to the southeast was all that was necessary to follow the movements of his tender Alligator. Really nothing more than a fishing smack, the tiny ship carried but one ineffective four-pounder and a crew of only eight. She was obviously straining to rejoin Jones’ flotilla and, just as obviously, the squadron of barges despatched by Captain Nicholas Lockyer—HMS Sophia’s commanding officer was leading the British attack force—would succeed in cutting her off.

Smoke from the Alligator’s gun blossomed in the still and humid air, the shots falling harmlessly clear of the hard-rowing British. Unscathed, they pressed relentlessly on, rapidly closing the distance to the little tender. Easily visible from Jones’ vantage point, they drew nearer and nearer. Then they were alongside and, quite suddenly, it was all over.

Sailing Master Richard Sheppard, his command surrounded by half a dozen well-armed and heavily manned barges—some almost as large as the Alligator herself—bowed to the inevitable and struck his colors. Jones could only watch in helpless frustration as the American flag fluttered down, the British swarmed aboard, and the victorious division of English small boats headed back to rejoin the waiting main force. As soon as the Alligator’s conquerors took up their stations again, the long line resumed its slow, laborious approach.

If Jones continued to stare at the Alligator—the little ex-fisherman had won momentary fame when she carried Jones’ warning of the enemy arrival to Jackson—despair surely must have engulfed him as she hoisted the Union Jack and became the second American ship to be forcibly separated from his command.

With the small schooner Sea Horse already a charred skeleton at Bay St. Louis—fired and scuttled by her own crew to prevent capture—and the Alligator now in British hands, Jones found his squadron reduced to five small gunboats, moored in an irregular line across the entrance to Lake Borgne. At this point, his watch read just 9:30 and the odds against him, long from the outset, were growing longer with each passing minute.

He could be forgiven if, once again, he cursed the racing current. His only small comfort was in knowing that it was bedeviling the oncoming British as well as his own waiting sailors. And bedevil them it did.

Across the open stretch of water, weary and sweating English tars pulled at long ash sweeps, heavy as lead now after 36 hours of backbreaking progress over the 60 miles of Mississippi Sound which separated Jones from the anchored British fleet. With the Americans in clear view at last, the miserable current cancelled one stroke in every three as the English struggled to close the Yankee cockleshells. Always impartial, the elements played out their decisive role in the battle.

Then, surprisingly, the line of small boats rippled to a halt, grapnels arcing overboard to splash into the blue-green water, dripping oars flashing in the mid-morning sun as they were boated. Anchored just beyond gunshot, the methodical British were taking time out for a pre-battle breakfast and a much needed rest.

While the English sailors paused to recoup their strength, Lieutenant Jones had time to recall the events leading up to his predicament, including his own role in readying the fleet of gunboats with which he must now defend the maritime approaches to New Orleans.

The appearance of the British small-boat flotilla in Mississippi Sound came as no great surprise to him. News that an invasion fleet was in the Sound had reached him four days earlier, when two gunboats he had sent out as scouts returned to report many British sail in Ship Island Pass just south of Old Biloxi. That report ended weeks of uncertainty over where the English would strike following their devastating foray up and down Chesapeake Bay.

When the British—following their burning of Washington in August and after being repulsed at Fort McHenry in September—left the Virginia Capes astern and pointed their ships southeastwards toward the Caribbean, speculation spread like an angry rash along the length of the American coast. Rumor put them in a dozen different places at once. From a hundred separate sources, conflicting intelligence reports poured in and, as they accumulated, it gradually became clear that the Gulf Coast would be the next British objective.

Certainly, almost everyone who lived in the area sensed that the blow would fall somewhere along their 500 miles of exposed Gulf coastline. In particular, most of the 20,000 inhabitants of New Orleans accepted their city as the prime target. Indolent French creoles, aristocratic Spaniards, adventurous Americans, rascals of all nations, milled around and argued about when, not where, the attack would take place.

There was, however, one vitally important doubter. Convinced the target would be further east, Andrew Jackson ignored New Orleans, deployed his army of Tennessee and Kentucky militiamen around Mobile, and demanded that Commodore Patterson order his miniature navy there posthaste to lend a hand. But Dan Patterson—a small, chunky, intense naval officer serving his second tour in command of New Orleans Naval Station—disagreed with Jackson’s strategic assessment and, despite Old Hickory’s vociferous objections, refused to move any of his small naval force away from the Crescent City.

Patterson could decline Jackson’s request, of course, because he was not under Old Hickory’s military command. As agreed by the Secretaries of the Army and the Navy, forces would be “coordinated,” but there would be no supreme commander at New Orleans.

Then the British, through an extraordinarily bad bit of judgment, obligingly spotlighted New Orleans as their goal. But because this critical piece of intelligence came from Jean Lafitte, the infamous corsair, it met with something less than universal acceptance.

In attempting to recruit that pirate to their cause, the English committed their first major blunder of the campaign. For when Captain Lockyer—who would later lead the British small-boat assault on Lake Borgne—brought His Britannic Majesty’s Sloop Sophia to anchor off Grand Pass at Lafitte’s stronghold, Barataria, he carried an interesting, but unnecessarily informative, packet of documents for Lafitte.

First, there was a letter from Colonel Edward Nicholls who, for the moment, was in charge of a small British-organized guerrilla force working up in West Florida. The letter disclosed English designs on Louisiana, hence on New Orleans, and with offers of land and wealth to be awarded after the American defeat, entreated Lafitte and his pirates to join in the assault. But, with true carrot and stick psychology, Lockyer’s package also contained a proclamation from Captain William H. Percy—senior British officer then in the Gulf—threatening destruction of Barataria if the corsairs failed to cooperate.

Lafitte weighed the several alternates available to him and chose the one option which the British evidently believed to be remote: he decided to gamble by offering the information to the Americans in exchange for a general amnesty covering both himself and his men. After composing an explanatory letter, he enclosed the English documents and sent the bundle off to New Orleans.

The City’s reaction dumbfounded Lafitte. While some people believed him—mainly those eminent citizens who regularly journeyed out to Barataria for the bargain-priced and customs-free products of Lafitte’s piratical raids against Gulf shipping—others did not. And heading up the nonbelievers were a few people whose influential voices made the critical difference. Foremost among them was Commodore Dan Patterson, mental scars from imprisonment by Tripolitan pirates still influencing his outlook. He disputed the authenticity of everything Lafitte had sent and derisively questioned the sanity of those who believed the word of any pirate.

Assailed by his own doubts, beset with conflicting advice from all sides, Louisiana’s Governor William Claiborne wavered. He was strongly influenced by his long-standing feud with Lafitte—the Governor had once offered $500 for the pirate’s capture, to which Lafitte had responded with a contemptuous counter offer of $5,000 for Claiborne—and he tended to side with Patterson.

The Governor finally ended his procrastination by forwarding the documents to Jackson. He was most careful to hedge his own views of their validity, though, leaving Old Hickory to make his own decision. Then, despite a nagging uncertainty, Claiborne sided with the anti-Lafitte faction: he approved Commodore Patterson’s oft-pressed but long-delayed plans to raid Barataria and, thereby, to put an end to piratical sorties against shipping in the Gulf of Mexico.

Patterson’s motives are, in part, still obscure. On the one hand, his stubborn refusal to heed Jackson’s demands for naval support at Mobile seemingly proves that, in private, he had made up his mind before Lafitte’s letter ever reached New Orleans. On 2 September 1814, while Jean Lafitte was still debating whether to send the British papers to Claiborne, the Commodore was busy writing to Jackson telling him why no naval forces would be sent to Mobile.

Patterson turned Jackson down because he expected the British, using Seminole Indians as vanguard and cover, to move first to Mobile Bay and, thence, on to their main objective, New Orleans. Informing Jackson that ships drawing as much as 15 feet of water could cross the bar at the Bay’s entrance and operate so widely within the Bay that his sluggish little gunboats would be slaughtered, the Commodore flatly refused to send them. Rather than uselessly sacrifice them off Mobile or have them bottled up and impotent as the city itself—thus serving neither Mobile nor New Orleans—Patterson had recalled all gunboats to New Orleans in July and was not now about to send them back. Nor was he about to trust a buccaneer’s professed loyalty. Above all, he refused to place any faith in Lafitte’s value as an ally. To Dan Patterson, the best course of action seemed to be to eliminate the pirate and then concentrate on the anticipated English assault. Once Claiborne consented to the attack, Patterson moved swiftly to implement it.

Without warning, on 11 October 1814, he swept in past Grande Terre Island with a force of gunboats—the same ones that would defend Lake Borgne in a little more than two months—fell on the astonished corsairs, and put Barataria out of business for good. Jean Lafitte had his answer, final and unpalatable though it was.

With Lafitte out of the way, Patterson was now free to devote his full attention to the defense of New Orleans. There were only two invasion routes open to the English, and the Commodore knew them both. One entered the broad delta of the Mississippi and ran northward past easily defended river bends to the city, while the other led across Lake Borgne, then snaked through myriad lakes and bayous to the Crescent City.

If the British commander chose the river approach, Patterson knew he would have the word before the first ship reached Old Fort Bourbon, half a hundred miles below the city. On the other hand, an attack through Lake Borgne would be quite a different matter since, with a little luck, the Redcoats could reach the city’s back door before anyone would know they were ashore. To guard the Borgne route—he personally considered it to be the more likely of the two—Patterson ordered Lieutenant Jones to the Lake with seven tiny ships: five gunboats, a tender, and a small sloop.

When Patterson wrote those orders, he obviously expected the wind to favor Jones, permitting him to maneuver his squadron, and allowing him to fall back on the Rigolets when Jones judged it to be necessary. Even so, the Commodore clearly thought that Jones would be able to do little more than delay the British before, running out of sea-room, he would be forced to stand and “fight to the last extremity.”

As for Jackson, not until late November did he finally decide that New Orleans was the main British objective. To be sure, there was some justification for his obstinate belief in Mobile as the real target. Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane had recommended such a strategy to the Admiralty as far back as June, but their Lordships disagreed and, when they issued Cochrane his instructions for the Gulf campaign, they directed him:

First, to obtain command of the embouchre [mouth] of the Mississippi, so as to deprive the back settlements of America of their communications with the sea; and, secondly, to occupy some important and valuable posession, by restoration of which the conditions of peace might be improved, or which we might be entitled to exact the cession of, as the price of peace.

Once Old Hickory did accept the mounting evidence of the Admiralty’s real aims and trained his sights on New Orleans, he moved with alacrity. Hastily ordering a series of forced marches, he headed for the city with the vanguard of his army—Tennessee and Kentucky volunteers—arriving there on the second of December. Despite his rapid movement, however, Jackson’s stubbornness had already cost him invaluable time. And on 2 December, it was not at all clear that he would be able to make it up.

Little more than a week later, as the leading elements of the English fleet stood in toward the coast, Jackson’s army was still straggling into New Orleans, and preparations for the city’s defense had hardly begun. During the next few but crucial days, all that really stood between the British amphibious task force and Canal Street was the slowly gathering strength of a disorganized militia, trying to pass as an army—and a handful of Jeffersonian gunboats officered and manned by 182 determined American sailors.

While Cochrane assembled his attacking force and Jackson scrambled to erect some sort of defense around the city, Jones battled fog, wind, and tide on Lake Borgne, trying to piece together the enemy’s movements and to figure out his intentions. Though the British arrival failed to take him by surprise, the swift and continuing English buildup, along with the eventual size of their invasion fleet, came as something of a shock.

Lieutenant Isaac McKeever and Sailing Master Ulrich, scouting Mississippi Sound as ordered, made the first sighting on 8 December. Encountering HMS Sophia, Seahorse, and Armide just completing their inland waterway transit from Pensacola, the Americans fired a few ineffectual shots, then fled westward looking for Jones. But three small ships did not an invasion fleet make, and the youthful American commander decided to sit tight for the moment to await further developments and more definitive intelligence.