The End of The Pirates
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New Orleans emerged from the smoke of battle rather the tardy news of peace, which had been sealed at Ghent more than a fortnight before the battle. With peace came open ports. The highways of commercial greatness crossed each other in the custom-house, not behind it as in Spanish or embargo days, and the Baratarians were no longer esteemed a public necessity. Scattered, used, and pardoned, they passed into eclipse-not total, but fatally dark where they most desired to shine. The ill-founded tradition that the Lafittes were never seen after the battle of New Orleans had thus a figurative reality.
In Jackson’s general order of January 21st, Captains Dominique and Beluche, “with part of their former crew,” were gratefully mentioned for their gallantry in the field, and the brothers Lafitte for “the same courage and fidelity.” On these laurels Dominique You rested and settled down to quiet life in New Orleans, enjoying the vulgar admiration which is given to the survivor of lawless adventures. It may seem superfluous to add that he became a leader in ward politics.
In the spring of 1815, Jackson, for certain imprisonments of men who boldly opposed the severity of his prolonged dictatorship in New Orleans, was forced at length to regard the decrees of court. It was then that the “hellish banditti,” turned “Jacksonites,” did their last swaggering in the fatuous Exchange Coffee-house, at the corner of St. Louis and Chartres Streets, and when he was fined $1,000 for contempt of court, aided in drawing his carriage by hand through the streets.
Of Beluche or of Pierre Lafitte little or nothing more is known. But John Lafitte continued to have a record. After the city’s deliverance a ball was given to officers of the army. General Coffee was present. So, too, was Lafitte. On their being brought together and introduced, the General showed some Hesitation of manner, whereupon the testy Baratarian advanced haughtily and said, with emphasis, “Lafitte, the pirate.” Thus, unconsciously, it may be, he foretold that part of his life which still lay in the future.
That future belongs properly to the history of Texas. Galveston Island had early been one of Lafitte’s stations, and now became his permanent depot, whence he carried on extensive operations, contraband and piratical. His principal cruiser was the Jupiter. She sailed under a Texan commission. Under the filibuster Long, who ruled at Nacogdoches, Lafitte became Governor of Galveston.
An American ship was robbed of a quantity of specie on the high seas. Shortly afterward the Jupiter came into Galveston with a similar quantity on board. A United States cruiser accordingly was sent to lay off the coast, and watch her manoeuvres. Lafitte took offence at this, and sent to the American commander to demand explanation. His letter, marked with more haughtiness, as well as with more ill-concealed cunning than his earlier correspondence with the British and Americans, was not answered.
In 1818 a storm destroyed four of his fleet. He sent one Lafage to New Orleans, who brought out thence a new schooner of two guns, manned by fifty men. He presently took a prize; but had hardly done so, when he was met by the revenue cutter Alabama, answered her challenge with a broadside, engaged her in a hard battle, and only surrendered after heavy loss. The schooner and prize were carried into Bayou St. John, the crew taken to New Orleans, tried in the United States Court, condemned and executed.
Once more Lafitte took the disguise of a Colombian commission and fitted out three vessels. The naive of one is not known. Another was the General Victoria, and a third the schooner Blank – or, we may venture to spell it Blanque. He coasted westward and southward as far as Sisal, Yucatan, taking several small prizes, and one that was very valuable, a schooner that had been a slaver. Thence he turned toward Cape Antonio, Cuba, and in the open Gulf disclosed to his followers that his Colombian commission had expired.
Forty-one men insisted on leaving him. He removed the guns of the General Victoria, crippled her rigging, and gave her into their hands. They sailed for the Mississippi, and after three weeks arrived there and surrendered to the officers of the customs. The Spanish Consul claimed the vessel, but she was decided to belong to the men who had fitted her out.
Lafitte seems now to have become an open pirate. Villeré, Governor of Louisiana after Claiborne, and the same who had counselled the acceptance of Lafitte’s first overtures in 1819, spoke in no treasured terms of “those men who lately, under the false pretext of serving the cause of the Spanish patriots, scoured the Gulf of Mexico, making its waves groan,” etc. It seems many of them had found homes in New Orleans, making it “the seat of disorders and crimes which he would not attempt to describe.”
The end of this uncommon man is lost in a confusion of improbable traditions. As late as 1822 his name, if not his person, was the terror of the Gulf and the Straits of Florida. But in that year the United States Navy swept those waters with vigor, and presently reduced the perils of the Gulf – for the first time in its history – to the hazard of wind and wave.
A few steps down the central walk of the middle cemetery of those that lie along Claiborne Street from Customhouse down to Conti, on the right-hand side, stands the low, stuccoed tomb of Dominique You. The tablet bears his name surmounted by the emblem of Free Masonry. Some one takes good care of it. An epitaph below proclaims him, in French verse, the “intrepid hero of a hundred battles on land and sea; who, without fear and without reproach, will one day view, unmoved, the destruction of the world.” To this spot, in 1830, he was followed on his way by the Louisiana Legion (city militia), and laid to rest with military honors, at the expense of the town council.
Governor Claiborne left the executive chair in 1816 to represent the State in the United States Senate. His successor was a Creole, the son, as we have seen, of that fiery Villeré who in 1769 had died in Spanish captivity one of the very earliest martyrs to the spirit of American freedom. Claiborne did not live out the year, but in the winter died. In the extreme rear of the old St. Louis cemetery on Basin Street, New Orleans, in an angle of its high brick wall, shut off from the rest of the place by a rude, low fence of cypress palisades, is a narrow piece of unconsecrated ground where the tombs of some of New Orleans’ noblest dead are huddled together in miserable oblivion. Rank weeds and poisonous vines have so choked up the whole place, that there is no way for the foot but over the tops of the tombs, and one who ventures thus, must beware of snakes at every step. In the midst of this spot is the tomb of Eliza Washington Claiborne, the Governor’s first wife, of her child of three years who died the same day as she, and of his secretary, her brother, of twenty-five, who a few months later fell in a duel, the rash victim of insults heaped upon his sister’s husband through the public press. Near by, just within the picketed enclosure, the sexton has been for years making a heap of all manner of grave-yard rubbish, and under that pile of old coffin planks, broken-glass, and crockery, tincans, and rotting evergreens, lie the tomb and the ashes of William Charles Cole Claiborne, Governor of Louisiana.