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By Major A. Lacarriere Latour,
Principal Engineer in the late Seventh Military District, United States Army.
Written originally in French and translated from the manuscript for the author,
by H. P. Nugent, Esq., Philadelphia, 1816
Fort St. Philip is an irregular work, the body a parallelogram. Approaches to it are nearly impracticable, being surrounded by an impassable morass, a ditch, and in addition on the east by the bayou Mardi-Gras, •forty-five yards wide. In the fort were mounted twenty-nine twenty-four pounders, a thirteen-inch mortar, and eight and five-and‑half‑inch howitzer and a six-pounder, and in the covert-way two thirty-two pounders, mounted on a level with the water.
During the summer of 1814, every effort was made by the garrison of Fort St. Philip, consisting of two incomplete companies of artillery, to place that post in the state of defense corresponding with its importance as the key of Louisiana, commanding the passes of the Mississippi. In October, the cannon having been remounted, the gun-carriages repaired, a signal station established •three miles below the Fort, alterations made in some of the batteries so as to afford security to the artillerists in case of an attack and additional works erected to protect the rear of the fort, and the season approaching when an attack from the enemy might be expected, it was suggested that if a battery was placed on the opposite side of the river, thirty‑two-pounders mounted in the covert-way, and a thirteen-inch mortar fixed in the fort, the defense of the pass would then be complete, supposing the old buildings destroyed, and the requisite number of troops, and quantity of ordnance stores, etc., etc., to be furnished.
In the month of November, a Company of Infantry re-enforced the garrison, and about the last of that month the inspector general descended the river to the Balize, and caused a guard to be stationed there.
p144 Early in December Gen. Jackson visited the Fort, and ordered the battery on the opposite side of the river to be immediately commenced, and that the thirty-two pounders and thirteen-inch mortar should be mounted as before mentioned.
The mouth of the river was now more closely blockaded than before, and the guard stationed at the Balize near the bend of the passes was surprised and taken by the boats of the Herald sloop of war. The British at this time daily landed at the Balize, at which place a few of our pilots still remained. A re-enforcement arrived at the garrison of another Company of the 7th Infantry, and a Company of volunteer free men of color.
About the 15th of December, Major Overton of the rifle corps was placed in command, Captain Wollstonecraft, of the Artillery, who had charge of the Post since the month of May, being ordered to New Orleans. On the 17th, the arrival of the enemy in our waters was ascertained, and a few days afterwards the fate of the gun‑boat was known. From the 23rd every effort was made to repel the attack which it was supposed would shortly be made. The interior was disencumbered of the rubbish of the barracks which had been torn down, the main magazine was disguised and secured by a covering of timber and earth, small magazines were erected, and covers made for the troops, as a security from the fragments of shells, should a bombardment take place, and the garrison were constantly on fatigue (under charge of Captain Wollstonecraft, who had been ordered back from New Orleans) for the above purpose, and in mounting the thirty‑two-pounders in the covert-way, and the thirteen-inch mortar on the Spanish bastion, until the 3rd of January. The 24th December, Captain Lagau's Company arrived. The Battery on the opposite side, which was commenced on the 15th December, progressed but slowly, as many of the carpenters, negroes, and the superintendent of artificers, had ascended the river on the first notice of the arrival of the enemy. The cannon intended for that Fort were taken over the river to Fort St. Philip as a place of security, being useless in the then unfinished state of the works. The carpenters having been sent back from the 3rd until the 8th of January, the works on the new battery were carried on with unremitted exertion, and when our look-out boat returned with the information on that day of the approach of the enemy, but a few days more labor were required for the completion of the gun-carriages and the work itself. On the 8th the gun‑boat No. 65 warped into the bayou, and took post so as to flank the rear of the Fort. To prevent the unfinished battery on the opposite side, which we were obliged to p145 abandon, from being of any use to the enemy, every material capable of being removed was brought over the river. Our attention was solely occupied on our defense, and we anxiously awaited the approach of the enemy which was announced to us by signal on the morning of the 9th. About 12 o'clock they hove in sight, when the furnace for hot shot was lighted, and the troops stationed at the posts before assigned to them in case of such an event taking place.
The Signal Station was abandoned about 1 o'clock, and, in the hurry to escape, the guard omitted to fire the buildings and lime-kiln, which they had been ordered to destroy, and at 2 o'clock that position was occupied by the enemy, for a force landed from their vessels.
The garrison was composed of the following companies, viz.:
|Field and Staff||2|
|Captain Wollstonecraft's Artillery||64|
|Detch. of Captain Walsh's Artillery||3|
|Captain Broutin's 7th Regt. Infantry||78|
|Waides's 7th Infantry||85|
|Lagau's Louisiana Volunteers||54|
|Listeau's Free men of colour||30|
making with the crew of gun‑boat No. 65, four hundred and six effective men. A detachment of Lieutenant Cunningham's sailors, under the direction of that officer, had charge of two thirty‑two-pounders mounted in the covert-way. Captain Walsh commanded the right bastion: the centre bastion, on which an eight-inch howitzer and a thirteen-inch mortar were mounted, was commanded by Captain Wollstonecraft; and the left battery was commanded by Captain Murray. The infantry and volunteers not attached to the cannon, were stationed in the rear of the curtain, and otherwise posted under the command of Captain Broutin, so as to be able to support the troops on the batteries, and to act as occasion might require. Captain Lagau's two lieutenants and a party of his Company of Louisiana volunteers were attached to the artillerists on the centre and left batteries. At 3 o'clock the enemy advanced several boats to sound opposite a point •about one mile and a half from the fort, which had been cleared of its timber some time before, by order of the General. The guns of the left battery and those of the water batteries were opened on them and they retreated. Having ascertained the distance to which our shot reached their vessels, consisting of a sloop p146 of war, a gun-brig, a schooner and two bomb-vessels, they came to anchor out of range of our gun shot, at a distance of •3960 yards; the bomb-vessels formed broadside to the fort, behind the point of land, a little in advance of the men of war, hoisted their colours, and commenced the action. The first shell from the enemy fell short, but the next burst over the interior of the fort. All that day and night the firing continued, with only short intervals, generally a shell every two minutes. No injury was done to the men or works, as the shells, from the nature of the soil, sunk in the ground, without bursting, or burst under the ground, at so great a depth as to produce no other effect than a tremulous motion. In the night several boats approached near the Force, and came so close as to allow us almost distinctly to hear their crews conversing. They fired several rounds of grape and round-shot over and into the Fort. The wind blowing fair up the river, and in gusts during the night, this approach of the enemy was only considered as an effort to divert our attention from their vessels, which might attempt to pass under our smoke. Their attack was therefore received in silence, and our attention directed to the vessels alone. Finding we were not to be moved by this stratagem, they retired, and during the rest of the night fired a few shells from their boats stationed on both sides of the river. On the 10th the bombardment was continued with the same vivacity as on the former day, except that a cessation occurred of about two hours at noon and sundown, which respite was daily granted us during the remainder of the siege. Occasionally on these two days a fire was opened from the batteries of the Fort, but the shot fell short. The third day of the bombardment several pieces of shells struck the flag-staff and in one instance nailed the halyards to the mast, in another severed them in the midst of the fire; the topmast was lowered down, and it took nearly an hour to have the flag replaced on the mast. This was done by a sailor who had the courage to stand on the cross-trees, exposed as a mark, and though the fire from the enemy was very brisk and we-directed, and several shells burst over his head, he escaped unhurt. The evening of this day the enemy directed their fire with great exactness at the contractor's store, supposing it to be the main magazine. Several whole shells passed through the building, and two burst in it, killing one man and wounding another; but as their spies had only described the magazine in the state in which it was a few days before the attack commenced, they were deceived; and by making every effort to lodge shells in the before-mentioned building, which had the appearance of the powder-magazine p147 in its former state, the magazine itself escaped, having only been struck two or three times by fragments of shells.
At four this evening the garrison opened an animated fire for a quarter of an hour on the bomb vessels from all the guns that bear on them, but apparently without any other effect than deranging their fire; its served however, to animate our men, showed the quickness and precision with which our guns were pointed and served, and gave a foretaste of what might be expected should the enemy attempt to pass up.
On the 12th, 13th and 14th the firing continued with the usual intervals, doing comparatively little injury; the enemy, probably aware of the inefficiency of their shells when discharged so as to alight whole in the interior of the works, now arranged their fuses, so that the shells burst in the air over the works, and scattered fragments in every direction. The evening of the 14th a man was killed on the right battery, another slightly wounded, a man on the centre battery lost his leg, and several of the gun-carriages were materially injured; on the right and centre batteries, the thirty‑two-pounder in the covert-way, in the angle of the Spanish bastion, was struck five times, and for upwards of an hour was rendered unserviceable. Several shells entered the blacksmith's shop; one burst near the main magazine, and another passed into the ditch through the magazine in the covert-way.
This evening we were employed in carrying into the fort all the timber that we could collect, and in forming covers between the guns, so as effectually to secure the men on the batteries from the fragments of shells, and to shelter them from the rain, which had fallen, with little intermission, from the commencement of the siege. This work was finished on the evening of the 15th, and it is almost incredible that during all this time, though the men were more exposed than before, passing in and out of the Fort in parties, after materials, no one was hurt. At this time the interior of the Fort was nearly a pond of water; the tents stood, many of them, torn by shells, but unoccupied. The small magazines were also strengthened, and an additional quantity of earth thrown on them. This evening several boats arrived, with ammunition from New Orleans, fuses for the thirteen-inch mortars, etc., etc. The 16th was occupied in conveying the powder and ordnance stores from •about a mile above the Fort into the magazine; and the weather being fair, we were comparatively comfortable, and in high spirits, having now the means of annoying the enemy. On the morning of the 17th the fire from the enemy was not as animated as usual; in the p148 evening we returned their fire from our mortars with considerable effect, as far as we were able to judge, and for several hours they threw shells more frequently than before. At night one of our shells struck one of their bomb vessels; we distinctly heard the shock, and for near five minutes the fire from one of the vessels was discontinued. The firing continued during the night of the 17th; several shells were lodged in the parapet; one burst passing through the ditch into the angle of the centre bastion. This was the last shot we received; a little before day the enemy got under way, and at daylight we could perceive the sternmost vessel descending the river.
From three o'clock on the 9th until daylight on the 19th the bombardment continued with very little intermission. During that time the enemy threw more than one thousand shells and carcases, expended upwards of seventy tons of shells, and more than twenty thousand pounds of powder, besides small shells, and round and grape-shot from their boats. During the whole of this bombardment, we lost no more than two men, one of whom was killed on the right battery, and the other in the contractor's store. Our wounded were two men on the right, and three on the centre battery, one in the store, and one in the interior of the garrison.
The troops were on the battery nine days, five days without cover; and exposed to the rain and weather which was extremely cold. They cannot be denied praise for the unremitted exertion they made to receive the enemy, the fatigues they underwent during the bombardment, which was almost incessant, and the patience they exercised thus exposed. Perhaps the duration of the siege would not have been so long had the fuses, sent from the northward, been of a good quality; for several days the mortar, with which only there was any probability of reaching the enemy, was entirely or nearly useless.
From the effects after good fuses arrived (for there were no materials in the garrison to make any) it may perhaps be surmised that the enemy's vessels would have found it unsafe to have remained for so long a time in the station they occupied within range of our shells.
From the day the attack commenced until it concluded, we were constantly employed in preparing grape and canister-shot from bar lead, making up fixed ammunition, repairing gun-carriages, making implements, etc., etc., and we were, in fact, in a much better defense, and better provided when it terminated, than at its commencement.
p149 After the enemy left us we had time to examine the interior, and the ground in the neighborhood of the fort; upwards of one hundred shells had fallen and buried themselves within the fort; the surrounding buildings, workshops, stores, and the hospital, were almost in ruins, and the ground for •half a mile around, was literally torn up in every direction. (See Appendix, No. 34.)
Extract of a letter from Major-General Andrew Jackson, to the Secretary of War, dated Headquarters, Seventh Military District, New Orleans, 17th February, 1815:
I have the honor to enclose you Major Overton's report of the attack of Fort St. Philip, and of the manner in which it was defended. The conduct of that officer and of those who acted under him, merits, I think, great praise. They nailed their own colours to the standard and placed those of the enemy underneath them, determined never to surrender the Fort.
Copy of a letter from Major Overton, commanding Fort St. Philip, during the late bombardment of it, to Major-General Jackson:
Fort St. Philip, January 19th, 1815.
On the 1st of the present month, I received information that the enemy intended passing this Fort to co-operate with their land forces, in the subjugation of Louisiana, and the destruction of the city of New Orleans. To effect this with more facility, they were first with their heavy bomb-vessels to bombard this place into compliance. On the grounds of this information, I turned my attention to the security of my command: I erected small magazines in different parts of the garrison, that if one blew up I could resort to another; built covers for my men to secure them from the explosion of shells, and removed the combustible matter without the work. Early in the day of the 8th instant, I was advised of approach, and on the 9th at a quarter past ten A.M. hove in sight two bomb-vessels, one sloop, one brig, and one schooner; they anchored •two and a quarter miles below. At half past eleven, and at half past twelve they advanced p150 two barges, apparently for the purpose of sounding within •one and a half miles of the fort; at this moment I ordered my water battery, under the command of Lieutenant Cunningham, of the Navy, to open upon them; its well directed shot caused a precipitate retreat. At half past three o'clock P.M. the enemy's bomb-vessels opened their fire from four sea-mortars, two of thirteen inches, two of ten, and to my great mortification I found they were without the effective range of my shot, as many subsequent experiments proved; they continued their fire with little intermission during the 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th, 14th, 15th, 16th, and 17th. I occasionally opened my batteries on them with great vivacity, particularly when they showed a disposition to change their position. On the 17th in the evening, our heavy mortar was said to be in readiness. I ordered that excellent officer, Captain Wollstonecraft, of the Artillerists, who previously had charge of it, to open a fire, which was done with great effect, as the enemy from that moment became disordered, and at daylight on the 18th commenced their retreat, after having thrown upwards of a thousand heavy shells, besides small shells from howitzers, round shot and grape, which he discharged from boats under cover of the night.
Our loss in this affair has been uncommonly small, owing entirely to the great pains that was taken by the different officers to keep their men under cover; as the enemy left scarcely ten feet of this garrison untouched.
The officers and soldiers through this whole affair, although nine days and nights under arms in the different batteries, the consequent fatigue and loss of sleep, have manifested the greatest firmness and most zealous warmth to be at the enemy. To distinguish individuals would be a delicate task as merit was conspicuous every where. Lieutenant Cunningham of the Navy, who commanded my water battery, with his brave crew, evinced the most determined bravery and uncommon activity throughout; and in fact, sir, the only thing to be regretted is that the enemy was too timid to give us an opportunity of destroying him.
I herewith enclose you a list of killed and wounded.
I am sir, very respectfully,
W. H. Overton.
Captain Wollstonecraft's Artillery — Wounded 3.
Captain Murray's Artillery — Killed 2, wounded 1.
Captain Bronten'sº Infantry — Wounded 1.
Captain Wade's Infantry — Wounded 2.
Total, Killed 2; Wounded 7.
With his usual activity, adhering to his constant practice of seeing everything himself, as far as practicable, General Jackson, the second day (Dec. 3, 1814) after his arrival, set out to visit Fort St. Philip, in Plaquemines Parish, and to examine what parts of the river below New Orleans, it might be expedient to fortify. Previously to his departure, he had sent orders to Governor Claiborne to cause all the bayous leading from the ocean into the interior of the country, to be obstructed. This measure had been ordered to be executed along the whole coast, from Attakapas to Chef-Menteur and Manchac.
On visiting Fort St. Philip, the General ordered the demolition of the wooden barracks within the Fort, several additional pieces of Artillery to be mounted on the rampart, and a thirty-two pounder and a mortar in the covered way. He also ordered two batteries to be constructed, the one opposite the Fort on the right bank, on the site of the former Fort Bourbon, and the other •half a mile above the Fort, and on the same bank. These batteries were to be mounted with twenty-four pounders. The latter, in particular, was in a situation extremely advantageous for commanding the river, and could join its fire with that of Fort St. Philip.
On his return to New Orleans, the General ordered me to draw out the necessarily plans for those two batteries, which plans being drawn out and approved by him, the necessary measures were taken for putting into immediate execution. General Jackson proceeded to visit Chef-Menteur, and having gone as far as the confluence of the bayou Sauvage and the river of Chef-Menteur, he ordered the erection of a battery at that point.
In the evening of the 13th of December, Commodore Patterson received information that the naval forces of the enemy at anchor at Ship Island, were increased to thirty sail, of which six were ships of the line; that others were every moment arriving, especially a p152 number of light vessels, calculated for navigating on our coast where there is but little water, and that the enemy appeared to be sounding the passes. The General wrote on the 10th to the Governor of the State, and informed him of his return from visiting the posts down the river as far as Fort St. Philip. In that letter he observes that the river is capable of being well defended, provided suitable batteries be raised on its banks; and that he has fixed on the points on which they ought to be erected. The General proposes to the Governor to call on the patriotism of the members of the legislature, to assist him in the present conjuncture, with all the means in their power. As the works to be raised chiefly consist of earth thrown up, he is of the opinion that it would be best to suggest to the planters the propriety of furnishing their gangs of negroes, to be employed for a certain time in those works. He thinks the importance of the subject worthy the immediate attention of the legislature, who, he hopes, will not delay a moment to furnish means for putting the country in a state of defence, by the erection of the fortifications contemplated. These, when completed, the General thinks, will secure the river against the attacks of the enemy; but not a moment, says he, is to be lost in perfecting the defence of the Mississippi. With vigour, energy, and expedition, all is safe; delay may lose all.
The General concludes by requesting the Governor to let him know, as soon as possible, what the legislature is disposed to do to assist him in erecting the fortifications; he instances as a bright example, what has been done in New York. In case the legislature should not be able to realize the expectations he has conceived from their patriotism, the General wishes to know it, that he may make arrangements according to the means he possesses, for the defence of the country.
On the 14th of December, Governor Claiborne addressed a circular letter to the inhabitants of the parishes Plaquemines, St. Bernard, St. Charles, and St. John the Baptist, informing them of a resolution passed by the legislature, requiring the Governor to call upon the inhabitants of such parishes as he might think proper, to send all such male negroes as they could dispose of to Fort St. Charles, or to the English Turn, to be thence sent to the different points that might be judged proper to be fortified, there to work on the fortifications. The Governor in his circular letter, makes known to the inhabitants, that the State is in danger; that the enemy is in considerable force on our Coast; and that his movements indicate a disposition to land. He concludes by expressing his reliance on the patriotism of the inhabitants, and his hopes that in the hour of peril, p153 the voice of Government will be listened to and respected by every good citizen.
The Barataria smugglers entered service as artillery. Others enlisted in one or other of the three companies of mariners, raised by Captains Songis, Lagaud, and Colson. The first of these companies was sent to the Fort of Petites Coquilles, the second to that of St. Philip, and the third to Bayou St. John.
a This document is both more and less than the title gives one to think. Less, since what is excerpted here hardly covers all the military events in Louisiana in 1814‑1815, but merely those connected with Fort St. Philip. More, because what we have is not some secondary account, but the eyewitness report, soon after the events, of one of the soldiers involved, and the official report by the garrison commander.
The abridgment, by the way, is not mine but that of the Louisiana Historical Quarterly's paper, which I reproduce in full; the page numbers spelled out in the text as centered headings refer to the pagination of Latour's original French-language book. Further substantial excerpts may be read in Gayarré's History of Louisiana, Vol. IV, Chs. 7‑11.
Though the complete book was not online when I transcribed this page, a photocopy of it is now up as a "Google Book", shorn, as usual, of its fold-out maps. I may transcribe the whole work myself at some point, if the value added — in connection for example with citations elsewhere on my site — is sufficient to warrant it.
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