Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve

Location: New Orleans, Louisiana

Webpage: National Park

General Description: Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve is a mix of locations ranging including natural, historical, and cultural.  The park is divided into six units within New Orleans and the surrounding area. Barataria Preserve, along with areas surrounding the cultural centers, represent the natural areas in the park.  Historical area include the Chalmette Battlefield, the site of 1815 Battle of New Orleans, and the Chalmette National Cemetery.  Cultural areas include New Orleans French Quarter, the Prairie Acadian Cultural Center in Eunice, the Acadian Cultural Center in Lafayette, and the Wetlands Acadian Cultural Center in Thibodaux.  Each site is well worth a visit.

Brochure

Impressions:

1) We did not do our homework before traveling into New Orleans to explore the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve, so we were not aware of the extent of the park.  We had thought we could see the park in a single day, however, all we had time for were the Chalmette Battlefield and Barataria Preserve.  The French Quarter was simply out of the question in our big truck and we had both see the area in the past.  The three Acadian Cultural Centers are all west of New Orleans and simply too far for us to travel to since we were staying an hour east of New Orleans.  Hopefully, we will have another opportunity to visit these sites in the future.

2) The Barataria Preserve is 24,000 acres of marsh, swamp, and bottomland forests south of New Orleans and east of Lake Salvador.  The preserve offers a Visitor Center, environmental education center, walking trails, waterways, and picnic areas.  Featured is an connected boardwalk trails leading from the Visitor Center.  These include a short 0.25 mile trail at the Visitor Center that connects with the 0.9 mile Palmetto Trail.  This trail ends at a parking lot from where it connects with the 0.5 mile Bayou Coquille Trail and 0.4 mile Marsh Overlook Trail.  All of the trails are well maintained providing opportunities to view the marshes and swamps along with native animals including alligators.  The historical significance of the Preserve is this was the location of Jean Lafitte smuggling network during the early 1800s, which became the Jean Lafitte State Park before becoming part of the National Park which bears its name.

3) The Chalmette Battlefield and National Cemetery is the location of the 1815 Battle of New Orleans at the end of the War of 1812 with Great Britain.  The War of 1812 began as a naval blockade effort by Great Britain to eliminate trade with France during the Napoleonic War.  In retaliation to the conscripting of American sailors, ship, and supplying Native Americans around the Great Lakes, President Madison declared war on June 18, 1812.  With most of its armies and navy fighting Napolean, Great Britain was primarily a defensive strategy.  The war began around the Great Lakes with the Americans failing to capture Upper Canada from the British.  The British Navy continued to rule the seas until the decisive victory in 1813 by Admiral Perry at the Battle of Lake Erie.  The British continued to blockade ports and hinder trade up and down the east coast leading to the sacking of Washington D.C. in August of 1814 and the Battle of Baltimore in September.  In the south the major problem was a mostly internal civil war within the Creek Nation.  Once again the British were supplying one side in the conflict, the Red Sticks, and with the cessation of the Napoleanic War in 1813 began bringing in troops as well along the coast.  After subduing the Red Sticks in Alabama, General Andrew Jackson brought his militia troops to New Orleans.  By December, 1814 the British had brought 60 ships and 14,450 battle hardened troops to the Gulf Coast east of Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Borgne and established a garrison about 30 miles east of New Orleans.  On the morning of December 23, 1814 a force of 1800 British had reached the east bank of the the Mississippi, but General Keane decided to hold position instead of advancing to New Orleans to wait for reinforcements.  General Jackson learned of their location and led a three prong attack on the unsuspecting British encampment and although they were repulsed they did convince Keane this was not going to be an easy victory and gave the Americans two days to build defenses.  Jackson pulled back to Rodriquez Canal, an old mill trace that cut from a large cypress swamp to the bank of the Mississippi River.  With the river on the south flank and swamp on the north, his position was ideal against a much larger force.  They spent the two days building defensive earthworks along the canal and bringing up artillery.  On December 28, General Parkenham ordered a reconnaissance-in-force to test out the defenses of the Americans.  Once again the British waited to consolidate its forces giving the Americans until January 8 to reinforce its defensive position.  Jackson’s forces numbered 4732 men, of which only about 1100 were US soldiers and sailors.  The remainder of the force was made up of untrained militia from Louisiana, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Mississippi, a small group of Choctaw Indians, and citizens of New Orleans.  There was even a force of pirates from Jean Lafitte’s Baratarians.  Against them had a force of over 8,000 battle hardened soldiers recently from the Napoleanic War.  At 5:00 am on January 8, 1815, the British advanced on the American defensive position.  The British plan was for an attack on the 20 gun battery on the west bank of the Mississippi River, but this was delayed due to dealing with the mud and current of the river and did not successfully silence the battery until after the battle on the east bank was over.  The main British attack was two pronged with one force moving up along the river and the other along the edge of the swamp.  A mistake by Lt-Col Mullins in not bringing the ladders and fascines needed to cross the 8 foot deep and 15 foot wide canal delayed the advance along the river exposing the soldiers to withering fire from the cannons across the river and along the canal.  Also due to the difficulty the northern prong to make advances along the swamp, the 93rd Highlanders were ordered to advance diagonally across the battlefield from the river to the swamp.  In this advance all three of the commanding officers in the regiment were killed and the Highlanders stopped in the middle of the battlefield to wait for orders.  In this position they effectively blocked much of the British artillery and caused major confusion.  Along the river, Colonel Rennie was able to capture the redoubt along the river but within minutes were wiped out by a counterattack from the Americans.  The force along the swamp did make it to the canal but were unable to advance further without support.  Thus both prongs of the attack were repulsed within 30 minutes with over 2000 casualties for the British and just over 60 for the Americans.  This huge American victory not only protected New Orleans and the Mississippi River, but also propelled Andrew Jackson, now a war hero, to the Presidency.  Three days after the battle, the British withdrew on their ships to Mobile with plans to attack Mobile Bay.  However, by then the Treaty of Ghent had been ratified and the War came to an end.

4) The French Quarter consists of a 66 block area with distinctive architectural styles developed in New Orleans in the 1700s and 1800s.  The St. Louis Cathedral in the the heart of the district, is flanked by grand Spanish colonial public buildings.  In 1856 the city erected the statue to Andrew Jackson, the hero of the Battle of New Orleans.  Today the entire district is a protected historic area including a Visitor Center that includes exhibits, walking tours, films, music performances, and ranger talks.  We did not visit the French Quarter on this trip.

5) The Prairie Acadian Cultural Center in Eunice, LA, uses exhibits, Cajun music and dancing, and cooking demonstrations to interpret the Acadians who settled in the southwest Louisiana prairies.  We did not visit this site on this trip.

6) The Acadian Cultural Center in Lafayette, LA, presents exhibits, films, programs, and boat tours of Bayou Vermilion to share the history, culture, language, and contemporary culture of the Acadians who settled Louisiana.  We did not visit this site on this trip.

7) The Wetlands Acadian Cultural Center in Thibodaux, LA, interprets the bayou Acadian culture with music, exhibits, art, boat tours of Bayou Lafourche, and craft demonstrations.  We did not visit this site on this trip.