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The Pirates Laffite                        The Greatest Fury

        Art: The Pirates Laffite
The Pirates Laffite: the Treacherous World of the Corsairs of the Gulf
by William C. Davis
Harcourt, 2005, $28
ISBN 0-15-100403-X


If their first loyalty was to themselves, still as smugglers and privateers they proved more principled than the rest, solicitous of life, loyal to friends and operating according to ethical values that often seemed out of place amid a thicket of thieves.  ~ William C. Davis

Cloaked in mystery and intrigue, Jean and Pierre Laffite came to prominence in the opening decades of the nineteenth century. William C. Davis surmises that these two brothers were born in Pauillac, France, as only one family living there spelled ďLaffiteĒ as Jean and Pierre did, and both claimed to have come from the Bordeaux region of the country. At some point they emigrated to San Domingue, a city on the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean, then uprisings there led them to New Orleans.

Pierre Laffite, the older and lesser known of the two brothers, stood about five feet, ten inches tall and had a robust and powerfully-built figure. Of light complexion, he had piercing dark eyes that seemed slightly crossed. He wore his sandy-colored hair low over his brow, and spoke English with a French accent. Jean Laffite, the more charismatic but not necessarily the more intelligent of the pair, was several inches taller than his brother. He wore side whiskers along his jaw line, and like Pierre, had brilliant white teeth. In spite of his time at sea, he had pale skin, perhaps accentuated by his dark hair. He had large dark hazel eyes and had a habit of closing one while he spoke. He dressed with elegance and style, was often gracious, and enjoyed talking with others.

Pierreís business acumen combined with Jeanís charisma helped them organize the smugglers and pirates operating out of Barataria into one of the most profitable operations of the time. Aside from the luxury goods they sold while evading customs and import duties, they also supplied slaves at a time when the importation of slaves into the United States was illegal but New Orleans was in desperate need of manpower to work the plantations. A few months before the Battle of New Orleans, American forces destroyed Barataria, but still the Laffites and the Baratarians helped Andrew Jackson defeat the British army. In the ensuing years the brothers spied for Spain, left New Orleans, and operated for a time in Galveston either as privateers or pirates. Then they faded from history.

For those who know the history, and legends, of the Laffites, not all will agree with Davisí conclusions, particularly concerning the role they played in the Battle of New Orleans and in how each met his demise. I agree the Americans probably would have won against the British, but perhaps not as decisively as they did had they not had the help and expertise of the Baratarians. Pierre probably died as Davis claims, but the stories of Jeanís death are based on newspaper reports rather than documented eyewitness accounts and incontrovertible proof.

The Pirates Laffite is the most comprehensive examination of the Laffites ever written. Davisí extensive research is evidenced in the detailed endnotes and bibliography of primary and secondary source material. Until this book, Jean Laffite has always taken center stage, but Davis methodically shows that Pierre played an equal or greater role in their success. This book dispels many myths associated with the Laffites and perhaps tarnishes their romantic swashbuckling images. Even so, they remain enigmas almost two centuries later. This volume is essential reading for anyone interested in Jean and Pierre Laffite. Only then will you be able to decide whether you agree or disagree with the authorís conclusions.

Read an Excerpt from The Pirates Laffite

Book Review Copyright © 2005 Cindy Vallar

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Cover Art: The Greatest Fury
The Greatest Fury: The Battle of New Orleans and the Rebirth of America
By William C. Davis
Caliber, 2019, ISBN 978-0-399-58522-7, US $32.00 / CAN $42.00
Also available in other formats


Gold starGold starGold starGold starGold star

It was a war few wanted, but President Madisonís declaration, with Congressís stamp of approval, in June 1812, brought the fledging nation into conflict with its former overlord. It was the culmination of a number of grievances, not least of which was the forcible seizure of seamen from American ships. Becoming embroiled in war with the United States wasnít high on Britainís want list; it was already mired in a conflict with a greater foe, Napoleon, and would fight on whatever front threatened to upend its efforts to cripple the French emperor once and for all.

By 1814, both sides were tired of fighting, but neither was willing to give up. Negotiations for peace were ongoing in Ghent, Belgium. The United States still had not taken Canada Ė one of its major objectives Ė but it met with some success on both land and sea. As the year unfolded, key events set the stage for what would become the last major conflict of the war. In March, Andrew Jackson and his army won the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. In April, Napoleon abdicated and went into exile. In August, the British invaded Washington and burned the White House and other public buildings. The following month, the Americans prevented the enemy from taking Baltimore and killed Major General Robert Ross, whose loss was greatly felt by the British and impacted the outcome of a battle still to come.

No longer focused on fighting its primary foe, Britain turned its full attention on the United States in an effort to bring a resounding defeat on its former colonies. There was one weak spot that would confine the United States within a relatively small area, preventing further westward expansion. At the same time, Britain would gain control of the mighty Mississippi, connecting the northern realm of its empire to its islands in the Caribbean, and the wealth that flowed into New Orleans as people and product traversed the river. Thus, the British focused their attention and resources on Louisianaís Gulf Coast. What they didnít factor into their equation was a wily, imperious general determined to stop the British no matter the cost; a motley group of people willing to set aside their differences to protect what they held dear; and a weather pattern bringing an unusual amount of precipitation and subnormal temperatures to a land ill-suited for traversing with heavy ordnance and supplies or typical combat strategies.

Davis skillfully lays the groundwork for the series of skirmishes collectively known as the Battle of New Orleans. Readers see events unfold from both American and British perspectives, predominantly from people present at the time of the fighting. The narrative is intricately interwoven with these firsthand accounts to provide insights not included in other histories on this topic. Davis also deftly strips away the myths from the action, choosing to address them near the end of the book and providing a clearer picture of what happened when.

Within the twenty-two chapters, readers become familiar with well-known and lesser-known participants. Among the former are Major General Andrew Jackson, Governor William C. C. Claiborne, Jean and Pierre Laffite, Vice Admiral of the Red Sir Alexander Cochrane, and Major General Sir Edward Pakenham. The latter include Master Commandant Daniel Todd Patterson, Edward Livingston, Major General Sir John Lambert, Brigadier General John Coffee, Brigadier General John Adair, Brigadier General David Bannister Morgan, Ensign George Gleig, and Major Robert Rennie. A center section of black-and-white plates showcase portraits of people and illustrations of places pertaining to the Battle of New Orleans, or the war in general. Twenty-six pages of primary resources and only six of secondary appear in the bibliography, demonstrating the depth of Davisís research and effort to strip away myth from reality. Additional details, as well as source citations, are found in the endnotes, while a comprehensive index provides quick access to material within the text.

Aside from summarizing events leading up to the final confrontation, Davis describes New Orleans, the sixth largest city in the United States at the time and a melting pot of 25,000 people with disparate traditions and cultures, where language identified a personís politics and loyalties. From the opening salvos of the gun battle on 13 December 1814, seventy-five miles from New Orleans, to the British capture of the garrison at Mobile Bay in February 1815, to the weeks and months afterward, readers come away with a better understanding of what happened and why, as well as why the Battle of New Orleans was so important to Americans and how they saw themselves in decades to follow.

For readers thinking to pass up this book because they read The Pirates Laffite, donít. The role of the Baratarians and Laffite brothers is shown here, but isnít as strongly detailed. This book gives another perspective of the battle, but with heavier and more detailed emphasis on the British, Jackson and his army, and the locals who defended their city and homes. Davis also shares the ineptness of some, the mistakes of others, and the egos that interfered with the successful carry through of orders, and those who were left to suffer as a result.

Davis shares what happens to individuals, many of whom were everyday people, and what they endured. At the same time, he incorporates statistics and details of what transpires, but personalizes the events and shows what occurs from all perspectives. The inclusion of so many quotes from contemporary sources makes the events more real and vivid descriptions allow readers to feel, for example, as if they walk alongside British forces, slogging through bayous, swamps, and cypress forests, or enduring hunger and cold while sleeping in frigid temperatures and soggy clothing.

What makes The Greatest Fury a valuable addition to any collection on this historical event is its reliance on contemporary accounts to convey what happened and why. Equally compelling are the many components with which readers today will readily identify Ė business at a standstill, a legislature that refuses to work together, people coming together to support one another, fear and panic.

Read an excerpt or listen to a sample reading

Review Copyright ©2020 by Cindy Vallar

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