French-born Arsène Latour shored up New Orleans’ defenses and wrote a detailed account of the 1815 battle.
By Michael D. Hull
Few primary source documents of the War of 1812 are as important as Arsène LaCarrière Latour’s Historical Memoir of the War in West Florida and Louisiana in 1814-15 (expanded edition with atlas, edited with an introduction by Gene A. Smith, University Press of Florida, 1999, $49.95). Originally published in 1816, this work provides a detailed firsthand account on both the British invasion of the region and the American defensive measures that culminated in the Battle of New Orleans. Latour was more than just an eyewitness–he served as General Andrew Jackson’s chief of engineering.
Born in the Auvergne region of France, Latour survived the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution and eventually studied engineering and architecture in Paris. After an arranged marriage, the young architect traveled to Santo Domingo to oversee his wife’s holdings. When a slave revolt erupted on the island in 1802, Latour was hired by the French army to provide engineering assistance. Following the French defeat, he fled to Cuba and ultimately the United States, where he surveyed and mapped various regions and drafted a city plan for Baton Rouge. A friend of smuggler and privateer Jean Lafitte, Latour joined Jackson’s force late in 1814 to help prepare New Orleans’ defenses.
The loss of a flotilla of American gunboats on Lake Borgne on December 14 caught Jackson’s defenses in vulnerable disarray. With information gained from a reconnaissance by Latour, however, Jackson attacked the British advance guard near Villére’s Plantation and, in spite of heavy losses, delayed the British advance, which Latour declared to be “the saving of Louisiana.”
Latour then worked desperately to shore up the American defenses around New Orleans. He established a parapet at Boisgervais’ canal, three miles south of the city, then studied new defensive terrain on a plain between Raquet’s and Jourdan’s canals. General David B. Morgan disapproved of Latour’s choice and built his own breastworks in a different location. On January 8, 1815, the British took advantage of Morgan’s overextended position, forcing his Louisiana and Kentucky militia to retreat. In the meantime, however, the British assault at Chalmette ran into withering fire that killed some 2,000 Redcoats.
Included along with Latour’s narrative is an invaluable collection of documents noting troop strengths, movements and casualties as well as letters and orders from the principal figures involved in the Louisiana campaign. Supplementing the text is an atlas of nine maps, detailing fortifications and engagements. Latour’s eyewitness account of the events leading up to and including the Battle of New Orleans, coupled with Gene Smith’s biographical notes of this little-known engineer, make Historical Memoir of the War a necessary work for both military historians and enthusiasts of the War of 1812.