Many Haitian black males eluded immigration authorities
by slipping into the territory through Barataria, a coastal settlement just
west of the Mississippi River. Some became allies of the notorious pirates
Jean and Pierre Lafitte, white refugees of the Haitian Revolution. Surrounded
by marshland and a maze of waterways, Barataria was an effective staging area
for attacks on Gulf shipping. The interracial band of adventurers dominated
the settlement's thriving black-market economy.
But pirates and smugglers did not make up the whole of Barataria's fugitive residents.
Some two hundred free black veterans of the Haitian Revolution, including Lieutenant
Colonel Joseph Savary, a former French republican officer, were among them. In 1799
seven hundred soldiers, opposed to Toussaint L'Ouverture fled to Cuba and later migrated
to Louisiana. By 1810 this movement of Haitian soldiers from Cuba had created a black
military presence in Louisiana that seriously worried Governor Claiborne. He anxiously
requested reinforcements. The number of free black men "in and near New Orleans, capable
of carrying arms," he wrote, "cannot be less than eight hundred."
Colonel Savary and other republican
veterans of the Haitian Revolution remained committed to the French revolution's
ideals of liberté, egalité, fraternité (freedom, equality, fraternity.)
They regrouped to aid insurgents attempting to establish independent republics
in Latin America. In November 1813 Savary offered to send five hundred Haitian
soldiers to fight with Mexican revolutionaries. When their effort to establish
a Mexican government in Texas failed, Savary and his men returned to New Orleans.
Within the year, however, the colonel and other Haitian veterans would be
rallying against the forces of the British crown.
As British forces threatened to invade New Orleans
in 1814, American authorities sought to win the loyalty of battle-hardened
black soldiers like Colonel Savary. They were also well aware of the prominent
role that free men had played in slave rebellions. With the English approaching,
pacifying them would be strategically sound.
General Andrew Jackson arrived in New Orleans
in December 1814 and immediately mustered 350 native-born black veterans of
the Spanish militia into the United States Army. Colonel Savary raised a second
black unit of 250 of Haiti's refugee soldiers. Jackson recognized Savary's
considerable influence and knew of his reputation as "a man of great courage."
On Jackson's orders, Savary became the first African-American soldier to achieve
the rank of second major.
The Haitians in Barataria also fought
in the battle of New Orleans. In September 1814 federal troops invaded their
community and dispersed the Lafittes and their followers. Hundreds of refugees
poured into the city. Andrew Jackson offered them pardons in return for their
support in defending the city. After the victory, he commended the two battalions
of six hundred African-American and Haitian soldiers whose presence in a force
of three thousand men had proved decisive. He praised the "privateers and
gentlemen" of Barataria who "through their loyalty and courage, redeemed [their]
pledge . . . to defend the country."
Jackson observed that Captain Savary
"continued to merit the highest praise." In the last significant skirmish
of the battle, Savary and a detachment of his men volunteered to clear the
field of a detail of British sharpshooters. Though Savary's force suffered
heavy casualties, the mission was carried out successfully.
Within weeks of the victory, however,
Jackson yielded to white pressure to remove the men from New Orleans to a
remote site in the marshland east of the city to repair fortifications. Savary
relayed a message to the general that his men "would always be willing to
sacrifice their lives in defense of their country as had been demonstrated
but preferred death to the performance of the work of laborers." Jackson,
though not pleased, refrained from taking any action against the troops. In
February, the general even lent his support to Savary's renewed efforts to
rejoin republican insurgents in Mexico.