Jean Baptiste
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A TALE OF JEAN BAPTISTE'S BRASS CANNON

By W. T. Block

Sources: Galveston 'Daily News' of Jan. 4, 1875, March 6, 1893, March 3, 1907, and other papers

In 1874, while removing silt from West Galveston Bay, a dredge boat dug into the sunken hulk of an old gunboat, recovering one brass and three iron cannons near the present-day community of Texas City, Texas. There was much speculation at the time about the origins of the old relics, some suggesting that they must be from the wreckage of the Union frigate "Westfield," which exploded during the battle of Galveston in 1863. The iron guns were too rusted to reveal much about their history, but the brass weapon was a six-pound Napoleonic model, bearing a cross and a casting date of 1813 near the breech and a circular groove, left by some blunt instrument, near the muzzle.

When a copy of the Galveston "News" reached feisty, old Jean Baptiste Callistre at Lake Charles, La., a week later, all of the mystery about the brass gun was resolved. Callistre, a 90-year-old, ex-buccaneer of Barataria Bay and Galveston Island, felt as though he were meeting for a second time one of the dearest companions of his youthful days.

Callistre, born near St. Martinsville, La., about 1785, was in New Orleans in 1810 with a friend, Benjamin Dollivar, when both were recruited by Jean Lafitte to join Simon Bolivar's abortive expedition against the Spanish Royalists in Venezuela. Bolivar was defeated, but in the process Dollivar's and Callistre's skills as artillerists were honed extensively. Within a few months, they were back at Lafitte's pirate commune at Barataria Bay, La.

As soon as Lafitte received letters of marque from the revolutionary republics of Venezuela and New Grenada, the corsair chieftain assigned Callistre and Dollivar as cannoneers aboard the old privateer, the "Vengeance," a 10-gun former English brig that had been captured by Alexandre Lafitte and was captained by Octave Chauvet. For two years, Capt. Chauvet and his crew preyed on Spanish commerce off the coast of Vera Cruz and Tampico; and if the plate fleet galleons were scarce in that vicinity, the "Vengeance" sought out the Spanish merchantmen and slave ships along the coast of Cuba. And always Chauvet could count on the cannon balls fired by Dollivar and Callistre falling precisely into the throats of the enemy.

In Lafitte's commune there was always an open season on English and Spanish commerce, but Lafitte warned that he would hang any of his ship captains who attacked an American ship. And in 1819, Callistre watched as Lafitte hanged Capt. George Brown from a yard arm in Galveston Bay. Brown was a particularly obnoxious rascal, and Chauvet of the "Vengeance" was a brutal renegade cut from the same bolt of cloth.

Most of Lafitte's ship masters, men such as Capt. Arsene LeBleu of Lake Charles or Capt. James Campbell, of Crow's Ferry, Sabine Parish, respected the laws of privateering and were content to abide by them. But a few others of Brown's or Chauvet's ilk considered any ship to be fair game for capture, and they continually kept the long arm of the American government at Lafitte's throat. The crew of the "Vengeance" hated and feared Chauvet, but they kept silent about his outright acts of piracy. Callistre called him a "mean, vicious, cruel, cross, harsh, avaricious and overbearing" master.

In October, 1812, Chauvet sailed out of Barataria Bay, bound for the Cuban coast, where usually a privateer could find at least one cargo of slaves. For most of a month, the corsair brig sailed the full length and breadth of the island in seach of a Spanish ship, but to no avail. Finally, Chauvet turned northward, hoping to find some English ship in the Atlantic Ocean, the War of 1812 being in progress at that moment.

Upon reaching the Carolina coast near Charleston, a lookout sighted a fast schooner, struggling in heavy seas. For two days, the storm-weary "Vengeance," with shortened sails, plowed through heavy seas, eventually overtaking the 3-gun American privateer "Patriot," bound for New York. Believing his prey to be a rich prize, Chauvet immediately ordered the "Vengeance's" decks cleared for action.

The "Patriot" had sailed from Georgetown, So. Caro., on New Year's Day with an unusual cargo for a warship. She carried two passengers, Timothy Green and his charge, Mrs. Theodosia Burr Alston, the wife of the governor of South Carolina. The beauteous socialite carried with her the valuable Burr family silverware, which she was returning to her father, Aaron Burr, in New York.

The "Patriot" fought like a trapped tiger, killing and maiming several aboard the "Vengeance," but the outgunned vessel refused to surrender. Eventually, the battle ended after the "Patriot" was boarded, and its crew were slaughtered with small arms and cutlasses. The schooner's decks were littered with the dead and dying, whom Chauvet cast overboard. After all booty, including the attractive Mrs. Alston and her silverware were transferred to the "Vengeance," Chauvet then burned the defeated schooner.

For days Mrs. Alston fought off Chauvet's drunken and amorous advances. She was later found dead in her cabin, either murdered by the captain or a suicide from strychnine. Among her possessions were many expensive dresses, each monogramed "T. A.," and a valuable gold locket with the inscription, "To My Wife Theodosia," and containing a tintype of her deceased son Gampy.

Late in November, 1814, Lafitte learned that a large English army of old Napoleonic veterans had sailed from Ireland with the express intent of capturing New Orleans. Very quickly, the old pirate decided to place all of his resources at the disposal of Gen. Andrew Jackson for the defense of the city. Lafitte soon sailed most of his shipping to New Orleans, from which were unloaded 366 cannons, 14,000 pounds of gunpowder, tons of cannister and grape shot, 400 of his artillerymen, and 800 others to fight in Jackson's army. And after a battle during which the English ranks had been shredded with artillery grape shot, the remnants of Gen. Pakenham's army retreated, leaving more than 2,000 casualties plus artillery and supplies scattered over the battlefield.

The following day, Callistre and Dollivar happened upon a shiny British field piece with one wheel shot away and the other buried to the hub in the soft mud. After unbolting the weapon's trunnions from the carriage, the two artillerists brought the brass howitzer aboard the "Vengeance" and mounted it upon a ship's carriage. Thereafter, the shiny six-pounder remained Callistre's special charge, bouncing one cannonball after another into the bosom of the enemy whenever a Spanish vessel was attacked.

The years passed, and finally Lafitte moved his buccaneer commune to Galveston Island. In August, 1818, the "Vengeance" was once more sailing off the coast of Havana, Cuba, when late one afternoon the pirate ship was attacked by a large Spanish cruiser. Capt. Chauvet and half of his corsairs were killed during the ensuing battle, the "Vengeance" being saved from destruction only by darkness. As the battle ended, a Spanish cannonball glanced off the muzzle of Callistre's pet, leaving its concave groove on the top of the brass six-pounder.

After the damaged brig limped back to Galveston Bay, Lafitte ordered that all cannons and ship stores be removed from the vessel, preparatory to overhauling the damaged hull. Only the shiny howitzer and three long iron guns remained aboard when a negligent worker ignited spilled gunpowder on the decks, and the "Vengeance" was soon engulfed in flames. The brig was then cut loose from its moorage and allowed to drift westward into Galveston Bay where it soon sank.

As luck would have it, Capt. Jim Campbell, Lafitte's most trusted lieutenant, had just returned to Galveston Island during the same month with a new, speedy privateer, the topsail schooner "Hotspur," fresh from the shipways of Chesapeake Bay and described as "having all wings and no feet." The six iron guns and many of the surviving crew were reasssigned to the "Hotspur." As soon as his schooner was provisioned, Capt. Campbell began the first of his many voyages off the coast of Tampico and Vera Cruz.

During the "Hotspur's" last, 10-months privateering voyage of 1820, the tales of Campbell's sea fights with the Spanish galleons were recounted the full length and breadth of the Gulf of Mexico. And mounds of booty piled up in Lafitte's warehouses on Snake {Galveston} Island. The memoirs of Charles Cronea, the "Hotspur's" young cabin boy, is perhaps the best source of Capt. Campbell's exploits. And as always, the cannonballs of Callistre and Dollivar into the throats of the Spaniards usually resulted in a quick white flag of surrender. In November, 1820, the "Hotspur" ran aground and sank at the mouth of Mermentau River, Louisiana. Although Capt. Campbell was able to salvage a part of the booty, most of it was lost with the ship.

"Sometimes a Spaniard showed fight," Cronea once recalled, "and our gunners poured round shot arter round shot aboard till a white flag went up. Man, you shoulda heered them divils squeal fer us to halt the firing! Lotsa folks figgered we used to cut throats and make the captive Spaniards walk the plank, but that'sa d--n lie! I never seed (sic) a single man murdered while I was with Campbell.

In Nov., 1820, near the end of the "Hotspur's" last voyage under Lafitte, the privateer anchored at Grand Chenier, in the Mermentau River of Louisiana, and Callistre and Cronea, their pockets bulging with doubloons, left the ship, Callistre for a long overdue visit with his family. The latter returned to St. Martinsville and otherfamiliar haunts along the Bayou Teche, but Cronea married and lived at Abbeville and Grand Chenier for some years before returning to Texas in time to fight in the Texas Army near San Jacinto. When the two young buccaneers returned to Galveston a year later, the crawling serpents of Snake Island had replaced the walking variety of Lafitte's day.

As late as 1855, visitors to the Oyster Saloon in Galveston might notice old Jim Campbell, Ben Dollivar, John Lambert, Charlie Cronea, and Stephen Churchill sipping beer in some darkened corner and reminiscing in hushed tones about the events of that last voyage of the "Hotspur." But always, if a stranger approached their table, the old pirates clammed up quickly, the time of day being hard to obtain from any of their lips. Dollivar, until his death in 1858, always paid for his drinks with a single gold doubloon from his personal treasure cache, and old Ben usually "slept off the fumes" of his drunkenness in the alley behind the saloon.

Capt. Campbell died at Galveston in May, 1856, at age 70; Churchill, the Bolivar ferryman, died there in 1860, and old Capt. Arsene LeBleu died near Lake Charles during the Civil War. Old Callistre, the six-pounder cannoner, died on the Calcasieu River in Louisiana in 1876, so far as is known, the next-to-last survivor of the old Galveston buccaneers. And old Charlie Cronea, the last of Lafitte's pirates to be "keelhauled into eternity" at age 88, died at High Island, Texas on March 4, 1893. The Galveston "News" said of Cronea, "With his death, Jean Lafitte becomes a thing of the past!"

Copyright 1998-2012 by W. T. Block. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, the material published on this site is copyrighted by William T. Block.
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