Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Slaves’ Gamble: Choosing Sides in the War of 1812

Book review: ‘The Slaves’ Gamble: Choosing Sides in the War of 1812,’ by Gene Allen Smith

From the Dallas Morning News, "Book review: ‘The Slaves’ Gamble: Choosing Sides in the War of 1812,’ by Gene Allen Smith," reviewed by Dallas Morning News Special Contributor, Dale L. Walker, on 1 February 2013 -- America’s most confusing war, that of 1812, began in 1811 with a fight against Indians at Tippecanoe, a river in Indiana, followed by battles against British land and naval forces in Canada, Michigan, Ohio, Iowa, Illinois, Maryland, New York, Washington, D.C., the North and South Atlantic, Chesapeake Bay, Lakes Erie and Champlain, the coast of Brazil, and other disparate sites.

The War of 1812 ended in 1815 at a place called Chalmette Plantation, a few miles east of New Orleans, when Andrew Jackson’s 4,500 volunteers — a motley band of farmers, tradesmen, Choctaws, frontier sharpshooters and Gulf of Mexico pirates — routed a force of 7,500 well-drilled British redcoats.

Gene Allen Smith’s engrossing new history records that among the American defenders in almost all of these conflicts were contingents of black volunteers. As the result of the specific appeal by Andrew Jackson, a slave owner, for “free coloured inhabitants” of Louisiana to help stop the British invasion, several hundred black men answered the call. Elsewhere in the battlegrounds of 1812, slave and freemen alike sought the rewards the war might bring, no matter which belligerent uniform they wore.

“For free blacks,” says the author, a TCU history professor, the war only required “a decision to join the side which promised the best chance for freedom and advancement. Their choices ultimately defined their future.”

With 1812 substantially a maritime war, involving warships and privateers firing on merchant ships and the British navy blockading America’s Atlantic coast and staging raids and battles on the St. Lawrence River and along the Great Lakes, Smith’s exhaustive research reveals that black sailors played a significant if unheralded role in virtually all of the U.S. Navy’s successes.

In 1798 both the secretaries of war and the Navy banned black enlistments in the seagoing services, but by 1812 black enlistees made up 10 percent to 20 percent of naval and privateer crews. The author estimates the same percentage of black sailors served as crewmen with Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry in the Battle of Lake Erie in September 1813.

Even before Perry’s experience, Britain’s Royal Navy saw the potential in recruiting America’s slaves. After making a plunge into Chesapeake Bay in the spring of 1813, British commanders signed aboard their vessels a sizable number of runaway black men who had deserted their masters for the rewards and freedom they were offered. A few months later, Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane issued a call urging all slaves to escape and serve with his or any British force. Cochrane even opened a training depot on captured Tangier Island in Chesapeake Bay expressly for slaves wishing to enlist in the war effort or to immigrate as freemen to England or any British possession in North America or the West Indies.

Many of these trainees later served in the defeat of the Americans at Bladensburg, Md., and the subsequent occupation and burning of Washington in August 1814. (Ironically, many black men, slaves and freemen alike, labored in building bulwarks and fortifications, and in manning defensive positions, in the vain effort to ward off the British attackers.)

The presence of blacks in the maritime world of 1812, the author states, “shaped the outcome of the war” but did not instantly liberate them from slavery — “an idyllic concept at best.” Just as idyllic, he says, was the idea that the institution of slavery was dealt a serious blow by so many black men opting to fight, even with the enemy, for their freedom.

Among the many illuminating concepts Smith advances are the consequences of the participation of slaves in the War of 1812. In the aftermath of the war, Smith describes “the greatest nineteenth century diaspora of blacks from the United States” as hundreds relocated to British colonies in Canada, Bermuda and the West Indies. Of even greater historical impact is the author’s finding that the slaves’ gamble in 1812 for freedom and a better life created a southern backlash that effectively halted the progress made to abolish slavery and contributed to strengthening the plantation system of the Old South.

This is an important, lucid, often startling work of scholarship.

[source:  Dallas Morning News; Dale L. Walker of El Paso is author of many historical and biographical books.]


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