The War of 1812 is one subject in American History that receives little attention. In fact, last year was the centennial of the start of the war but was overshadowed by the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. When I saw that a new book was being released, and one that examined slaves participation in said war, I was interested. Gene Allen Smith is a professor of History at Texas Christian University and has several books under his belt. In The Slaves’ Gamble, he has crafted a well researched work that looks at slaves role in the war.
Smith sees the War of 1812 as a turning point in race relations. in the introduction he points out that after the American Revolution, the institution of slavery was not yet entrenched in the U.S. In the spirit of the American Revolution, northern states were moving away from the institution even some southern states like Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware were making manumission easier.
With the outbreak of the war slaves had a choice to make. Much like during the American Revolution, they had the opportunity of joining the British, hoping to gain eventual freedom. Areas in the South saw British raids led to the potential for slaves to flee to the British and seek freedom. Both the prospect of seeing armed ex-slaves in British uniforms or simply losing property to the British caused southern slaveholders to attempt to tighten their grip on slaves.
Smith begins the book with a brief look at the use of slaves during wartime in the colonial period giving the reader a sense of the state of race relations at the start of the War of 1812. He then tells the tale of the war entwining the contributions of slave and free black in the various theaters of the war.
For those interested in the history of slavery, the War of 1812, or the Civil War, The Slaves’ Gamble is an excellent read that will shed some new light on race relations of the period.