In our last post we looked at The Slaves’ Gamble by Gene Smith. Dr. Smith has been gracious enough to write a guest post describing the War of 1812 and race relations. In a sense, a preview of his book if you will.
Long before the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, the War of 1812 provided an opportunity for slaves to throw off their chains of bondage. In this story, Gene Allen Smith, a history professor at Texas Christian University, recreates the growing conflicts between the fledgling United States, Great Britain, Spain, and various Native American groups, and shows how each “tried to mobilize the free black and slave populations in the hopes of defeating the other.” The Slaves’ Gamble describes how real people struggled to find freedom during the War of 1812. By using real stories, this book describes the contributions that free blacks and slaves as a group made to the British war effort, to American defenses, to the Spanish attempts to preserve their North American empire along the Gulf of Mexico, to Native American communities trying to retain their freedom and sovereignty, and to maroon communities trying to remain outside of white control. During the years prior to the War of 1812 African Americans had gained increased political, economic, and civic rights; many of these concessions had been won by black participation during the War for Independence and their support for a new political system based on the primacy of the United States. When the War of 1812 began, they consciously chose the side they would support, and those tenuous choices dramatically impacted their future freedom and opportunity as well as the future of the United States.
The Slaves’ Gamble looks at African American combatants during the War of 1812 as a way to understand the conflict and the evolution of racial relations during the early nineteenth century. Black participants—slaves and freemen both—had to choose sides and these choices ultimately defined their individual and collective identities. Canadian slaves escaped south into Michigan during the first decade of the nineteenth century and joined the militia in Detroit and later surrendered with General William Hull in August 1812; this contradicts common perceptions that the Underground Railroad always ran north to freedom in Canada. For a very few years during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the route to freedom proceeded south from Canada to the free territories of the Old Northwest. Along the Chesapeake Bay during 1813 and 1814 many slaves joined the British Colonial Marines and later marched with Redcoats on Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, while others chose to remain with their masters. During the fall of 1814 in New York City, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, slaves and free blacks joined alongside white American workers to construct defenses for those cities. Later in 1814 along the coast of Georgia and South Carolina slaves had to choose sides, while along the Gulf of Mexico slaves found multiple choices—some joined with the Spanish, some with Native American tribes, and others with the British. During the weeks before the climactic January 1815 Battle of New Orleans, both the British and General Andrew Jackson competed for slaves and free blacks, yet Jackson ultimately secured their assistance with promises of freedom and equality that never fully appeared.
Many slaves saw this jostling for their loyalties as “an avenue to freedom,” and consequently joined armies or communities of Native Americans or mulattoes on the fringes of society. Drawing on myriad archival materials, Smith chronicles the stirring stories of individuals like Detroit slave Peter Denison used the chaos of war to flee to freedom in British Canada after the conflict; Prince Whitten, who escaped slavery in South Carolina and fled with his family to Florida where he gained freedom and a place in the Spanish colony; or slave Charles Ball of Maryland who escaped bondage and consciously crafted the identity of a free man, only to have the image crumble after the war when he was enslaved again.
The War of 1812 did not create opportunities for all slaves, as for the most part slaves fled or joined militias only when hospitable troops were in the area. Those who remained in the United States generally remained in bondage, while those who took the chance to flee to British lines were ultimately evacuated from the United States. They found freedom in British colonies such as Bermuda, Canada, or Trinidad, where they and many of their descendants remained impoverished economically. This gripping tale of the evolution of race relations in early America reveals how they won their freedom.
By the time the War of 1812 ended the United States had reaffirmed its political, economic, and cultural freedom, and white Americans had finally realized that armed blacks posed serious threats to the existing status quo, and that threat would have to be eliminated. The optimism that had flowed from the Revolutionary period into the War of 1812 era lost its influence on American southerners who still maintained their human property, but thereafter had to worry about holding onto it. In the end, the free blacks and slaves who had sided with the Americans, like those who had joined with the British, the Spanish, or with Native Americans, wanted only one thing—their land of the FREE. While the War of 1812 confirmed the security of the United States, it also provided the last chance for blacks as a group to secure their freedom through force of arms until the American Civil War finally ended slavery once and for all.