Why would slaves fight for the United States, a nation that kept them in bondage, during the War of 1812? Why did free blacks join with the British or with the Spanish, or with Native American communities during the conflict? These questions form the basis for Gene Allen Smith’s new book, The Slaves’ Gamble: Choosing Sides in the War of 1812. In this gripping story, 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 group “tried to mobilize the free black and slave populations in the hopes of defeating the other.” When the War of 1812 began, free blacks and slaves 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.
This book looks at African American combatants during the War of 1812 as a way to understand the conflict as well as 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. In fact, 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. Once the war ended, the route turned north to freedom in Canada.
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. Maryland slave Charles Ball consciously declared himself a freeman and joined Joshua Barney’s flotilla in the Chesapeake. During the British 1814 Chesapeake campaign Ball fought for the Americans at Bladensburg and in the defense of Baltimore. 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. Cumberland Island slave Ned Simmons immediately discarded his shackles to join the British army, yet he was never transferred off the island. When peace came he became victim of tense Anglo-American negotiations. Stripped of his British uniform, Simmons was re-enslaved, and did not secure his freedom until 1863; the centenarian Simmons died only a few months after being liberated by Union troops.
Along the Gulf of Mexico during the War of 1812 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. Two regiments of free men of color volunteered to defend the city, and then Jackson promised freedom to slaves who would labor on the American line. Jackson ultimately secured their assistance with promises of equality and freedom that never fully appeared.
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. 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.
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 mostly evacuated from the United States. The latter group 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 these people 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. Instead the War of 1812 confirmed the security of the United States, and 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.
The Slaves’ Gamble is written by:
Gene Allen Smith
Dept of History
Texas Christian University