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

by Gene Allen Smith

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Images of American slavery conjure up cotton plantations and African American slaves locked in bondage until the Civil War. Yet early on in the nineteenth century the state of slavery was very different, and the political vicissitudes of the young nation offered diverse possibilities to slaves. In the century's first two decades, the nation waged war against


Images of American slavery conjure up cotton plantations and African American slaves locked in bondage until the Civil War. Yet early on in the nineteenth century the state of slavery was very different, and the political vicissitudes of the young nation offered diverse possibilities to slaves. In the century's first two decades, the nation waged war against Britain, Spain, and various Indian tribes. Slaves played a role in the military operations, and the different sides viewed them as a potential source of manpower. While surprising numbers did assist the Americans, the wars created opportunities for slaves to find freedom among the Redcoats, the Spaniards, or the Indians. Author Gene Smith draws on a decade of original research and his curatorial work at the Fort Worth Museum in this fascinating and original narrative history. The way the young nation responded sealed the fate of slaves for the next half century until the Civil War. This drama sheds light on an extraordinary yet little known chapter in the dark saga of American history.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Long before the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, the War of 1812 provided an opportunity for slaves to throw off their chains. In this crisply told story, Smith, a history professor at Texas Christian University, recreates the growing conflicts between the fledgling U.S., 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.” 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 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. Yet the War of 1812 did not create these kinds of opportunities for all slaves, and Smith demonstrates that, for the most part, slaves fled or joined militias only when hospitable troops were in the area. Smith’s first-rate study is a gripping tale of the evolution of race relations in early America. Maps, illus. Agent: Michael Hamilburg, Mitchell J. Hamilburg Agency. (Jan.)
From the Publisher

“Impressively researched.” —The Christian Science Monitor

“Thoroughly researched…fills in some much-needed background to the complicated relations that…mixed racism, fear and anger on one side with a unquenchable yearning for freedom on the other.” —The Washington Times

“Engrossing…Smith's exhaustive research reveals that black sailors played a significant if unheralded role in virtually all of the U.S. Navy's successes…an important, lucid, often startling work of scholarship.” —The Dallas Morning News

“Smith's long years of research and wide knowledge of this conflict has enabled him to focus on some of the remarkable stories of men and their families…illustrates clearly the plight of American slaves as they desperately struggled to gain their freedom and the lies, deception and deviousness their owners used to deny it.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Crisply told...Smith's first-rate study is a gripping tale of the evolution of race relations in early America.” —Publishers Weekly

“The history of black servicemen long antedates the Civil War. In the Anglo-American War of 1812, both sides recruited black Americans as soldiers; the British offered freedom to American slaves who would fight for them. Gene Allen Smith's account, scrupulously researched in both British and U.S. sources, sheds new light on many aspects of that conflict, including the little-known 'Patriot War' in Florida. Personal narratives of heroic individuals add to the story a sense of immediacy. Scholars, military history buffs, and students of the black experience will all find a reading of interest here.” —Daniel Walker Howe, Pulitzer-Prize winning author of What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848.

“Gene Smith's new book sheds considerable light on the role of blacks, slave and free alike, during the War of 1812. This is essential reading for all students of the war as well as for anyone interested in American race relations or U.S. military history.” —Don Hickey, author of The War of 1812

“In The Slaves' Gamble, Gene Allen Smith richly details the lives of enslaved people struggling for freedom through an array of strategies in a complex war. Thoroughly researched and wide-ranging, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Canadian frontier, and from the sunny Caribbean to dank Dartmoor Prison, this superb book illuminates the plight, courage, and resourcefulness of African Americans in the early republic.” —Alan Taylor, author of The Civil War of 1812

“Gene Allen Smith captures with scholarly thoroughness the dilemma of patriotism that enslaved African-Americans struggled with during the War of 1812 and the range of their responses.” —Elizabeth Dowling Taylor, author of A Slave in the White House: Paul Jennings and the Madisons

Library Journal
Newly minted Americans fought several wars—most significantly, the War of 1812—and slaves often joined in. But just as often they used war as a way to secure freedom by siding with the Redcoats, the Spaniards, or the Indians. History professor Smith is also a curator at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History.
Kirkus Reviews
Smith (History/Texas Christian Univ.; Thomas ap Catesby Jones: Commodore of Manifest Destiny, 2000, etc.) explains the War of 1812 from the viewpoint of the slaves who served both sides in the hope of attaining their freedom. There were also many free blacks who, for the most part, joined the American side in order to fortify their cities. Although whites were loath to give them guns, those few that gained commissions fought in battles that changed the course of the war. The author shows the important roles that all blacks, not necessarily just slaves, played in the war. The slaves gambled their lives in escaping to join the British; recapture would bring horrific punishment. Smith's long years of research and wide knowledge of this conflict has enabled him to focus on some of the remarkable stories of men and their families who fled to the English side. The British, fighting Napoleon at the same time, hoped to supplement their meager forces with slaves, who were promised freedom to serve as soldiers and valuable guides. Any slave who made it to British property was guaranteed freedom. Of 5,000 escaped slaves, only 500 became soldiers, but the records show they were fearless fighters and served in almost every theater of the war, from Canada and Michigan to the Chesapeake Bay. The author holds no great love for Andrew Jackson, who promised freedom and monetary and land rewards to slaves who joined the American forces--he had no intention of honoring that promise. Smith illustrates clearly the plight of American slaves as they desperately struggled to gain their freedom and the lies, deception and deviousness their owners used to deny it.

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St. Martin's Press
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The Slaves' Gamble

Choosing Sides in the War of 1812

By Gene Allen Smith

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2013 Gene Allen Smith
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-137-31008-8



"Never of any use after they have carried arms"

In his study of Indian-white relations from the mid-seventeenth to the early nineteenth century, historian Richard White keenly described a middle ground where the white man and red man created a common world, adapted to changing lifestyles, and learned to accommodate cultural differences. His middle ground, located around the Great Lakes region, described "the place in between: in between cultures, peoples, and in between empires and the nonstate world of villages. It is the place where many of the North American subjects and allies of empire lived." Although White's book depicted only the relationship between Indians and whites, the basic thesis also applies to the world of African Americans during the same period because they too often occupied a middle ground between whites and Indians, between English and Spanish, and between the status of citizen and slave.

Europeans, mainly the English and Spanish, brought African Americans to the New World in bondage, forcing them to perform the arduous and demanding tasks that whites felt were beneath them. Because of this expectation, from the beginning, Europeans constructed a two-tiered social system based on race. Whites were expected to fulfill their obligations as subjects of their respective empire, while blacks spent their days toiling for their white masters. Spaniards and English alike were expected to use all available resources to expand their respective nation's empire in the New World, and settling slaves became one means of strengthening their hold over indigenous lands. Yet solidifying imperial claims by utilizing a system of slavery was only part of the process and did not take into consideration external factors such as the vastness and danger of the land itself, disease, and hostile Native Americans. These extenuating circumstances strained white resources, ultimately forcing Europeans to compromise on what they expected from both citizens and slaves.

By the beginning of the eighteenth century most of the European imperial boundaries in the New World had been defined, and this created an intense competition for any remaining land. Spain had consolidated its control over Central and South America and the Caribbean. France had expanded its holdings down the St. Lawrence and Mississippi River basins. Meanwhile Britain had secured a foothold along the Atlantic coast of North America. Each European power had carved out western empires, but their claims often overlapped and were sometimes tenuous at best. This resulted in a series of wars (1689–1763) fought in Europe as well as North America, which had a devastating effect on the colonies: they depleted the white manpower supply and ultimately forced colonial leaders to turn to free blacks and slaves to supplement their military forces. For more than a century this necessity afforded blacks who were willing to take up arms more opportunities, even though prejudice and old values prevented them from securing any degree of equality.

The many conflicts prior to the War of 1812 reveal the conditions under which the British, Americans, Spanish, and Native American/maroon (fugitive runaway blacks who settled away from whites) communities relied on blacks as combatants. By the beginning of the nineteenth century black soldiers had clearly demonstrated their value in the military, serving in a variety of offensive, defensive, and supporting roles. They had also won a variety of concessions — depending on for whom they fought — showing that military service offered an avenue for converting those hard-earned concessions to freedom. It was no surprise that these same groups turned to African Americans and that they willfully served during the War of 1812; black soldiers had proven themselves to be effective troops, and their desire to improve their well-being materially provided strong motivation for taking up arms.


The use of African Americans as soldiers in the United States evolved over a long period of time. Even so, the shortage of white soldiers in the North American colonies combined with a Native American and foreign threat compelled colonials to use any fighting men, black or white, in their struggle for survival in a hostile, untamed land. Not surprisingly, life or death was determined by a combination of persistence and luck, not by skin color.

The ever-present threat of warfare against Native Americans became a common life-shaping feature of colonial existence during the seventeenth century, which ultimately forced each colony to devise a means of defending itself. For example, Virginia, which initially had a limited white population, expanding boundaries, and problems with Indians, armed blacks until their Native American difficulties abated during the late 1630s. By that time Virginia's white population had grown by an estimated five thousand, creating a mistaken belief that the Indians had been overwhelmed by force of numbers and thereafter would not offer further resistance. Such confidence in January 1639 prompted the colonial assembly to declare that "all persons except Negroes" had to secure arms and ammunition for defending the colony.

This legislation soon became problematic. During the spring of 1644 the aging Powhatan chief Opechancanough attacked the Virginia settlements, slaughtering more than three hundred. The Virginia assembly, despite the renewed violence, excluded blacks from military service, and by doing so the colonial government drew a distinction between the servants of the colony and the slaves, who were obligated to masters who served the colony. That presumption was further confirmed at the beginning of the eighteenth century when a special act prohibited blacks from holding "any office, ecclesiastical, civil, or military." Any black carrying a "gun, sword, club, staff, or other weapon" would be punished. One exception did permit blacks living on the frontier to possess weapons for their safety and defense, but only if they had white supervision. Virginia had passed laws proscribing blacks from carrying weapons or serving in the militia, but amended those laws when necessary.

Other southern colonies experienced comparable threats and dealt with them in a similar fashion. Near the end of the First Anglo-Dutch War in 1654, the General Assembly of Maryland required that "all persons from sixteen years of age to sixty," including free blacks and slaves, be provided with weapons to serve the commonwealth. In 1715, during the peaceful aftermath of some two decades of warfare, the Maryland assembly reversed its previous policy and precluded "all Negroes and Slaves" from military service. Likewise, the South Carolina assembly used slaves in 1671 to build fortifications around the ill-defended city of Charleston. During Queen Anne's War, the assembly further required that "trusty slaves" be armed with a "serviceable lance, hatchet, or gun" to protect the colony from a Spanish attack. Should those armed blacks capture or kill an enemy — and such a deed would have to be verified by a white witness — the slave would be granted freedom. If a slave was wounded in battle or taken prisoner and then escaped, he too would be emancipated. Apparently these conditions worked so well for South Carolina that in April 1708 the assembly renewed the provisions, employing blacks as full-fledged members of the militia.

Northern colonies with smaller slave and free black populations faced similar difficulties. The Dutch colony of New Netherland in 1641, experiencing increased problems with the Algonquian tribes along the lower Hudson River, required that slaves be armed with a "tomyhawk and a half pick." Recurring Native American troubles, combined with constant encroachments by the surrounding English colonies, also forced the Dutch to arm blacks as a defensive supplement. During the most destructive conflict in New England, King Philip's War in 1676, Rhode Island required its surprisingly large slave population to muster in the militia and perform the same training as white Englishmen.

By the end of the seventeenth century the English North American colonies had defined their black-white military relationship. Slaves and free blacks served as soldiers during a crisis, but once the trouble had passed both groups were relegated to their former subservient positions. The eighteenth century brought far more crises and more opportunities for African Americans to demonstrate their value as soldiers and citizens, but did not further clarify the already existing black-white relationship.

The troubling Yamasee War, beginning during the spring of 1715 because of white encroachment on Yamasee land and debt owed by the tribe to British traders, brought new opportunities for blacks, as it threatened not only the South Carolina frontier but also red-white relations throughout each of the English North American colonies. Success against the colonists could provide confidence for other Native American tribes and spur bloody conflicts all along the western frontier. Such a possibility demanded concerted action by the colonies. South Carolina's governor Charles Craven desperately asked Britain, New England, Virginia, and North Carolina for help, but he was forced by the need for men to hire a thousand soldiers (half of whom were African Americans) to meet the Indian threat. Fearing a growing Indian uprising and a possible slave insurrection, North Carolina leaders warned caution "lest our slaves when arm'd might become our masters." Not surprisingly, that fear resonated strongly throughout all the slaveholding colonies and emphasized how careful whites would be when arming blacks to counter Native American threats. During 1719 South Carolinians, foreseeing the fears that North Carolina leaders had warned against, revised the state's militia laws, giving slaves cash rewards rather than freedom for capturing or killing one of the enemy.

Although white Carolinians had used blacks to defeat Native Americans in the past, thereafter the Carolina assembly provided Indians with guns, ammunition, and supplies to capture escaped slaves. They relocated Indians to areas with high concentrations of slaves so they would "be an awe to the negroes." According to one Carolinian, it made "the Indians & Negro's checque upon each other ... [or] we should be crushed by one or the other." Later eighteenth-century wars demonstrated precisely how white southerners hung between the horrors of slave insurrections and the atrocities of an Indian uprising.

The War of Jenkins' Ear (1739) (Jenkins's ear was cut off by a Spanish Coast Guard official off Cuba), which evolved into the larger and more important King George's War in North America (beginning in 1744) and was also part of the general European War of Austrian Succession (1740–48), exacerbated an already tenuous situation. British and Spanish frontier fighting along the Georgia-Florida border, which had been ongoing for years, offered slaves and free blacks renewed opportunities for freedom. During January 1739 Gen. James Oglethorpe, founder of the Georgia colony, led an unsuccessful eighteen-month assault-turned-siege against Spanish St. Augustine. Although the assault — executed by regular redcoat soldiers, white militiamen, Indian allies, royal naval forces, and about eight hundred slaves — and subsequent attacks during 1742 and 1743 failed to dislodge the Spanish from Florida, according to one colonial they temporarily "spoil'd [Spain's] usual Methods of decoying our Negroes from Carolina, and elsewhere." The attacks also accentuated a growing American problem. The Spanish government and military warmly received runaway slaves and free blacks as a means of bolstering isolated segments of their far-flung empire, and the shortage of white troops forced Spain to rely on black soldiers as a means of ensuring the defense of Florida.

By 1744 diplomatic relations between Britain and France had deteriorated, and the two countries declared war on each other, joining the War of Austrian Succession. France enlisted the support of her Native American allies, setting the northern frontier ablaze in violence. Although the New England colonies, which bore the brunt of this war, had forbidden blacks from bearing arms and mustering with the militia, this immediate crisis and the shortage of white soldiers again forced New Englanders to accept blacks within their ranks. When Massachusetts governor William Shirley recruited soldiers to meet the French threat, blacks from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Rhode Island volunteered, often identified as "Nero," "Cuffee Negro," "Adam a Negro," or a similarly descriptive name.

African Americans played important, although often overlooked roles in the military operations that made Britain the greatest imperial power of the late eighteenth century. Regardless, defining the motivation that prompted these men to bear arms proves far more difficult than chronicling their activities. One slave, Toney, a cook who served aboard several Boston privateers, did so because his master Samuel Lyndes enrolled him in the service; generally, slaves surrendered to their masters half of any wages or prize money earned, which meant that military service could be profitable, provided the slave survived the experience. Even so, some colonies such as New Jersey refused to arm blacks. In other instances slaves attended their masters who were fighting in the conflict and became unwilling participants in a struggle in which they had no interest.

Many free blacks, such as George Gire, saw the military as a means of advancement. After the French and Indian War, Gire petitioned the Massachusetts legislature and received, because of his "hard service," a pension of forty shillings per year. Forty shillings was not a great fortune, but the money demonstrated nonetheless that the legislature acknowledged and appreciated his sacrifice. Some may have chosen to bear arms because they believed it their duty as freemen, while others joined the conflict only because they had been forced to do so. In fact, some communities tried to use war service as a means to purge all criminals, paupers, and free blacks from their neighborhoods. Despite the reasons for their service, it cannot be denied that free blacks and slaves had found a place for themselves in the eighteenth-century military.

A single theme regarding blacks and the military had emerged during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Colonial law and social pressure forbade free blacks and slaves from bearing arms, but the defenselessness of the colonies, the constant Indian and foreign threat, and a limited white population willing to muster in the military revealed an immediate need to enlist the services of black soldiers. By the 1770s that pattern had been well established, and it remained in place during the first months of the American War for Independence.

Blacks had played prominent roles in the events leading to the war. The "first martyr" of the struggle was the runaway slave Crispus Attucks from Framingham, Massachusetts, who died during the March 1770 Boston Massacre. A Rhode Island mulatto named Aaron helped torch the infamous British revenue cutter Gaspee off the coast of Providence in June 1772, while black militiamen Prince Easterbrook of Lexington, Pompey of Braintree, and Sam Croft of Newton all fought against the British on April 19, 1775, at the Battles of Lexington and Concord. At the June 1775 Battle of Bunker Hill black and white militiamen again confronted the British. One black soldier, Salem Poor, fought so bravely during the battle that fourteen white officers recommended him to the Massachusetts General Court for commendation; this "brave and gallant soldier" later suffered alongside his white compatriots at White Plains and Valley Forge.

After Bunker Hill, British forces withdrew to the safe confines of the Boston peninsula while colonial militiamen swarmed the outskirts of the city, making sure that redcoats did not venture into the countryside again. Included among the units that surrounded the city was Col. John Nixon's New Hampshire regiment with three slaves, another New Hampshire regiment with two black militiamen, as well as regiments from Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, all with black soldiers. In fact, Gen. John Thomas, commanding one of the American brigades outside Boston, acknowledged the presence of black troops, remarking that they were "equally serviceable with other men, for fatigue [duties] and in action." Despite their bravery and the praise of white officers, Thomas reported a growing prejudice against black soldiers. He noted that southern militiamen did not tolerate black troops, but, then again, southerners held prejudices against any soldier who resided north of the Potomac River.


Excerpted from The Slaves' Gamble by Gene Allen Smith. Copyright © 2013 Gene Allen Smith. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Gene Allen Smith is a professor of History and the director of the Center for Texas Studies at TCU in Fort Worth, Texas. The author of numerous books, he is also the curator of History at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History. Smith has received research awards from TCU and Montana State University-Billings, as well as fellowships from the Henry E. Huntington Library, the Virginia Historical Society, the US Department of the Navy, the US Military Academy at West Point, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. He lives in Fort Worth, Texas.

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