The Slaves’ Gamble

History is the story of real people, and The Slaves’ Gamble describes how real people struggled to find freedom during the War of 1812.  By using the story of real individuals, this study, by Gene Allen Smith, reveals 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.

Slaves GambleDuring 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.

Choosing Sides

The Slaves’ Gamble: Choosing Sides in the War of 1812 looks at African American combatants during the War of 1812 as a way to understand the War and the evolution of racial relations during the early nineteenth century.  In many instances black participants—slaves and freemen—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 the route to freedom proceeded south from Canada to the 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., 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 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 appeared.  Those slaves who took the chance to flee to British lines ultimately found freedom in British colonies such as Bermuda, Canada, or Trinidad.  Though they remained impoverished economically, they had won their freedom.

Sons of 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 Andrew Jackson had called “Sons of Freedom,” 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.

Gene Allen Smith

Gene’s book, The Slaves’ Gamble: Choosing Sides in the War of 1812, published by Palgrave Macmillan, is available in the US and available in the UK from 9 February 2013.