The Slaves’ Gamble, Choosing Sides in the war of 1812

Slaves Gamble book jacket 25 percent“The Slaves’ Gamble” by Professor of history Gene Smith helps to fill a huge void in information about what, if any, kind of resistance enslaved people put up against their condition of bondage.

For those not necessarily interested in details about the history of military engagements–but who do need to have the military context to understand the complex nature of enslaved resistance–this subject is quite engaging.  In learning the history of the United States many of us learned very, very little about any kind of resistance to slavery or denial of citizenship.  This book provides many documented instances of how people who were enslaved or formerly enslaved took action against that system to try to determine their own fate.

As the three European superpowers–France, Spain and England–strategized and fought over the North American continent along with the new country of America (even before it was America and still colonies), slaves tried to figure out what was the best course of action for them to take to be masters of their own fate in this complex, deadly game of Western world domination.  It will probably be surprising to most readers to learn the types of decisions made as well as the variety of locations where the refugees from enslavement landed.

The British were instrumental in taking in refugees in order to destabilize the American military and economy by incorporating black males into their armed forces which would add manpower to their ranks and also serve to scare the American slaveholders into anticipating slave uprisings.

[General] Cockburn’s operations along the South Atlantic Coast greatly exceeded expectations. He had ravaged the economy, he terrorized the population, and, by early February 1815, he was overwhelmed by refugees, who strained his resources.  He tried to enlist every able-bodied male as a sailor or soldier, but not all slaves would enlist.  Cockburn had those who did not enlist immediately transferred to vessels, where they would await departure to Bermuda.  Spreading the refugees throughout the fleet also lessened the material demands on individual ships.  Even so, he needed more supplies, food, and clothing, as well as additional ships to take them away.  Once a vessel arrived with supplies, it was quickly unloaded to provision the troops and refugees.  The vessel soon refilled with anxious men, women, and children for the voyage to Bermuda.  This routine moved so methodically that by the end of March 1815, some 1,483 refugees had been whisked away.  Yet many of those who arrived at Cumberland Island [a staging ground for the British] were already sick and weakened, succumbing to disease.  More than 280 people died during the occupation, or about four people each day.  Ultimately, the total number of refugees who found their way to the island during the two-month period totaled more than 1,700, representing one of the greatest short-term black diasporas in antebellum American history.” 1

Blacks and Creoles from Louisiana who fought in the War of 1812 were anxious to be recognized both socially and financially:

Between 1830 and 1850 many of the aging black soldiers or their heirs applied for and received pensions.  The Louisiana legislature awarded pensions of $8 per month to Vincent Populus (1831), the widow of Capt. Louis Simon (1835), militia captain Jean Baptiste Hardy (1836), Lt. Isidore McCarthy Honore (1847), Sgt. Pierre Dupart (1848), and senior musician Louis Hazeur (1850).  Eighty-year-old Captain Hardy’s pension increased to $25 in 1845, making him the second-highest pensioner from the Battle of New Orleans.  By the early 1850s the state legislature tightened pension applications to include only those who had been exposed to battle.  The two battalions of freemen of color who served at Chalmette remained eligible for pensions, and the “Association of Colored Veterans of 1814 and 1815 of New Orleans”—a group chartered in 1853 by thirty-one living freemen of color who had fought at Chalmette, including Jordan Noble and Barthelemy Populus—worked to help claimants and their survivors qualify for benefits.  Additionally, the Association also provided for the veterans in sickness and death and tried to keep alive the memory of free black participation during the battle. 2

For those of our readers who are researching their family histories, this book can be another tool in your arsenal that could be helpful in discovering what may have happened to ancestors—why they ended up where they did—and give insight into researching in locations and archives previously unknown.

For those who are interested in knowing more about resistance to slavery, this book is an excellent way to begin that knowledge journey.

Lenora Gobert

Source:  The Slaves’ Gamble Choosing Sides in the War of 1812, Gene Allen Smith; 1 Pg. 162, 2 Pg. 206

4 thoughts on “The Slaves’ Gamble, Choosing Sides in the war of 1812

  1. Lenora, thank you for the review and the suggestion.

    The centennial (1915) commemoration of the Battle of New Orleans excluded any mention of the some 430 men who served, other than a passing reference to Jordan Noble.

    This book might help to bring those stories and sacrifices into the light of day.

    • Fernin, thank you for your comment and, you are correct. The professor and researcher who wrote this book presented at the 2016 anniversary event at Nunez College which is where I got the book. It was refreshing to many attendees to experience his presentation of history that most do not know.

    • Hello Denise, just Google the title and author and the results will give you places where you can purchase it or libraries, universities that might have it in their collections.

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