While the last few years have seen many efforts to commemorate the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, the bicentennial of the War of 1812 has drawn far less attention. This popular historical amnesia springs from the conflict’s political divisiveness, the inconsistent performance of the American military, and the war’s failure to bring a decisive U.S. victory. Still, the conflict has not lacked historians, and in recent years no scholar has done more to argue for its significance than Alan Taylor, both in his 2010 study, The Civil War of 1812, and in his Pulitzer-Prize winning The Internal Enemy. Both books have focused on the divisions fomented by the War of 1812—between Americans on both sides of the nation’s northern border, between Federalists and Republicans, and, in The Internal Enemy, between white and black southerners. Focusing on the Chesapeake, where British naval vessels sailed with impunity for much of the war, destroying plantations, stealing food and supplies, and encouraging enslaved people to flee, Taylor’s detailed narrative highlights the psychological and political impact of the runaways and the British decision to arm them. The wartime experience of white Virginians, Taylor contends, re-enforced their racist assumptions, deepened their commitment to slavery, exacerbated their suspicions of the federal government, and gave rise to a regional nationalism that embraced the Union only when it benefited southern interests.
Taylor sees the precedent for the wartime alliance between the British navy and enslaved Virginians in colonial Governor Lord Dunmore’s 1775 proclamation, which promised freedom to enslaved men who fought for the British. Although ineffective as a military tactic, Dunmore’s proclamation recast Virginia’s enslaved population as an “internal enemy” both for white Virginians and the British who returned to the Chesapeake in 1813. Although initially reluctant to enlist slaves, Royal Navy officers soon recognized their value as guides [End Page 103] and soldiers—and as a psychological weapon. Indeed, Taylor argues that the Royal Navy’s 1814 Chesapeake campaign, during which the British effectively pacified Maryland’s Patuxent Valley and Virginia’s northern neck before capturing Washington in August, succeeded in large part because of the black refugees’ local knowledge and fighting verve. By war’s end, British officers embraced their role as black liberators—a sign for them of superior British ideals—and refused to return the runaways to their erstwhile masters.
Among the highlights of Taylor’s book is his attention to the lives and decision-making of black Americans. He discerns a distinct pattern in wartime slave escapes: a few “pioneers” first fled when the Royal Navy appeared and then, with aid from the British, returned for family members. In the single largest escape, some sixty-nine enslaved people—women, children, and men—escaped from the Corotoman plantation in Virginia. In all, Taylor estimates that some five thousand enslaved people fled to the Royal Navy, with almost half of those refugees coming from Virginia. Some four hundred became soldiers in a new unit, the Colonial Marines, which fought effectively in numerous engagements in 1814 and struck fear into the hearts of white Virginians. Ultimately, these soldiers and their families, known as the “Merikans,” settled in Trinidad, where they enjoyed freedom and economic prosperity. The majority of the refugees—over three thousand—settled in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick where they faced racial prejudice and harsh economic conditions, but even so only nine refugees ultimately gave up their freedom and returned to Virginia.
Taylor also explores the impact of the British–African American alliance on the politics and economy of Virginia, focusing in particular on the Tucker-Carter-Cabell clan, the owners of the Corotoman estate. White Virginians and Marylanders experienced fully the effects of war: property destruction and theft, military service, higher taxes, death and disease, and economic decline. For many, the failure of the Madison administration to protect the Chesapeake from British attack and its restive enslaved population increased distrust of the federal [End Page 104] government and gave rise...