The Slaves’ Gamble: Choosing Sides in the War of 1812 by Gene Allen Smith
Slavery, War of 1812, Borderlands, Free blacks
The 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, marked by documentaries, radio programs, and international conferences, sparked numerous reevaluations of the changing historiography of the war, both in social and military history. One point of discussion that emerged in forum after forum was the peculiar regional facets of the war, which seem to defy efforts to create a unified narrative.
Studies of the conflict, and interpretations of it, vary considerably depending on whether it is viewed as a frontier war of Indian removal, a legacy of hostilities from the American Revolution, or a sideshow of the Napoleonic wars. In his book The Weight of Vengeance (New York, 2012), Troy Bickham notes a strong tendency to localize the study of the War of 1812, so that the Canadian campaigns, the Chesapeake, or naval actions alternately take center stage. Or, as Jeremy Black observes, “The War of 1812 is difficult to discuss clearly because it was a particularly disparate struggle and, therefore, without any central narrative. There were separate campaigns on the Canadian frontier . . . as well as around Chesapeake Bay and its river system, and in the Gulf of Mexico.”1 Or again, as J. C. A. Stagg notes in the introductory essay to The War of 1812: Conflict for a Continent, “Successive generations of American and Canadian historians developed two parallel streams of historiography about the place of the War of 1812 in their national narratives, with little thought being given to the possibility that the streams might, or should, intersect.”2
Gene Smith’s The Slaves’ Gamble joins a number of other studies that [End Page 789] avoid a regional perspective on the war by examining its impact on specific segments of the population. Smith opts for wide geographic and cultural coverage as he traces the significance of the war for free and enslaved people of color, and simultaneously illustrates how black soldiers, contrabands, and civilians fared during the war years. The work opens with an overview of the integration of men of color, both free and slave, into the fighting forces of colonial America and the early republic. Smith then covers the imperial borderlands of the United States (British to the north, Spanish to the south). The colonial inhabitants of these two areas lived in tense juxtaposition with their American neighbors, in part because the frontier areas provided Indian tribes with autonomy and land rights that impeded U.S. expansion; and in part because enslaved people had a chance at liberty if they could get across the international border. Besides this, both areas were hard-pressed to fill the ranks of their militia forces, creating opportunities for free blacks or fugitives from slavery to enlist.
Drawing heavily on previous research, notably Jane Landers’s Black Society in Spanish Florida (Urbana, IL, 1999), Smith shows how border tensions came to shape African American participation in the War of 1812 along the frontiers. This theme is then expanded to consider the place of black soldiers in overall British military strategy once war with the United States broke out. With personal stories drawn from memoirs, military correspondence, and other sources, Smith outlines the decisions confronting people of color in all the theaters of the War of 1812: service in the British or American navies, flight from the war zone, recruitment into the army, alliance with Native Americans. There is a detailed discussion of the 1813–1814 British campaign in the Chesapeake, with its appeals to slaves to flee their masters, its raids of plantations, and its gradually evolving policy on how to treat the men and women fleeing to the British. The focus then turns south again, where Cumberland Island, off southeastern Georgia, and Prospect Bluff, on the Apalachicola River above Florida’s Big Bend, became magnets for enslaved men and women seeking the British ranks. Smith’s final chapter follow the fortunes of prisoners of war and of those who left the continental United States as British evacuees.
As Smith makes clear in his epilogue, the War of 1812 bequeathed a mixed legacy to people of color. Perhaps as many as 5,000 enslaved men and women escaped to the British lines during the war. Some were evacuated to Bermuda or Canada, while those in active military service [End Page 790] eventually reached Trinidad and Belize. Although free from bondage, few evacuees were free from hardship, and only their descendants would live to see some degree of social equality in the new places where they settled. Similarly, those who fought for the United States often found the republic unappreciative of their service. In New Orleans, nearly twenty years passed before the free blacks who served with Andrew Jackson were gradually acknowledged in commemorations of the war; the slaves in Jackson’s forces, who served in hopes of attaining freedom, never got it. As for those who directly challenged the southern institution of slavery, like the defenders of the Negro Fort in 1816, loss of British support meant they were either overwhelmed or scattered into the ranks of the southeastern Indians.
In many respects, then, The Slaves’ Gamble traces out patterns of resistance, and reaches conclusions that relate to other new works on the era: Larry E. Rivers’s Rebels and Runaways: Slave Resistance in 19th Century Florida (Urbana, IL, 2012); Frank Marotti’s The Cana Sanctuary: History, Diplomacy, and Black Catholic Marriage in Antebellum St. Augustine, Florida (Tuscaloosa, AL, 2012); and the same author’s Heaven’s Soldiers: Free People of Color and the Spanish Legacy in Antebellum Florida (Tuscaloosa, AL, 2013). Smith provides ample evidence that the War of 1812 stands as a major historical marker of challenges and resistance to slavery before the Civil War. Scholars of southern history and the early republic will find it essential and informative reading.
James G. Cusick is curator of the P. K. Yonge Library of Florida History, University of Florida. He is the author of The Other War of 1812: The Patriot War and the American Invasion of Spanish East Florida (Athens, GA, 2007), and coeditor of The Voyages of Ponce de León: Scholarly Perspectives (Cocoa, FL, 2012).
1. Jeremy Black, The War of 1812 in the Age of Napoleon (Norman, OK, 2009), 44.
2. J. C .A. Stagg, War of 1812: Conflict for a Continent (New York, 2012), 12.