War of 1812, Slavery, Chesapeake, Virginia
Having previously characterized the War of 1812 along the Canadian border and the northern frontier as a ‘‘civil war,’’1 prolific historian Alan Taylor here shifts his gaze southward and chronicles a different kind of internal conflict. Although this thick volume spans sixty years of slavery, race relations, and servile insurrection in Virginia, at its core is a detailed account of the British invasion of the Chesapeake in 1813 and its aftermath. For decades, nervous Virginia planters had regarded the black Americans who worked their fields and cooked their dinners to be a potential ‘‘internal enemy,’’ and as soon as British warships arrived in [End Page 693] the bay, bondpeople who had been patiently biding their time abandoned their masters. As Taylor explains in this richly documented, elegantly written account—and as with all of Taylor’s stout tomes, The Internal Enemy is a remarkably quick read—the sheer number of black refugees forced the British to recognize their claims for freedom, even as the inability of Washington to stop their flight and protect the interests of slaveholders led postwar Virginia masters to identify with reactionary southern voices.
Taylor makes it clear that the British were reluctant emancipators, and by keeping the focus on black southerners, he demonstrates that enslaved Virginians essentially forged the policy of wartime liberation by fleeing in ever-growing numbers. Initially, the British welcomed only a handful of black men as guides and ships’ pilots, but as entire families flocked to British lines by the hundreds, white officers quickly had to rethink their strategy. Chesapeake runaways, Taylor observes, ‘‘would not take no for an answer’’ (176).
Unwilling British soldiers and sailors, often pressed into service, also helped to drive this evolution of thought among British commanders. As they had since the renewal of war against France in 1803, common mariners often deserted upon reaching American shores. Whether they signed on to American merchant vessels or settled into seaport communities, white sailors had every reason to expect a better life in the young republic. Able-bodied bondmen, General George Cockburn knew, had no such fantasies. Blacks who took up the British standard would resolutely fight their former masters rather than deserting to them. Some officers even regarded black escapees as apt payback for long years of Americans aiding and abetting white defectors. The federal government, one officer snapped, ‘‘encouraged the desertion of our Seamen,’’ and now it was only justice that ‘‘we shall punish them severely in this way’’ (200). British officers understood that the cause of black fugitives was a simple desire for freedom, rather than any fondness for crown or Parliament; but desperately in need of young, strong men, they increasingly accepted runaways as indispensable allies.
As war in the Chesapeake lingered into early 1815, bondmen who had run off as individuals enjoyed later opportunities to liberate kin and friends. Presley, a favored Virginia domestic, escaped his master in November 1813. By October 1814 he returned, this time leading a British raiding party. Having rechristened himself ‘‘Washington,’’ the black guide freed the rest of his master’s slaves, sending his old master packing. [End Page 694] The fact that his former owner was Republican Congressman Walter Jones pleased the British enormously, as such raids allowed them to highlight Virginia’s hypocrisy regarding liberty, and to undercut Republican pretensions to be fighting for American freedom.
Congressman Jones was dismayed that one of his favorite bondmen had treated him so. The theory that British soldiers had carted away happy blacks and then cruelly sold them into bondage in the Caribbean became an article of faith among Virginia politicians in the years after Ghent. As South Carolina’s General Thomas Pinckney assured James Monroe that virtually all of the black refugees had been ‘‘sold as Slaves’’ in the Caribbean, the secretary of state encouraged negotiator John Quincy Adams to demand restitution from his British counterparts. On looking into the matter, an annoyed Adams wrote to his superiors in Washington, wondering ‘‘how...