For the United States the War of 1812 was a second War of Independence against the British that birthed emblems of American nationalism such as the national flag, the “Star-Spangled Banner” and Uncle Sam, the national icon.

But for many enslaved Blacks it was the first major pathway to self-determination and freedom. Thousands of Blacks, both free and enslaved, together played a significant role in the outcome of the war, something officials and historians said should be remembered even as the world recognizes the conflict’s bicentennial, which began June 18.

“Black volunteers in large numbers stepped forward to defend homelands which paradoxically deprived them of basic freedoms for which they fought,” wrote historian Gerard T. Altoff in his book {Amongst My Best Men: African Americans and the War of 1812.} “In spite of overt prejudice, discrimination, and hatred, African-Americans stepped forward to serve, either in a civilian or a military capacity.”

For enslaved Blacks with an eye toward freedom the war offered several options: they could fight for the U.S., run away and seek freedom among the Native Americans or join His Majesty’s service. Many chose the latter, convinced that a British victory would hasten the end of slavery. The British nurtured that belief to some extent, and promised the slaves free emigration to British colonies in Canada and the West Indies in exchange for their service.
When British ships entered the Chesapeake Bay in March 1813, hundreds of slaves and their families canoed their way to the enemy fleet and claimed their freedom. In all, more than 4,000 formerly enslaved Blacks obtained freedom in the largest emancipation outside of the Civil War.

Many of those refugee slaves were culled to form the Colonial Marines, all-Black fighting units, which British naval leaders believed would inspire fear and hatred among Americans, especially those in the slave-holding South. The Colonial Marines had a hand in the burning of Washington and the Battle of Baltimore, and fought against American forces all along the coast. According to a {} article, “The British commander-in-chief said they were ‘infinitely more dreaded by the Americans than the British troops.’”

“There was a history of this same involvement in the 1770s when they had the initial American Revolution. So this whole promise by the British offering freedom to slaves is an old story on the Chesapeake. It started with the Ethiopian troops that were enlisted in the war of 1776 and it carried forth,” said Vince Leggett, president, Blacks of the Chesapeake Foundation, in the PBS documentary {The War of 1812.}

American Blacks, both free and enslaved, also fought for their country, playing important roles in the major battles of the war, including the one in Baltimore. The city had many skilled free Blacks who, as naval mechanics, sail makers, riggers, carpenters and ship caulkers, helped build naval ships and constructed gun carriages and built defenses.

“Sixty percent of the army company defending (Baltimore’s) Ft. McHenry was immigrants. One out of five were African-American citizens of a slave-holding country,” said Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley at the launch of the state’s celebrations June 18. “The Star Spangled Banner – the giant flag that was hoisted over Ft. McHenry as the British guns finally fell silent – was stitched together by black and white hands,… hands of freedom, hands that were not free, the hands of a nation that is always growing and evolving.”

Free Blacks, particularly those among the 4,600 or so free Blacks who lived in Louisiana around the time, saw their involvement as a way of shoring up their status in U.S. society. The enslaved joined on the promise of emancipation.

“They were happy to be there fighting on the understanding that afterwards they would be given land as free farmers, and I see that as a true manifestation of their ‘Americaness,’” said John Weiss, British historian and Colonial Marines scholar.

But Black involvement in the U.S. military came about only because of a chronic shortage of manpower. Even then, opportunities existed mainly in the Navy, which offered Black seaman a more egalitarian existence. Louisiana was the only state to have a Black-inclusive militia.

Of the 6,000 troops who successfully routed the British in the Battle of New Orleans, 500 were Black.

On the sea, Black sailors had a reputation for valor in battle. According to the PBS article, when Capt. Oliver Hazard Perry complained about having Blacks on his ship, Commodore Isaac Chauncey replied, “I have nearly fifty Blacks on this boat and many of them are among the best of my men.”

At the Battle of Lake Erie, where Perry’s fleet thwarted the British, Perry discovered Chauncey’s truism for himself. His Black sailors performed so well that he wrote to the Secretary of the Navy, praising their courage.

While few question the contributions Black enlistees, as a whole, made in this war, individual contributions are harder to pinpoint. “…Black soldiers were incorporated into regular regiments beside White troops, where their racial identity was swallowed up,” Altoff explained.

Still, there were some key Black figures:

-William Ware, Daniel Martin and John Strachan were at the center of a skirmish that almost precipitated the declaration of war. The 1812 conflict was partly caused by Britain’s impressments of American ships, which stymied U.S. trade. One such incident occurred on June 22, 1807 when the British ship, the HMS Leopard attacked the U.S. Frigate Chesapeake, which has just sailed from Norfolk, Va. According to Altoff’s account, the Leopard’s captain, Salusbury Humphries alleged that four of the Chesapeake’s crew members were deserters who should be returned to the king’s service. After a 10-minute engagement in which the American ship never had a chance, four seamen were impressed, including Ware, Martin and Strachan. Four years later, two of those men were returned to the U.S.; one died while in custody.

– Charles Ball, who chronicled his experiences in the war and his struggle for freedom in his memoir, {The Life of Charles Ball, A Black Man,} published in 1836. Born into slavery in Maryland, Ball served as a seaman in Commodore Joshua Barney’s U.S. Chesapeake Flotilla. Despite his contributions, Ball was sold into slavery after the war and spent many years after fighting for his freedom.

-William Williams was born into slavery in Maryland. In 1814, the 21-year-old ran away from his owner, Benjamin Oden, and on April 14, he enlisted as a private in the U.S. Army—despite a federal law that prohibited slaves from joining—and was assigned to the 38th U.S. Infantry Regiment. In September 1814, during a British attack on Fort McHenry, Williams was severely wounded, having his leg “blown off by a cannonball.” He was taken to the Baltimore Hospital, where he died two months later.

George Roberts, a free Black, served on the privateers Chasseur (“Pride of Baltimore”) and Sarah Ann.

Paul Jennings, the enslaved manservant of President James Madison, helped rescue the portrait of George Washington and other treasures before the British burned the White House in August 1814.


Zenitha Prince

Special to the AFRO