When American Slaves Fought Back — Alongside the British
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because every cloud has a gun-toting, badass silver lining.
By Eugene S. Robinson
They teach history all wrong. Dates are important, sure, but the reality of it is, no one remembers the dates without the deeds, and when the deeds include 400 slaves becoming British soldiers and duking it out with Andrew Jackson in Florida? Well, you start to wonder why it’s not already a Tarantino flick.
In 1814, British Rear Adm. Sir Alexander Cochrane, skirmishing with the United States on the Atlantic and along the Gulf of Mexico as part of the War of 1812, had an idea. Not a particularly novel one, as it followed a similar action in 1808 and was generally drawn from the Brit’s playbook of enlisting disease-resistant locals to “help.” But in a United States that many expected to throw itself apart — the Civil War bloodbath still a half-century off — it was novel enough to attract President James Madison’s attention. And interesting enough to pull Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson into the fray well before he showed any sign of presidential aspirations.
Black volunteers in large numbers stepped forward to defend homelands which paradoxically deprived them of basic freedoms for which they fought.
Gerard T. Altoff, Amongst My Best Men
Cochrane also sweetened the deal — the right to catch a bullet probably seemed cold comfort to a slave — with an immigration masterstroke: Enlisted slaves would be welcomed by the Brits as free settlers to any place in North America or the West Indies where the British flag flew. Not to be outdone, Jackson made a similar offer in an 1814 speech in New Orleans to “Men of Color,” topping it off with “The President of the United States shall be informed of your conduct on the present occasion, and the voice of the representatives of the American nation shall applaud your valor, as your general now praises your ardor.” The good general, it should be noted, owned as many as 300 slaves throughout his life.
So, perhaps not so surprisingly, 400 slaves/refugees took Cochrane up on his offer to become “blue jackets” in the Corps of Colonial Marines, grab guns and take a shot at a better life. A shot that started with their first fight at the Battle of Rumley’s Gut in Virginia. British Capt. James Ross, sounding surprised, noted that the corps involvement “was marked by great spirit and vivacity.” Something noted by U.S. leaders as well, who stepped up recruiting efforts and soon had about 500 Black soldiers, also fighting for the promise of some version of freedom. And just to be crystal clear about all of war’s strange bedfellowing, these were Black soldiers shooting and killing white soldiers.
“Black volunteers in large numbers stepped forward to defend homelands which paradoxically deprived them of basic freedoms for which they fought,” Gerard T. Altoff wrote in Amongst My Best Men: African-Americans and the War of 1812. Despite all the discrimination, Altoff noted, “African-Americans stepped forward to serve, either in a civilian or a military capacity.” Fueled by? Hope, or perhaps a belief in American promises over British guarantees.
By the time the war ended in 1815, battle after battle had been fought with more men lost to disease than combat. The Brits made good on their offers, with some of the soldiers following them to Bermuda, the Bahamas, Trinidad and various other island communities. And the ones who stayed behind? Promptly attacked by Andrew Jackson at the Battle of Negro Fort — a struggle that kicked off the First Seminole War and merciless campaigns against Native Americans.
So entered in the historical canon, the human dimension that makes all those dates mean something other than stuff that’ll make a class of high schoolers roll their eyes. Tarantino? You listening?