The Slaves’ Gamble a look at African Americans in the War of 1812

Cross-posted to Frontier Battles

While a little outside the chronological range covered by this blog, I thought I would share exciting news about a new book that seeks to alter our impression of antebellum slavery through the lens of the War of 1812.


Smith, Gene Allen. The Slaves’ Gamble:  Choosing Sides in the War of 1812.  New York:  Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.  272pp. $27.00.

Gene Allen Smith, historian at Texas Christian University, has written an interesting examination of how slaves viewed and used the conflict for their own opportunities.  He showed that the war saw all sides using African Americans to aid their causes, while blacks saw the war as their chance to assert themselves, whether for seeking equality, in the case of free blacks, or freedom for slaves.  Further, the war was a turning point in American race relations, as Smith noted that slavery was in a tenuous situation on war’s eve.

He noted that the war drastically altered this path of decline and that it further halted any potential progress towards freedom or equality, as blacks who joined British forces, seeking to better their lot in life, returned with invading forces, leading enemy troops into American communities. The consequence of this was a greater distrust among whites of arming slaves and enrolling blacks in militia units to augment white manpower, which continued into the Civil War, where African Americans served in segregated regiments with white officers. One of the other major problems resulting from the war was the expansion of available land for plantation agriculture, and plantation-based slavery.(3-4)

Smith begins his study by examining the story of black participation in North American wars. What is great about this chapter is the examination of the cross-cultural interactions, echoing Richard White’s remarkable work The Middle Ground. He concluded that the contributions of blacks to military conflicts during the colonial and revolutionary periods redefined the relationships between blacks and whites in North America.(31)

As he examined the role of blacks during the War of 1812, he weaved in the stories of black participants across the various theaters, providing a new and exciting understanding of the war that is as important to the larger field of study on the war as Donald Hickey. Smith concluded that blacks found became aware that their contributions to the war were minimized in post-war America. Further, white Americans began to react fearfully to black insurrection possibilities and worked to prevent the arming of blacks. Also, northern states began enacting laws outlawing blacks residing in them. Slavery became more entrenched in the South, as new areas were available for cotton production. Thus the war served as the last opportunity for blacks to attempt to fight for their place in society until the Civil War.(210-214)

The book is well researched, relying on sources from such scholars as Richard White, Gary Nash, Ian Steele, Stagg, and Don Hickey. In addition to strong secondary sources, Smith utilized several great primary sources that considered black participation, as well as interactions with Native Americans.

A good monograph that examines the difficult situation faced by blacks as they attempted to choose a side in the War of 1812 to further their position, Smith’s The Slaves’ Gamble is a great book for scholars interested in African American history, military history, the War of 1812, and is a good book for those interested in the Civil War, as it illustrates quite well how the forces that led to that great struggle came into being by America’s “second war for independence”.

Historians uncover new Abraham Lincoln records

Documents reveal Civil War era plans to resettle freed slaves in the Caribbean

February 9, 2011 (Washington, DC) – Recently discovered Civil War records have added a new twist to the familiar story of the Emancipation Proclamation. After signing the document that freed the slaves on January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln spent the better part of a year attempting to resettle African-Americans in the Caribbean.

Lincoln’s proposal to “colonize” the ex-slaves abroad involved a little known agreement with Great Britain to establish freedmen’s settlements in Belize and Guyana, at the time colonial possessions of the British Empire. Though the U.S. Government investigated the sites and even made preparations for sending the first ship of settlers, the plan later faltered amidst political wrangling within Lincoln’s own cabinet.

The forgotten story of Lincoln’s little-known colonization project was recently unearthed by historians Phillip W. Magness and Sebastian N. Page. They present their findings in “Colonization after Emancipation: Lincoln and the Movement for Black Resettlement,” (ISBN 978-0-8262-1909-1) due out next week from the University of Missouri Press.

Evidence of Lincoln’s post-emancipation plans remained hidden for almost 150 years until its discovery by Magness and Page in seldom-searched consular and diplomatic files at the British National Archives outside of London, and the U.S. National Archives in Washington, DC.

“Lincoln personally pitched the scheme to the British ambassador only three weeks after the Emancipation Proclamation,” said Magness. “It was a matter of diplomatic secrecy, so it left a very sparse paper trail.”

He also explained that several of the American files were dispersed in the fallout from a budgetary dispute that ultimately resulted in Congress suspending the project’s funding in 1864, adding another complication to the search.

“Most of the documents from the American side are missing, and the British files were all transported back to London,” Magness continued. “We essentially had to reconstruct what happened from letters and transcribed copies that were spread across the Atlantic.”

Among the records found at the UK Archives is an 1863 order by Lincoln granting a British agent permission to recruit volunteers among the freed slaves and transport them to Belize.

Dr. Magness is a researcher at George Mason University’s Institute for Humane Studies, and an Adjunct Professor at American University. Mr. Page is a Junior Research Fellow at the Queen’s College, University of Oxford.

CONTACT: Phillip Magness ~ 281-923-6702 (cell) ~

The Arizona Shooting and Civil War History

With the recent tragic shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, and the controversy surrounding the role political speech played in motivating the shooter (I believe he was crazy and prone to commit the crime regardless of the nature of political rhetoric in our country), my historical thoughts went to another attack against an elected official during a period of great turmoil in our nation over an issue more divisive than health care or immigration:  slavery.

Consider the beating of Sen. Charles Sumner (MA) by Rep. Preston Brooks (SC) in 1856. Sumner, an eventual Radical Republican, delivered a speech denouncing the Kansas-Nebraska Act in the aftermath of Bleeding Kansas, specifically excoriating Senators Stephen Douglas (IL) and Andrew Butler (SC). Brooks, a nephew of Butler, took offense at the slight to his uncle’s honor and planned to challenge Sumner to a duel. Instead, Brooks approached Sumner on May 22, 1856 as he sat at his desk in the Senate chamber, which was nearly empty. After briefly addressing him about the speech, Brooks began savagely beating Sumner with a cane. As Sumner collapsed after briefly escaping the attack, Brooks continued to beat the unconscious Senator. Others attempted to aid, but were prevented by Brooks’ accomplice, fellow South Carolina Representative Laurence Keitt, who wielded a pistol. Sumner did not return to the Senate for three more years, while he recovered from his attack. The attack illustrated the deep divide in the country over slavery. Massachusetts attempted to prove a point by re-electing Sumner, using his empty seat as a symbol of both free speech.

The attack then, just as with the tragic shooting of Giffords, sent shock waves through the nation. However, the beating of Sumner has several distinct differences from the Arizona tragedy. First, the attack against Sumner involved another elected official resorting to violence over a disagreement over slavery. Second, there is no sign that Giffords made any inflammatory speeches that would drive someone to attack her like Sumner was beaten. Ultimately, the beating of Sumner was one event in a chain that led to war simply because we failed to compromise, while the shooting in Arizona was the act of a lone gunman with more problems than disagreements over politics.

In contrast to 1856, while we are divided politically today, I doubt we will see legislators come to violence over the issues that divide us. However, in today’s culture of 24/7 media, we are bombarded by the political discord, which influences all, including those unstable people, like the shooter in Arizona. The lessons we must learn from this tragedy is to make every effort to work out our differences over the issues today. Further, we must not resort to restricting speech in light of such events, as that serves no purpose but to prevent further dialogue.

In closing, my thoughts and prayers go out to Congresswoman Giffords and all the victims of this shooting.