Monday, June 9, 2014

Black Soldiers in the War of 1812

One of my persistent interests has been tracking down the stories of African Americans who played a role in the history of the Old Northwest, particularly during the War of 1812. During the time of the War of 1812, slavery in the United States was at a turning point. The institution had been dying out slowly, prohibited by law in the northern states and economically unfeasible in the old Tobacco country. However, Yankee inventor Eli Whitney's invention of a cotton gin, or "engine" for removing the seeds from raw cotton, made slave labor very profitable for plantation owners once more. 

The American conquest and settlement of the region that would become the Southeast, and the deep south laid out the carpet for a renewal of slavery as a big business. At the same time, importation of slaves had been outlawed in the Northwest Territory. Eventually, the Middle West would be characterized by small-stake farmers, who were anxious not to compete with the southern factory farms of the slave holders. For that same reason, there were many cases of disaffected white southerners fighting against the Confederacy during the Civil War. Perhaps the biggest effect of the War of 1812 was that it laid the seeds for the American Civil War. 

Men like Thomas Worthington and William Henry Harrison freed or manumitted their slaves when they moved into the region. However, a loophole in the law allowed slave owners to have their freedmen sign indentures that left them dependent on the former owners for years. At the time of the War of 1812, many of these "servants" may have still been indentured and in the service of their former masters as servants, farm laborers, etc.

The pressures of the war on the young Republic led to many African-Americans finding themselves playing a role in the conflict. Blacks were generally barred from serving in the militia in many states, although some states allowed them and there were several notable cases of volunteer battalions or regiments being formed. In Philadelphia, a volunteer regiment of free blacks served in the defense of the city: its drills and marches were remembered by eyewitnesses but the official histories of the city were apparently purged of any reference to them. There was of course, the famous role that Major Daquin's Battalion of Free Men of Color played in the defense of New Orleans in 1815. Late in the war, as the US Army continued to have serious manpower problems, Congress seriously debated recruiting entire regiments of free blacks or offering slaves their freedom in exchange for Federal service. 

Black soldiers did fight in the Regular Army, although they were banned from joining for most of the war. The 26th and 27th Regiments of Infantry, recruited in New York City, boasted many of the black servicemen. African Americans before the war had gravitated to the merchant marine as an industry where blacks could work, and even advance, more equally than they could on land. During the war, black sailors famously fought with Oliver Hazard Perry during the Battle of Lake Erie, and they made up much of the crews who manned the gunboat squadrons which protected the eastern seaboard. Still, with the blockade making them idle, it's easy to see why more free blacks joined the Army to defend New York City. 

The issue of black soldiers is more problematic in the Western United States. Even though Ohio was a free state, there were many repressive laws designed to discourage free blacks from moving into the state. They did, regardless. However, they were represented in the Northwest Army mainly in a support role. Wagoners and pack horse masters were the lifeline of the Army during the winter of 1812-13. A significant number of these men may have been black. 

There were black servants and slaves represented at Fort Meigs: both of the Artillery officers who left diaries of the campaign mention having black servants accompanying them. While these men were not formally part of the Army, they shared in the hazards and discomforts of frontier military service. The Pittsburgh Blues volunteer infantry company brought black servants with them who picked up muskets and fought with the company during the siege of the fort in April and May. However, the low status of many of these men is reflected in the general orders which mention that "the duty of a camp colored man" would be a punishment for misbehavior: this duty seems to have involved emptying the camp's sinks or latrines.  [Edit: it seems camp color man or colourman referred instead to a fatigue party drawn from the rank and file and used to work on the police of the camp, just as pioneers were detailed to work on construction projects and clear a path for an army on the march. This makes much more sense, since in the field the relatively few "men of color" with the Northwestern army would have been the servants of particular officers, or wagoners and etc. with very specific sets of skills and duties.]

Despite their low status and invisibility in the historical record, African Americans played an important role in the defense of the United States during the War of 1812. They deserve to be honored alongside the white soldiers who fought in that war, and at the very least, not forgotten.

This website has a list of African American pioneers in Ross County. Some of them were associated with the War of 1812:

  • William (Williams) ex -slave of William Henry Harrison: Driven a team of oxen for the North Western Army.
  • Richard Douglas 1816 Trumpeteer with Commodore Barney Battle of Bladensburgh.
  • Joseph Frost Seaman in the US Navy on Lake Erie discharged 10 July 1814 Ross County 1816.
  • James Richards - British Navy brought to Chillicothe as a Prisoner of War 1813 from Lake Erie.