Race and loyalties in 1812

Runaway American slaves may have aided the British burning of the White House, portrayed in a History Channel documentary.
Runaway American slaves may have aided the British burning of the White House, portrayed in a History Channel documentary. (File)
Posted: November 19, 2012

By Constance Garcia-Barrio

Sidelined by election-year politics, the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 has received relatively little notice. Black Americans' role in the war has claimed less attention still. Yet both the United States and Britain saw blacks, enslaved and free, as a wild card that could help them win.

Here in Philadelphia, blacks pitched in to defend the city from a possible British attack. Viewing them as allies meant an about-face for many whites.

Blacks figured in the brewing conflict from the start. In the early 19th century, at war with Napoleonic France and desperate for sailors, the British began boarding U.S. merchant ships, taking suspected British deserters, and forcing them to join the royal navy. Some black seamen were taken through impressment, as this tactic was known.

Impressment, along with trade disputes and Britain's alliances with Indian tribes to stop U.S. expansion, stoked American anger. America also may have wanted to annex Canada. In June 1812, the United States declared war on Britain.

The British, spread thin by two wars, offered freedom to slaves who could make it to their lines. Three to five thousand runaways reached British ships in the Chesapeake Bay in 1813, resulting in the largest pre-Civil War emancipation of American slaves. The fugitives served the British as spies, guides, and fighters.

This enraged and terrified American planters, who recalled the Haitian revolution. Yet Britain walked a fine line: It didn't want to start a slave revolt that could spread to the British West Indies.

New York turned the tables on Britain, offering freedom to slaves who fought Britain with their masters' consent. Free blacks in New York and elsewhere also fought for the United States. In this largely naval conflict, at least 15 percent of the U.S. Navy was black.

The war limped along until Britain defeated Napoleon in April 1814 and turned its full attention to its former colonies. In May, Britain formed the Corps of Colonial Marines, made up of runaway American slaves; they may have helped burn the White House during Britain's August 1814 raid on Washington. Colonial Marines also took part when the royal navy closed in on Baltimore in September, while several blacks fought on the American side as well. The U.S. victory there inspired Francis Scott Key's lyrics to what became the national anthem.

Cities along the Atlantic Coast feared a British invasion in September 1814. "The wealth and consequence of our city [and] its vast importance to the Union" made Philadelphia a prime target, according to minutes of the city's Committee of Defence. The city turned to all its able-bodied men to defend it, including African Americans.

Black Philadelphians couldn't have missed the irony; a year earlier, Pennsylvania legislators had considered a bill to close the state to black migrants, while requiring all blacks to register and pay a special tax. Throughout 1813, some white Philadelphians pushed lawmakers to act on the grounds that blacks had become too numerous.

Facing the prospect of a British attack, however, the city changed its tune. The Committee of Defence figured "these people of color might be employed" in protecting the city. The committee set Sept. 21 as the day for blacks to work, and they responded handsomely. Some 2,500 black men built earthworks along the Delaware River at Grays Ferry. Like many white groups, they also contributed a second day of labor, earning the committee's gratitude.

The British never reached Philadelphia, and the war soon wound down. The Treaty of Ghent was signed on Dec. 24, 1814, although it didn't stop Andrew Jackson from thrashing the British - with the help of black troops - in the Battle of New Orleans. And maybe Philadelphia could claim its own victory in the form of a greater sense of community.

Constance Garcia-Barrio is a Philadelphia writer. She can be reached at cgarcia-barrio@wcupa.edu.

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