Monday, January 28, 2013

Gene Allen Smith's "The Slaves’ Gamble"

Gene Allen Smith is a professor of History and the director of the Center for Texas Studies at TCU in Fort Worth, Texas. The author of numerous books, he is also the curator of History at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History. Smith has received research awards from TCU and Montana State University-Billings, as well as fellowships from the Henry E. Huntington Library, the Virginia Historical Society, the US Department of the Navy, the US Military Academy at West Point, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Slaves' Gamble: Choosing Sides in the War of 1812, and reported the following:
The Slaves’ Gamble is the first book to describe the role blacks played during the War of 1812. By using the story of individuals, this study reveals the contributions that free blacks and slaves as a group made to the British war effort, to American defenses, to the Spanish attempts to preserve their North American empire along the Gulf of Mexico, to Native American communities trying to retain their freedom and sovereignty, and to maroon communities trying to remain outside of white control. During the years prior to the War of 1812 African Americans had gained increased political, economic, and civic rights; many of these concessions had been won by black participation during the War for Independence and their support for a new political system based on the primacy of the United States. When the War of 1812 began, they consciously chose the side they would support, and those tenuous choices dramatically impacted their future freedom and opportunity as well as the future of the United States.
In late February 1814, Adm. George Cockburn returned after six months in Bermuda to resume his Chesapeake raids. He also brought with him orders to “find and get possession of some convenient Island, or point within the Chesapeake . . . which might also serve as a place of refuge for the negro slaves from the surrounding shores.” Admiral Cockburn began surveying for such a location, and he sent Cochrane information about local conditions, highlighting the shortage of British troops for future operations. The sobering news did not discourage Cochrane, but rather reconfirmed in his own mind that the refugee slaves could greatly supplement British forces. Yet he acknowledged that the infrastructure to manage such an influx of refugee soldiers—an anticipated five thousand men—did not exist. He asked Warren to send agents from the black West India regiments to Bermuda, where they would recruit and train refugees. Additionally, he requested that Warren construct temporary wooden barracks on the island of Bermuda to house black soldiers, along with their wives and families; the British government would support refugee dependents in the same manner as they did for other British soldiers. According to Cochrane, the only immediate problem was that Bermuda law prohibited “the introduction of colored persons into” the island. Pleading for Warren to use his influence to secure a temporary suspension of the act, Cochrane warned that it would be “an opportunity lost that never may return.” If British ships could not land the “emigrants” quickly, then loaded supply ships could not immediately return “to the Coast of America for others.
Page 99 reveals when Great Britain chose to escalate the racial tension of the conflict. Securing a local base in the Chesapeake (on Tangier Island), building facilities on it, and then establishing a depot on Bermuda provided the logistical network to move supplies efficiently to British troops in North America, and then to evacuate refugees rapidly from the Chesapeake to Bermuda and then on to their ultimate destination—be it Canada, Trinidad, Barbados, or Belize. This transportation/evacuation system permitted the British to liberate between 4,500-5,000 from the coast of North America, which represented one of the greatest slave diasporas in American history. As such, this book describes the role of blacks during the War of 1812, as well as illustrates a tenuous dividing point in the history of American race relations often obscured by the beginnings of the sectional conflict that ultimately led to the American Civil War.
Learn more about The Slaves' Gamble at the Palgrave Macmillan wesbite.

--Marshal Zeringue