Free and enslaved blacks played a significant role for both the United States and Great Britain in the War of 1812. For some, it brought the chance for a new life. In the United States most blacks were slaves, but about 200,000 free blacks made up 2.6 percent of the population in the United States.
Unlike the American Revolution, Americans of African descent initially were not allowed to serve in the US Army. But in March 1813—facing a shortage of men—Congress passed an act that allowed them to enlist.
Military service was an alternative to working in the maritime industries where many free blacks were employed in jobs such as caulkers. The British blockade severely curtailed those jobs in the war years.
It is estimated that as many as 20 percent of privateer crews were black, and up to 10 percent of crews on US Navy vessels were black. Free blacks served in the US Chesapeake Flotilla commanded by Maryland war hero Commodore Joshua Barney. Many free blacks also served in the militia.
Blacks also served in the British Royal Navy and on British privateers. One privateer operating in the South Atlantic was predominantly manned by about 70 blacks. Blacks served as musicians in the British army. Free blacks could also be found in the Canadian militia. One independent militia unit known as Runchy's Company of Colored Men was used mainly as a labor corps.
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More than 1,200 black sailors captured from American ships were held at the notorious British prison at Dartmoor, England.
For enslaved people, successful escape to the British brought freedom. When the British arrived in the Chesapeake Bay in 1813, slaves began escaping by rowing out to British boats, usually in the night. But such attempts were relatively small until the spring of 1814 when Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane issued a proclamation offering Americans—but intended to mean slaves—to join the British land or sea services, or to move as free settlers to British processions in North America or the West Indies.
The British understood that runaway slaves would help to weaken the American economy that was in part dependent on the labor-intensive cash crop tobacco. Plantation owners became wary of slave rebellions; even Great Britain feared that rebellion could spread to their plantations in the West Indies.
Those escaped blacks who chose to serve in the British military were placed in the Corps of Colonial Marines. Trained and led by white officers, the corps participated in many raids on the Chesapeake, including the British march on Washington. Members of the Corps assisted the British in planning raids, often times having firsthand knowledge of the waterways, roads, and paths.
About 4,000 blacks gained their freedom by escaping to the British military. After the war Great Britain resettled the former slaves known as "Refugee Negroes" mostly in the Maritime Provinces or in Trinidad. One community in Nova Scotia settled in what they called Africville. Descendants in Trinidad call themselves "Merikans.”
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Britain eventually agreed to pay for some slaves taken away during the war, although it took years and detailed documentation to settle compensation claims.
With few exceptions, we know little about individual blacks during the war. Few were able to write their stories.
However, at Sotterley Plantation in Southern Maryland, researchers have identified several of the 48 enslaved people who escaped in June 1814 when British ships were anchored offshore in the Patuxent River. After the war, the plantation’s owner, John Rously Plater, submitted claims for compensation, listing the names of those “seduced and carried away.” Records show that Sotterley slave James Bowie was given land in Trinidad. Stephen Coursey, Jack Leale, and Lewis Muroe were given parcels of land in Halifax, Nova Scotia. All were accompanied by their wives and children.
There are exceptions to the general anonymity of black participants in the war. Here are some of the people whose stories are known:
William Williams (alias Frederick Hall), a runaway slave from Prince George’s County, Maryland, served as a private in the 38th US Infantry at Fort McHenry in Baltimore. He died of wounds received during the bombardment of Fort McHenry. His family received his land bounty after a court battle with his former master, who sued that he should receive the property since he legally owned the slave. Read more about his military experience.
George R. Roberts served on Captain Thomas Boyle’s privateer ship Chasseur (“the pride of Baltimore”). Captain Boyle noted that Roberts “displayed the most intrepid courage and daring” and later was “highly thought of by the citizen-soldiery” of Baltimore.
George Anderson, Solomon Johnson, Elisha Rhody, and Jack Murray all served in the Fells Point shipyards as shipwrights. Murray became one of the celebrated Old Defenders of Baltimore.
Charles Ball was a slave from Calvert County, Maryland, who is credited with writing a biography entitled Slavery in the United States: A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Charles Ball, a Black Man, Who Lived Forty Years in Maryland, South Carolina and Georgia, as a Slave Under Various Masters, and was One Year in the Navy with Commodore Barney, During the Late War. . . It is unclear if Charles Ball is a true name or whether the narrative is a compilation of several slave narratives.
Paul Jennings, a slave of James Madison, helped Dolley Madison save government documents and Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington ahead of the British occupation of Washington. After moving back to Montpelier and after the president’s death, Jennings accompanied Dolley to Washington and stayed with her for her remaining years. His experiences are captured in a memoir.
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