George Roberts was not only one of the few defenders’ to have his portrait taken by a photographer, but he also provides a unique connection as one of the African-American maritime defenders on the high seas, known as privateersmen during the War of 1812.
In the fall of 1812 he served onboard Captain Richard Moon’s privateer Sarah Ann and was among six American seamen accused of being British subjects and taken prisoner when the Sarah Ann was captured by HMS Statira off the Bahamas on September 13, 1812. Captain Moon denied that they were British:
“George Robert [sic], (a coloured man and seaman.) This man I had not an opportunity of questioning; but I know him to be native born of the United States and of which he had every sufficient document, together with his free papers. He entered on board the Sarah Ann at Baltimore where he is married.”
Eventually, Roberts and the other American seamen were released. After the war it is unknown what trade he had as a freeman, or if he continued serving onboard various merchant vessels from the port of Baltimore. What is known is that he was allowed to participate as one of the Old Defenders’ of Baltimore of 1814 during parades commemorated the anniversary for many years.
“…throughout his long life he was always highly though of by the citizen soldiery…his carriage was erect, and he never appeared on parade except in uniform, and it was one of his highest aspirations to still be considered one of the defenders of his native city… He served during the war under several [privateer] commanders, and generally at sea, and he had in the service many hair-breath escapes. ”
Another Old Defender Gone.- For a number of years past an aged colored man, named George Roberts, has been allowed to parade with the military of the city on all occasions of importance; and was generally mounted as servant to major-general of the division. He died on Monday night, at the advanced age of ninety-five years, at his residence, at Canton. Old George was among thoise who took up arms in defense of the city of Baltimore in 1814, and throughout his long life was always highly thought of by the citizen soldiery.
Though laboring under the weight of so many years, his carriage was erect, and he never appeared on parade except in uniform, and it was one of his highest aspirations to still be considered one of the defenders of his native city should the necessity have arrived to take up arms in its defense. The deceased was one of the crew under the command of Capt. Thomas Boyle, of this city, in the privateer Chasseur, when Capt. Boyle declared the coast of Great Britain under blockade. He served during the war under several commanders, and generally at sea, and he had in the service many hair-breath escapes.
Sources: Niles’ Weekly Register, November 14, 1812; “Another Old Defenders Gone,” The Sun (Baltimore), January 16, 1861..
On Wednesday, December 19, 1861, Jack Murray, died at his home on Caroline Street, Fell’s Point, at the age of 110 years. He was born in the year 1751 in Baltimore Town, prior to the city being incorporated in 1797. He was employed as a caulker in William Price’s shipyard at the Point, the first shipbuilder in Baltimore,and continue his employment until the infirmities of old age compelled him to relinquished it. He was born a slave, but obtained his freedom some seventy years ago.
He learned to play the violin and was present at various dances, thus earning him the name of “Fiddler Jack.” He was upwards of twenty five years old at the time of the American Revolution. “His recollections of General Washington and other revolutionary heroes were also very distinct, and many and interesting are the anedotes repeated by him of the trying times of the revolution.”
His final resting place is unknown.
Sources: The Sun, December 20, 1861; Baltimore Republican, December 20, 1861; Maryland News Sheet, December 20, 1861.
On August 1, 1814, at the shipyard of Messrs, William Parson and William Flannigan in Fell’s Point, the U.S. Navy’s newest frigate rated at 44 guns, was launched in the elegant naval tradition of her day. As she entered the water she was saluted by numerous discharges from U.S. Barges and the U.S. sloops of war, the Erie and Ontario that were launched a year earlier.
“She moved into her ‘destined element’ (as the phrase is ) in a very handsome style, amidst general and joyful cheers; that a very numerous assemblage of ladies and gentlemen attended…the Yager Band of music enliven the scene with appropriate marches and airs…”
Twenty thousand spectators, nearly one half the population of Baltimore had turned out to greet her and her commander Captain Oliver Hazard Perry, the “Hero of Lake Erie.”
The skilled craftsmen who built the Java, and those who cheered her at this moment, were unaware of other frigates and ships of war that were now moving under a full press of sail towards the Chesapeake from the British naval base in Bermuda. The festive spirit subsided as the war clouds approached Baltimore harbor.
Among the citizens who cheered her was John Murray, a free black ship’s carpenter. Born in Baltimore, the sixty-three old had been a caulker to shipbuilders since the inception of that craft on the Point. His well known self attained skill in playing a “few imperfect tunes” on the violin had earned him the name of “Fiddler Jack.”
She would take no part in the Battle for Baltimore as she was yet to be fitted with the armaments of war and her masts and rigging. Her commander stated, “It is, at this moment, said the enemy are now standing up the river for this place with about 40 sail. I shall stay by my ship and take no part in the militia fight. I expect to have to burn her.”
Sources: The Sun, December 20, 1861; Baltimore Patriot, August 1, 1814; American & Commercial Daily Adv., August 2, 1814. Dillon, Richard, We have met the Enemy (New York: 1980, 188.
“FORTY DOLLARS REWARD – For apprehending and securing in jail so that I get him again, NEGRO FREDERICK; Sometimes calls himself FREDERICK HALL a bright mulatto; straight and well made; 21 years old; 5 feet 7 or 8 inches high, with a short chub nose and so fair as to show freckles, he has no scars or marks of any kind that is recollected; his clothing when he left home, two months sine, was home made cotton shirts, jacket and Pantaloons of cotton, and yarn twilled, all white. It is probable he may be in Baltimore, having relation there, a house servant to a Mr. Williams, by the name of Frank who is also a mulatto, but not so fair as Frederick. BENJAMIN ODEN, Prince George’s County, May 12th, 1814.”
In the Spring of 1814 the slave Frederick Hall ran away from his owner Benjamin Oden (1762-1836) of Prince George’s County. On April 14, Frederick, alias William Williams was enlisted as a private in the 38th U.S. Infantry by an Ensign Martin. Federal law however prohibited the enlistment of slaves because they “could make no valid contract with the government.”
It seems the officer who enlisted Williams made no inquiries, nevertheless Williams received his bounty of $50 and was paid a private’s wage of $8 per month. In September the 38th U.S. Infantry were ordered to Baltimore to Fort McHenry, taking part in its defense, within the dry ditch surrounding the Star Fort with 600 other U.S. Infantry soldiers. Records at the National Archives reveal that Williams was “severely wounded, having his leg blown off by a cannon ball.” He was taken to the garrison hospital at Fort McHenry where he died.. His final resting place remains unknown.
After the war in 1833-34 Mr. Oden petitioned the government for Williams land bounty, but since Williams was a slave, and “therefore, inasmuch as a slave cannot possess or acquire title to real estate by the laws of the land, in his own right, no right can be set up by the master as his representative.” Mr. Oden’s claim was therefore dismissed.
Sources: Baltimore American and Commercial Daily Adv., May 18, 1814; “On Claim To A Bounty Land Warrant for the Military Services of a Slave by His Owner,” American State Papers, Volume 6, Public Lands, No. 1223, 23rd Congress, 1st Session. April 7, 1834, p. 644, 969; Oden Papers, 1755-1836, MS. 178, Maryland Historical Society.
On August 18, 1880 Professor Samuel A. Neale, age eighty-five, a distinguished colored citizen of Frederick, Maryland and former graduate and faculty member of Emory College, Pennsylvania died at his home in Frederick, Maryland. He was one of the Old Defenders’ of Baltimore during the War of 1812.
In late August 1814, Lt. Colonel Frisby Tilghman (1773-1847), commanding the 1st Cavalry District of Washington and Frederick Counties, the American Blues, of 80 dragoons, rode to Bladensburg, Maryland where with the American army on August 24th defended the approach of the British expeditionary forces. Col Tilghman’s command were ordered to harass the approaching British at Wood Yard, Maryland and to gain vital intelligence. In the aftermath of the American defeat Colonel Tilghman’s command left with the army for Baltimore. Accompanying Tilghman was an African-American slave who served as a steward to Surgeon William Hammond, then as an aid carrying his medical instruments on the field. According to a pension application Neale claims he was armed and equipped as a soldier. At Baltimore he was present at the Battle of North Point where he was accidentally wounded by one of Dr. Hammond’s pistols, perhaps in cleaning or handling it. The petition is endorsed by Hon. Wm. P. Raulsby, chief judge of the sixth judicial circuit; Hon. John A. Lynch, associate judge of the same circuit; Hon. P.H. Marshall and others.
In 1870, Samuel Neale received an annual pension of eighty dollars, in four equal and quarterly installments of twenty dollars to each soldier or surviving widow from the Maryland Legislature or his services and was endorsed by none other than the Hon. William P. Raulsby, chief judge of the Sixth Judicial District of Maryland and the Hon. John A. Lynch, associate district judge.
On August 19, 1880 at the age of 85 years, Samuel Neale died and was buried at the Frederick Catholic Graveyard leaving his wife Ellen, 72 and his children Rebecca and Sophia all mulattos. In his obituary in the Frederick, Md., Examiner it stated Neale, age 80 “was a prominent and respected colored man …who served his country with fidelity during the War of 1812.”
Sources: “Petition of a Colored Veteran for a State Pension,” The Sun, January 27, 1870; “An Act to repeal the Act of eighteen hundred and sixty-seven,” Proceedings and Acts of the General Assembly, 1870, Volume 188, page 3448; The British Invasion of Maryland, 1812-1815 by William M. Marine (Baltimore, 1913; Genealogical Pub., Co., 1977), 89; Frederick, Md., Examiner, June 19, 1872.
“I have yet to learn that the color of the skin, or cut and trimmings of the coat can effect a man’s qualifications…many of them are amongst my best men”. Commodore Isaac Chauncey on the Great Lakes frontier, 1813.
One of the least known aspects of the war on the Chesapeake has been the role of Maryland African-Americans. Renewed interest in the varied military, maritime and civilian roles of Maryland’s free men and slaves are now being rediscovered. The Federal and Baltimore Daily Advertiser in 1812 reported Baltimore’s African-Americans represented one fifth of the city’s 50,000 population which were “of native and West Indian blacks, nearly one half of whom are free and entitled to hold property…”
England abolished the slave trade in 1807, the United States responded a year later prohibiting slave importation into the United States. In Maryland, a large percentage of African-Americans were freemen. By law, African-Americans could not vote nor bear arms, but documents prove otherwise and reveal a broader context in the roles of the naval and military experience whether as free men or slaves. From their peculiar inherited situation they would seek their own roads to freedom, placing themselves in a decision crossroads – between servitude and freedom. In 1814 the British offered slaves an apportunity to join the Corps of Colonial Marines. It is unknown the extact number that responded by running away from their masters. In March 1813, Congress passed “An act for the Regulation of Seamen on board the public and private vessels of the United States” allowing “persons of color” to enlist.
A member of the Committeee of Vigilance and Safety, merchant William Lowery stated that “Many peoples among us assert that the Free people of Colour may be safely employed in the plans of defense as many of them it is said are processed of property and about all are zeaous in their wish to preserve our City.”
Here are a few of the African- Marylanders who illustrate their role in the War of 1812 on the Chesapeake.
William Williams (alias Frederick Hall), a runaway mulatto slave from Prince George’s county served as a private in the 38th U.S. Infantry at Fort McHenry in Sept. 1814.
George R. Roberts (1766-1861), served onboard Captain Thomas Boyle’s privateer Chasseur (‘pride of Baltimore’) during their famous blockade of England in August 1814. Captain Boyle noted that Roberts “displayed the most intrepid courage and daring” and later was “highly thought of by the citizen-soldiery” of Baltimore.
Perry Sullivan and Henry James, served onboard the privateer Tartar.
Cyrus Warren a native of Kent County served onboard U.S. Gun Boat No. 139 at Baltimore.
George Anderson, Solomon Johnson, Elisha Rhody, Jack Murray all served in the Fell’s Point shipyards as naval mechanics. Murray (1751-1861) became one of the celebrated Old Defenders’ of Baltimore.
Charles Ball chronicled his life in an autobiography A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Charles Ball. A Black Man who fought at the Battles of St. Leonard’s Creek, Bladensburg and Baltimore with the U.S. Chesapeake Flotilla.
Gabriel Roulson and Caesar Wentworth, served respectfully as a landsman and cook in the U.S. Chesapeake Flotilla in 1814.
Colonial Corps of Marines – While others served in the American forces, others choose freedom, escaping from ther masters seeking the protection and guidance of the Royal Navy. Organized in the Spring of 1813, they fought in the Bladensburg-Baltimore campaigns in 1814.
African-Americans played a significant role in Maryland during the War of 1812. Freemen volunteered and served shoulder to shoulder with other Americans on land and sea. The extent of their contributions are still to be found, but Marylanders can take pride in the contribution of these “men of color” who fought and worked alongside others, friends and owners to help save Baltimore and their native state during the War of 1812.
Sources: Slavery in the United States: A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Charles Ball. A Black Man (Lewistown, Pa. 1836); Amongst my best men: African-Americans and The War of 1812 by Gerald T. Altoff (Ohio: The Perry Group, 1996); Baltimore American & Commercial Daily Adv., May 18, 1814; Military Collector & Historian, vol. 41, No.1, (Journal, The Company of Military Historians, Spring, 1989; Baltimore American & Commercial Daily Adv., May 25, 1814; George Cockburn Papers, Library of Congress. Baltimore City Archives, RG 22. War of 1812 Collection.