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..
“She is, perhaps the most beautiful vessel that ever floated on the ocean…She has carried terror and alarm through the W. Indies…and frequently chased by British vessels…” Niles’ Weekly Register, 1815
The Chasseur ’was launched at the Thomas Kemp’s shipyard at Fell’s Point on December 12, 1812, described as a topsail-schooner-rigged, sharp-built vessel documented for a letter-of-marque. After two rather unsuccessful voyages she was sold at auction deliverable in New York. She had a new captain, well known in Fell’s Point, Captain Thomas Boyle (1775-1825) who had commanded the private armed vessel Comet a year before. She cleared New York on July 24 and charted her course to the English coast.
Having learned that the British admiralty had proclaimed the U.S. east coast under strict naval blockade, they having such great naval forces, Captain Boyle sent his own blockade proclamation into London. It was taken in by a captured an English merchantman and posted at the maritime insurance firm of Lloyd’s of London for all to see. The audacious proclamation read:
BY THOMAS BOYLE, ESQUIRE; COMMANDER OF THE PRIVATE ARMED BRIG CHASSEUR
Whereas, it has been customary with the admirals of Great Britain commanding small forces on the coast of the United States, particularly with Sir John Borlase Warren and Sir Alexander Cochrane to declare the coast of the said United States in a state of rigorous blockade, without possessing the power to justify such a declaration, or stationing an adequate force to command such a blockade.
I do, therefore, by virtue of the power and authority in me vested (possessing sufficient force) declare all the ports, harbors, bays, creeks rivers, inlets, outlets, island and sea coast of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in a state of strict and rigorous blockade, and I do further declare that I consider the forces under my command adequate to maintain strictly, rigorously and effectually, the said blockade.
And, I do hereby require the respective officers, whether captains or commanding officers, under my command, employed or to be employed on the coast of England, Ireland and Scotland, to pay strict attention to this my proclamation.
And, I hereby caution and forbid the ships and vessels and every nation, in amity and peace with the United States, from entering or attempting to come out of any of the said ports, harbors, bays, creeks, rivers, inlets, islands, or sea coasts, on or under my pretense whatever; and that no person may plead ignorance of this my proclamation, I have ordered the same to be made public in England.
Given under my hand on board the Chasseur. By the commanding Officer, THOMAS BOYLE, J.B. STANSBURY, SECRETARY.
Sources: The Republic’s Private Navy: The American Privateering Business as practiced by Baltimore during the War of 1812, by Jerome R. Garitee (Mystic Seaport, 1977); Tom Boyle: Master Privateer by Fred W. Hopkins, Jr. (Tidewater, MD., 1976); The Fell’s Point Story by Norman G. Ricket (Baltimore: Bodine & Associates, Inc., 1976).
“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.
On February 1815, the schooner Transit arrived in Annapolis from France with Marylander Christopher Hughes, Jr. Esq., carrying a copy of the Treaty of Ghent, signed in Ghent, Belgium by the American and British commissioners on December 25, 1814 ending the War of 1812. News of the treaty was conveyed onboard the schooner Adeline with Colonel John S. Skinner, U.S. State Department agent to inform Captain James Claville, RN, with his blockading squadron in the Chesapeake Bay. On February 23rd the City of Annapolis was illuminated. In the midst of this light, the State House ” was conspicuous for its elevation and splendor.” The State House hall was decorated with a full length portrait of George Washington, suspended from the center of the inner dome.
On February 22, 1815, Annapolis cabinet-maker and keeper of the armory John Shaw, fired a national salute with artillery from the illuminated Maryland State House on account of Washington’s birthday and the confirmation of peace.
Maryland now began the rebuilding process of the depredations destruction of the tidewater region and the economic loss of her trade during the embargoes, and expanding once more to Europe and as far as Canton, China on board the once privateer Chasseur. A new national song “The Star-Spangled Banner” now gave Maryland a sense of national pride and symbolic emblem into what it meant to be an American.
Sources:“Maryland Armory Book, 1813-1820, John Shaw” Records of the War Department, Adjutant General’s Office, National Archives; Maryland Gazette, February 23, 1815.