“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.
Private William Williams, 36th U.S. Infantry (National Park Service)
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.