Black Americans In The US Military From The American Revolution To The Korean War: The War Of 1812

Within the United States two groups argued over expansion of America’s borders. Doves, or antiwar New Englanders, had lived through the revolution. Hawks proposed war for expansion, since they were westerners and southerners who had not participated in the Revolutionary War. They envisioned gaining Florida, Mexico and Canada. New England Federalists opposed the war since the north’s economy depended largely on shipping. They feared that a loss to the superior British Navy would cripple American shipping.

Great Britain had not done its part in maintaining peaceful relations with the United States. Beginning in 1803, the British Navy exercised the right to seize American ships in the Atlantic and impress their crews, forcing them to serve under the British flag as naval officers. Over 10,000 Americans were impressed into the British Navy. In 1807, the USS Chesapeake refused to allow the crew from the British H.M.S. Leopard, resulting in provoking an attack that killed 3 Americans and wounded 18 others.

Britain and France were at war, and Britain wanted to cut off France from U.S. shipping. At the same time, France tried to do the same to U.S. shipping headed for Britain. The results were disastrous for the U.S. economy. Jefferson’s Embargo Act of 1807 attempted to pressure France and Great Britain into changing their international shipping policies. Neither side budged at this policy of “peaceful coercion”, ( due to the extent of the conflict in Europe.

In 1810, Napoleon exempted the U.S. from all French shipping restrictions. Despite Britain having paid damages for the USS Chesapeake incident, France had gained an edge. President James Madison shut off all British trade the following year. Britain followed France’s policy by attempting to repeal all shipping and impressments laws that it had been exercising on American shipping. This all came too late, and Madison had promised the Hawks that he would follow through after receiving their support in the elections of 1812. He asked Congress for a declaration of war on June 1st and got his wish on the 18th of that same month.

New England remained the richest region of the United States during the War of 1812, and did not send all of its regiments into battle. However, it still raised more regiments than any other region. New York State sent two regiments of 2,000 Black soldiers total, promising freedom to those who had remained slaves.

Black sailors contributed to important victories for the U.S. Navy. Although the U.S. Navy had many fewer ships than their British enemy, their three largest ships were significantly superior. The USS Constitution (“Old Ironsides”), the USS President, and the USS United States all had the heaviest broadsides and highest speeds of any ships of their class in the world. Black sailors were not onboard any of these ships, but they played important roles aboard Captain Oliver Perry’s ship, the USS Lawrence, and Lieutenant Thomas McDonough’s ship, the USS Saratoga.

Oliver Perry commanded a squadron of over six vessels, known as the Lake Eerie flotilla. On September 10, 1813, Perry’s squadron faced a British squadron led by Captain Robert Barclay. Most of the British cannon fire hit the Lawrence, killing eighty percent of the crew and forcing Perry to transfer onto the Niagra. After continuing the battle from the lesser-damaged Niagra, Perry finally forced a British surrender. Of the 400 men under Perry, 100 were Blacks. The success of this mission led to the invasion of Canada. The British retreated out of Detroit, which allowed Major General William Henry to pursue the British across Lake Michigan. Henry won the Battle of Thames, but all of Canada remained under British control due to the influx of British veterans returning after defeating Napoleon. Perry did not respect his Black seamen, however. He had complained that he only had received Blacks, soldiers and boys, but nobody advanced enough for his likings. Commodore Isaac Chauney disagreed with Perry, stating that of the best men on his own ship, many of them were Black.

Thomas McDonough defended Plattsburg Bay from a possible British advance. His ship, the USS Saratoga, received strategic assistance from the USS Eagle, USS Ticonderoga and the USS Preble. On the morning of September 11, 1815, the British fleet led by Captain George Downie advanced into Plattsburgh bay. Forced to track into the north wind, Downie’s fleet could not properly line up with McDonough’s ships. After McDonough’s fleet opened fire, British Captain Downey was killed. McDonough was hit three times by explosions from enemy fire, one coming from a shot that decapitated the head captain of one of the cannons. The Saratoga caught fire twice during this battle.

Blacks also fought valiantly for the British, once again convinced that a British victory would gain them freedom faster than an American victory. In the summer of 1814, about five thousand Chesapeake Bay slaves joined the Royal Navy. The option of free emigration to Canada or the West Indies appealed to them more than remaining slaves in their rightful home country. During the British invasion of Maryland, 1500 Black marines invaded and inflicted a humiliating American defeat.

For the American side, the main positions open to Blacks during the War of 1812 existed in the Navy. The only Black-inclusive militia existed in Louisiana. Although Louisiana was a slave state, there were 4,600 free Blacks by 1809, many of whom had emigrated from Santo Domingo as veterans of the Haitian Revolution. All free Blacks who owned any property worth at least $300 or paid taxes for the past two years were recruited. Although the law in Louisiana only permitted Whites to be officers in this battalion, three Black second lieutenants still existed. Governor William C.C. Claiborne of Louisiana needed to defend his territory against a rumored British attack, and he firmly believed in the ability of the Black soldier. He even made sure that General Andrew Jackson understood this, noting that under the Spanish the free Blacks had been very reliable. Of Jackson’s 6,000 troops defending Louisiana, 500 were free Blacks. The battle would end up a stalemate, and soon the British would give up on their plan to capture the U.S., given the stiff determination encountered in all areas of the North American battlefield.

Written by David Omahen 

See also:

The American Revolution to 1808
The War of 1812
The Civil War
The Indian Wars
The Spanish American War and the Philippine Insurgency
The Brownsville Incident and Teddy Roosevelt
World War One
The Spanish Civil War
World War Two
The Korean War
Conclusion and Bibliography