In Maryland, the War of 1812’s dominant image is of Francis Scott Key writing down lyrics as bombs burst over Baltimore Harbor. A less-remembered image is that of slave families fleeing plantations for British ships in the middle of the night. Clearly, for Maryland slaves, the War of 1812 was not “America’s second war of independence.” They waited another 50 years before the state constitution abolished slavery.
But many slaves didn’t wait at all. They took action when the British Naval fleet first began a blockade of the Chesapeake in early 1813. They patrolled the Bay and its offshoots, burned farms and stole food, according to historian Frank Cassell. “Wherever these raiding parties landed, groups of slaves approached them and asked to be taken aboard the British ships and given an opportunity to go someplace else,” he said.
Cassell and others say that at first, these were mostly young male slaves without wives or children. In the early part of the blockade, informal British policy was to offer land in Canada or in the West Indies in exchange for intelligence or help as guides. Naturally, Chesapeake slaves knew the area intimately and their knowledge of American military movements and the location of food proved valuable to the British.
But a huge moment came for slaves in April of 1814. Vice-Admiral Alexander Cochrane, who was in charge of the British Navy in the Chesapeake, formally proclaimed that anyone who fled—slaves or citizens—would be offered a place in the military or freedom in a British colony. Now entire families left.
To prevent this, owners tried to scare their slaves into staying, according to John Weiss, a British historian who specializes in the history of slaves who joined the Royal Navy. “The general American warning was that the British were stealing the slaves simply to be sold back into slavery in the West Indies,” he said. “What they didn’t seem to realize was that British Navy officers…were very much, in general, anti-slavery. That wasn’t completely the case but by and large it was.”
Weiss also points out that opinions differed—among the British, white Americans, and among slaves. Many fought with the Americans because their masters ordered them to do so, but others chose to bear the ills they had rather than risk an uncertain future with the British.
Exact numbers are hard to know, but between 700 and 800 slaves escaped from Maryland owners during the War of 1812, and three to five thousand nationwide. Forty-nine slaves fled Sotterley Plantation in St. Mary’s County during the war. Most left on just one night in June of 1814.
Where did they settle? A few places. A team at the Maryland State Archives is using ship manifests, wills, requests for reparations, court records, and whatever spare time they have to create an online biography for each of Maryland’s escaped slaves. “A lot of them were given land in Nova Scotia,” according to Maya Davis, a research archivist there. “Horrible land I’m sure, because it’s cold and a very different climate, but land nonetheless.” But she goes on to note that children could not claim any land in Nova Scotia, which was a problem because many slave children left without their parents. “We see people fighting for it as they grew into adulthood, to try to get land and it just doesn’t pan out for them,” she said.
Many slaves who fought alongside the British marines were rewarded with land in Trinidad. Weiss has spent years researching this group, known as the Corps of Colonial Marines. There were some Maryland slaves who joined American privateering ships during the war. If caught, they went to Dartmoor Prison in England.
Slavery & The War of 1812
And the ones that stayed behind? They didn’t fare too well. Jeanne Pirtle, education director at Sotterley, said that “[the war] really didn’t improve slavery in America at all,” she said. “In fact it probably made it worse.” Cotton production was on the rise, and as Weiss pointed out, the British industrial revolution depended heavily on American cotton.
Maryland State Archivist Ed Papenfuse sees the war as “Janus-faced.”
We’re not a nation, we do not have a sense of national spirit or nationalism until the war of 1812…It defines the boundaries of the United States very specifically, and does so excluding the influence of any foreign powers, and provides a vast amount of territory for rapid expansion. The other side of the face, the Janus face, is that this is the beginning of the solidification and the entrenchment of slavery as an institution in America…It is the core, central tragedy of American history…Now, there is an effort within this nationalism to contain it. To contain it geographically, but by and large what really happens is it’s provided an opportunity…for it to flourish.
Clearly, the War of 1812 is about more than American privateers and the Star-Spangled Banner. Davis notes that “it’s very much given off to the public as a white man’s war…But we know that today the slaves in this area were very much involved,” she said. “We hope that that kind of becomes a larger part of the story.” For its part, Historic Sotterley Plantation produced a “living history” event earlier this year which highlighted the choice that slaves faced. Pirtle said that Sotterley’s recent re-interpretation allowed them to “tell a more honest story.”
The War of 1812: a complicated chapter in Maryland’s long, complicated story.
This story is part of our series “Rockets’ Red Glare: The War, the Song and Their Legacies,” made possible by a grant from Star Spangled 200, a national bicentennial in Maryland.