Blacks and the Battle of New Orleans

 

Excerpted from Slavery and the Making of America by James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton (New York: Oxford university Press, 2005), pp 81–83

 

General Andrew Jackson issued a call for black troops early in the fall of 1814, promising free blacks the same wages as white troops and promising slaves their freedom.  While enlisting blacks to meet the British in New Orleans, Jackson visited a Louisiana plantation owned by Calvin Smith and, with Smith’s permission, went into the fields personally to select his recruits.  Speaking with a slaveholder’s understanding, he asked the slaves, “Had you not as soon go into battle and fight, as to stay here in the cotton-field, dying and never die?”  Then he promised, “If you will go, and the battle is fought and the victory gained on Israel’s side, you shall be free.”  James Roberts, one of the slaves who heard Jackson’s words explained that they seemed like “divine revelation.”  He expressed the feelings of many of his fellow slaves: “In hope of freedom, we would run through a troop and leap over a wall.”50  Jackson departed with 500 of Smith’s slaves, a costly contribution of valuable property.  Smith encouraged the general to emphasize the promise of freedom as an incentive to faithful and courageous service and was relieved that his slaves, not his sons, were enlisted.  “If the [N]egroes should be killed,” Smith reasoned, “they are paid for, but if my children should go and get killed, they cannot be replaced.”  Jackson’s officers understood this perspective and encouraged planters to provide black troops for the war.  “I glory in your spunk,” Captain Brown, one of Jackson’s assistants told Smith.  “Let us have as many [N]egroes as you can spare, for we are sure that those [N]egroes you give us will gain victory.51

Ironically, the most celebrated African American service of the war came two weeks after a peace agreement had been signed.  Not aware of the war’s end, six hundred blacks serving under Jackson battled British forces at New Orleans in early 1915.  At the suggestion of one of the black soldiers, Jackson had the men erect a fort of cotton bales.  The furious fighting pitted American troops, including hundreds of African Americans just days from the plantation and with very limited training, against armored British military professionals.  The bravery of the African American force in defeating the British at New Orleans became legendary.  Jackson personally commended his troops on their heroism, but he reneged on his promise of freedom for the slave soldiers.  Realizing that he was not to be greed as promised, James Roberts boldly confronted the general, I did fight manfully and gained the victory, now where is my freedom?”  Jackson was shocked.  “I think you are very Presumptuous,” he told Roberts, but the slave was undaunted.

White soldiers and New Orleans townspeople, hearing this exchange, suggested that Roberts be shot for his insolent tone.  Later, Roberts reflected, “Two days before, I had, with my fellow soldiers, saved their city from fire and massacre, and their wives and children from blood and burning.  Yet, the people of New Orleans would have had him shot “simply for contending for my freedom, which both my master and Jackson had solemnly before high heaven promised before I left home.”  This was a particular travesty because Roberts, who was more than sixty years old, had been similarly disappointed forty years earlier.  During the Revolutionary War he had accompanied his master, an American officer, into combat.  Roberts had expected his freedom, but his master was killed in battle, and when the war was over Roberts was separated from his wife and four children and sold at auction.  In 1815, still enslaved after having served the cause of America’s freedom for a second time, James Roberts was furious at having been once again “duped by the white man.”52

The war had not brought freedom to Roberts or millions of other slaves; it merely secured the western frontiers of their captivity.  British forts and Indian alliances no longer hindered America’s western expansion.  General Andrew Jackson’s defeat of the Creek Indians further cleared the way for population growth in the Deep South, where land-hungry planters established frontier communities to serve the growing demand for cotton.  Planters introduced sugar-cane into the southernmost sections of the area carved from the Louisiana Purchase, and sugar production became profitable in the newly emerging state of Louisiana.

 

 

50. James Roberts, The Narrative of James Roberts, A Soldier Under Gen. Washington in the Revolutionary War, and Gen. Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans, in the War of 1812: “A Battle Which Cost Me a Limb, Some Blood and Almost my Life.” (Chicago; Printed for the Author, 1858), p 13.

 

51. ibid.

 

52. Roberts, The Narrative of James Roberts, 17–18; James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton, In Hope of Liberty: Culture, Community and Protest Among Northern Free Blacks, 1700–1860 (New York: Oxford university Press, 1997), 185–186.