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”, (About.com) due to the extent of the conflict
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
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
Previous Section | Table
of Contents | Next Section
New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs: Military History
March 30, 2006