Beyond Jackson: Enslaved African Americans Make Choices

Reading works about the War of 1812 as it played out in the Mississippi Territory did take me back to 1959-1960 middle school social studies in Chicago. Reading the works of Robert V. Remini, however, took me back to the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC). When Remini published the first volume of his three-volume biography of Andrew Jackson he was on the faculty of the history departments at UIC and I was a doctoral student in the UIC sociology department. I did not know of Remini and his research.

While I have always adopted a sociohistorical approach, I needed to prioritize the history of the 20th century over that of earlier centuries when selecting electives. Some of the history courses that remain important to me included the Forced Migration of Africans, the History of American Cities, and Black Chicago. (I also had to be very judicious about electives in anthropology and biology.)

If I had taken a course with Professor Remini, I would have been extremely frustrated by the fact that his coverage of the War of 1812 and the “Indian Wars” did not provide insight into the African American presence in the Old Southwest during this time.  In most of the books that I read on that war in the Mississippi Territory, race was treated as a binary variable. There were Native Americans or Indians (Jackson’s red skinned “children”) and European Americans or whites.

Some of these works did discuss men who were the products of Creek/white unions with a focus on the extent to which they wanted to adopt white ways of life or remain more traditionally Creek. These men were presented as playing important roles in the Creek Civil War (Red Stick War) which segued into the War of 1812 in this region.  People of African descent, when they were discussed at all, were usually nameless, faceless, slaves.

The Enslaved Had Options

I had read enough history to know that some enslaved African Americans had used the chaos of war to try and improve the quality of their lives. I selected for my reading list two recent works that provided more vivid presentations of African Americans during this time.

Smith, G. A. (2013). The slaves’ gamble: Choosing sides in the War of 1812. New York, NY: Algarve.

Taylor, A., & Pinchot, B. (2014). The internal enemy: Slavery and war in Virginia, 1772-1832. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.


The slaves’ gamble: Choosing sides in the War of 1812.

An undergraduate student asked Dr. Smith why some slaves fought with the Americans while others fought with the British during the War of 1812. He answers the question 15 years later in this book. One of the central themes of this book is that the enslaved had more options than the British or the Americans and that they made choices.

With the intent of gaining freedom for themselves and their kin the enslaved made the choice to fight with the Americans, the British, the Spanish, the Native Americans, or runaway and join maroon communities. Smith says that he set out to write a book about the War of 1812 and ended up with a book about freedom.

Smith highlights the choices made by individual people through a series of mini-biographies of African Americans who were military combatants during the War of 1812. Each of these people took a gamble when they made their choice. For some the wager resulted in the desired outcome. Others “crapped out.”

People who are interested in genealogy will find Smith’s methodology worth studying. For me he unravels the link from the Chesapeake to Canada, especially Halifax and Nova Scotia, and Bermuda, Jamaica, and other islands in the Caribbean

In addition to being an excellent researcher, Smith is also a great story teller.  I watched several of his presentations because even though he presents the same vignettes, some of his remarks vary based on the audience. I have chosen to highlight his lecture at the United States Naval Academy Museum, but I also provide a link to his presentation at the Fort Worth Library

Dr. Gene Smith Lecture at the USNA Museum


The internal enemy: Slavery and war in Virginia, 1772-1832

The slaves of Virginia are the “internal enemy” in the title of this Pulitzer Prize winning book. Dr. Alan Taylor tells the story of about 3,000 enslaved African Americans from the Chesapeake region who escaped slavery by fleeing to the British.  Some of them were resettled in Bermuda, Trinidad, and Nova Scotia.  Some enlisted in the British Navy and participated directly in waging war on the United States during the War of 1812.

Taylor sets the story in the context of the shifting nature of slavery after the American Revolution. He also highlights the sectional conflicts that were strengthened partially because of this war and how it shaped the future of slavery in the United States.

This book will have you thinking more deeply about the Star-Spangled Banner.



Diouf, S. A. (2016) Slavery’s Exiles: The Story of the American Maroons, New York, NY: NYU Press.

Sayers, D. (2014). A Desolate Place for a Defiant People: The Archaeology of Maroons, Indigenous Americans, and Enslaved Laborers in the Great Dismal Swamp. University Press of Florida.


Diouf presents the history of those who escaped slavery yet remained in the South, sometimes creating self sufficient communities in desolate areas. In this 10-minute interview with Eric Foner she explains how she came to write this book and provides her definition of the concept.

Watch “Book TV: Sylviane Diouf, “Slavery’s Exiles: The Story of the American Maroons”

While the historian Diouf has attempted to study marronage across the United States, Sayers, an archeologist, has focused on the Dismal Swamp. The Smithsonian provides an interesting article on the project  in what was once “.. a thriving refuge for runaways.”  For those with a deep interest in this topic the book presents the work in exacting detail.


To Be Continued



2 thoughts on “Beyond Jackson: Enslaved African Americans Make Choices

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