Wednesday, February 06, 2013
The Slaves' Gamble: Choosing Sides in the War of 1812 by Gene Allen Smith - Book review
The Slaves' Gamble
Choosing Sides in the War of 1812
By: Gene Allen Smith, Ph.D.
Published: January 22, 2013
Format: Hardcover, 272 pages
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
"This book examines African American combatants during the War of 1812 as a way to understand the evolution of American racial relations during the early nineteenth century", writes professor of History and the director of the Center for Texas Studies at Texas Christian University and curator of History at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, Gene Allen Smith, Ph.D., in his fascinating and original research based book The Slaves' Gamble: Choosing Sides in the War of 1812. The author describes how the War of 1812 brought the improving race relations and the declining institution of slavery to a halt, and changed the course of nineteenth century American history.
Gene Allen Smith recognizes that the far flung and multinational War of !812 offered tremendous opportunities for African Americans to improve their circumstances through the army, navy, freedman status, and by escape from bondage to territories outside of American jurisdiction. For the nations involved in the war, the presence of free black and slave troops was considered a viable option to increase the size of naval and land forces.
Slaves used the proximity to British troops as an opportunity to escape to freedom. That flight from bondage caused slave owners to seek more strict and tighter control. The escapes convinced slaveholders that slaves could not be trusted to not escape when under arms. The result was the view that black troops did not provide a reliable and viable military option.
Gene Allen Smith (photo left) presents evidence that the War of 1812 changed the nature of slavery. Prior to the war, slavery was not a strong institution, and was even facing decline or extinction in some Southern states. The war changed all that forever. New lands were opened for cotton production by the war, and the well known Deep South cotton based plantation system was established firmly. At the same time, many African Americans fled to Bermuda, Trinidad, or Canada. The War of 1812 empowered some African Americans while rooting others more deeply into the bonds of slavery.
Gene Allen Smith examines the African American experience in the War of 1812, with black troops and sailors fighting for all of the belligerent nations. The African American participation in the war is considered as follows:
* Black soldiers in North America
* Fighting in the North 1807-13, and on the Seas
* The Florida Patriot War of 1812
* Terror on the Chesapeake, 1813-14
* Washington, Baltimore, and other targets
* War along the Southern Coasts, 1814
* Different places, same results, 1815 and after
For me, the power of the book is how Gene Allen Smith brings alive the African American experience during the War of 1812, while providing a critical background of the larger aspects of the war, and the resulting course of American history. The author offers original source materials that provide detailed accounts of individual African Americans, and their activities during the war, and of its impact on their lives. Combined with his excellent analysis of the events of the war, and how it altered the overall course of nineteenth century American history is superb. Not only was the black population of America affected in drastic ways, the attitudes and opinions of white American were transformed as well.
Gene Allen Smith presents the War of 1812 as a catalyst for decisive change in the lives of African Americans. Often overlooked in its historical influence, the author makes a strong case that the war formed the crucible of nineteenth century America. The various outcomes of the War of !812, including the birth of the Deep South plantation economy, based on slavery, led America on an inexorable path to the American Civil War. The author enhances the text with maps and period illustrations of the events, people, and military history of the war. As expected from a highly respected member of the academic community, the book contains copious end notes for each chapter to facilitate further research.
I highly recommend the insightful and enlightening book The Slaves' Gamble: Choosing Sides in the War of 1812 by Gene Allen Smith, Ph.D., to any students of African American, military or societal history who are seeking an authoritative and engaging examination of the important role played by African Americans in the War of 1812. This book will awaken your interest in that almost forgotten conflict, African American history, and of the nineteenth century in general.
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