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The Role of Slavery in the War of 1812

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The War of 1812 had many impacts on the USA, but one we don't always talk about is slavery. In this lesson, we'll see how American citizens and slaves alike responded to this conflict.

The War of 1812 and American Slavery

Not everybody knows this, but the War of 1812 was the first conflict where Congress actually issued a formal declaration of war. It was a big deal. That's generally how we talk about the significance of the War of 1812; it was a moment that helped the US achieve a little more international respect and recognition as an actual, functioning country that could hold its own.

However, the end of the War of 1812 was also significant for another reason: it represented the start of the Antebellum period, the era before the Civil War. This was the time in which the North and South became so entrenched in opposing views that reconciliation was no longer possible. This was also the time when massive plantations flourished and slavery truly came to define Southern life. Setting all of this up was the War of 1812.

Slaves and the US Military

In the American Revolution, black and white patriots fought together, and this helped convince many Northern states to abolish slavery in the years following. For many African Americans, both free in the North and enslaved in the South, there was a real hope that fighting in another war would create a pathway to emancipation.

One big difference between the War of 1812 and the Revolution, however, was that the military was segregated by the early 19th century. Many branches would not even allow African Americans to serve, at least not at first. As the conflict quickly escalated, permitting black soldiers became necessary.

A number of African Americans found opportunity serving with the Navy in the War of 1812
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A large number of African Americans found service opportunities in the Navy, which was where fighters were needed the most in the early years of the war. In fact, about 15% of Navy sailors during the War of 1812 were black. Furthermore, the tight quarters of the ships made racial segregation impossible to enforce, and most became harmoniously integrated as white and black crewmen worked, fought, and lived side-by-side.

Slaves and the British Military

Of course, the US military wasn't the only place where African Americans found opportunities. To the British, slaves in the South provided an opportunity to generate a large, and very motivated, army already on American soil.

The British instituted a policy that any slaves who escaped would be granted freedom after serving in the British military. With little reason to feel abundant loyalty to the South, between 4,000 and 5,000 slaves took up the offer and found freedom by fighting against the USA. In fact, some even partook in the infamous burning of Washington D.C. as the British advanced. It is worth noting that while the British encouraged slaves to escape, they never promoted slave rebellions in the South. Why not? With their own plantations across the West Indies, slave revolts were not something the British wanted to see fostered in the Western Hemisphere.

The British march through the eastern USA included many former slaves who had escaped
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After the war, the former slaves were relocated to British islands of the Caribbean as free men and women. In fact, to this day there is a population of descendants of these people on the island of Trinidad. They're known as the Merikans.

Other Opportunities to Escape

To slaves in the South, the War of 1812 provided numerous opportunities to escape and those who could, did.

So, where did the slaves go? Many fled south into Florida, then still part of the Spanish Empire. Spain offered freedom to any slaves who made it into Florida, provided that they adopt Catholicism. Those were terms that many slaves were willing to accept. Interestingly, a number of these slaves would fight alongside Creek and other Native American warriors in Florida against the United States just a few years later. Other slaves headed north to free states and territories, notably the Michigan territory, and even Canada.

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