The always fascinating Axis of Evel Knieval had a provocative post yesterday concerning a slave revolt that took place on January 8th in 1811 in the vicinity of New Orleans. 500 men bearing small arms and farm tools arrived at an outlying plantation, where an escaped slave killed his old master, and then marched on the city in good order with banners flying. As expected, the free population of Louisiana rushed to suppress the uprising, but race in America is never a simple story and is especially complex in this case:
"As word of the revolt spread throughout the sugar plantations, whites raised a militia of their own and were quickly assisted by US troops from Baton Rouge as well as the Free Black Militia of New Orleans, whose offers to help quell the insurgency were accepted."
Four years later, some of these same free men of color and their battalions would fight alongside Andrew Jackson in the Battle of New Orleans.
American society is hardly color-blind, yet throughout our history one can find examples like this of personal and group identities that trump race. It makes us uncomfortable when our assumptions about Black and White are challenged - even as exceptions that prove the rule - for this is intellectually dangerous territory, easily muddied by sloppy history and apologists for plantation paternalism. Sure, there were black Confederates, perhaps a few hundred in all who fought with the South. This fact should be considered alongside another: 179,000 blacks served in the armies and navy of the North. There were also slave-holding Cherokee in the southern forces who had been ousted from their former plantations in Georgia and driven west on the Trail of Tears, and substantial areas in the South with Unionist sentiments, even in states that were strongholds of secession.
In 1800, almost a third of the free population of New Orleans were people of color. Most historians today recognize a combination of factors leading to the creation of this demographic and its unique class identity. In her review of Kimberly S. Hanger's Bounded Lives, Bounded Places: Free Black Society in Colonial New Orleans, 1769-1803, Emily Clark observes:
"An unbalanced sex ratio among whites encouraged encouraged interracial liaisons between enslaved women and colonists, forging bonds of affection that often brought freedom to women and children. A shortage of skilled labor and the strategic importance of Louisiana in the late eighteenth century favored the growth of a class of free blacks to take up trades and increase the militia roles. Such factors melded with Iberian paternalistic cultural traditions and Spanish slave law, which simplified the process of manumission and guaranteed slaves the right of self-purchase. The result was a tide of emancipations in the last thirty years of Louisiana's colonial era."
There is subject matter here for many a doctoral dissertation. Even so, the twin facts that black militia companies volunteered to suppress the slave rebellion and that this offer was accepted by their white counterparts speak to a different form of primary group identity for these free men of color: one with an emphasis on "free". Freedom in this case trumped race and slavery, though not as the rebellious slaves had hoped, as Axis of Evel Knieval's post describes:
"The enslaved rebels failed to reach the city arsenal, leaving them at the mercy of the much more capably armed free soldiers, who slaughtered them with cannon fire at the Fortier Sugar Works, 18 miles from their destination. Those who were not killed in battle were quickly tried and executed by hanging or firing squad at Saint Louis Cathedral. In the customary fashion, the heads of the slaves were cut off and placed along major roads as a warning to others."