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"Black Sailors and Soldiers in the War of 1812" Topic


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665 hits since 5 Nov 2020
©1994-2022 Bill Armintrout
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Tango0105 Nov 2020 9:05 p.m. PST

"In 1813 Charles Ball, an escaped slave and self-declared "free man of color," had a choice. He could row out to the British fleet moored in the Chesapeake Bay and offer his services to the King, or he could volunteer for the fledgling American navy and defend his country. Ball, whose dramatic bid for freedom is chronicled in The Life of Charles Ball, A Black Man, chose the latter and he was not alone.

When Ball enlisted, African Americans made up at least fifteen percent of U.S. naval corps. Although official U.S. policy at the start of the war forbade the recruitment of black sailors, a chronic shortage of manpower compelled the navy to accept any able-bodied man. These black sailors had a reputation for fierceness in battle. When Captain Oliver Hazard Perry complained about having blacks on his ship, Commodore Isaac Chauncey replied, "I have nearly fifty blacks on this boat and many of them are among the best of my men." Perry soon had the chance to test Chauncey's recommendation. At the Battle of Lake Erie, where Perry's fleet thwarted the British, his black sailors performed so well that he wrote to the Secretary of the Navy, praising their courage.

Life at sea was, by necessity, an egalitarian existence. Living in small quarters, away from shore for months at a time, the men developed a camaraderie and mutual respect based on performance, not skin color. Black sailors made their mark on both official vessels and on the privateers, non-military ships sanctioned by the U.S. government to harass British merchant vessels. On some privateers more than half of the crew was black. These fast and heavily-armed raiders were frequently successful at seizing merchant ships, but just as frequently at being captured by the British. The sailors onboard, including the African Americans, were often sent to the infamous Dartmoor Prison, where the racial divisions they had left behind once again prevailed…"

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