Most helpful positive review
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
A lesser known but very important issue in American history
on February 10, 2013
The title and subtitle of this book are somewhat incorrect. The gamble of choosing sides applied to freemen as well as slaves, and as the author relates, these activities actually started well before the War of 1812. This is an important book that describes the choices faced by African Americans (when that is they had a choice) as to whether to take up arms or serve in other capacities in the conflicts from early in the seventeenth century up through the War of 1812.
Early on, the author shows how not long after the first Europeans arrived in the New World, and not long after they had started bringing in black slaves, those slaves were employed to protect their masters from Native American incursions and attacks by other European nations. As some slaves became freemen, they were also sometimes called upon to serve. Yet many white colonists were against the arming of slaves or even "colored" freemen. The American Revolution made this issue even more critical. Many American leaders were slave holders and resisted any calls to recruit slaves or black freemen, but manpower shortages often forced their hands. Yet after the war, promises of freedom offered for military service were often forgotten and laws passed to restrict black participation in militias or other military areas.
As tension mounted between the United States and Great Britain in the early years of the nineteenth century, British and Indian incursions into the Old Northwest states of Michigan, Indiana, Ohio and Illinois brought pressure upon the political leaders to once again call upon black slaves and freemen to take up arms to provide defense for these areas. As the author shows, blacks had the opportunity to use the situation to gain respect and position within their local societies, yet again there was pressure by many whites to avoid this action, often because of concerns of slave insurrections.
Meanwhile, in the southeastern part of the United States, a separate conflict was taking hold. A rebellion in West Florida had overthrown Spanish rule and there was a growing movement by more radical elements in the South to forcibly seize East Florida. Part of the reason for this action was that it had become a haven for runaway slaves who were tolerated by a Spanish government who could spare little manpower for the area. Again, as the author shows, these runaway slaves used the opportunity to take up arms for the Spanish government to help fight off the American filibusters in their ultimately futile invasion. By doing this the former slaves hoped to gain prestige and power within their new communities and in relationships with their new government.
The book then moves on to primary issue, the War of 1812 and the choices faced by slaves and free blacks. The British military leaders offered freedom to those slaves who came to them, while American leaders once again faced the issue of whether to use blacks as soldiers and possibly give them inspiration to rise up against their white masters. The situation was of course far more complex than this, based upon locations and many other factors. The author discusses these issues and many others thoroughly yet without the book becoming tedious or boring.
The above review only touches on the great depth of this book. It is an amazing complex subject which has been dealt with before only in a more piecemeal fashion. What Smith has done (as he relates in the Acknowledgments) is to try to answer the question of "why did some free blacks and slaves side with the United States, while others joined the British, the Spanish, the Native American tribes or the maroon communities". I think he has answered that question in an excellent, thorough yet very readable way. Highly recommended.