Black Cossacks

September 14, 1994|By Blaine Taylor

IT'S THE TIME of year for the Defenders' Day re-enactment at Fort McHenry, marking the anniversary of the Battle of Baltimore.

But during such re-enactments little mention usually is made of the role African Americans played in the War of 1812. Black soldiers fought on both sides.

What whites of that era feared most was a black slave uprising in the wake of the British assault.

Some members of the British high command were planning just such a dreaded revolt.

After taking command of the newly formed North American Station on Apr. 1, 1814, the next day Vice-Admiral Sir Alexander Forrester Inglis Cochrane, 55, issued this proclamation to black slaves in the United States that made white Americans' blood run cold:

"This is therefore to give notice that all those who may be disposed to emigrate from the United States, will with their families be received on board His Majesty's ships or vessels of war . . . when they will have their choice of either entering into His Majesty's sea or land forces, or of being sent as FREE settlers to the British possessions in North America or the West Indies, where they will meet with all due encouragement." In fact, many slaves did desert to the British crown.

Cochrane -- who had seen service in the Revolutionary War and considerable combat elsewhere since 1793 -- would write to Earl Bathurst on July 14, 1814, about raising black troops to fight as mounted "Cossacks," much as did the real Cossacks harass Napoleon's retreat from Russia in the fall of 1812.

The black men, he wrote "Are good horsemen, can be made as good as Cossacks and more terrible to the Americans as any troops that can be brought forward." And yet no slave uprising ever materialized as he might've wished.

Many white British officers had great misgivings about unleashing black troops against fellow whites, even Yankees.

But Cochrane had a deep hatred of the Americans, and referred to them as "spaniels" who needed to be taught a lesson for daring to oppose Great Britain.

Britain's Vice-Admiral Sir George Cockburn sailed up the Chesapeake Bay to Tangier and Watts islands, where he hoped to possibly recruit and raise a British regiment of native black troops to use against the Americans. Cochrane endorsed this idea, proposing that the Colonial Corps, as the unit would be called, receive the same pay and clothing as Royal Marines.

As Cochrane later wrote to Cockburn, he longed for President James Madison to be overthrown by the "black colonials" as he called them. Yet, as Baltimore free-lance writer Albert J. Silverstone noted in The Evening Sun on Feb. 2, 1989, Cockburn never was able to raise more than 120 such disaffected slaves, but these were formed into a company that fought on the British side at the Battle of Bladensburg -- against blacks who fought on the American side, with U.S. Navy Commodore Joshua Barney.

In its Apr. 1, 1815, edition, the Niles' Weekly Register of Baltimore published a story about black soldiers drilling on Tangier Island, quoting a London newspaper that called them "A fine body of men." After the British withdrawal from the United States, the blacks who had fled to service under the Union Jack were transported by the Royal Navy, most to Halifax, Nova Scotia, others to Bermuda. Mr. Silverstone asserts that Cockburn forcibly embarked some of them; another account states that he betrayed their trust, selling them back into slavery.

Blaine Taylor, author of the soon to be published "In Full Glory Reflected: The British-American Campaigns in the Chesapeake Bay-Tidewater, 1812-15," writes from Towson.

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