AFRICAN AMERICAN SERVICE in the War of 1812
By Barbara Ziman, Special Events Coordinator
The War of 1812 was the result of a number of ongoing differences between the United States and Great Britain. In 1807 Britain began seizing American vessels at sea. As well, captured American sailors were held by the British as deserters and forced to serve in the British Navy. A third irritant was Britain’s placement of restrictions on U.S. trade.
Back at home, the United States felt that British officials were urging Indians in the Great Lakes area to attack American settlements. While the British con-trolled Canada, U.S. settlers would never be safe. All of these factors came together, and the United States declared war on Britain on June 17, 1812.
Prior to this time, African American enlistment in the U.S. Army and Navy was banned by law. Despite the ban free blacks, along with some slaves, had served in the U.S. Navy since its formation in 1794. In 1813, Congress passed a law authorizing the enlistment of "persons of color, natives of the U. States."
During the War of 1812, black men accounted for between 15 and 20 percent of enlisted men on all ships and all stations in the United States Navy. Obtaining crewmen was generally the responsibility of the commanding officer, and at sea the color of a man’s skin was much less important than his skills and abilities. While prejudice and racism existed, by 1814 black and white soldiers and sailors fought and died side by side in line of battle and on warship gun decks.
African Americans served with distinction in a variety of roles during the War of 1812. In the Battle of Lake Erie in 1813, Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, after initial complaints about these servicemen, spoke highly of the African Americans’ bravery and good conduct on board the brig Niagara. At the Battle of New Orleans in 1814, the Battalion of Free Men of Color was with General Jackson. They held their portion of the line against British attack and then counterattacked. Jackson said, "I expected much from you…but you surpass my hopes…the Ameri-can nation shall applaud your valor, as your Gen-eral now praises your ardor."
The Treaty of Ghent, signed December 24, 1814, to end the War of 1812, removed the hope of liberty for African Americans when it called for mutual restoration of properties. This meant a forced return to slavery of these black servicemen, whose courage in war did not change their official status as property.
To learn about blacks in the War of 1812, particularly their role in Commodore Perry’s Victory on Lake Erie, read Amongst My Best Men: African Americans and the War of 1812, published in 1996 by the Friends of Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial, South Bass Island, Ohio.