Review of Smith, The Slaves’ Gamble

Gene Smith‘s new book on the African-American experience during the War of 1812 is the kind of book that should have been written a long time ago. The Slaves’ Gamble: Choosing Sides in the War of 1812 places African Americans front-and-center in discussions about the period between the American Revolution and 1820.

Smith, professor of history at Texas Christian University and currently serving as Class of 1957 Distinguished Lecturer in Naval Heritage at the United States Naval Academy for 2013-14, argues that “[t]he War of 1812 represented a major dividing line in the history of American race relations” (3). The conflict “halted all progress” toward improving the status of free and enslaved African Americans (3). Their decision to join with the British undermined any hopes of diminishing slavery’s hold on the nation. Ultimately, Smith concludes, the war helped shape the future of the Deep South in economic, labor, and racial terms.

Smith begins with an overview of African-American military contributions during the colonial and Revolutionary periods. He then examines their involvement in the northern states, as well as their participation in naval warfare, immediately prior to and during the first year of the War of 1812. Smith next shifts his attention to the Florida Patriot War of 1812, which took place in East Florida and was influenced by the Haitian Revolution. The next three chapters address the war in the Chesapeake, the Atlantic seacoast, and the Gulf coast.

One of the most attractive features of this book is Smith’s use of individual African Americans’ stories to introduce each chapter. For example, the chapter seven highlights Jordan Bankston Noble, known as the “Drummer Boy of Chalmette.” Smith uses his life, which spanned 1800 to 1890, to set up a discussion of the postwar lives of black veterans. This approach humanizes the historical personages being examined and has undoubtedly contributed to the book’s success so far.

The Slaves’ Gamble reinforces the historiographical argument that links the development of the antebellum South to an earlier period. It also brings together a number of foreign perspectives to provide a unified interpretation of the African-American experience. Finally, and most importantly, it reinforces the reality that African Americans were agents of change during a period when they are often overlooked or dismissed.

On Thursday, read an interview with Smith about his book and future research plans.

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