On Monday, I posted my review of Gene Smith’s new book, The Slaves’ Gamble: Choosing Sides in the War of 1812. Today, read an interview with Smith about his book and his future research plans.
What led you to write The Slaves’ Gamble?

This book spawned from work with my major professor in graduate school during the late 1980s–the recently deceased Dr. Frank L. Owsley, Jr., of Auburn University.  He had worked on this topic a little during his career, but he had never jumped in completely.  When I was looking for a new project during the mid 1990s, a student in class asked me why some slaves joined Andrew Jackson during the New Orleans campaign and others had joined the British.  That simple question stumped me and brought me back to a topic that Larry Owsley had suggested to me a few years earlier.

Why do you think this topic has been under-examined by historians?

This topic has been little-examined by historians because there was no single cache of materials from which it derived.  The research for the project took more than a decade in archives across the United States–from California to Florida, to New England–and Great Britain (England, Scotland, and Ireland), as well as in Spanish sources relating to Florida and Louisiana.  I spent about a year-and-a-half working in British archives, including remote locations that American scholars had not visited in two decades.  Even then, finding information about slaves and free blacks is like looking for a needle in a proverbial haystack.  The information comes in drabs rather than in a steady stream. 

What was the most challenging part of your research?

The most challenging feature of this project was to give voice to slaves and free blacks.  As I began this project, I was convinced that the Americans were the good guys and the British were the villains.  Yet as I delved deeper into this project, I came to the realization that this book represented a freedom story.  Slaves were struggling for freedom and made their choices based on what they perceived as in their best interest of their search to escape bondage.  Given what happened during and especially after the war, the Americans emerged as the villains, while the British and the Spanish emerged as heroes because they provided FREEDOM to slaves.  The slaves who fled to British or Spanish colonies did not prosper economically, but they did have freedom.  Slaves who remained in the United States hoping to gain their freedom, did not find it until after the American Civil War.  Even then, they stepped into a world or racial segregation.

What is your next research project?

I am currently working on two projects.  I hope to have a history of the Battle of New Orleans in print by the bicentennial of the battle–January 2015.  While working a the United States Naval Academy, I am interested in a project on the navy during the 1820s and another on the founding fathers and the maritime world.

Finally, and most importantly, who is the better poker player: Jim Broussard or John Belohlavek?

Poker is a game of situations, and it can change based on which cards players receive.  Given the two choices, I would lean toward John Belohlavek because I have not played against him as much.  I have played against Jim Broussard and as such I have pretty good ideas about how he plays his hand.  Ultimately, I think Gene Smith can hold his own against these two players.

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