Gene Allen Smith, professor of history at Texas Christian University and author of "The Slaves’ Gamble: Choosing Sides in the War of 1812," spoke last night at the Lyceum in Alexandria. Smith researched the topic for more than a decade.
Smith spoke in front of an audience of about two dozen. The Texas author spoke with confidence and flair as he paced across the stage like a seasoned minister.
The Historical Society of Alexandria hosted the event. Their spokesperson announced other events will be held to commemorate the War of 1812, including one that would correspond to the bi-centennial of Alexandria’s surrender to the British on August 28, 1814.
Smith prefaced his lecture by talking about the reason he wrote the book. About 15 years ago, one of his students asked him why some blacks chose to fight with the States and some with the British. The unknowing motivated him to search for a good answer.
He then began by briefly discussing the "Chesapeake-Leopard Affair." On June 22, 1807, the British warship HMS Leopard attacked the American frigate USS Chesapeake off the shores of Norfolk. The British boarded the Chesapeake and seized four deserters. This act of impressment infuriated Americans. Little known is the fact that three of the alleged deserters were African-Americans.
Smith talked about three African-Americans who sought freedom during the War of 1812. The first was Peter Dennison, an enslaved human living in Detroit. Dennison commanded a troop of black soldiers during the war, and afterwards lived in what is now Windsor. Previously, Dennison had escaped Canada and went to Michigan. Using the Underground Railroad in this direction provides a contrast to the south to north migration pattern.
Perking up the local ears in the well-dressed audience, Smith then talked about Charles Ball. He was enslaved in Calvert County, sold several times and suffered through the unknowing of where his family had been to take to. Ball joined up with Commander Joshua Barney, famous for his Chesapeake Bay Flotilla, and fought alongside him at the Battle of Bladensburg. Ball wrote the slave narrative, "Fifty Years in Chains."
Ned Simmons was a slave owned by General Nathaniel Greene. He served with the British but was then returned to slavery after the war. He found his freedom in 1863 at the age of 100, but passed away shortly thereafter.