(Taken from The Narrative of James Roberts, a Soldier Under Gen. Washington in the Revolutionary War, and Under Gen. Jackson
at the Battle of New Orleans, in the War of 1812:”a Battle Which Cost Me a Limb, Some Blood, and Almost My Life”)
Thousands of Blacks—both free and enslaved played a vital and decisive role in the War of 1812. For free Blacks, the War of 1812 provided the chance to enhance their status within society. Though they could not vote and were left out of politics, they jumped at the chance to defend their homes and their nation. For enslaved Blacks, enlisting to fight in the War of 1812 could provide a path to freedom. Unfortunately, that freedom was often elusive despite their service. This fact is illustrated in the story of James Roberts, an enslaved man born on the eastern shore of Maryland who served in not one, but two wars, hoping to gain his freedom, only to remain in bondage.
by Tribune Staff
Despite the fact that The Battle of New Orleans was fought two weeks after a peace treaty was signed, it stands as the foremost example of African-American service during this war. Black sailors and soldiers—both enslaved and free—accounted for roughly 900, nearly half of the American troops that took part in the battle. Though they were outnumbered 2 to 1, American forces decisively beat the British army. The Battle of New Orleans was the last major battle of the war and propelled Andrew Jackson’s status as an American hero.
In the fall of 1814, Gen. Andrew Jackson issued a call for Black troops to increase his ranks. He promised free Blacks the same wages as White troops. He promised enslaved Blacks their freedom.
According to The Narrative of James Roberts, while enlisting Blacks to fight in the war, Jackson went to a Louisiana plantation owned by Calvin Smith. With Smith’s permission, he went into the fields seeking recruits, asking the enslaved wouldn’t they rather fight in battle in exchange for their freedom than die in those cotton fields. For his part, Smith was fine with the notion of those he enslaved fighting in the war even if it meant they would be freed. He was mostly relieved that it was the Blacks he enslaved, instead of his sons, going to war.
Jackson left with hundreds of enslaved Blacks from Smith’s plantation. James Roberts was among them. He replied to Jackson’s query regarding joining his army by saying that he and other enslaved would “run through a troop and leap over a wall” with the hope of freedom.
In his narrative, Roberts tells that “We were taken to Washington, in Louisiana, and drilled. Jackson again told us that we should be free after the battle.”
Not aware of the war’s end, Jackson’s troops battled British forces at New Orleans in early 1815. The battle pitted American troops, including the hundreds of African Americans, many of them only days removed from the plantation with very limited training, against well-trained and strong British military. Yet, the bravery of the African-American forces in defeating the British at New Orleans became legendary.
Jackson personally commended his troops on their heroism, but he reneged on his promise of freedom for the enslaved soldiers.
According to his narrative which was published in 1858, after realizing that he was not going to be freed as promised, James Roberts confronted Jackson:
“I then said, a word to you, General, if you please: have you time to speak a word to me? “What is the word you wish to speak to me?” I asked him if he did not promise me my freedom, if that battle was fought and victory gained? He replied, “I did, but I took your master’s word, as he told me. You are not my property, and I cannot take another man’s property and set it free.” My answer was, You can use your influence with our master, and have us set free. He replied thus: “If I were to hire you my horse, could you sell it without my leave? You are another man’s property, and I have not money sufficient to buy all of you, and set you free.
At that moment I cocked my gun; but there being no priming in it, I bit off a piece of cartridge, and, going to prime it, I for the first time discovered it was not loaded. Had my gun been loaded, doubtless Jackson would have been a dead man in a moment. There was no fear in my soul, at that time, of anything, neither man, death, nor mortal. The war-blood was up. I had just two days before cut off the heads of six brave Englishmen, and Jackson’s life, at that moment, appeared no more to me than theirs. It was well for him that he took the precaution to have our guns unloaded when in the ammunition house. His guilty conscience smote him, and told him he was doing us a great piece of injustice, in promising us, by the most solemn protestation, that we should be free if the victory were gained. I would then have shot him dead a thousand times, if that could have been done. My soul was stirred in me, and maddened to desperation, to think that we had placed our lives in such imminent peril, through the persuasions of such false-heartedness, and now told to go back home to our masters!
Jackson asked me if I contended for freedom. I said I did. He said, “I think you are very presumptuous.” I told him, the time had come for us to claim our rights. He said, “You promised me that you would fight manfully.” I did, sir, and now is the time for me to claim the benefit of the promise you made me. I did fight manfully and gained the victory, now where is my freedom? He replied, as he had nothing else to reply, “You are a day too late; and if you are not willing to go home, I will put you in confinement, and send for your master; he will take you home; you seem to be the hardest among the whole crew.” Some of the whites standing round said, “He ought to be shot.” Now, just think of that! Two days before, I had, with my fellow soldiers, saved their city from fire and massacre, and their wives and children from blood and burning; now, “he ought to be shot!” simply for contending for my freedom, which, both my master and Jackson had solemnly before high heaven promised, before I left home.”
Roberts was more than 60 years old at the time and had been misled before some 40 years earlier when, during the Revolutionary War, he had accompanied his master, an American officer, into combat. Roberts had expected his freedom, but his master was killed in battle, and when the war was over Roberts was separated from his wife and four children and sold at auction to a Louisiana planter.
Now in 1815, after having served the cause of America’s freedom for a second time—this time defending New Orleans against the British in the final battle of the War of 1812—James Roberts was enraged because he had once again been used and tricked.
In 1856, Roberts learned that his army pension had been given to the his enslaver and the enslaver’s heirs.