In the May 18, 1814 edition of the Baltimore American and Commercial Advertiser, a notice appeared in which Prince George’s County slave owner Benjamin Oden offered a $40 reward for the return of his “negro Frederick”, who had apparently escaped some two months earlier. It seems that Oden had spent these intervening months trying to apprehend Frederick on his own, but was now forced to offer a large sum of money for the return of his property.
Included in the ad is a physical description of Frederick, a 21 year-old mixed race individual of middling height, and it is notable that he was reported to be without “scars or marks”, indicating that he had not been beaten or maimed. This would seem to indicate that “Frederick” had not been a particularly troublesome subject in the past. The ad further noted that Frederick was likely in Baltimore staying with a relative who was a house servant to an unknown “Mr. Williams”, which is likely the reason he placed the ad in a Baltimore paper. Oden may have hoped that “Mr. Williams” would read the ad, recognize Frederick and claim the reward.
Notices such as this filled the pages of Baltimore’s many newspapers, as Baltimore was a magnet for runaways, having the largest free black population in the United States and plenty of ready work on its busy docks. This large population of blacks and mulattos made it easier for escaped slaves to go unnoticed in the city, and also provided a ready-made support system for people of color. “Frederick” being described as having skin “so fair as to show freckles”, would have easily assimilated into Baltimore’s mulatto community. Almost all of the individuals sought in advertisements such as these are lost to history, but in this case, more is known about the fate of “Frederick”, who, in 1814, embarked on a fascinating, if ultimately tragic, adventure.
Federal law at that time prohibited the entry of slaves into the armed forces, as they “could make no valid contract with government”, being that they were technically property without legal status. Enlisting as a private in the 38th U.S. Infantry under the name William Williams, “Frederick” was accepted without reservation during that time of crisis, as English warships menaced the Chesapeake Bay and her coastal settlements. Williams received an enlistment bounty of $50 and wages of $8 per month for his service; the bounty alone represented about five months’ pay for an unskilled laborer, and for a runaway slave, this alone may have been enticement enough. It may have also been that Frederick entertained hopes that his service in defense of the nation would be honored with his emancipation, although his status as a runaway made that possibility uncertain at best.
In September of 1814, Williams and the 38th Infantry were ordered to Ft. McHenry in Baltimore, where they were garrisoned during the whole of the British bombardment. Williams suffered a catastrophic wound to his leg from a British cannonball during the attack and was evacuated to a Baltimore hospital. He would die there two months later as one of the unsung heroes of the Battle of Baltimore; his burial place remains unknown.
During both the American Revolution and the War of 1812, English military officials did their best to induce American slaves to leave their masters for freedom behind British lines. On April 2, 1814, British Vice-Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane continued this policy when he issued a proclamation to the enslaved people of the United States, promising freedom to those who crossed over. “…[you] will have [the] choice of either entering into His Majesty’s sea or land forces, or being sent as free settlers to the British possessions in North America or the West Indies where [you] will meet with all due encouragement.” The result of this proclamation was an ever-increasing number of slave desertions to the British, wherever the British happened to operate. In early July, slaves flocked to Royal Navy transports in Hampton, Virginia and at Point Lookout in St. Mary’s County, Maryland. An American militia officer publicly estimated that St. Mary’s County would lose ninety percent of its slaves if the British were not quickly driven away.
Hoping to stem the tide of runaways, Maryland’s governor suggested that landowners should remove all small boats from the coastline, and armed patrols in these areas were increased. These patrols sometimes indiscriminately opened fire on groups of escaped slaves hiding by the water, and accounts exist of patrols successfully luring the British into ambushes by pretending to be runaways, and of slaves being lured into American vessels that identified themselves as English.
Not yet having received reinforcements from their war against Napoleon, the British were in great need of troops, and Cochrane believed that runaways, properly trained, could make the difference, as was evidenced by his correspondence at the time: “The Blacks are all good horsemen. Thousands will join upon their master’s horses, and they will only to be clothed and accoutered to be as good Cossacks as any in the European army, and I believe more terrific to the Americans than any troops that could be brought forward.” Cochrane also knew that his offer would frighten American slaveholders who were perpetually on the alert for signs of slave revolts.
American newspapers, oddly enough, widely reprinted Cochrane’s proclamation, and there is little doubt but that Benjamin Oden’s slave “Frederick”, soon to be William Williams, would have become aware of the British offer. If he had already made it to Baltimore by that time, taking to the roads again in search of the redcoats would have been a risky proposition at best. If he was, in fact, in Baltimore in early April, he may have decided that remaining sequestered there was the prudent course of action. Since Williams ended up fighting for the Americans in Baltimore without leaving any trace of his thoughts on the matter, it is impossible to know what his intentions were, or how, if at all, the British proclamation affected him. It did, however, influence the choices of many others like him.
It is estimated that between three to five thousand enslaved people fled to the British from Maryland and Virginia alone before the British landings in late August 1814, greatly disrupting the region’s plantation economy. Some of these runaways would eventually become guides, leading British raiding parties to their former plantations, while a few enlisted in the “Colonial Marines”, which was comprised entirely of former slaves and trained at the newly constructed Fort Albion on Tangier Island in the Chesapeake Bay. Those who chose this route knew that, if captured in battle, there would be no mercy for them from their captors. Unlike ordinary redcoats, a Colonial Marine or a black acting as a scout for the British would quickly find himself dangling at the end of a noose. Some took the risk anyway. The “Colonial Marines”, which never numbered more than 120 troops, fought with the British at the Battle of Bladensburg on August 24, 1814, helping to drive off those who formerly enslaved them and paving the way for the burning of the American capital a few days later.
A Virginia militia general, John R. Hungerford, in a letter to Virginia Governor James Barbour shortly before Bladensburg, lamented the loss of the slaves and their potential value as an ally to the British. “Our negroes are flocking to the enemy from all quarters, which [the British] convert into troops, vindictive and rapacious – with a most minute knowledge of very bye path. [The blacks] leave us as spies upon our posts and our strength, and they return upon us as guides and soldiers and incendiaries…From this cause alone the enemy have a great advantage over us in a country where the passes and by-ways through our innumerable necks and swamps are so little known to but very few of our officers and men, and through which they can penetrate and be conducted with so much ease by these refugee blacks.”
At the same time, newspapers tried to quiet frayed nerves by reassuring readers that the slaves were essentially patriotic, and that they labored not by coercion, but through an instinctive adherence to their “duty.” These sentiments were typical of antebellum America, where white slaveholders comforted themselves by choosing to believe that their chattel loved, or at least respected them, and often misinterpreted deference, employed as a survival mechanism, for genuine affection. Many slave owners expressed shock upon discovering that their “people” had chosen freedom rather than remaining enslaved, and refusing to believe that their slaves would go willingly, insisted that the British had “carried them off”, as if they were incapable of independent thought. The sheer number of blacks who risked much to join the English betrays this age-old American insistence that slaves were generally happy and docile.
Runaways who chose not to join the military were put to work behind British lines as laborers, while older slaves and women were taken by the Royal Navy to Halifax, Nova Scotia or sometimes to the West Indies. In these places, they were generally freed without clear direction or support, and many of them fell ill, and were left to rely on charity. Land given to the Halifax group by the British government turned out to be frozen for much of the year and useless for farming.
Some in the British government, such as the Earl of Dalhousie, eventually blamed the slaves themselves for their misery. “…Slaves by habit & education, no longer working under the dread of the lash, their idea of freedom is Idleness and they are altogether incapable of Industry.” Even worse, according to what could certainly be a questionable account of a captured American being held in the Bahamas, a few may have actually been resold into slavery again. No matter what road a runaway chose, it was sure to be fraught with hardship and peril, with little sympathy to be expected from whites.
Once the British invasion actually got underway in late August, interestingly, very few slaves chose to flee to them, perhaps because of the imminence of combat, or the fear of being cut off during a hasty retreat. One slave remembered being dissuaded by a white woman who told him, “Where are you running to? What do you reckon the British would want with such a nigger as you?”
Many free blacks, feeling their homes threatened, joined the whites in throwing dirt as entrenchments and fortifications sprang up around Baltimore. Other free blacks served on privateers, such as George Roberts, who worked on the Chausseur. When the Chausseur captured the British schooner St. Lawrence in February of 1815, Roberts was commended for having “displayed the most intrepid courage and daring.” Still others, like Charles Ball, served as a seaman in Commodore Joshua Barney’s U.S. Chesapeake Flotilla, while Gabriel Roulson fought as an Ordinary Seaman on the sloop of war Ontario in the fledgling United States Navy. For “Frederick”, his act of independent agency was to enlist in the 38th United States Infantry as Private William Williams and put his life on the line in the defense of Baltimore.
As the dynamic in the Chesapeake Bay region changed rapidly in 1813-1814, tens of thousands of slaves contemplated their options. For many, running away to the British was a dangerous but worthwhile endeavor. Yet for others, taking up arms in the service of a nation that perpetuated a system of institutionalized oppression became a viable alternative. For William Williams, perhaps exercising complete control over his life for the first time, it was a decision for which he paid the ultimate price. It is left for one to wonder if, after having learned of the American victory at Baltimore, Benjamin Oden joined in the many toasts proffered to the brave defenders of Ft. McHenry. If he did, no doubt he little realized that in doing so he was raising his glass to his “negro Frederick”, who had rejected him and a life of servitude to embarked on his own path of self-determination.