Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Just Finished Reading - The Internal Enemy

Of the several nineteenth century conflicts fought by the United States, the one I can claim the least knowledge about is definitely the War of 1812. But, reading The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832, by Alan Taylor (W.W. Norton, 2013) helped fill in a lot of gaps, especially as to how the war played out in the Chesapeake Bay region.

Taylor focuses the majority of The Internal Enemy on how the British encouraged enslaved individuals to runaway, or more often was the case, float or sail away to their warships that controlled the Chesapeake Bay in 1813 and 1814.

The British, presaging the Union Army of the Potomac in the same area in the Civil War, readily understood that taking from the enemy's labor pool only aided their own cause. Similarly, those that were enslaved saw that the enemy of their masters could often prove to be their best friends. And like the Yankees in the 1860s, the British in the War of 1812 were described by masters as fiends only wanting African Americans to come into their lines so they could be worked to death or sold as slaves to Caribbean nations.

However, runaway slaves served the British not only as soldiers (Colonial Marines), but also as laborers, guides, and spies. Their intimate knowledge of the Chesapeake's shoreline, inlets, and rivers proved invaluable to the British successes.

Of course, the War of 1812 was not the first to encourage slave assistance. Lord Dunmore in the Revolutionary War had done the same. Masters and their heirs, who had long memories of Dunmore's attempts, feared their slaves as an "internal enemy" should another conflict with a foreign nation occur.

Taylor explains that Virginia had to rely upon itself for much of its defense. The infant United States was not in a strong position to offer a significant amount of support in men, money, supplies, and arms. Engagements on other fronts spread limited resources even thinner. One result of this reality was to weaken Virginia's traditionally strong bond to the Union.

The amount of research that went into The Internal Enemy is quite impressive. However, how Taylor chooses to use his sources is even more impressive. For example, Taylor utilizes Virginian St. George Tucker's experience to show how that state's gentlemen planters were affected by the British raids. Tucker shared Corotoman plantation (located along the Rappahannock River) with a step son and son in law. While the owners were able to move some of the enslaved workers inland to another plantation in Nelson County, sixty-nine of the Corotoman slaves were lost to the nearby British forces.

Being a big fan of irony, I found it quite interesting that when compensation was finally made in 1828 for the sixty-nine Corotoman slaves that escaped to the British, the acquired funds helped payoff the plantation's debts, some of which was furthered by the slaves' departure. Without that infusion of cash, the plantation would likely have had to resort to selling off the workers which would have surely resulted in the division of many of the enslaved plantation families.

Although the size of the book (435 pages of text) may appear intimidating to some readers, it is written in such an engaging way that the pages fly by. I highly recommend The Internal Enemy to those who wish to learn more about the War of 1812 than just the military engagements. As with all wars, soldiers were not the sole sufferers. On a scale of one to five, I give The Internal Enemy a 4.75.      

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