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Authors: Daniel Rasmussen

American Uprising

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American Uprising

The Untold Story of
America’s Largest Slave Revolt

Daniel Rasmussen






James Russell Lowell

n 1811, a group of between 200 and 500 enslaved men dressed in military uniforms and armed with guns, cane knives, and axes rose up from the slave plantations around New Orleans and set out to conquer the city. They decided that they would die before they would work another day of backbreaking labor in the hot Louisiana sun. Ethnically diverse, politically astute, and highly organized, this slave army challenged not only the economic system of plantation agriculture but also the expansion of American authority in the Southwest. Their January march represented the largest act of armed resistance against slavery in the history of the United States—and one of the defining moments in the history of New Orleans and, indeed, the nation.

In the cane fields outside of the city, federal troops teamed up with French planters to fight these slave-rebels—an unholy alliance between government power and slave-based agriculture that would come to define the young American nation as a slave country in the years leading up to the Civil War. Over the course of the conflict, these powerful white men committed unspeakable acts of brutality in service of a stronger nation and a more vibrant economy.

Because of that brutality, and because of a shared belief in the importance of a specific form of political and economic development, these government officials and slave owners sought to write this massive uprising out of the history books—to dismiss the bold actions of the slave army as irrelevant and trivial. They succeeded. And in doing so, they laid the groundwork for one of the most remarkable moments of historical amnesia in our national memory.

While Nat Turner and John Brown have become household names, Kook and Quamana, Harry Kenner, and Charles Deslondes have barely earned a footnote in American history. Though the 1811 uprising was the largest slave revolt in American history, the longest published scholarly account runs a mere twenty-four pages.

This book redresses that silence and tells the story that the planters could not and would not tell—the story of political activity among the enslaved. What follows is the first definitive account of this central moment in our nation’s past—a story more
: an account of the planning, execution, and suppression of a furious uprising, set in a plantation world far removed from the Virginia of Nat Turner or the sun-drenched plantations of
Gone with the Wind.
This is a story about slave revolutionaries: their lives, their politics, and their fight to the death against the planters and their militia. Above all, this is a story about America: who we are, where we came from, and how our ideals have at times been twisted and cast aside for the sake of greed and power.




John M. Barry,
Rising Tide

own from the mountains of Canada, through dozens of tributaries and smaller rivers, the waters of the American Midwest find their outlet to the sea in the great American Nile: the Mississippi. The river snakes seaward, building tremendous momentum as it hurtles around sharp curves and lashes over rocks, constantly colliding against its own wide banks. For the last 450 miles before the river reaches the ocean, the river bed lies below sea level, and the water has no reason to flow. The water simply tumbles over itself, spitting and gurgling past Natchez and down to New Orleans.

From New Orleans, the river flushes out into the Gulf of Mexico, carrying the continent’s commerce into an ocean world rich with ports—from the coast of Africa to the Caribbean to the eastern seaboard of the United States. Situated at the mouth of the river, New Orleans is the prime entrepot of the American Midwest. In the nineteenth century, the city was of central strategic and commercial significance, for through the city, as Thomas Jefferson noted, “the produce of three-eighths of our territory must pass to market.” New Orleans was the point at which the commercial farming zones of the Mississippi River valley met the world of Atlantic trade.

Just a few miles north and west of the city, only a few miles up the Mississippi River, began one of the wealthiest and most fertile stretches of agricultural land in North America: Louisiana’s famed German Coast. Germans had originally settled the area before being overwhelmed by French immigrants and, in many cases, frenchifying their names and their culture in order to fit in with the new dominant group. Past the gentle slope of the levee stretched green fields as far as the eye could see on both shores. Magnolias, orange trees, and thick oaks sprouted from the sweeping lawns, and Spanish moss hung from the branches. Shielded behind the lush proliferation of gardens stood gorgeous plantation homes built in colonial style, with soaring roofs and columned porticoes.

About twenty miles from New Orleans, smack-dab in the center of the German Coast, stood the Red Church, a barnlike building with long glass windows, surrounded by a fenced-in cemetery and presbytery. The aristocratic first families of Louisiana streamed out from the front doors.

It was Epiphany Sunday, January 6, 1811, and the planters and their families were buoyant with excitement, undampened by any undue religious solemnity. The local priest was not known for conducting a particularly spiritual Mass. “The social status of the parish priests at the time was not very respectable,” wrote one French official. “Adventurers, gluttons, drunkards, often unfrocked monks, they were asked but one thing by their parishioners—that they be, as was said, ‘good natured.’ ”

Good nature was inescapable that Sunday. The previous year’s sugar crop was in, and the planters had much to look forward to. Epiphany marked the beginning of a month-long Carnival season. Until its ritual ending at Mardi Gras, all-night parties, mixed-race balls, and constant gambling would occupy the planters’ lives. The local French newspaper
L’Ami des Lois
noted plans for an opera and ball at the end of January, and advertised the services of a French-trained dancing master from Haiti and a Parisian hairdresser eager to help the planters and their wives survive the hectic social calendar. Conversations abounded with joy and optimism as the citizens celebrated the unprecedented success of the 1810 harvest.

Several planters, dressed in gloves, hats, and cravats, strolled toward the plantation of Jean Noël Destrehan, a slender Frenchman with dark hair and brown eyes. The roads bustled with carriages and horses; men and women strolled along the levee in their Sunday finery; and slaves hunted and played games in the fields. The planters had a busy day ahead of them. Destrehan, whom one contemporary described as the “most active and intelligent sugar planter in the country,” would host lunch at his mansion.

The Destrehan mansion, which survives to this day, was a French Colonial manor, boasting Tuscan pillars tapered into columnettes that upheld a wraparound porch elevated fourteen feet off the ground. The brick-walled first floor was primarily for storage, and the family lived on the second floor. With hardwood floors and twelve-and-a-half-foot-high ceilings, the two- by three-room house was luxurious and comfortable, designed for the enjoyment and display of wealth. Over Madeira and brandy, Destrehan’s beautiful female slaves would serve a five-course meal, replacing the tablecloths between each course. Toasts and songs with traditional refrains would punctuate the fine dining as the planters exchanged small talk and gossip.

Amid the oak trees, Spanish moss, and long plantation fields, the planters had developed an unusually tight-knit society. They hosted each other at elaborate dinners, dances, and other entertainment. When planters intermarried, their children started their own plantations. By the early eighteenth century, the Deslondes and Labranche families owned two plantations each, while the Trépagnier and Fortier families owned three plantations each along the German Coast. The plantation homes were symbols of the immense wealth and profit accumulated on the Mississippi Delta. In scale and grandeur, they were unparalleled in the United States.

The meal at the Destrehan plantation was an intimate prelude to the wild and frenzied parties to come that night—and most nights for the next month. Their repast finished, the planters would take carriages or boats into New Orleans for the evening’s celebration at the King’s Ball. Slave coach drivers would guide their masters’ polished vehicles along the road that ran along the river and the levee, curving gently with each bend in the river, before entering first the Garden District and then the center of the city where the parties would be held.

Every year on January 6, the King’s Ball marked the kickoff of the Carnival season that culminated in Mardi Gras. The ball featured the cutting of a cake in which a bean had been hidden. Amid dancing and music, the revelers would celebrate the election of a King and Queen of the Twelfth Cakes, and drink prodigious amounts of alcohol.

After coffee, the dancing would begin. The guests danced boleros, gavottes
English dances, French dances, and gallopades
Elegantly dressed young men smoked and gambled at tables spread around the outside of the room. “You never saw anything more brilliant,” wrote a French colonial official fresh from Paris. Slaves brought in supper at three o’clock in the morning, serving gumbos and turtle to the assembled guests at two large tables seating a total of seventy people. After supper, the revelers took to dancing and gambling again, not leaving until after sunrise. Throughout the month of January and the beginning of February, Destrehan and his fellow planters would devote themselves almost entirely to dancing and gambling—just as their parents and their parents’ parents had done.

These bacchanalian traditions dated back to the first French settlements in the area. As early as the 1740s, the Marquis de Vaudreuil had constructed a sort of miniature Versailles in the midst of the earth and log ramparts. In the poor colony on the outskirts of the empire, a place that contained fewer than 800 white males, Vaudreuil took it upon himself to host dances and elaborate banquets, and even to bring in a dancing master from Paris named Bébé (Baby) to teach the next generation to dance.

Jean Noël Destrehan’s relatives had been there, as had many of his friends’ ancestors. Dressed in wig, satins, and lace, Destrehan’s grandfather, Jean Baptiste Honoré Destrehan de Beaupré, had arrived in New Orleans in 1721, bringing the royal Destrehan bloodline to the shores of the Mississippi. He had served as the first treasurer of the new colony. And despite living in a colony far removed from Paris, the Destrehans maintained their elite traditions and family reputation.

Jean Noël Destrehan himself had traveled to France for his education before returning to the New World to marry and run the family plantation. In a few short years, Destrehan impregnated his wife fourteen times, producing eleven children who survived infancy. In the early 1800s, he had to add two additional wings to his mansion to accommodate his hearty brood—a construction project amply paid for with money earned from his profitable career as a sugar planter.

Universally regarded by his fellow planters as a wise and generous man, Destrehan became the de facto spokesman for the motley set of French expatriates. Cultivated and elegant, he was a symbol of the planters’ firm belief in the power and supremacy of French civilization. These settlers had chosen to abandon the luxuries of Enlightenment-era France for the wild tropics of Louisiana because they believed that here they could make vast fortunes and become men of wealth and status. Destrehan—and his lavish lifestyle of banquets and parties—provided living proof that this dream could become reality. Like many of the planters, Destrehan was rapidly becoming very rich from growing sugar.

As a business proposition, sugar planting was relatively simple: maximize quality and quantity of sugar cane output through the use of slave labor to exploit the natural landscape. The primary investments of sugar masters—land and slaves—achieved higher rates of return in New Orleans than anywhere else in the United States. “Those who have attempted the cultivation of the Sugar Cane are making immense fortunes with the same number of hands which in Maryland and Virginia scarced suffice to pay their annual expences,” wrote a correspondent for the Louisiana

But making that business proposition a reality came at immense human cost. Force, or the threat of force, was as necessary an investment as land in making a successful sugar plantation. For slaves would not work without coercion. The planters seemed to focus their attention less on the methods and tremendous injustices of their chosen lifestyle and more on the results; perhaps this was the only way to rationalize the tremendous risks. Yet this heavy investment in violence created a fundamental risk: that the violence would backfire, wreaking uncontrollable havoc on the architects of this brutal system.

Habituated by time and custom to these rigid power relationships, the planters saw no contradiction between their lifestyles and the system of enslavement. By taking credit for the work of people they considered to be their property, they told stories about their accomplishments and their plantations without reference to those who made it all possible. The planters discussed and showed off their beautiful mansions, their lives of leisure, their abundance of slaves, their well-constructed buildings. They built reputations as manly independent patriarchs, as gentlemen farmers, and as powerful aristocrats. To these men, slavery signaled status and wealth, not immorality or danger.

Destrehan and his friends considered their wealth the fruit of their own labors. In their minds, they were the ones who had worked hard, and they were the ones who should reap the rewards. Many criticized them for their lavish lifestyles, but the French planters had little patience for such attacks. “We could not imagine what had produced the idea of our effeminacy and profusion; and the laborious planter, at his frugal meal, heard with a smile of bitterness and complaint the descriptions published at Washington of his opulence and luxury,” Destrehan wrote.

And he did work hard. During most of the year—with the exception of the Carnival season in January when there was less to do on the plantation—Jean Noël Destrehan maintained the strict daily routine of a typical French sugar planter. Awakening at sunrise, he made his appearance on the piazza of his house and took his coffee, toast, and tobacco pipe. Then he met with his slave drivers to plan the day’s work, approve specific punishments, and hear about the state of the plantation. As the bells rang to signal the beginning of work, Destrehan strutted out into the fields in his morning dress (holland trousers, white silk stockings, red or yellow Moroccan slippers, and a cotton nightcap to keep off the hot Louisiana sun). His slave mistress might accompany him on this walk, offering him a morning Madeira and pipe to refresh him. Destrehan, wrote one French official, “was there all the time, following all of his operations. Woe to anyone who would disturb one of his Negroes at this time, or his horses or oxen! Obliging though he usually was, this would have been like stabbing him in the back.”

Destrehan believed that there could be no German Coast without slavery. He believed that without chattel slavery, “cultivation must cease, the improvements of a century be destroyed, and the great river resume its empire over our ruined fields and demolished habitations.” Indeed, slaves were an absolute necessity—the very foundation of this strange frontier world. By 1810, slaves constituted more than 75 percent of the total population, and close to 90 percent of households owned slaves.

In fact, the planters used the very strangeness of the land—with its heat and disease and wild, uncontrollable river—to justify the mass importation and forced labor of African slaves. Destrehan saw Africans as uniquely matched to the hot weather and tough work. “To the necessity of employing African laborers, which arises from the climate and the species of cultivation pursued in warm latitudes, is added a reason in this country peculiar to itself,” he wrote. “The banks raised to restrain the waters of the Mississippi can only be kept in repair by those whose natural constitution and habits of labor enable them to resist the combined effects of deleterious moisture and a degree of heat intolerable to whites.” Slaves were the planters’ defense against the great river, their weapons in a contest between civilized man and untamed nature.

BOOK: American Uprising
13.85Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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