A Maritime Point of View . . .
Christopher T. George

African-American Sailors Served in Our Nation's "Private Navy"

A frican-American sailors on board privateers sailing out of Baltimore during the War of 1812 helped ensure U.S. liberty. From the Revolution onward, the British called our city a "nest of pirates." The Republican administration of President James Madison issued special licenses to the captains of private armed vessels making these merchant ships in effect a private navy that supplemented the ships of the then infant U.S. Navy. It is estimated that during the period as many as one out of every five sailors aboard such privateers and U.S. Navy ships were black.

     British prison records confirm that many of the American seamen were African American. In fact, at the infamous Dartmoor prison, Cell Block Four was mainly made up of blacks. One of the leaders of the cell block, in fact, was a black Marylander. After his capture on board the Raccoon off Bordeaux, Richard Crafus, a 23-year-oldAfrican American from Vienna on Maryland's eastern shore is stated to have ruled over the cell block with a firm but fair hand. In a day when most sailors were five foot six or under, Crafus, a giant of a man, stood at six foot three and a quarter inches. The same man later became a leader in the African American community of Boston.

     Incidentally, it might be hypothesized that a number of the Maryland blacks, possibly including Crafus, were actually runaway slaves who shipped on board New England vessels rather than risk being sent back into slavery.

     One of the black sailors from Baltimore about which we have substantial information is George R. Roberts, a man who early on in the war enlisted in the crew of Captain Richard Moon's privateer Sara Ann. When Moon's ship was captured by a British man of war, the skipper spoke out in favor of Roberts, saying he knew the crewman to be an American-born black man with a wife in Baltimore. Eventually, the American cartel who owned the Sara Ann called the British bluff and Moon and his crew were released and allowed to return to the United States.

     Later in the war, Roberts served as a gunner on board Captain Thomas Boyle's privateer Chasseur. This vessel was the prototype of our city's present-day ambassador, Pride of Baltimore II. Not for nothing did Hezekiah Niles, editor of Niles Weekly Register, hail Boyle's ship as the "Pride of Baltimore." Boyle and his crew had many narrow escapes while they sailed the oceans preying on British shipping, one time being chased some distance across the Indian Ocean by a British frigate. George Roberts' obituary in the Baltimore Sun of January 16, 1861, noted that during the war the Canton resident had experienced "many hairbreath escapes."

     Possibly the most famous engagements fought by the men of Chasseur was that on February 27, 1815 with the British schooner St. Lawrence. The British ship was the former American privateer Atlas of Philadelphia, captured by the Royal Navy a year and a half earlier. In this battle, in the words of a writer decades later, African-American gunner Roberts is stated to have "displayed the most intrepid courage and daring."

     According to maritime author Fred Hopkins, Jr., the engagement between Chasseur and St. Lawrence "was one of the few occasions in which a private armed vessel stood and fought broadside-to-broadside with a Royal Navy cruiser."

     In vivid language, skipper Tom Boyle himself recorded the scene: "At this time both fires were very severe and destructive and we found we had an heavy enemy to contend with. . . . Saw the blood run freely from her scuppers. Gave orders for boarding which was cheerfully obeyed. . . . [By] various . . . reports [the British had] 15 killed and 19 wounded [out of a crew of 75 men]. She was a perfect wreck in her hull, and had scarcely a sail or rope standing. We. . . had 5 men killed and 19 wounded."

     Boyle reported that one of his five crewmembers killed was "Peter, a black man." Because the captain did not give Peter's surname, it is probable that he was a servant or even a slave.

     Black seaman George Roberts survived this contest and took part in the triumphal return of Chasseur to Baltimore on April 8, 1815, when she was saluted by the cannons of Fort McHenry as she sailed into port. For decades afterward, Roberts was honored as a hero as he paraded with the other "Old Defenders" of the city. He was remembered for his "brave character. . . adorned by an amiable disposition." Noting the passing of the hero, who was said to have been around age 90 at his death, one memorialist stated, "Thus has passed away a man whose patriotism, good sense and high moral character have won for him many friends for whom the news of his death will cause heartfelt sorrow."

[Device] Christopher T. George is a local free-lance writer and poet and the author of the recent picture book on our city, Baltimore Close Up, from Arcadia Publishers, on sale at local bookstores.

Questions or comments about this article for Mr. George.

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