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The Internal Enemy

February 26, 2014 by Reader's Connection

The Internal Enemy : Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832

Of the many things I didn’t know about the War of 1812, this may be the most important: It gave slaves in the Chesapeake Bay area a chance to reunite their families.

In July 1813 a twenty-one-year-old slave named Benjamin escaped from his master in Calvert County. A few days later the runaway guided a British attachment to a different farm, to retrieve his wife, Cecelia, so that they could reunite in freedom. Similarly, Joe Lane fled from his master in Northumberland County, Virginia, and went to the British, who then helped him retrieve his wife, Barbara, and their three children, from another owner in the county. In October 1814 in the same county, Sall escaped with three of her children from the farm of Robert Forester. Then she led a British officer to another farm forcibly to retrieve her two daughters who had been sold to a different owner.

By traveling at night, slaves had maintained ties with spouses and children on other farms in the neighborhood, constituting a community across multiple white-owned properties.

That’s from Alan Taylor’s The Internal Enemy : Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832, which was nominated for the 2013 National Book Award. It covers the American Revolution and runs through Nat Turner’s 1831 rebellion, but focuses for the most part on the War of 1812.

The Civil War of 1812 : American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, & Indian Allies

I’ve requested Taylor’s 2010 book The Civil War of 1812 : American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, & Indian Allies, and look forward to reading about the invasion of Canada by the not-really-very-United States. But there’s no need to read these books in the order they were written, and I’m glad to have read The Internal Enemy during African-American History Month.

Taylor thinks that at least 5,000 slaves escaped from the United States during the war. 2,400 of them escaped from the Chesapeake area. This was a small number, compared with the total number of slaves in Virginia, but

the importance of the wartime escapes lay primarily in the psychological and political overreactions provoked among the Virginians, who felt shocked by any surge in runaways as a dangerous slippery slope toward slave revolt. Despite their modest numbers, the wartime runaways terrified Virginians who dreaded slaves as their “internal enemy.”

And to give credit where it’s due, some of the runaways were organized into a special British unit called “Colonial Marines,” and they fought bravely. In any case, freedom was of titanic importance to those who escaped, whatever their number. We see this after the war, when, for example, the British don’t keep all the promises they’ve made to the runaways who end up in Nova Scotia.

Although most remained poor, they were still better off free in Nova Scotia than as slaves in America. In their new homes, they had restored the family ties that had been their prime goal in escaping from slavery . . . Despite their mistreatment in Nova Scotia, they could live without fear that a master’s death, debt, or whim would sell someone precious far away never to be seen again.

This is a moving, fascinating book, full of info that was new to me. Check out pages 256-259. I was thinking all backwards about “slave names.” (“No act of submission, taking a master’s surname was instead as defiant as taking his pig at night.”)


Francis Scott Key was inspired during the War of 1812 to write the poem that became our National anthem. I had known that, but I hadn’t known that our anthem has a third verse wishing horror and death to escaping slaves. “Key regarded the land of the free and the home of the brave as properly a white man’s republic”–Alan Taylor.





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