Understanding history is a tricky business, always written by he who controls the message. That being said, when looking back to figure out what happened to those not in control, there’s a lot of ineptly reported, outlandish, surprisingly unusual, and jaw-dropping tales to be told.
Daniel Rasmussen finds no exception for this rule in his exhaustive study, American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt.
“Beneath this story of wealth and riches, behind this tale of progress, lay darker realities. Sugar, cotton, and coffee don’t grow themselves,” Rasmussen writes. “They demand backbreaking, intolerable labor—labor to which no free man would choose to submit.”
The historical facts behind what slavery was all about cannot be escaped. Every American knows about it. However, few know about the horrific details of what happened to hundreds of Louisiana slaves after a revolt was put down in January 1811.
Rasmussen found evidence of 124 individual slaves to the revolt, while eyewitness observers estimated their numbers at between 200 and 500.
Many of the revolting slaves suffered a grossly vindictive punishment—decapitation. Their heads then were left on pikes for display, rotting away in the summer heat as a reminder to the rest of the slaves about the consequence for disobedience—a part of history largely untold through the efforts of the appointed governor of Louisiana, William Claiborne, who first criminalized, then marginalized the revolt.
“Hidden History Tours provides authentic
presentation of history that is not well known”
However, 21 newspapers, many of them in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York, reprinted a comment from the Louisiana Courier condemning the actions against the slaves, Rasmussen notes. “But, despite this opposition, Claiborne’s narrative prevailed where it counted most, among the powerful elite who governed Louisiana and the nation and, in the centuries to follow, among historians,” adding, “Swallowing Claiborne’s interpretation, most historians have portrayed the slave-rebels not as political revolutionaries but as common criminals.”
In spite of the failure of the 1811 revolt, slaves continued to pass down stories about the famous insurrection, according to American Uprising. “And for the 50 years leading up to the Civil War, these stories served as an inspiration for those trapped in slavery,” writes Rasmussen.
Rasmussen documents 178,985 enlisted Black soldiers and 7,122 officers who served in the Civil War, where 37,300 “laid down their lives for freedom.” “Seventeen black soldiers and four African America sailors won Congressional Medals of Honor. They fought in 449 engagements, of which 39 were major battles,” according to American Uprising.
Rasmussen also writes about Leon Waters, a 60-year-old activist, who has been involved with radical political causes since the Vietnam War.
At the time American Uprising went to press, Waters was giving tours, called Hidden History Tours, keeping the uprising in the present for curious student groups and tourists from out of town. “Hidden History Tours provides authentic presentation of history that is not well known,” promises Waters’ Website. “Though virtually unknown outside of his community, Waters is perhaps the most knowledgeable man in the country about the 1811 revolt,” Rasmussen writes.