American Uprising By Daniel Rasmussen

Kirkus Reviews

Daniel Rasmussen uncovers the buried history of “the largest slave revolt in American history.”

In 1811 outside of New Orleans, 500 enslaved men, some armed with guns, battled plantation owners. “While Nat Turner and John Brown have become household names,” the author writes, “Kook and Quamana, Harry Kenner, and Charles Deslondes [the leaders of the revolt] have barely earned a footnote in American history.” Rasmussen not only provides the backdrop against which the battle occurred, but explores the cultural roots of the conflict.

Only eight years before, a successful slave rebellion had driven out the plantation owners, transforming the French sugar-producing colony Saint Domingue (now Haiti) into a free republic. That same year the United States had acquired the Louisiana Purchase and was still struggling to assimilate the disgruntled French sugar planters. In the early years of the occupation of the new territory, federal troops had to “confront the dangers of a sugar colony that relied on the forced labor of a slave population,” while driving the Spanish out of Florida. The leaders of the 1811 revolt seized the opportunity of kickoff celebrations to the Carnival season for “a fight to the death against the planters and their militia.” The brutal battle initially ended in a temporary victory, but reprisals were severe and the heads of executed prisoners were displayed on pikes. Rasmussen believes that this was a first step on the road to freedom. During the War of 1812, British forces garrisoned a fort with former slaves whom they had freed, and by the end of the Civil War “black soldiers constituted nearly 10 percent of the fighting force of the North.”

Adam Goodheart, in a critical review for the New York Times, wrote:

“Two centuries ago last month, a traveler making his way by boat down the Mississippi toward New Orleans would have come upon a ghastly sight: a severed human head rotting on the end of a pole. And no sooner would it vanish around a bend than another appeared along the levee. Then another, and another — and so on without respite for 40 long miles down to the city…

“Although Rasmussen may go too far when he calls the “massive uprising” a “central moment in our nation’s past,” he concludes the book by tracing the white fear of black violence that runs like a scarlet thread through our national history, from the Declaration of Independence (which accused George III of trying to foment “domestic insurrections”) through the Constitution (which promised federal aid to states facing slave rebellions and Indian attacks) to the coming of the Civil War.”

Complete New York Times review available via New York Times

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