Author: Daniel Rasmussen
Synopsis (Courtesy of Powell’s Books): “In January 1811, five hundred slaves, dressed in military uniforms and armed with guns, cane knives, and axes, rose up from the plantations around New Orleans and set out to conquer the city. Ethnically diverse, politically astute, and highly organized, this self-made army challenged not only the economic system of plantation agriculture but also American expansion. Their march represented the largest act of armed resistance against slavery in the history of the United States.
American Uprising is the riveting and long-neglected story of this elaborate plot, the rebel army’s dramatic march on the city, and its shocking conclusion. No North American slave uprising–not Gabriel Prosser’s, not Denmark Vesey’s, not Nat Turner’s–has rivaled the scale of this rebellion either in terms of the number of the slaves involved or the number who were killed. More than one hundred slaves were slaughtered by federal troops and French planters, who then sought to write the event out of history and prevent the spread of the slaves’ revolutionary philosophy. With the Haitian revolution a recent memory and the War of 1812 looming on the horizon, the revolt had epic consequences for America.
Through groundbreaking original research, Daniel Rasmussen offers a window into the young, expansionist country, illuminating the early history of New Orleans and providing new insight into the path to the Civil War and the slave revolutionaries who fought and died for justice and the hope of freedom.”
Thoughts: There has been a push in recent decades for history books to present the full picture of certain historical events, to try to present an alternative viewpoint of history. American Uprising is a novel that meshes well with this trend, as it not only goes into details about the largest slave uprising in U.S. history, an event that receives very little attention from historians, but it also revisits more famous historical events and shines a new light on them. Mr. Rasmussen presents his findings in a clear, concise narrator that highlights the horror underlying race relations at the time and the political implications of these relations.
Easy to read and completely engaging, Mr. Rasmussen details the build-up to the event in question, including a brief history lesson on the Haitian revolt and the political mire that was New Orleans in 1811 after the Louisiana Purchase. This background knowledge is essential to understanding the mindset of all participants in the revolt as well as the subsequent cover-up. In addition, the Battle of New Orleans from the War of 1812, Andrew Jackson, and other famous people and events in U.S. history become more well-rounded. Through it all, the reader obtains a clear picture of how enmeshed slavery was with politics and how it shaped every aspect of the U.S. in the early 1800s.
The method by which Mr. Rasmussen presents his findings raises some interesting questions about race relations. Given the overreaction of the planters to the revolt, did they know, in their heart of hearts, that slavery and their actions towards their slaves were fundamentally wrong or was it purely economic? For, if their harsh punishments of the key leaders were purely for economic reasons, would they have behaved the same way had all the horses or farm animals revolted? If they felt the slaves were animals, why the need to torture and brutally kill the leaders? In a similar vein, with the slaves trying to obtain their freedom, had their own actions been less brutish, less violent, would they have been treated differently in the long run? Is it okay to fight fire with fire in race relations?
American Uprising reminds the reader that history is written by the victors. Mr. Rasmussen’s findings, uncovered through laborious yet rewarding efforts, provide a cautionary tale about other hidden histories. What other stories are historians ignoring or have explained incorrectly due to lack of time and effort in discovering the truth? Completely covered up for purely political and economic reasons, the revolt of 1811 continued to be all but ignored by historians until Mr. Rasmussen uncovered the details, for which task he obviously did his homework. Well-researched with well-documented sources, Mr. Rasmussen makes it easy to understand how such an event can occur and subsequently be promptly ignored. It is not a proud moment in U.S. history, but given everything that results from the actions of the slaves on that fateful January day, it is an important lesson to learn.
Thanks to Mark Ferguson and HarperCollins for my review copy!