Parish slaves had to fight for own freedom, author says

The author who helped re-publicize the largest slave revolt in the history of the United States learned some little-known facts about St. Charles Parish while researching a book about the uprising.

Daniel Rasmussen is the author of “American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt.” He spent years researching the revolt, which took place locally along the German Coast, and has compiled the most comprehensive study of what actually happened that January, 200 years ago.

When researching for his new book, he learned that while slaves across the nation were freed with the Emancipation Proclamation, St. Charles Parish was specifically excluded from that document because it was under the control of the Union Army. Because of that, local slaves had to personally fight for their freedom in a way that other slaves did not.

“It really is true that the slaves fought for their own freedom,” Rasmussen said. “The slaves refused to be slaves any longer and negotiated their freedom themselves.”

Rasmussen started investigating the revolt while in college at Harvard, but had been interested in investigative journalism and history since high school.

“One of the things about slavery that I thought was really fascinating was how biased some of the accounts are,” he said. The first account he read about the 1811 revolt was by a white man named William Claiborne who portrayed that nothing had really happened. In actuality, the revolt was huge with more than 200 slaves rising up against the plantation owners to fight for their freedom.

“Contrary to Claiborne’s writing, this was a massive revolt. It was not an act of criminality – it was in fact a sophisticated, politically organized rebellion,” Rasmussen said.

He refers to the lack of information available about the revolt and the inaccurate documentation of it as a “vast collective amnesia” on the part of the state and the country.

Now that Rasmussen has told the story of the 1811 revolt without prejudice or bias, he hopes readers will see the slaves of Louisiana for what they really were: heroes.
“What we learn from the story is that the slaves…were not only victims, rather they were heroes. They were men who were willing to fight and die for freedom and equality. This is what represents the best of America,” he said. “These men (who were killed after the revolt) became martyrs for these ideals.

“The book was a chance to bring to light some of the great unsung heroes of our past.”

After the revolt, a trial was held at Destrehan Plantation to ascertain the guilt of those behind the rebellion.  After three days of hearings, 45 men were either sentenced to death or sent on to New Orleans for further trials.

Those sentenced to death were taken by troops to their master’s plantation, executed by firing squad and beheaded. Their heads were displayed on poles at that plantation.


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