Over two-hundred years ago in 1811, the largest slave revolt in American history took place in New Orleans, Louisiana. During this revolt, about 500 enslaved Africans armed with pikes, hoes, axes, and a few firearms, marched on the city of New Orleans with one goal: to overthrow the city and establish a Black Republic. At the head of this revolt was a slave from Saint Dominique, Haiti, named Charles Deslondes.
It began January 8, 1811, on a plantation owned by Manuel Andry in St. Charles Parish. This plantation was located approximately thirty-five miles south of New Orleans. Charles Deslondes was a mixed race slave, who worked as a slave driver on the plantation. Because of his light features and status as a slave driver, he was afforded privileges other slaves were not. Slave drivers were given fine clothes and shoes, traveling passes, nicer cabins, and they ate the same food their masters ate. They were also charged with disciplining, driving, and hunting down other slaves. Because of this, Deslondes was feared by many of the other slaves and trusted by the white plantation owners. But as he began to hear news of the success of the Haitian Revolution, he started to realize the institution of slavery – and his role in the system – needed to come to an end. He began using his privilege to prepare for what would become the largest slave rebellion in U.S. history.
Although most of the slaves on the plantation hated and/or feared Deslondes as a slave driver, he began to influence them to join him in taking up arms against their masters. On the night of January 8, 1811, Deslondes and other slaves from the plantation seized the master’s mansion, killing his son and wounding the master with an axe blow to the head. Although badly wounded, the master was able to escaped and went on to warn other plantation owners of the coming rebellion.
The newly liberated slaves began their march along the river toward New Orleans. Marching with beating drums and flags displayed, they were divided into companies, each lead by an officer. They moved from plantation to plantation, killing the owners; gathering strength in numbers, taking horses, muskets, and knives to prepare for the battle ahead. During their two-day march, the slaves burned five plantation houses, several sugarhouses, and crops. Along their route to New Orleans, Charles recruited more slaves for his army. These recruits included slaves from neighboring plantations, runaway slaves who had been living in the woods, and a large number of “maroon” slaves. The army swelled to over 500 soldiers as they marched toward New Orleans chanting “Freedom or Death.”
Upon hearing of the incoming Black army, the Governor of the Louisana Territory, William C. C. Claiborne, locked down the city and began forming his opposing force. He gathered two companies of volunteer militia and thirty military troops under Commodore John Shaw. He then called for help from General Wade Hampton I, a local plantation owner and militia leader. Finally, he called in a second brigade from Baton Rouge, under the command of Major Homer Virgil Milton.
On January 11, 1811, the slave army and the militia met in battle. The slaves fought valiantly and with discipline, holding their own for nearly two days before being outgunned. At the end the of the battle, 66 slaves and 2 white men lay dead.
The leaders of the uprising were arrested and stood trail before a military tribunal. The tribunal sentenced sixteen of the rebellion leaders to death. They were decapitated and their heads were displayed along the river as a deterrent to any slaves who dared revolt. Many of the other slaves who assisted in revolt, were eventually captured and killed as well. Their body parts hung-up outside the gates of the city. After the revolt, New Orleans plantation owners became significantly more brutal, killing any slave they suspected of disloyalty with brutality and swiftness.
Charles Deslondes met his end on January 15, 1811. Before he was executed, he was tortured for nearly a day. His hands chopped off while he was still alive, then cauterized to keep him from bleeding to death so his torture could continue. He was shot in both legs, and then burned alive. His battered and charred body was then dismembered and displayed within the city as a lesson to all those who may have had any inclination of following in his footsteps.
Charles Deslondes’ personal sacrifice should never be forgotten. By slave standards, Charles had a good life. He was a slave driver. A “house negro.” Compared to most other slaves, he lead a life of comfort and privilege. Still, he gave it all up in the name of freedom for his people.