Villainous blacks, and MORE VILLAINOUS WHITES who have reduced to the level of the beasts of the field these unhappy Africans — and are now obliged to sacrifice them like wild beasts in self preservation! The day of vengeance is coming!
-Marietta, Ohio Western Spectator, March 5, 1811
On this date in 1811, Louisiana planters commenced their executions of rebel slaves involved in the German Coast Uprising.
Also known as the Deslondes rebellion after the surname of its mulatto commander, this was a larger insurrection than the better-known Nat Turner rebellion: in fact, it was the largest slave rebellion in U.S. history. Louisiana at this point was still new to the Union courtesy of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase; Congress in 1811 would take up the question of statehood for the former French colony and its liability to slave rebellions stoked by Gallic sugar magnates offered no small store of vehemence for the Republic’s orators. (Louisiana was admitted as a state in 1812.)
On January 8 of that same year of 1811, some 60 to 125 black men and women — slaves of Louisiana’s brutal sugarcane economy, as well as runaways and maroons lurking in nearby river swamps — rebelled at Col. Manuel Andry’s plantation 36 miles from New Orleans. Andry was wounded but miraculously escaped, leaving behind a son whom his slaves were energetically stabbing and axing past death.
Under the improbable leadership of Charles Deslondes, who had enjoyed so much trust as to be a Andry’s slave overseer, the slaves stripped the plantation of gunpowder, weapons, horses, liquor, and the like, and began following the Mississippi along River Road — drumming, chanting, exulting with cries of “On to Orleans!”
Whether they knew it or not, they had selected an auspicious moment for their uprising: New Orleans lay practically defenseless, its regular garrison off augmenting the realm via the conquest of adjacent West Florida.* The rebels multiplied several times over as they marched, swelling to perhaps 500 strong over two days as they rolled through plantations — each one a sea of servile labor vastly outnumbering its white household. Yet only one more white man besides Col. Andry’s son died during the German Coast Uprising as, forewarned, planters’ families were able to flee ahead of the Jacquerie.
The Louisiana territory skirted the volcano’s mouth in this moment and everyone realized it: New Orleans, the slaves’ avowed target, was itself two-thirds black. Had the rebels reached it, something cataclysmic might have begun.† “Had not the most prompt and energetic measures been taken, the whole coast would have exhibited one general scene of devastation,” Navy Commodore John Shaw wrote to Washington, having dispatched a company of marines to shore up New Orleans’s defenses. “Every description of property would have been consumed, and the country laid waste by the Revolters.”
Instead, and as was always eventually the case, the volcano swallowed the slaves instead. Sixteen miles from the Big Easy, a scrambled militia of New Orleans volunteers and some federal dragoons and infantry pulled from Baton Rouge managed
to meet the brigands, who were in the neighbourhood of the plantation of Mr. Bernoudi [present-day Norco -ed.], colors displayed and full of arrogance. As soon as we perceived them we rushed upon their troops, of whom we made considerable slaughter.
Not a single white person lost his life in the fray but scores of slaves were either killed in fighting, were summarily executed upon capture, or, fleeing from the carnage, were hunted to their deaths in the following days. The exact butcher’s bill is unknown; Louisiana officials counted 66 dead slaves in the immediate aftermath of action, including those executed, but this certainly understates the figure.
Where principal rebels were known, the revenge was exemplary. Pierre Griffe and Hans Wenprender, who were said to have personally imbrued their hands with the blood of the two dead white planters at the outset of the rebellion, were killed on the spot, mutilated, and their heads cut off as trophies for Colonel Andry.
Decapitation and worse was also the fate awaiting captives, at least 21 of whom were ordered for immediate death on January 15 by a tribunal of planters hastily assembled for the task. “By the end of January, around 100 dismembered bodies decorated the levee from the Place d’Armes [Jackson Square -ed.] in the center of New Orleans forty miles along the River Road into the heart of the plantation district,” in the words of a recent book about the affair. Such decor cost the territory $300 per piked head in compensation to the dead slaves’ former owners.
We excerpt the sentence from the tribunal’s own hand, as published in Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association, Autumn 1977.
The Tribunal assembled on the 14th and called before it the Negroes: Jean and Thomas, belonging to Mr. Arnauld; Hypolite, belonging to Mr. Etienne Trepagnier; Koock, belonging to Mr. James Brown; Eugene and Charles, belonging to the Labranche brothers; Quamana and Robaine, belonging to Mr. James Brown; Etienne, belonging to Mr. Strax; Louis and Joseph, belonging to Mr. Etienne Trepagnier; the mulatto Guiau, belonging to Messrs. Kenner and Henderson; Acara, belonging to Mr. Delhomme; Nede, belonging to Mr. Strax; and Amar, belonging to Widow Charbonnet; all of whom confessed and declared that they took a major part in the insurrection which burst upon the scene on the 9th of this month.
These rebels testified against one another, charging one another with capital crimes such as rebellion, assassination, arson, pillaging, etc., etc., etc. Upon which the Tribunal, acting in accordance with the authority conferred upon it by the law, and acting upon a desire to satisfy the wishes of the citizenry, does CONDEMN TO DEATH, without qualifications, the 18 individuals named above. This judgment is sustained today, the 15th of January, and shall be executed as soon as possible by a detachment of militia which shall take the condemned to the plantation of their owners and there the condemned shall be shot to death. The tribunal decrees that the sentence of death shall be carried out without any preceding torture.
It further decrees that the heads of the executed shall be cut off and placed atop a pole on the spot where all can see the punishment meted out for such crimes, also as a terrible example to all who would disturb the public tranquility in the future.
Done at the County of the Germans, St. Charles Parish, Mr. Destrehan’s plantation, January 15, 1811, at 10 o’clock in the morning.
P.B. St. Martin
We know for sure that the militia effected these grisly sentences with dispatch because this same body condemned three more slaves to the same fate later that same day, ordering that “their heads shall be placed on the ends of poles, as those of their infamous accomplices, who have already been executed.” Yet even this was better due process than a number of other prisoners enjoyed at the hands of angry white men; the Maryland-born naval officer Samuel Hambleton recorded the “characteristic barbarity” of the French oligarchy with disgust:
Several [slaves] were wrested from the Guards & butchered on the spot. Charles [Deslondes] had his Hands chopped off then shot in one thigh & then the other until they were both broken — then shot in the Body and before he had expired was put in a bundle of straw and roasted!”‡
The shock prompted an immediate tightening of security, and not only in Louisiana — where militia conscription became enforced more rigorously, both slaves and free blacks were encumbered with new restrictions on their movements, and a larger federal military presence was deployed at Louisiana’s own request. The legislatures of Kentucky, Tennessee, and the Mississippi territory — Mississippi wasn’t admitted to statehood until 1817 — all likewise buffed up their militias in the wake of German Coast.§
* Latterly Spanish, West Florida is no part of the present-day U.S. state of Florida; rather, Florida’s former littoral extrusion towards the Mississippi was annexed by Louisiana itself.
** When the U.S. went to war with Great Britain in 1812, Louisiana’s huge servile population made it an obvious vulnerability if the British were to land and arm the slaves. Summoning him from his Alabama stomping-grounds to his date with American folklore, Edward Livingston wrote to Andrew Jackson on behalf of the New Orleans Committee of Safety on September 18, 1814, imploring him to aid the outnumbered sugar planters:
This Country is strong by Nature, but extremely weak from the nature of its population, from the La Fourche downwards on both sides the River, that population consists (with inconsiderable exceptions) of Sugar Planters on whose large Estates there are on an average 25 slave to one White Inhabitant the maintenance of domestic tranquility in this part of the state obviously forbids a call on any of the White Inhabitants to the defense of the frontier, and even requires a strong additional force, attempts have already it is said been detected, to excite insurrection, and the character of our Enemy leaves us no doubt that this flagitious mode of warfare will be resorted to, at any rate the evil is so great that no precautions against it can be deem’d superfluous.
† The rising’s Spartacus, Charles Deslondes, was himself an import from the insurrectionary Caribbean Santo Domingo colony, which suggests a probable link by inspiration to the Haitian Revolution. Santo Domingo slaves were thought so seditious that their importation was periodically banned. However, and perhaps this is no accident, no documentation survives to elucidate the rebel slaves’ ideology, or what triggered them to rise at this particular moment.
‡ Letter to David Porter, January 25, 1811 as quoted by Robert L. Paquette in “‘A Horde of Brigands?’ The Great Louisiana Slave Revolt of 1811 Reconsidered,” Historical Reflections / Réflexions Historiques, Spring 2009. Deslondes was captured on January 11th but as far as I can ascertain, we don’t have a precise date on record for his savage extrajudicial execution/murder. It obviously falls within this same short mid-January span.
§ See Thomas Marshall Thompson, “National Newspaper and Legislative Reactions to Louisiana’s Deslondes Slave Revolt of 1811,” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association, Winter, 1992. Thompson notices that “the Tennessee law specified, as had the one in the Orleans Territory, that blacks, mulattoes, and Indians could not be members of the militia.”