Charles Deslondes. A name that has been lost to history.
But of all the figures in Black History, his name alone was responsible for the largest slave action in American history prior to the Civil War. The successes and sacrifices of Charles Deslondes would go on to influence the revolts and rebellions of men like Telemaque (Denmark Vesey), Nat Turner, and John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. For his valor, leadership, and martyrdom, the name of Charles Deslondes should live on among those of our other well-known heroes.
Slave Rebellions, Revolts, and Insurrections
Charles Deslondes inspired and led one of many slave campaigns of resistance. Before the Civil War, there were no less than 250 slave actions in the Americas that fell into the categories of slave rebellions, revolts, and insurrections.
Before we continue, its important to distinguish between slave rebellions, revolts, and insurrections. Doing so puts these actions into context, and prevents us as students of African history from giving more credit than is due to certain events, while giving more of our attention to events that have done more to shape state of affairs.
For example, history would be wrong to look back on our time and call Occupy Wall Street a revolt, but would correctly classify it as a protest. Likewise, the Civil Rights movement as led by men like Martin Luther King JR would be more correctly called a peaceful rebellion against Jim Crow, where the definition of a rebellion is the action or process of resisting authority, control, or convention.
A rebellion is any plan developed to overthrow a system and establish a new state in place of the old regime. Rebellions are revolutionary acts whereby members of rebellions become insurgents within the borders of the country that they rebel against. In terms of slave actions, a rebellion is meant to dispose of a white government and replace it with a Black one.
A revolt is any attempt to put an end to the authority of a person or body. In his book, American Negro Slave Revolts, Herbert Aptheker describes a revolt as being “…of less size than a rebellion, and magnitude of action is the difference between a rebellion and a revolt.” He further defines a slave revolt as “a minimum of ten slaves involved; freedom is the apparent aim of the disaffected slaves…”
Revolts are usually unsystematic or vandalistic, where the objective is merely to destroy the slaveholder and his immediate property. The action had no end other than destruction, and no long-range plan for further action. See: Nat Turner‘s revolt
An insurrection is a violent uprising against an authority or government: “opposition to the new regime led to armed insurrection” James G. Randall writes ”An insurrection is an organized armed uprising which seriously threatens the stability of government and endangers social order.
An Insurrection is different from a rebellion in that it is less extensive and its political and military organization is less highly developed. The term insurrection would be appropriate for a movement directed against the enforcement of particular laws while the word rebellion denotes an attempt to overthrow the government itself.”
The Rise of Charles Deslondes
After a bloody struggle against the forces of Toussaint Loverture, Napoleon Bonaparte realized that his dreams of a global empire were futile. Toussaint Loverture and Janjak Desalin had beaten back French forces and by 1802 had established the free Black Republic of Haiti. In frustration, Napoleon negotiated the sale of French territories in the United States in what would be known as the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, and left the West alone for good.
As a child, Charles Deslondes heard whispers of the French Revolution, and concepts that were strange to the ears of slaves: liberty, equality, and brotherhood. Deslondes, a mixed-race mulatto, was afforded privileges above other slaves, and rose to become a “slave driver” on the plantation of a Col. Manuel André, who had a total of 86 slaves.
Slave drivers held a privileged position: they were given fine clothes and shoes, travelling passes, nice cabins, and ate the same food their masters ate. They were classic house negroes with one difference – they were charged with disciplining, driving, and hunting down other Black slaves. Slave drivers were treated more like employees and consultants than slaves, and so Deslondes had it good.
Deslondes was feared by slaves and trusted by white plantation owners. But as news of the success of the Haitian Revolution spread, and a consciousness grew in Deslondes, he realized that the institution of slavery – and his role in that system – must come to an end. Deslondes became a sleeper cell; he used his position of privilege to prepare for what would become the largest slave rebellion in U.S. history.
Although he occupied a position as one of the most hated figures on the plantation, he influenced them to join his ranks and take up arms against their master. Deslondes and two other slaves seized the mansion, killed the son of the plantation owner, and critically wounded the plantation master who escaped and warned other plantation owners of the coming storm.
This was not a random act of violence. Charles Deslondes and his conspirators had planned the attack with perfect timing.
The date was January 8 – Mardi Grad. Plantation owners surrounding New Orleans left their plantations to go into the city for a wild night of revelry. The military units guarding the city had been deployed to Baton Rouge 80 miles away to fight the Spanish, and the rains during January made it impossible to efficiently deploy artillery. Without artillery and regular troops, New Orleans was practically defenseless save for 68 ragged American troops.
The liberated slaves gathered up horses and raided mansions, taking muskets, knives, and militia uniforms that had been stockpiled. Charles organized the slaves who would join him, and begun to march from plantation to plantation gathering strength in numbers from slaves ready to strike blows for their freedom.
The rag-tag group of slaves, formerly armed with farm tools, were now an organized, uniformed, military force with a very specific purpose: to conquer New Orleans and establish a Black Republic. Records are unspecific, but as many as 500 slaves marched in in cadence and came within 15 miles of conquering New Orleans.
An excerpt from the book, American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt by Daniel Rasmussen captured the spirit of that night:
“Amid the rainstorm, Charles shouted orders to his fellow slaves. They assembled in the clover field in front of Andry’s plantation, falling into line behind Charles, who was now mounted on horseback. They were familiar with military discipline: their work on Andry’s sugar plantation had taught them to follow orders with alacrity. But now they were motivated not by fear of the lash, but by the hope of freedom. They were forty-one miles from the gates of New Orleans, which they hoped to conquer in two days’ time. Asked later why he had left the Andry plantation that night, the rebel Jupiter replied that he wanted to go to the city to kill whites.
Charles and his men began to march. Charles shouted, “On to New Orleans!” and the newly formed rebel army shouted it right back. The revolt had begun.”
The March on New Orleans
As Charles and his entourage marched on New Orleans, they attempted to bolster their numbers with slaves from other plantations. On the two-day, twenty mile march to New Orleans, as many as 500 slaves joined their ranks. The slaves had come from all over the world; the Congo, Cuba, Kentucky, the Asante kingdom, and Senegambia. Many of these men had been warriors in African civil wars with extensive combat experience.
Unfortunately, many more slaves betrayed the uprising by either voluntarily alerting their masters, or negotiating their individual freedom in exchange for intelligence. Plantation owners rode to New Orleans to alert forces there, while assembling a militia and preparing their defenses.
Upon hearing of the coming Black army, William C.C. Claiborne (Governor of the Louisiana Territory) locked the city down and gathered two companies of volunteer militia and thirty regular troops under Commodore John Shaw. Many feared a repeat of what happened in Haiti, when white troops came against the military mastermind of Toussaint Loverture.
Knowing that he couldn’t possibly take the city, Charles Deslondes employed a classic strategy from Sun Tzu’s Art of War: Hold out baits to entice the enemy.
Charles army reversed their advance on the city within eyesight of white forces to a nearby plantation. The bait worked, and drew them out of the city. The force rode on the plantation with blood lust, only to find the property abandoned. Like ghosts, the force disappeared and reappeared behind the American force, still headed for New Orleans!
William C. C. Claiborne realized he was dealing with a force to be reckoned with, and called for the help of General Wade Hampton I, a local plantation owner and militia leader. A second brigade from Baton Rouge, under the command of Major Homer Virgil Milton, was also roused to combat the slaves. On January 11, the slave army and the militia crossed swords. The slaves fought valiantly and with discipline, holding their own for two days before being outgunned.
“Beginning on 13 January 1811, a two-day tribunal was held at the Destrehan Plantation under the jurisdiction of St. Charles Parish judge Pierre Bauchet St. Martin to determine what should be done with the remaining slaves. As the slave rebels were not equipped with firearms, the militia had killed at least sixty of them, and wounded many more. The tribunal sentenced sixteen of the rebellion leaders for execution. The tribunal also decapitated them and displayed their heads along the river.”
Most of the other insurgents were killed as well, and their body parts were hung outside the gates of the city. New Orleans plantation owners became substantially more brutal, and killed any slave suspected of disloyalty with brutality and swiftness.
Death and Legacy
Charles Deslondes was executed on January 15. His hands were chopped off while he was still alive, but cauterised to keep him alive. He was tortured for the better part of a day, shot in both legs, and then burned alive. His body was dismembered and displayed within the city as a lesson to all those who would follow his example.
The revolt took the entire military might of the Orleans Territory to suppress and was the greatest threat to American sovereignty in the history of slave actions.
The legacy that we are left with is one of personal sacrifice in the name of higher ideals. Charles Deslondes had it good. He was a house negro. His was a life of comfort and privilege. He gave it all up in the name of freedom for his people. He was willing to take on an entire empire to establish a nation for himself and those who would join him.
We do not remember the names of those who fought against Charles Deslondes. We do not remember the names of the men who prosecuted him or tortured him. But we remember his name. And because of that fact, the legacy of Charles Deslondes will live forever.