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Pulitzer Prize winner speaks at Tech

October 25, 2012

Alan Taylor, famed historian, spoke at Tech last Friday morning in Wyly Tower Auditorium. His speech focused primarily on the War of 1812. Taylor won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1996. - Photo by Sumeet Shreshtha

 

MELISSA GRAJEK
Staff Reporter

 

Continuing the Louisiana @ 200 speaker series, Tech welcomed Pulitzer Prize winner and celebrity historian Alan Taylor to Wyly Auditorium Friday morning.

 

“He is one of the greatest historians practicing today,” said history professor David Anderson. “Not only is he able to present information that appeals to non-academics, he always brings up the point that you could have thought of a particular subject in different ways.”

 

Before Taylor’s research and discovery, students studied the War of 1812 from a political standpoint, specifically a raging war between the British and America.

 

Taylor modeled his presentation on material from his new book which explores what he refers to as the Civil War of 1812.

 

He specifically narrows in on the relationship between the British forces occupying the Chesapeake Bay and the slaves who escaped from their farms to seek shelter and refuge with the British, instead of the traditional relationship between the fighting American and British forces.

 

After mapping out the geographical setting for the lecture, he dove into the driving force and motivation behind his presentation: a letter, written by an escaped slave from his newly established free life in Europe to his former master.

 

Taylor’s lecture followed a group of slaves as they executed their escape, journeyed to the British ships occupying Chesapeake Bay and found new life in Nova Scotia.

 

“One October night in 1814, 17 slaves escaped from their farms,” Taylor said. “A couple of brave men stole a canoe, rowed across the river where they stole a ferry boat, and went back to rescue the others, all without waking anyone up. The escape was obviously well planned; not a spur of the moment thing but something that took skill and organization.”

 

Taylor explained how unlike Hollywood’s portrayal of the large white house and plantation, Maine and Virginia maintained numerous farms harboring anywhere from two to six slaves at a time.

 

Compared to states like Louisiana where it was common for spouses to be separated from one another as well as children removed from parents, Taylor said small farms provided more of an environment for slaves to gather in the night and form secret communities.

 

“These slave communities provide opportunity for them to maintain their kinship ties,” he said. “They had been cooperating in a way that allowed them to come together and escape with their families.”

 

Taylor said in times of peace, about 90 percent of the escaped slaves were male, yet in warring conditions similar to those in 1814, whole families were more likely to attempt escapes, lowering the male percentage to around 60 percent.In the beginning of his speech, Taylor posed two questions: What are the British doing in the northern neck of the Chesapeake Bay, and why would the slaves seek shelter aboard the British ships?

 

“The British set out and appointed themselves as liberators of the world to save people from Napoleon,” Taylor said.

 

While fighting against Napoleon’s forces across Europe, the British were finding themselves spread thin as they fought to regain control in Canada and the East Coast.

 

“The British plan was to attack the coast of Maine and Virginia, creating a diversion from Canada,” Taylor said.

 

Targeting the rich coastline would prevent taxes from reaching the government to fund the war.

 

With the temptation of food, drink and money calling the white men from their duties aboard the ships, Taylor said British officers were given orders to take in a few escaped male slaves and enlist them into the fleet.

 

However, around 3,000 slaves escaped from the Maine and Virginia area, some women and children.

 

“Escapees forced the British to make a call,” Taylor said. “Will you turn them away as you are commanded, or take them in?”

 

He explained how after previous attacks against the American coast had failed, the British became leery of traveling too far inshore and discovered a usefulness for the escaped slaves.

 

“In 1814, over 2,800 black men were enlisted in the Colonial Marines by the British,” Taylor said.

 

With experience sneaking around at night to meet with fellow farm slaves, the newly recruited Colonial Marines solved the British’s dwindling resources problem by sneaking ashore at night and stealing food and supplies.

 

“In August of 1814, the British met no opposition between the coast and Washington D.C., successfully overtaking cities along the way, thanks to the Colonial Marines,” Taylor said.

 

Email comments to mag043@latech.edu.

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