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James Roberts, b. 1753
The Narrative of James Roberts, a Soldier Under Gen. Washington in the Revolutionary War, and Under Gen. Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans, in the War of 1812: "a Battle Which Cost Me a Limb, Some Blood, and Almost My Life"
Chicago: Author, 1858.


James Roberts' Narrative indicates that he was born in 1753 "on the Eastern Shore of Maryland . . . in a state of slavery" (p. 9). Roberts accompanied his master, Francis De Shields, in the Revolutionary War and moved with him to Philadelphia after the war. Upon the death of De Shields, Roberts returned to Maryland with hopes of "being set free, with my wife and four little ones" (p. 10). Instead, Roberts was sold, separated from his family, moved to New Orleans, and auctioned to Louisiana planter Calvin Smith for fifteen hundred dollars. Roberts was sent to combat again during the War of 1812 and fought under "General Jackson" (presumably Andrew Jackson). Despite being promised his freedom in exchange for his service, Roberts was returned to slavery after fighting in the Battle of New Orleans. Roberts' Narrative indicates that he eventually obtained his freedom, although when and how remains unclear. Roberts then dedicated part of his life to agitating for the freedom of all slaves.

Roberts, who intimates that he is more than 80 years old when he writes his Narrative, offers several reasons for producing his short autobiography, including a desire to "have my narrative written by a colored person," and to contribute to "the destruction of the iniquitous and soul and body destroying system of Slavery" (p. iii, iv). According to Roberts, a combination of morality and "political expediency" would eventually lead to slavery's downfall in the United States (p. vi). Roberts admits that it may take years for these two ideals to overcome slavery and slave holders, but he intends for the Narrative to aid in the struggle.

Roberts does not seek to establish himself as an American hero, despite his involvement in two American wars while still under the yoke of slavery. Describing his participation in the Revolutionary War, Roberts notes that he helped his master "to scalp and kill many Indians," a fact he comes to regret, as "they were innocent and defenceless, and were fast tending to a condition not much better than my own" (p. 9). Nonetheless, Roberts does note his involvement in the battles at White Haven, the Roanoke River, Ragged Point, Vienna Ferry, Cambridge, and Prince Anne (Yorktown). When his master begins working for President Washington, Roberts follows him to Philadelphia. Upon his master's death, Roberts is given horses, a carriage, and five hundred dollars to return to his master's family. His "sense of honor and justice" keep him from running away, but he later regrets his decision (p. 9). After returning, Roberts is sold away from his family and auctioned off in New Orleans to Calvin Smith. His new, cruel master orders the overseer to whip Roberts before he had "done a stroke of work," simply to "initiate" him (p. 10). Roberts provides additional examples of the cruelty he suffered under Smith, including receiving "five hundred lashes" for "the only crime of praying to the God of my fathers to give me grace" (p. 11).

"General Jackson" approaches Smith, hoping to "enlist five hundred negroes" to fight in what would become known as the Battle of New Orleans (p. 13). Roberts is trained and then marches "three hundred miles, by land, on foot" to fight (p. 13). The difficult battle is won due, in large part, to the suggestion of a "colored soldier named Pompey" who gives Jackson the idea of building a "cotton-bag fort" that protects the soldiers (p. 14). The fort allowed for many men to stay protected while firing upon the opposing forces. It also led to the downfall of the British when they attacked the fort by pulling the bags outwards, impeding their own progress, rather than pushing them in on the soldiers. During the battle, Roberts "lost the fore finger of my left hand, and received a deep wound on my head from a British sword" (p. 15). Although Jackson acknowledges the contributions of African American soldiers after the battle, he disarms them and orders them "home to your masters" (p. 16). Roberts argues for his promised freedom, asking Jackson to stay true to his word. Jackson refuses and, according to Roberts, tells a group of white men to "Never arm another set of colored people. We have fooled them now, but never trust them again; they will not be fooled again with this example before them" (p. 18). After being returned to Smith, Roberts again demands his freedom. He is whipped for his demands, and several men who fought with Roberts are killed when they refuse to work and demand their freedom.

Roberts' Narrative becomes increasingly disjointed following his description of the Battle of New Orleans. He recounts his strong beliefs in God and prayer alongside his "prophecy" that the "rapidly increasing . .  . mixed race" in the South will lead to an uprising as slave sons are forced to work side-by-side with the legitimate offspring of the Masters (p. 22). He also describes fights and murders, the "Breeding and Selling" of "Mulattoes on Calvin Smith's Plantation," the proper method of growing and harvesting myriad crops, and the correct methods of pressing figs and grapes (p. 26). In the penultimate chapter of the Narrative, Roberts indicates that he met with President Pierce in 1856. The reader assumes that Roberts had somehow obtained his freedom before the meeting. Pierce allegedly denies Roberts' request for a pension, telling him he "was nothing but goods and chattels, like a horse or sheep" (p. 29). Roberts claims to have had a protracted argument with him, but achieves little. In his conclusion, Roberts calls his participation in two wars "hurtful errors" and speculates that had there "been less bravery with us, the British would have gained the victory, and in that event they would have set the slaves free" (p. 31). He ends by urging others to remain focused on "virtue, sobriety, industry, temperance, economy, education, and religion" as they "will fit you for any emergency" (p. 32).

Works Consulted: Roberts, James, Introductory lessons, with familiar examples in landscape for the use of those who are desirous of gaining some knowledge of the pleasing art of painting in water colours; to which are added some clear and simple rules, . . . To which are added, instructions for executing transparencies, . . . By James Roberts, . . ., London, W. Bulmer and Co., 1800.

Meredith Malburne

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