Slavery was a large part of Southern Maryland’s economy during the colonial and antebellum periods. Maryland’s main cash crop through the early 19th century was tobacco, and the large labor force necessary to plant and harvest the crop led to large numbers of slaves in the Chesapeake region. According to the 1810 census there were 22,372 slaves living in Southern Maryland, and Charles County led the state with 12,435 slaves being registered there. Many of the slaves were field hands who helped to plant and harvest crops or house slaves who were “raised to housework.”
Slaves were not only valuable because of the labor they provided though. As tobacco prices fell and slave owners had less incentive to house and feed large numbers of slaves, the 1808 abolition of the international slave trade led many Southern Maryland slave owners to sell their slaves to deep South plantations. It is not surprising then that the Southern Maryland economy was heavily impacted by the loss of slaves during the War of 1812. During this period a field hand could fetch up to $600 in the south, and the few masters that were awarded compensation for escaped slaves were generally only paid $280 per slave.
Escaped slaves had more than just an economic impact on Southern Marylanders during the war, they also proved an invaluable military resource for the British. Many escaped slaves led British raiding parties against their former masters, and forced American slave owners to dedicate much needed resources to preventing slave uprisings and escapes. Escaped slaves were so valuable to the British war effort that the encouragement of slaves to escape and join the British became official policy in 1814. Many slave owners sought to recapture their escaped slaves by approaching British ships under a flag of truce and asking for the return of their “property.” The British officers allowed the owners to speak with the slaves, and without exception all of the escaped slaves refused to reenter bondage. Slaves in Southern Maryland played an important albeit often overlooked role in the War of 1812. Escaped slaves were instrumental in helping the British to divert the attention of American forces from Canada and the Western frontier, and the economic impact of escaped slaves affected large and small plantation owners throughout the region.
Cassell, Frank. “Slaves of the Chesapeake Bay Area and the War of 1812.” The Journal of Negro History 57 (1972): 144-155.
The Journal of Negro History , Vol. 57, No. 2 (Apr., 1972), pp. 144-155.
Summers, R. (2008). Slavery: Revolutionary era. Retrieved from http://www.samuelmudd.com/slavery-revolutionary-era.html.