Thoughts on a Book: ‘American Uprising’

A few weeks ago, I was perusing the nonfiction section at the Lynchburg Public Library — truth be told, looking for a book about the Abraham Lincoln assassination — when I stumbled on a book titled, “American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt.”

nat-turner-rebellion
A woodcut depicting the Nat Turner Rebellion, 1831. Library of Congress.

My first thought was it was a book about the Nat Turner rebellion, which occurred in Southampton County, Va., in 1831. After all, that’s probably the best-known slave uprising. Books have been written about it and at least one movie made, including the 2016 film, “The Birth of a Nation.”

As a side note, I thought calling a film about the Nat Turner rebellion “The Birth of a Nation” was brilliant because the last movie by that name — a silent film from 1915, originally titled, “The Clansman” — was sympathetic to the Ku Klux Klan and contained all sorts of racist portrayals of African-American people. So, take that!

But “American Uprising,” written by Daniel Rasmussen, isn’t about the Nat Turner rebellion. It’s about a slave uprising that happened in 1811 on Louisiana’s German Coast, a stretch of sugar cane plantations along the east side of the Mississippi River, just north of New Orleans.

Husband John and I drove down what’s also called the River Road a couple of year ago, while in New Orleans for a family wedding. There are still a lot of plantation homes there and what looked like sugar cane fields, but there also are a lot of refineries and industrial sites.

Still, while reading “American Uprising,” it was nice to be able to see the German Coast in my head.

Destrehan Plantation figures prominently into the “American Uprising” story. Some of the approximately 500 slaves involved in the revolt were from Destrehan, a sugar cane plantation owned by Jean Noel Destrehan.

Also, after the revolt was put down by federal troops and local planters, one of the three trials condemning the rebels was held was at Destrehan.

slave-cabins-destrehan
Slave dwellings at Destrehan Plantation, circa 1938. Photographer: Russell Lee. Library of Congress.

Another thing I learned while reading “American Uprising,” something I’d never thought about before, was that some of the slaves who were brought from Africa had actually been soldiers in their homelands.

Tribes would war against each other and sometimes the losers were sold into slavery. At least two of the German Coast rebels fit into this category and had apparently been planning to revolt since they first touched American soil.

I also learned that the Haitian Revolution, which took place from 1791 to 1804 and ended slavery in what was then called Saint-Domingue, would have inspired fear in Louisiana planters and hope in their slaves.

You can watch a presentation by author Daniel Rasmussen here which talks more about that.

In the end, a handful of white planters and more than 100 slaves were killed, either during or after the revolt. As a deterrent to others who might consider taking up arms against their masters, the rebels’ decaying bodies were displayed along the Mississippi River for months.

Recently, I wrote about a slave revolt that happened along the James River near Lynchburg, Va. In that post, I mentioned a website where U.S. executions from the 1600s to the 1970s are listed. While not named, many of those executed after the 1811 German Coast revolt are included in that list.

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