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National Commentary

Finding Hidden Figures In Times of War

Presented by the Association For The Study of African-American Life and History; Hampton
Roads Branch

Established on September 9, 1915 by Dr. Carter G. Woodson, we are the Founders of Black History Month and carry forth the work of our founder, the Father of Black History. The mission (ASALH®) is to promote, research, preserve, interpret and disseminate information about Black life, history and culture to the global community.

Each month, we will focus on carrying out ASALH’s mission by presenting research that has been conducted by our branch members.

Two Hidden Figures
In Times of War: James Roberts
and Pompey.
Researcher: Audrey Perry-Williams, President, Hampton
Roads Branch

James Roberts was born on the Eastern Shore of Maryland in 1753, in a state of slavery, and belonged to Francis De Shields. De Shields was a Colonel in General George Washington’s Revolutionary War army. Roberts fought alongside his master and was with him at the Battle of Yorktown when Cornwallis surrendered.
When the war ended, Washington became President of the United States and Roberts’ master became the Vice President. Five years later his master died in Philadelphia. Roberts returned with his horses and carriage and other possessions, including five hundred dollars, to the Eastern Shore of Maryland. He delivered the horses, carriage, money and himself to his master’s family. Although he could have escaped, honor, justice and the hope of being free with his wife and four children, encouraged him to travel to his master’s family on the Eastern Shore.

However, instead of freedom as promised for fighting in The American Revolution, he was sold to William Ward, separated from his wife and children, taken to New Orleans, and sold at auction sale to Calvin Smith, a planter in Louisiana, for 1,500 dollars.
Calvin Smith took Roberts to his plantation where he was initiated into the profound mysteries of that part of the country. Smith ordered the overseer to give Roberts 93 lashes before he had done a stroke of work. He then took from him all the clothes which he had worn in Philadelphia, and some of his “regimentals” which he wished to keep as memorials of revolutionary times and gave him instead a “bare breech-clout” (A type of slave clothing. Roberts gave no further description of the clothing) and sent him into the field to work.

Roberts worked on this plantation until General Andrew Jackson came to Calvin Smith and made a bargain with him to enlist five hundred negroes. Jackson came into the field, chose the ones he wanted, and then addressed the slaves: “Had you not as soon go into the battle and fight, as to stay here in the cotton-field, dying and never die? If you will go, and the battle is fought, and the victory gained on Israel’s side, you shall be free.”
Hardships, of whatever kind or however severe, vanished into vapor at the sound of freedom, and Roberts made to Jackson this reply: that, in hope of freedom we would “run through a troop and leap over a wall.”

The slaves were taken to General Andrew Jackson in Louisiana and drilled. Jackson again told them that they would be free after the battle. Roberts was trained and then marched “three hundred miles, by land, on foot” to fight.
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. 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.
The Americans were victorious because of Pompey’s idea. However, Pompey did not get his freedom because he was killed at the battlefield because he would not stop fighting, even after victory, and the order came from the Americans to shoot him. He died on the very site where his suggestion was the reason for the victory.

During the battle, Roberts lost the forefinger of his left hand and received a deep wound on his head from a British sword. Although Jackson acknowledged the contributions of African-American soldiers after the battle, he disarmed them and ordered them “home to their masters.” Roberts argued for his promised freedom, asking Jackson to stay true to his word. Jackson refused 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.”
After being returned to Smith, Roberts again demanded his freedom. He is whipped for his demands, and several men who fought with Roberts are killed when they refused to work and demanded their freedom.

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Roberts’ narrative indicates that he eventually obtained his freedom, although when and how remains unclear. Roberts then dedicated part of his life to advocating for the freedom of all slaves.
African-Americans were there in the beginning of the battles for freedom and continue to fight for the freedom of this country, but this country is not the “Home of the Free with Liberty and Justice for Us”!
Source: Documenting The American South: North American Slave Narratives
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. Completed when he was 80 years old.

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