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'American Rising': When Slaves Attacked New Orleans

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'American Rising': When Slaves Attacked New Orleans

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'American Rising': When Slaves Attacked New Orleans

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GUY RAZ, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

Two hundred years ago this month, the wealthy socialites of New Orleans were just kicking off the Carnival season. The high-society plantation owners and their wives were hopping from one masquerade ball to the next, and all-night drinking parties were filled with the city's elite ruling classes. But what they didn't know is while they were partying, their slaves were plotting.

Mr. DANIEL RASMUSSEN (Author, "American Rising: The Untold Story of America's Largest Slave Revolt"): On the night of January 8th, the rain continued to come down. Water coursed along the wood roofs of the slave quarters, drowning their staccato voices with streaming, rushing noise.

Twenty-five dark faces looked on as the slave driver turned rebel Charles Deslonde laid out the plan and gave some final words of encouragement.

Every man assembled knew that his presence meant a near-certain death sentence if the revolt failed. No slave revolt in Louisiana had ever before been successful, and the punishment for failed rebellion was clear: Torture, decapitation and one's head upon a pike.

RAZ: That's author Daniel Rasmussen, reading from his new book. It's the amazing story of the largest slave revolt in U.S. history. It's called "American Uprising."

And Daniel Rasmussen joins me here in the studio. Welcome to the program.

Mr. RASMUSSEN: It's great to be here.

RAZ: Let's start out by talking about Charles Deslonde. He's really the heart of this story. This is a man who was a slave, the son of a white plantation owner and a black slave. He, by all accounts, was a very loyal slave, right?

Mr. RASMUSSEN: Absolutely. Charles had risen to the top of the planter hierarchy, I think partially because of his light skin. You know, being the son of a planter, he gained more trust. So he was able to rise to the top of the plantation and become a driver.

What does that mean? A driver is like an overseer. They carry the whips. They punish the undisciplined slaves. They chase the ones that escape. They hold the keys to all the locked doors. He was Andre's right-hand man. And in the eyes of many slaves...

RAZ: This is Manuel Andre?


RAZ: Who was a brutal plantation owner, as you go on to describe.

Mr. RASMUSSEN: Absolutely. And in the eyes of the slaves, I think Charles must have seemed like the ultimate betrayer, the man who is working with the master, you know, who is working to oppress them.

RAZ: How did Charles Deslonde go from being this seemingly loyal slave driver who was presumably despised by slaves to becoming the mastermind of this insurrection?

Mr. RASMUSSEN: Charles gained privileges because he was a driver. You know, better clothes, a nicer cabin, also the freedom to move, the freedom to meet with the leaders of other plantations, to talk to them ostensibly, probably, about sugar planting.

So Charles would move up and down the coast. And as he was doing this, rather than deliberating about the best time to plant sugar or harvest the crop, Charles was sowing the seeds of an insurrection. He was, in modern terms, the ultimate sleeper cell.

RAZ: Tell me what happened that night, January 8, 1811.

Mr. RASMUSSEN: So January 8, 1811. Let's set the scene just a little bit why the slaves choose January 8th, three reasons. The first reason is that this is the start of Carnival, the buildup to Mardi Gras. And so the slaves choose this an ideal time because of the lavish planter balls, the celebrations that are going on throughout this period.

The planters would have huge parties, turtle, gumbo, and of course, massive amounts of wine and brandy. The morning after one of these debauches was an ideal time to launch a revolt, and slaves had figured that out.

Second reason, William Claiborne, the governor of the territory, sends out the dragoons, which are the most impressive military force the Americans have, to Baton Rouge to fight the Spanish. And no coincidence that the slaves wait until America is embroiled in the war with the Spanish. The bulk of the American military force is gone. A mere 68 regular troops are left in New Orleans.

RAZ: Wow.

Mr. RASMUSSEN: And finally, on January 4th, a rainstorm blows in. Why is this important? Well, it means that you can't transport artillery, and so slaves, armed with cane knives, axes, muskets, have a much better chance against another set of military forces only armed with muskets, as well, than they do against a force that has artillery.

RAZ: Right.

Mr. RASMUSSEN: And so they wait.

And on January 8th, Charles Deslonde gathers his men, 25 men, on the plantation of Manuel Andre, and they launch their revolt. They sneak into the house in the middle of the night.

Manuel Andre wakes with a fright to see Charles Deslonde, his driver, his trusted assistant, his loyal advisor, standing there with an axe, a plantation tool, now transmuted into an icon of insurrection. And Manuel Andre is terrified, and he knows what to do, and he runs.

As he runs, the slaves sliced three long cuts into his body. And as he turns around to look back, he sees the slaves killing his son Gilbert.

What happens next? The slaves break into the militia depot in Manuel Andre's plantation. They get out militia uniforms. Charles and his men put on the militia uniforms, they gather the muskets. And they start to march towards New Orleans, shouting: On to New Orleans and freedom or death.

This is a sophisticated, politically motivated armed force, consciously invoking military imagery, political imagery, to say: We're no longer slaves. We're men, and now we are free.

RAZ: Daniel, what was the overall plan? I mean, they were headed towards New Orleans. What were they going to do?

Mr. RASMUSSEN: You know, it's hard to say what exactly they intended. But if we look at other revolts, contemporaneous revolts, revolts that happened in 1812 in Cuba, for example, or, you know, what happened in Haiti, I think we can get a much more clear picture of what the slaves would have intended.

RAZ: What they intended to do, yeah.

Mr. RASMUSSEN: And that is the establishment of a black republic, an independent black republic on the shores of the Mississippi River.

RAZ: What's fascinating in the book, the way you describe it, is this contingent of slaves, as they make their way towards New Orleans, they gather, they collect more and more - more and more slaves come out of plantations to join them. The ranks swell to 500, as you describe.

They never make it to New Orleans, and of course, we don't want to give away too much of the story, they are routed and defeated by a small contingent of American soldiers along with plantation owners.

The result is bloody and brutal. What happens to the slaves who were killed and even those who survived?

Mr. RASMUSSEN: The planters break the slave line. On the spot, they kill between 40 and 60 slaves. They catch Charles Deslonde. They chop off his limbs, they shoot him in both eyes, and they burn him alive.

And then, obsessively, collectively, they chop off the heads of the defeated slave rebels and put them on poles.

RAZ: And they put those poles all along that path out of New Orleans, what's called the River Road. The scene from "Spartacus" comes to mind, you know, in the Via Apia, where the heads of slaves were put on stakes.

Daniel Rasmussen, why don't we know about this story? We know about Nat Turner. We know about John Brown. It's not too far from where we're sitting here in Washington, D.C., over down in Harper's Ferry. This was the largest slave revolt that we now know of in American history, but we haven't known much about it since now.

Mr. RASMUSSEN: It's shocking. It's one of the most significant moments of political amnesia in our nation's history, the largest slave revolt. And today, here in January 2011, is the bicentennial of the revolt. And yet, this story is almost entirely absent from the textbooks and the history books.

Why? As soon as it happened, the planters, first of all, killed 100 slaves, put their heads on poles. And then they sought to write the slaves out of history. They describe them as criminals, as brigands, in their language. And they say that the revolt was quickly and easily suppressed. They describe the trials, and they say: We sentence these brigands for their crimes.

What they don't say is the real story, because in their minds, the planters need to sanctify the violence that they've just committed, and so they want to portray themselves as just, as righteous and the slaves as guilty as criminal.

They cannot acknowledge that the slaves were anything more than criminals. If they acknowledge that the slaves are not property, are not chattel but are people with real political ideals...

RAZ: That begins to undermine everything they stand for.

Mr. RASMUSSEN: It undermines the entire ideology that underlay slavery.

RAZ: That was your intention. I mean, I've read that you actually wanted people to know about this story of heroism, another side of slave history.

Mr. RASMUSSEN: Yes. Too often, I think, when we think about slavery, we feel guilty and ashamed and depressed, and we think of the slaves as victims. But the slaves were more than that. These were heroes. These were men that fought and died for their beliefs in freedom and equality.

What I'm trying to do is not only bring their story, tell you about Charles Deslonde, about Kook, about Quamana, but to think about these enslaved men and women as people who contributed to American history, who fought and died for their beliefs and who were brave and heroic.

RAZ: That's Daniel Rasmussen. He is the author of the new book "American Rising: The Untold Story of America's Largest Slave Revolt."

Daniel, thank you so much for coming in.

Mr. RASMUSSEN: Thank you.

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