'American Rising': When Slaves Attacked New Orleans In January 1811, 500 armed slaves rose up from the plantations and set out to conquer the city of New Orleans. Host Guy Raz speaks with Daniel Rasmussen, author of the new book American Rising: The Untold Story of America's Largest Slave Revolt.
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'American Rising': When Slaves Attacked New Orleans

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'American Rising': When Slaves Attacked New Orleans

'American Rising': When Slaves Attacked New Orleans

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GUY RAZ, Host:

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.

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

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?

RASMUSSEN: 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?

RASMUSSEN: Yeah.

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

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?

RASMUSSEN: 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.

RASMUSSEN: 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.

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.

RASMUSSEN: 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?

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.

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

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

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

RAZ: 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.

RASMUSSEN: 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.

RASMUSSEN: It undermines the entire ideology that underlaid 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.

RASMUSSEN: 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: Daniel, thank you so much for coming in.

RASMUSSEN: Thank you.

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