5: What Happened When Slaves Rebelled

How the frontier was really settled, and the volatile conditions that ripened it for rebellion.


Episode Notes

In Episode 5 of the History of American Slavery, hosts Rebecca Onion and Jamelle Bouie explore the slave rebellions—both real and imagined—that unfolded during the settlement of the 19th-century American frontier. They discuss the largest slave insurgency in American history, Louisiana’s 1811 German Coast rebellion. And then they explore an imagined slave revolt in Mississippi and the heady, boom-time conditions that led Mississippi slaveholders into panic and hysteria. Jamelle and Rebecca begin Episode 5 by remembering the life of Charles Deslondes (unknown–1811), a leader of the German Coast uprising.

Our guests in Episode 5:

Edward Baptist, associate professor of history at Cornell University. Read an excerpt of Baptist’s book The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.

Joshua Rothman, professor of history at the University of Alabama. Read an excerpt of Rothman’s book Flush Times and Fever Dreams: A Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson.

Who was Charles Deslondes?

On Jan. 8, 1811, on a plantation northeast of New Orleans on Louisiana’s German Coast, a group of conspirators began the largest slave revolt in United States history.

One of its leaders was Charles Deslondes, who may have been born on the island of Saint-Domingue in 1787, according to some historians’ estimates. As a young person, he might have witnessed the successful revolution of Saint-Domingue’s enslaved population that culminated in the founding of the Republic of Haiti in 1804.

That revolution caused thousands of people to flee Saint-Domingue—both slaveholders and enslaved people carried off in bondage. Many of them landed in Louisiana, where Charles Deslondes worked as an enslaved overseer on a plantation owned by Manuel Andry. He was a commandeur, in charge of driving groups of enslaved laborers to cut and refine sugar cane. People in similar positions in Haiti were the leaders of the rebellion there, and Deslondes and his co-conspirators may have known about their tactics and organization when they planned their own revolt.

About 15 men began the rebellion by killing the plantation owner’s son. They planned to march 30 miles to New Orleans, take the city, and orchestrate a larger revolt from there, making it the capital of the resistance.

As Deslondes and his rebels marched toward the city, they burned plantations and recruited more slaves. They killed another white man on their way. Soon outraged plantation owners had raised a militia, and they trapped the rebels against a force of American soldiers marching from New Orleans.

The rebellion came to an end swiftly. Between 200 and 500 slaves had joined the fight, 95 of whom were executed.

Charles Deslondes was captured and met a bloody end after a speedy judgment rendered by a group of white landowners.

Deslondes, wrote one witness, “had his hands chopped off, then shot in one thigh and then in the other, until they were both broken—then shot in the body and before he expired was put in a bundle of straw and roasted!”

Others involved in the rebellion were hanged, then beheaded, and their heads were placed along the levee as a warning to others.

Here are some of the links discussed in Episode 5:

• Stephanie Camp’s book, Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South, contrasts the everyday resistance acts taken by enslaved women with the more visible resistance acts of escape and rebellion.
George Washington’s 1761 ad seeking fugitive slaves.


About the Show

With the help of acclaimed historians and writers, Rebecca Onion and Jamelle Bouie explore the history of American slavery and examine how the institution came to shape our country’s politics, economy, and culture.

Don’t miss Rebecca and Jamelle’s follow-up podcast, Reconstruction.

This series was made possible by Slate Plus members. To help Slate make more projects like this, become a member now.

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