|Painting of a Colonial Marine by Don Troiani|
Down on the south end of tangier Island, where whitecaps dance in the shallows, distant sandbars speak of an almost-forgotten history. There, before rising water levels and hurricanes erased this flat, swampy land, one of the most intriguing eras of American history was played out.
Not only was there a British naval base, as I wrote a few weeks ago, but a training camp and refugee center for hundreds of slaves who had dared to seek freedom under the protection of the king of England during the War of 1812.
New research has established Tangier as the main training ground in the Chesapeake Bay for the Corps of Colonial Marines, a highly respected African American fighting force during the war.
Later this summer, the Tangier Island History Museum will be open an exhibit on the Corps s well as the escaped women, children and men who were too old to fight but were nevertheless protected by the British and eventually resettled.
The story begins with a proclamation by British Vice Adm. Alexander Cochrane promising that slaves who wished to defect would "have their choice of either entering into His Majesty’s Sea or Land Forces, or of being sent as FREE settlers to the British Possessions in North America or the West Indies, where they will meet with due encouragement.”
In substantial numbers, men who sought to gain their freedom by fighting against their former masters rowed out in small skiffs to ships in harbors up and down the Chesapeake. Once on board, they were declared to be free, and one-time owners who pleaded for them to return were snubbed. As one observer wrote, “on being enquired of whether they were willing to return they declined, some of them impertinently.”
Willing and able men were recruited into what the British called the Corps of Colonial Marines. They – and their families – were taken to this remote island where they were trained and shaped into a disciplined fighting force.
In a letter from British naval commander George Cockburn to Cochrane, he wrote, “...I think we have about 120 Men in the Corps and I have no doubt of increasing it rapidly, they are indeed excellent Men, and make the best skirmishers possible for the thick Woods of this country.”
According to the museum, “Over 300 runaway Black slaves became
the Colonial Marines, eager to fight against their former masters and happy to be treated with due respect.”
British author John McNish Weiss writes that the first uniformed engagement took place at Pungoteague at the end of May 1814 where one of the men was killed. In the August attack on Washington, two more deaths were reported.
The deaths led to “Inspiration rather than disheartenment,” Weiss writes. “The Colonials’ exemplary discipline during the burning of the city was praised by officers . . . . They gave notable service again as a light company in the assault on Baltimore in which four more were lost.”
“Their conduct was marked by great spirit and vivacity and perfect obedience,” an admiring British captain wrote. Cochrane described the Colonial Marines as “infinitely more dreaded” then the British troops.
The regular British and black forces were combined into a new 3rd Battalion of Royal and Colonial Marines – three black companies and three white – all garrisoned on the island.
When the war ended in 1815, ”the British balked at the idea of Blacks being property and refused to return these former slaves to their former masters,” the museum says.
“Over 2,000 Blacks left with the departing British to make new lives in British territories. Tangier also served as a place of rescue, as many slaves who arrived, were men too old to fight, women and children. On May 14, 1814, Cockburn sent 36 male, 48 female and 67 Black children to Bermuda
from Tangier. Some of the marines ended up in Trinidad as independent farmers.
Blacks would not gain their freedom for another 50 years, but standing on the most remote beach on this island, you can sense the yearning that many experienced at this earlier time in our history.