Joseph Savary: Soldiering from Saint Domingue to New Orleans

On Monday I mentioned the brief sojourn of Sir John Graves Simcoe, Upper Canadian hero, in Saint Domingue (now Haiti). That’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the connections between the Haitian Revolution and Canadian history. Though its long-term impact was limited when compared to the French or the American Revolution, the Haitian Revolution threw out ripples that touched every shore in the Americas.

Here’s another brief example with a War of 1812 connection: the story of Joseph Savary. The British troops that Simcoe commanded were sent to Saint Domingue as part of a British strategy to attack Republican France’s rich Caribbean colonies. They intervened on the side of royalist white planters who were in revolt against the republican French government because the latter had abolished slavery—destroying the slave-based plantation economy that made the planters rich, as well as breaking the colony’s colour barrier. That put the British on the opposite side from the armies of ex-slaves who had been in revolt against the colony’s government until the republicans abolished slavery. When Napoleon overthrew the French republic, he sent troops to Saint Domingue to reestablish slavery. That put the ex-slaves in opposition to the French again and the British in opposition to both.

During the decade-long war and its aftermath, thousands of Haitians fled the colony. Many landed up in Louisiana, which became part of the United States in 1803. Among them was Colonel Joseph Savary, a free man of colour and a former officer in the republican French army. Savary may not have been very pro-French by 1814, but he was certainly still anti-British and when the British showed up off New Orleans, Savary offered his services to the Americans. He raised a battalion of 200 or so free men of colour who had also fled Saint Domingue. Andrew Jackson commissioned Savary as either a colonel or a captain, and both he and the battalion fought at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. Savary, the Haitian refugee, may thus have been the first black officer commissioned in the American army.

(I’m just starting to dip into the literature of the Haitian Revolution’s military impact, but I’m looking forward to the reading. There are several excellent general histories of the revolution, including Laurent Dubois’ Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution from Harvard University Press.)

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