Two hundred years ago this past Saturday, three slaves gathered in a small rundown cabin on a plantation about 30 miles upriver from New Orleans. Charles Deslondes was the son of an enslaved woman and a French planter; Harry Kenner an unassuming 25-year-old carpenter; and Quamana a warrior captured in the militant Asante kingdom and imported to Louisiana.
On January 8, 1811, these three brave men, along with eight other slave leaders, launched the largest slave revolt in American history, rallying an army of nearly 500 slaves to fight and die for freedom. No slave revolt—not Nat Turner, not John Brown—has rivaled the 1811 New Orleans revolt in terms of the number of participants or the number of slaves slaughtered in the aftermath.
The revolt was meticulously planned, politically sophisticated, and ethnically diverse—and a fundamental challenge to the system of plantation slavery. Dressed in military uniforms and chanting “On to New Orleans,” they rallied a rugged army of around 500 slaves to attempt to conquer the city, kill all its white inhabitants, and establish a black republic on the shores of the Mississippi.
In a dramatic battle in the cane fields, the slave army faced off against the twin forces of the American military and a hastily assembled planter militia. “The blacks were not intimidated by this army and formed themselves in line and fired for as long as they had ammunition,” wrote one observer. But the slaves’ ammunition did not last long, and the battle was brief. Soon the planter militia broke the slave line and the slaughter began.
The planters, supported by the U.S. military, captured Charles Deslondes, chopped off his hands, broke his thighs, and then roasted him on a pile of straw. Over the next few days, they executed and beheaded more than 100 slaves, putting their heads on poles and dangling their dismembered corpses from the gates of New Orleans. “Their Heads, which decorate our Levee, all the way up the coast… look like crows sitting on long poles,” wrote one traveler. The rotting corpses were grim reminders of who owned who—and just where true power resided.
The American officials and French planters then sought to cover up the true story of the revolt, to dismiss the bold actions of the slave army as irrelevant and trivial, and write this massive uprising out of the record books. They succeeded. And, in doing so, they laid the groundwork for one of the most remarkable moments of historical amnesia in our national memory.
The revolutionaries of 1811 were heroes who deserve a place in our national memory. Their actions are a testament to the strength of the ideals of freedom and equality—and every man’s equal claim to those basic rights. Their acts are an inspiration to all people who strive for freedom. On the 200th anniversary of the start of this great revolt, we must listen to their voices and study their stories, for only through understanding the passions and beliefs that resonated through the slave quarters can we begin to comprehend the true history of Louisiana, and with it, the nation.
Daniel Rasmussen is the author