Sometimes people get the impression that slaves in the United States were along some part of the continuum of being docile because of religion, "kind" treatment, or fear to being submissive due to being beaten down and sometimes tortured. While those cases, of course, exist, slaves were hardly as submissive as it's often believed. Other than running away it is generally thought that rebellious behavior was uncommon. This is not the case, as records clearly show.
Resistance to conditions was quite common, manifesting itself in various ways like "stealing property, sabotage and slowness, killing overseers and masters, burning down plantation buildings..." (Zinn). Granted, aside from escape, these things often were not very effective in the overall picture (usually bringing severe and even lethal reprisals—even escapees, if run down, could end up terribly mauled or worse from the dogs used to track them, not to mention whatever from the "human" trackers), but certainly go against the generally received notion of slave behavior.
Outright rebellion, while uncommon ( Nat Turner's Rebellion being the best known), occasionally took place and was a constant fear by not only slaveholders, but other people living in the South. A demonstration of this was the state of Virginia's ability, in 1831, to muster a militia that was nearly ten percent of its total population (including men and woman and all races). This is striking since there was no obvious need to be able to do so as there was no threat to "safety and security" from without—therefore the perceived threat must be from within.
(Interestingly, the event is named after the one who eventually put down the revolt rather than the instigator.) Manuel Andry (sometimes given as "Major," though he had been made Colonel prior to the incident) was plantation owner (so, "slave owner") and member of the militia in Louisiana, near the current town of Norco (30-40 miles/88-64 km up river from New Orleans).
Charles Deslondes was a mulatto who had been brought to America from Sainte-Domingue (the French name for its part of the island that makes up modern Haiti and the Dominican Republic).1 Some described him as a "free mulatto from St. Domingo." Another source says he was owned by a widow named Jean-Baptiste Deslondes. His occupation was an overseer of slaves. And he was the leader of what was the largest slave revolt in US history, 8-10 January 1811.
It wasn't merely an undirected uprising, but actually had an amount of planning beforehand. There was the belief in the air that the US would be going to war with Spain. In 1810, the US had managed to annex most of West Florida (the "panhandle") into the Territory of Orleans. Citizens had declared independence from Spain and asked for annexation, something with which President James Madison (of "Manifest Destiny" fame) was all too willing to oblige. This led to tension with Spanish-held East Florida (which the United States had an eye on in anticipation of future annexation). Also, Spain was an ally of Britain and the US feared Spain would cede its land, giving them territory on what was felt to be US soil, "by right." The governor, W.C.C. Claiborne, was considering dispatching troops there. This all led to a possible opportunity among slaves to rebel.
That this would require black, slave and free, to communicate over a distance that was about a day's journey by horse or carriage, shows the remarkable planning and network of informants and others to transfer the information. It has also been suggested that the time of year, following Christmas, due to many plantations celebrating the harvest with parties and balls, additionally make it an opportunity to "strike."
The plan was for the slaves upriver to revolt and march down to New Orleans. Then collaborators in the city would take the arsenal and succeed in arming the "army" of slaves (which would also include members of maroon communities—small communities of escaped slaves living just out of reach of capture). Following that, they would "capture other institutions, including the governing bodies and the banks" (www.netcath.com).
The night of 8 January, Deslondes and others—mostly armed with cane knives, axes, and clubs—stormed and attacked Andry's plantation, wounding him and killing his son. There they managed to get some guns, ammunition, swords, horses, and liquor. They also killed a few other whites in their march, giving the cheer "on to Orleans." They gathered more and more slaves and maroons as they went, sometimes burning crops and plantations along the way and scraping up whatever weapons they could find. It isn't clear just what the numbers were but it estimated at around five hundred.
The population in the area fled from the oncoming army, spreading the word of what had happened. Andry organized other planters and then called up and rallied the local militia (presumably a good number of vigilantes, as well) and attacked with eighty men. While Andry claimed that "we made great slaughter" (very possibly may have), many of the rebelling slaves escaped into the woods and swamps (though they continued their march). Governor Claiborne, after declaring a sort of "black" martial law—no male "Negroes" were allowed to be "at large," sent out more militia and soldiers to put down the uprising. Some four hundred sixty men were sent out and an additional two hundred from Baton Rouge.
The day of the tenth, the forces engaged at a plantation about sixteen miles from New Orleans. It wasn't so much a military battle but a massacre/slaughter where the soldiers attempted to exterminate the rebels. In the official report, 66 slaves were killed, 17 missing, and 16 captured. It also mentions that, at the time, more bodies (many strewn throughout the woods after the blacks had been run down and killed) were still being recovered. Again, the numbers are difficult to pin down. There were large casualties, even though it is thought quite a few managed to escape into the woods. The next day, more planters and hired Indians went to hunt down (or kill) any they could find. The final count of "captured" was seventy-five.
On 13 January, a "tribunal" (consisting of five planters) was held on the Destrehan Plantation.2 Some twenty-seven (one source says thirty) of the captured slaves were questioned on the matter (a slave named Jupiter, to the question of why he joined, answered "to kill the white") and "justice" meted out. Twenty-one of them were sentenced to death (among them Deslondes), returned to their plantations where they were executed (shot, though beheading was a common punishment). Destrehen had two of his own slaves killed. Following that, the bodies were decapitated and the heads put on poles along the River Road between Andry's plantation and New Orleans as warning for others who might "disturb" the "peace."
There were at least two other "trials" where eight and seven rebels were executed elsewhere. While records are scarce (there could have been more and there seems to be no record of any personal/private reprisals), it is known that thirty six were executed, for sure.
1Also of note is that it was France's defeat during a slave rebellion there in 1804 that led to the renaming. In fact, fleeing people arriving at New Orleans shortly after the rebellion began saying that they were escaping from a "miniature representation of the horrors of Santo Domingo" (the Spanish name for Saint-Domingue).
2The plantation still exists and is open as a "tourist site." Some scenes from the 1994 movie Interview with the Vampire were filmed there. A perusal of their website (which gives some of the narration from the tour) mentions nothing of what happened there. (www.destrehanplantation.org/index.htm)
(Sources: Howard Zinn A People's History of the United States 1980, 1999: twentieth anniversary edition; www.natcath.com/NCR_Online/archives/022500/022500a.htm; http://faculty.washington.edu/qtaylor/HSTAA321/afro-1.pdf; http://lsm.crt.state.la.us/publications/people.pdf; www.tulane.edu/~so-inst/eyes.html;