African Americans were not officially allowed to join the U.S. Army during the War of 1812, although they served extensively in the U.S. Navy. Approximately one-quarter of the U.S. sailors at the Battle of Lake Erie were African American. Roughly 350 men of the “Battalion of Free Men of Color” fought at the Battle of New Orleans.
Although official U.S. policy at the start of the war forbade the recruitment of black sailors, a chronic shortage of manpower compelled the navy to accept any able-bodied man. These black sailors had a reputation for fierceness in battle. When Captain Oliver Hazard Perry complained about having blacks on his ship, Commodore Isaac Chauncey replied, “I have nearly fifty blacks on this boat and many of them are among the best of my men.” Perry soon had the chance to test Chauncey’s recommendation. At the Battle of Lake Erie, where Perry’s fleet thwarted the British, his black sailors performed so well that he wrote to the Secretary of the Navy, praising their courage.