Women Combatants in the Haitian Revolution

Logo_smallThe Haitian Revolution is known as the only successful slave revolution in history. In 1791, the slaves in the French colony of St Domingue rose and fought French Royalists, a British expeditionary force and finally Napoleon’s troops to gain their freedom. This is not the space to recount the dramatic events that led to the proclamation of independence and the renaming of the state to ‘Haiti’ in 1804. I rather want to shed some light on a lesser-known aspect of the revolution, namely the role of women as combatants.

The plantations on the Northern Plains burning in 1791.
The plantations on the Northern Plains burning in 1791.

There are a number of accounts mentioning women fighting in the insurgent’s ranks. Armed women could be found among the bands of maroons, escaped slaves that often operated independently. Women also assisted in defending towns besieged by the British. One Marie-Jeanne Lamartiniére joined the heroic defence of a redoubt near Crête-à-Pierrot in 1802, where the French lost nearly 1.500 men until they managed to capture the position. In a rebel attack against another fortification, women were found in the first wave, carrying fascines to cover the trenches.

Women were also often at the centre of local revolts. In the 1791 insurrection, a ‘girl of colour’ called Princess Améthyste is said to have organised a company of Amazons. This was probably linked to a religious cult, voodoo playing an important role as a means of communication and community building among the slaves. In 1802, we hear of a woman called Lazare who was a ringleader of an insurrection against the napoleonic expedition.

Sanité Belair as depicted on a Haitian bank note.
Sanité Belair as depicted on a Haitian bank note.

Perhaps the most famous of all Haitian warrior women is Sanité Belair. She served as a lieutenant in Toussaint L’Ouverture’s army and was known for her hatred of the Whites. When the French expeditionary force captured her, she was to be beheaded but demanded to be shot like a soldier, a wish that was granted.

Why did those women fight? One explanation harks back to their African roots. Most of the St Domingue slaves had been born in Africa and had brought their culture with them. In several African societies, women combatants were nothing special – the most famous example being the Kingdom of Dahomey, from which many slaves came. Another explanation is the situation of slavery and the fight for freedom itself, which directly concerned every single individual. For women, slavery was perhaps even worse because of sexual exploitation, so it is only understandable that they fought with all available means – including weapons – to free themselves.

Haitian troops fighting against Napoleon's soldiers.
Haitian troops fighting against Napoleon’s soldiers.

What do we know about their equipment and tactics? At the start of the insurrection, the slaves were ill equipped and, apart from some stolen muskets and pistols, mainly fought with farm implements. The Spanish and later the United States sold them weapons and ammunition, while leaders like Toussaint L’Ouverture trained their troops to perform complex manoeuvres. Many sources stress the discipline and bravery of the Black soldiers. But even when they had acquired uniforms and were organised according to French regulations into demi-brigades, they shunned open field battles and preferred guerilla warfare, shooting from behind cover and retreating as soon as the enemy engaged them in numbers. However, there were a couple of field battles, the most famous being the Battle of Vertières in 1803, where the rebels beat the French expeditionary force.

Woman warriors played an essential role in the slave’s struggle for freedom and even their enemies acknowledged their courage. General Leclerc, the commander of the French expeditionary force who was sent by Napoleon to reestablish slavery in the colony, wrote exasperated: “[T]hese men die with an incredible fanaticism; they laugh at death; it is the same with the women.”

The Haitian Revolution offers exciting opportunities for wargaming, especially for small-scale actions. Unfortunately, the choice of female miniatures for the period is very limited.

In 28mm, Trent Miniatures has a very nice range dedicated to the period, but no women. Redoubt have Spanish Guerrilla women which might work. On a pinch, one of the Brigade Games Buccaneer Ladies could also be used.

In 15mm, the female pirate officers from Peter Pig work rather well – those are the ones I myself use.

 

Bibliography

Dubois, Laurent: Avengers of the New World. The Story of the Haitian Revolution, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press 2004.

Girard, Philippe: “Rebelles with a Cause: Women in the Haitian War of Independence, 1802–04,” Gender & History 21 (2009), 60–85.

Maurouard, Elvire: Des femmes dans l’émancipation des peuples noirs de Saint-Domingue au Dahomey, Paris: Éditions du Cygne 2013.

 

The Messenger – Lion Rampant AAR

Don’t kill the messenger, that’s what I kept saying. Would K. listen? No.

But let’s start at the beginning. Last weekend we finally inaugurated the old table in the new flat and had a game of Lion Rampant. After having a go at the scenario ‘The Messenger’ with Mick, I decided to introduce it to K. This time, we stuck to the retinues from the rule book, me taking the Almoravids (using the ‘Berber’ list) and K. the Spanish.

The set up.
The set up.
The garrison watches.
The garrison watches.

The scenario stated that I had to get a messenger from my watch tower to the small village while K. had to intercept him. The messenger was attached to one unit of Foot Yeomen – as I didn’t have an appropriate figure, I just supposed he had gone undercover and donned the clothing of an Almoravid warrior…

The village, waiting for the message.
The village, waiting for the message.
Spanish Mounted Yeomen preparing an ambush.
Spanish Mounted Yeomen preparing an ambush.

While my main force advanced, K. moved her light cavalry into position to cover the road. I decided to shadow them with my own light cavalry. However, as soon as the rascals were out of sight of my commander, they wouldn’t budge and stood behind the woods for the rest of the game. Several times I tried to perform a ‘skirmish’ manoeuvre against K.’s horsemen, but to no avail!

Meanwhile, K. moved her main force in position for what looked like a head-on battle.

Follow that goat!
Follow that goat!
The view from the watch tower.
The view from the watch tower.

The battle started in earnest when a wild charge got her mounted Men-at-Arms to charge my Foot Yeomen. K. made the mistake of positioning her knights at her far left flank, where they were unsupported by infantry. However, fortunately for her, my tactical acumen wasn’t any better and the Foot Yeomen were similarly isolated. The clash severely damaged my infantry, which a couple of attacks later succumbed to the ferocity of the cavalry.

The line still holds...
The line still holds…

My center initially advanced in good order – I was lucky with activation rolls and for some time convinced myself that I might be able to punch through.

Marching right into K.'s trap.
Marching right into K.’s trap.

Especially my Fierce Foot were phenomenal and did heavy damage to the Spanish troops. However, I never got rid of the light Spanish cavalry lingering on the hill, and as soon as the unit with the messenger was in range, K. charged.

The Spanish cavalry springs into action.
The Spanish cavalry springs into action.

And that’s how she did kill the messenger.

Another great game! We are slowly getting the hang of Lion Rampant, although we both made tactical mistakes – me more than K., and that’s why I lost. I should have supported my right flank and most importantly I should have dealt with K.’s cavalry in some way. Sending my light horse on an errand on the left flank was a bad idea, as they were basically out of the game.

Still, we both like Lion Rampant very much and are keen to try other scenarios. Maybe next time, I’ll take the Spanish – or maybe I’ll think before I act and make a plan for a change.

Visiting a Vauban Fortress

We’ve been living near some of the most spectacular Vauban fortresses for years and never managed to make the trip. However, the fascinating series of articles on Gravelines by Henry Hyde in Miniature Wargames finally inspired me to rent a car. K. was willing to come along, so shortly before we moved house, we headed for Neuf-Brisach, which is considered to be Vauban’s master piece.

Aerial image of Neuf-Brisach.
Aerial image of Neuf-Brisach.

While the fortress was planned by Vauban, the construction was overseen by Tarade. It was built ex nihilo on a flat piece of ground from 1698-1708. The reason for its existence was the loss of the old fortress of Breisach, which is located on the other side of the Rhine, after the War of the League of Augsburg.

Apart from one futile attempt by the Austrians to take the town in 1743, it was never besieged. However, it did play an important function in the system of fortification that surrounded France like a chain and that served the French well up until the napoleonic period.

Map of Neuf-Brisach.
Map of Neuf-Brisach.

For today’s visitors, the appeal of Neuf-Brisach is its good state of preservation. Walking around the town, one can see all the different elements of a Vauban fortress – a fascinating way to get a feeling for the dimensions.

I’ll just share some photos from our trip, for a detailed description of all the different elements of such a fortress have a look at Henry’s articles.

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The Porte de Colmar.
The Porte de Colmar.

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Views from the ditch.
A ravelin.
A ravelin.
Tunnel through a hornwork.
Tunnel through a hornwork.
View along the covered way.
View along the covered way.

There is also a small museum where you can find maps, documents and a couple of weapons. The main attractions are the three models: One old plan relief, a modern model and one for the kids to play with.

Neuf-Brisach is well worth a visit if you are around, and if not, why not look if there is a Vauban fortress in your vicinity?

Of course, such a trip may make you want to have such a structure on the tabletop. If you don’t have the Sun King’s money to spend, wargaming with a Vauban fortress is probably better suited for the smaller scales. Irregular Miniatures offers elements for building a fort or a fortress in 2mm as well as in 6mm. JR Miniatures and Stone Mountain Miniatures offer complete sets in 15mm, while Total Battle Miniatures makes elements for building a fort.

Less expensive is the paper kit by PaperTerrain, which is available in different sizes, even in 28mm if you feel up to it. However, the cheapest variant is building one from scratch – the Age of Eagles webpage has a good tutorial.

Reenactress: A Documentary

Logo_smallWhen film maker J.R. Hardman started as an American Civil War reenactress three years ago, she was not allowed to wear uniform and join the ranks, as females were not supposed to be combatants. Embarking on a journey through books and archives, she discovered that there is lots of historical evidence for women fighting in the Civil War. Most of them were disguised as men, continuing a tradition of cross-dressing and soldiering that dates back at least to the 17th century.

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Hardman is now running a Kickstarter to finance the production of her documentary Reenactress. The feature-length film will show how women today are active in reenactment groups and how they cross-dress and take up arms to represent combatants. It will also shed light on the history their activity is based on, namely the stories of real women who fought on the Union and Confederate sides.

In some ways, reenactment is similar to wargaming: Both represent military history in a playful way and by that, both also offer unique possibilities of questioning traditional narratives. In this way, Reenactress shares questions with my own Wargaming Warrior Women project. As I was curious to find out more, I contacted J.R. Hardman, who was kind enough to participate in a short email interview.

Cpt. Shandy: What do you find exciting about reenactment?

J.R. Hardman: Reenacting is exciting because you get the chance to experience something you never would otherwise. Reading a history book about the Civil War is great, but there’s no smell of the black powder, you don’t feel the heat of the July weather when wearing a wool uniform, and you don’t learn what it feels like to get soaking wet and then have to march 20 miles from a book. Reenacting gives you an approximation to the experience of what it might have been like during a different time period, and although it’s not exactly the same, you can extrapolate from your experience much more closely to what a soldier might have felt like at the time. It’s so much different to pull the lanyard on a cannon than it is to watch someone else do it in a movie. It’s also an incredible feeling to have people, especially children, ask you questions about history and be able to answer them and help those kids learn.

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J.R. Hardman in her Union uniform.

C.S.: Who are the women reenacting female combatants?

J.R.H.: We have interviewed a lot of really incredible women who reenact, and they come from all walks of life. One woman in our movie is a doula and was a volunteer firefighter. One woman is a reporter for local news. One woman is a retired prison guard. One is a student studying to become a veterinarian. One is a substitute teacher. Some women we have met were formerly in the military, and some would never have thought about it before reenacting. Everyone seems to be doing it for a slightly different reason, but overall people seem to love history, and want to learn more about it and represent it well.

C.S.: Why is it important that what you do is grounded in history, that there really where women donning uniforms and fighting in the Civil War?

J.R.H.: It’s important to represent that history that people don’t know about. There were women fighting in the Civil War on both sides of the conflict, Union and Confederate. It’s important to recognize that history because it really informs the present.

The fact that women in the 19th Century were brave enough to go to war and were willing to abandon their identity and pretend to be men in order to do so speaks to the power of the female spirit. Knowing women could do that back then is hugely inspiring to women today, especially in the face of unequal treatment they receive in places like the modern military. Knowing that there were real women who served in the Civil War also creates a large sense of legitimacy for our portrayals. After speaking with historian and former reenactor Lauren Cook Wike, who authored the book, They Fought Like Demons, and compiled the letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, who was a real woman soldier on the Union side, I have come to understand how important it is for people to know these stories. It turns out that Rosetta Wakeman’s letters would never have been uncovered without Lauren’s work as a reenactor.

I also understand that the reenactment hobby is a lot about authenticity, and it really helps to have historical women that you can point to to model your impression on. Lastly, without this hobby, I would never have been motivated to learn about this history, myself. Reenacting has taught me things I never would have learned otherwise. It has really changed my perspective on history all together.

C.S.: What do you think representing warrior women in a playful context – be it reenactment or miniature wargaming – can achieve?

J.R.H.: Reenacting can be really fun. When it comes down to it, it’s a hobby, and sometimes people can take it too seriously. The units I participate in really treat each other like a family, and I have made life-long friends reenacting. Representing warrior women in a playful context can help to make the history more accessible for everyone, from tiny children to big adults.

C.S.: Thanks for your time and all the best for the Kickstarter!

The Kickstarter for Reenactress will be running until Saturday, 1 August 2015 05:59 CEST. I think it is well worth supporting and I’ll keep my fingers crossed – I’d really love to see the documentary.