William Williams


Illustration by Keith Rocco

Born enslaved on Benjamin Oden’s plantation "Bellefields" in Prince George's County, Maryland, around 1793, Frederick Hall is better known as William Williams – a man of color who defended Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore in 1814.

Oden took out an advertisement in the Baltimore American and Commercial Daily Advocate on May 18, 1814, announcing Hall, alias Williams, as a "runaway." Williams was described as “a bright mulatto; straight and well made; 21 years old; 5 feet 7 or 8 inches high, with a short chub nose and so fair as to show freckles.”

Despite the advertisement, Williams was able to successfully enlist as a private in the 38th U.S. Infantry. Although it was not legal for the United States government to enlist enslaved people, recruitment quotas left many officers turning a blind eye to possible legal entanglements. Like any new enlistee, Williams was paid a $50 bounty for signing, and a salary of $8 per month, with the prospect of receiving 160 acres of land after his service was complete.

Williams traveled with his unit to Fort McHenry on September 10, 1814, two days before the British landed near Baltimore. During the bombardment on September 13th and 14th, Williams was posted with an infantry detachment of 600 men in the dry ditch surrounding the fort to repulse any British land assault. He and his fellow soldiers endured a 25-hour bombardment wherein over 1,500 explosive shells were fired at the fort and its gun crews.

Williams survived the bombardment and continued to muster with the 38th U.S. Infantry until October 25, 1814 when he reported to the 10th District General Military Hospital in Baltimore. He was admitted and treated for tuberculosis under the care of Dr. Tobias Watkins, Regimental Surgeon of the 38th U.S. Infantry. Williams died at the hospital while in service to the United States on March 19, 1815.

While many freedom seekers fought for the British in the Colonial Marines during the War of 1812, some, like Williams, defended a home that they would never be a full citizen of. In the case of Private William Williams, his former enslaver Benjamin Oden sought to claim the benefits of Williams' service. In 1832, Oden petitioned Congress for the right to be issued the land bounty Williams would have earned had he survived. The issue was taken up by the House Committee on Private Land Claims and was rejected in March 1836.

Last updated: February 24, 2023

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