George Roberts was born in Baltimore sometime in 1766, although little is known of his early life. At age 46, he signed up to serve on Captain Richard Moon’s privateer Sarah Ann, sailing out of Baltimore in July 1812.
Serving at sea was an easy way for men of color – free or especially enslaved – to escape bondage and the prejudices of land. At sea, men came from all over the world, practicing many religions, representing many ethnicities and many backgrounds. Although a free man of color would be a novelty in Baltimore and subjected to constant scrutiny, at sea he was a simple sailor, and could enjoy freedoms that did not exist on land.
The crew of Sarah Ann quickly had success in capturing a British merchant boat brining coffee and sugar from the Caribbean to Canada once they left Baltimore, but encountered trouble in September. Encountering the British frigate Stratira, Roberts and five other sailors were impressed and accused of being British. They were taken to Jamaica in irons, with the intention of returning them to the British naval fleet. Captain Moon vouched for Roberts, knowing him to be a free American, with papers, and a family back in Baltimore. This effort was successful, and Roberts and other prisoners were freed.
Roberts crewed several other privateer vessels in the next two years before making his way back to Baltimore. In July 1814 he signed as a gunner on the privateer Chasseur under Captain Thomas Boyd, called the “Pride of Baltimore.” They boldly sailed east to British Isles and spent the next 10 months capturing and sinking British vessels.
When Chasseur and her crew returned to Baltimore in April 1815, after the conclusion of the war, although they played no role in the Battle of Baltimore, the ship’s successes at sea elevated its crew to the status of war heroes. The Chasseur crew, including George Roberts, would participate annually in Battle of Baltimore commemorative events at Fort McHenry for years to come.
Although welcomed in the celebrations every year, as a free man of color, Roberts had fewer and fewer rights leading into the Civil War. Roberts had far fewer liberties as a veteran in his old age living in a time of increased racial tensions than he enjoyed as a sailor at sea.