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Haitians Want It Known That Haitian Heroes Aided American Revolution : Georgia: Display in museum depicts the 1779 Battle of Savannah and recalls the 'Chasseurs Volontaires'--infantry volunteers from Haiti. Placard salutes the bravest feat "ever performed by foreign troops in the American cause."

December 18, 1994|DAN SEWELL | ASSOCIATED PRESS

SAVANNAH, Ga. — Among the Revolutionary War exhibits in this coastal city's history museum there stands a figure in 18th-Century dress, a figure much like the rest except for one major difference:

It is black.

The figure, part of displays depicting the 1779 Battle of Savannah, commemorates the "Chasseurs Volontaires"--infantry volunteers from Haiti who carried out what a placard calls "the most brilliant feat of the day, and one of the bravest ever performed by foreign troops in the American cause."

It is a rare American tribute to the heroism of Haitians who fought on U.S. soil for the independence of this nation, 215 years before U.S. troops landed in Haiti to help restore the elected president.

Little-known in this country, the battle is cited proudly by some Haitians in the aftermath of the U.S. intervention that ended three years of rule by an army junta.

"We, who stood side by side with you in the Battle of Savannah, Georgia, to fight for the independence of the United States, are happy that today you stand side by side with us to uphold democracy in Haiti," President Jean-Bertrand Aristide said in Washington shortly before his U.S.-enabled return to Haiti following three years in exile.

Most people probably didn't understand Aristide's reference, historians say.

"It's hardly known about at all," said John Kennington, a historian who works with the Coastal Heritage Society here.

For one thing, Kennington said, popular knowledge about the American Revolution usually centers around the Northeast and East--Paul Revere's midnight ride, the Battle of Bunker Hill, and the climactic fighting at Yorktown--even though it was also waged in the South.

Another reason the Battle of Savannah isn't a focal point of American histories: We lost.

A combined American-French force had laid siege to Savannah and British officers and Georgia civilian authorities were discussing surrender when reinforcements arrived from a Beaufort, S.C., garrison.

On Oct. 9, the allies launched a bloody frontal assault that was repelled. The British pursued the dazed allies, who suffered more than 1,000 dead or wounded.

But the bulk of the force lived to fight another day mainly because their retreat was covered by a rear-guard stand made by the Haitians, historians say.

About 800 Haitians, including 80 slaves who were rewarded with their freedom, had voluntarily joined the French force. Accounts of Haitian casualties vary, although most historians agree they were heavy and included at least a dozen deaths.

Haitian historians say the battle had a major impact upon Haiti's future. The Haitian volunteers returned home with battle experience and a new view of their colonial status.

"The Haitians who participated in those battles came back with an ideal; an ideal of freedom and liberty was developed," said Gerard Laurent, a Port-au-Prince historian and author of 19 books on his homeland's history.

Among the volunteers was teen-ager Henri Christophe, a general in the Haitian revolt that in 1804 established the Western Hemisphere's second republic and its first black-majority one.

Yet there was no sign of U.S. gratitude for the Savannah heroism, Haitian historians say. Instead, they supported the French against the Haitians and have been hostile or, at best, indifferent to their Caribbean neighbors during most of their history.

Americans continued to own slaves six decades after Haitian independence, and obviously feared any contacts that might encourage American blacks to rebel. Haiti was isolated or exploited by larger nations as it fell into the cycle of dictatorships and internal strife it was hoped would end when Aristide became its first freely elected president.

When Haitians today cite the Battle of Savannah, they may do so in a sense of long-delayed Haitian-American kinship, or in bitterness.

"Those who were in favor of the intervention say that we are finally rewarded for Savannah," said George Michel, another historian in Port-au-Prince. "Others against the intervention say: 'Look how we are being treated after we helped them with their independence.' "

At any rate, because of the latest milestone in Haitian-American relations, historians say, the Battle of Savannah may take on new significance. Laurent noted there is talk in Savannah of creating a battlefield park as an attraction for its thriving tourist industry.

"Then maybe the Americans will remember things they seem to have conveniently forgotten," Laurent said.

The Rev. Thomas Wenski, head of the Haitian Catholic Center in Miami's Little Haiti neighborhood, said such history is important for Haitian children struggling for acceptance as immigrants.

"It's something very important for Haitian kids growing up in the United States to know," Wenski said. "This is one of the ways for them to have pride in their heritage."

Wider knowledge of Savannah, Wenski suggested, would have led to a memorable landing cry in Haiti, just as World War I soldiers paid tribute to the French marquis who was a Revolutionary War hero.

"Like the Americans who said 'Lafayette, we are here!' They could have said when they landed in Haiti, 'Henri Christophe, we are here!' "

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