America’s First African American Military Unit: Ethiopian Brigade in the American Revolution by Harry Schenawolf

Soldier in the Ethiopian Brigade

The Ethiopian Brigade was the brainchild of John Murray, the 4th Earl of Dunmore, Royal Governor Lord Dunmore of Virginia. On November 7, 1775, he issued a proclamation that rattled the chains of slavery; that which fueled the economy of both the northern and southern thirteen rebellious British Colonies in North America.   Open warfare had erupted in New England seven months previously and the ties between the royal governor and the Virginian Provincial government, the House of Burgesses, had erupted in open hostilities leading to a direct confrontation between the Virginia militia and His Majesty’s Troops. Lord Dunmore pleaded for British ground troops to be sent to restore order to America’s largest colony.  The Commander of North American forces, General Thomas Gates, had his hands full dealing with Boston’s overwhelming numbers of armed colonials.  He could only respond with a small detachment of troops;  the 14th Regiment of Foot, led by Colonel Alexander Leslie, which had been posted to Florida and had been devastated by disease and sickness.  Lord Dunmore’s beleaguered forces were grossly outnumbered by militia forces and he soon realized that unless he found additional men, his remaining presence in Virginia was highly questionable.

John Murray, Virginia’s Royal Governor Lord Dunmore

He knew of a large, untapped flow of manpower within his region eager to fight for the British; for a price – liberty.  “Negros are double the number of white people in this colony,” said Dunmore, noting at the start of the war that bondsman in Virginia alone numbered 186,000 souls. He first proposed the idea in 1772 to Colonial Secretary William Legge, the Earl of Dartmouth, that rebellious owners of slaves, “with great reason, trembled at the facility that the enemy [themselves] would find in such a body of men, attached by no tie to their master nor to the country.”  He went on to write “It was natural to suppose that their condition must inspire them with an aversion to both, and therefore are ready to join the first that would encourage them to revenge themselves, by which means a conquest of this country would inevitably be effected in a very short time.”  Dunmore knew he had the answer to England’s manpower problem to subdue a large country with limited resources.   His proclamation declared martial law and guaranteed freedom to all slaves of Whigs (patriots) who left their rebellious masters and joined the British forces in and around Norfolk; taking up arms against the colony in the name of the Crown.

Runaway slaves

Many distraught slaves answered Dartmouth call to rally with the British.  However, not just able bodied black men eager to fight for their freedom faced the trials of escaping from their rebel masters, but whole families flocked to Lord Dunmore’s banner.  Over the course of the next several months, thousands would risk the gauntlet to reach the British line.  And it was a gauntlet that the white Virginia population laid down, inflicting horrendous and savage tortures and death upon the heads of those captured during their attempt to escape; this as a threat to all those trying to fulfill Dunmore’s proclamation.  Men and women were hanged, burned alive, had limbs amputated, or were sold off to West Indies speculators (flesh peddlers or slavers) which in itself was a death sentence due to disease and malnutrition.

Soldier in a British Regiment of Foot

By early November of 1775, Lord Dunmore had over three hundred qualified recruits ready to fight alongside the 14th Regiment of Foot.  They donned full military attire of scarlet coat with all the trappings, including the words liberty to slaves etched on their coats.  Dunmore called this unit the Ethiopian Brigade (also known as Regiment). They never numbered more than three hundred men at any one time and were equipped with Brown Bess muskets complete with bayonets.  Dunmore also raised a company of Tories, mostly Scottish immigrants, which he called the Queen’s Own Loyal Virginia Regiment.  Both units would fight alongside Colonel Leslie’s regulars. Dunmore wrote in November that with these forces, he would soon be able to “reduce this colony to a proper sense of their duty.”

All this prompted many powerful Virginians, including George Washington, to speak their damnation of the British; Washington declared that Lord Dunmore must be crushed.  With African Americans outnumbering whites two to one, the decree played upon the white dominated society’s worst nightmares.  Patrick Henry, the fierce defender of liberty, claimed that to “encourage insurrection among our slaves,” revealed the King to be a “tyrant instead of the protector of his people.” He used Dunmore’s intent to arm the slaves to help argue for “an immediate, clear, and full Declaration of Independency.”  Ironically, after Henry’s heated response to the Dunmore proclamation, one of Henry’s own slaves named Ralph quietly slipped away from his master to join Dunmore’s forces and seek the freedom so readily denied him by this great American, slave holding champion of liberty.

Notorious slaver, Nicholas Brown Jr., founder of Brown University, Rhode Island.

Condemnation against the proclamation was just as strong in the northern colonies as it was in the south.  We tend to forget, or were never taught, that the bastion of the slave trade was not in the south, but the north.  At the time of the American Revolution, New York City boasted far more slaves than Charleston, South Carolina.  Rhode Island was the center of the slaver merchantable fleet and all the ‘moneyed men’ who profited enormously by trading in flesh resided in and around Providence, Rhode Island and nearby Connecticut.  Today’s Brown University in Rhode Island was established and financed by the slave trader, Nicholas Brown Jr., who garnished his money from the sheer brutality and moral obscenity of shipping tens of thousands of innocent souls to spend a lifetime in horrendous bondage.  Pamphlets and newspapers expressed the outrage of freeing slaves.  “Hell itself could not have vomited anything more black than this design of emancipating our slaves,” quoted the Morning Chronicle in Philadelphia in January, 1776, that included, “…The flame runs like wild fire through the slaves…”  Patriot farmers in New York burned Dunmore in effigy as the Scottish Lord was condemned from Georgia to Massachusetts.

Battle of Great Bridge, December 9th, 1775

Violence soon erupted after the proclamation was announced.   On November 16, two Virginia militia companies were defeated in what became known as the Battle of Kemp’s Landing.  The colonels of both militias, Hutchings and Lawson, were captured by soldiers of the Ethiopian Brigade; interestingly, one of the Ethiopian Brigade soldiers who captured the militia colonels was an escaped slave from Hutching’s plantation.  Soon after Kemp’s Landing, Dunmore decided to fortify the area surrounding Norfolk, ordering a fortification built at Great Bridge that spanned the Elizabeth River, about eight miles southwest of Norfolk. He knew that his forces would not last long in Norfolk without the supplies that flowed over Great Bridge. This fact was also apparent to the Virginians. The militia arrived at Great Bridge on December 2 and began building its own fortification on the far side of the causeway from the bridge. Colonel William Woodford, commanding three county militias, had just over a thousand men present. Dunmore was unaware of the numbers he faced and on December 9, 1775, bolstered by his success at Kemp’s Landing, he ordered Colonel Leslie to make a frontal attack against the militia’s fortification. The result was disastrous for the British. They suffered over a hundred casualties including the death of Captain Fordyce. The American militia’s casualties amounted to one injured thumb.

Abandoning Norfolk

Shortly after, Dunmore ordered that Norfolk be abandoned.  All his forces, including many prominent Tories and their families, should retreat onto the growing fleet that by late December, numbered more than a hundred vessels. Denied supplies by the occupying militia forces in Norfolk and the continued sniping of militia rifle from within the city, Dunmore shelled Norfolk on January 1, 1776, setting fire to the waterfront. Fearing the recapture of the city, the militia burned the remaining buildings.

From January to the end of July, 1776, Dunmore’s fleet suffered defeat after defeat, exacerbated by an outbreak of smallpox.  After the city’s ruin, Dunmore sent troops ashore to build barracks in an attempt to gather supplies from the countryside.  Every time men ventured into the countryside, they were fired upon by Colonel Howe’s men, a strong militia sent up from North Carolina.  Dunmore eventually returned to his ships.  He then made several other attempts at making landfall along the Virginia Rivers and Chesapeake Bay.  Eventually they established a long term camp on Gwynn Island in Virginia.

Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation to free the slaves of patriots

By July, 1776, disease and starvation was decimating the loyalists and Ethiopian troops along with their families.  On July 8th, General Andrew Lewis arrived with a brigade of Virginia troops and began shelling the island.  Dunmore’s forces escaped, but left behind numerous graves from a devastating outbreak of smallpox.  By July 23rd, 1776, Dunmore sailed up the Potomac to establish a base and his last attempt of retaining a hold on Virginia.  The survivors of his fleet landed at St. George Island.  A dwindling water supply, food seriously rationed, and continued pestilence destroyed any optimism Dunmore had of success.  He had enough.  He ordered the destruction of more than half his fleet and on August 6, 1776, set sail.  Half of what was left of his fleet sailed to Bermudas while the other half with 300 African Americans aboard, the last of the Ethiopian Brigade with their families, sailed for New York City where General Howe’s invasion fleet was assembling.

Colonel Tye. Leader of the ‘Black Brigade’.

Some of those African Americans who fought with Dunmore as part of his Ethiopian Brigade joined the fight in and around New York City and New Jersey.  The most colorful member of the brigade to carry on the fight for the British was Titus, who had escaped slavery from Monmouth, New Jersey; traveling to enlist with Lord Dunmore in Virginia.  Later known as Colonel Tye, he became the greatest guerrilla fighter of the American Revolutionary War, raging terror among the New Jersey patriots; freeing slaves, raiding supplies, destroying property, and kidnapping and killing influential patriots.  At one point he lead a battalion of over eight hundred men – the ‘Black Brigade’ – composed of both black and white soldiers, prompting General Washington to issue an order for his capture or death at all costs.  Colonel Tye died in September, 1780, from a wound he received in battle.

General Alexander Leslie. Commanded the 14th Foot at the Battle of Great Bridge

Alexander Leslie, upon arrival at New York Harbor with what was left of Dunmore’s fleet, was promoted to Brigadier and put in command of the newly formed Light Infantry Battalions.  His 14th Regiment of Foot, with fresh reinforcements was assigned to Lt. Col. Alured Clark.  They took part in the Battle of Long Island on August 27, 1776.  Lord Dunmore would no doubt relish a moment of revenge when he planted the British flag over Fort George on September 15th 1776, in downtown New York City, claiming the city was once more in British hands.  He would not remain long in the colonies, soon after sailing back to England to rejoin his family for good.

RESOURSES

Gilbert, Alan.  Black Patriots and Loyalists, Fighting for Emancipation in the War for Independence.  2012.  University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.

Holt, Thomas.  Children of Fire.  A AHistory of African Americans.  2010.  Hill and Wang, New York, NY.

Johnson, Charles.  Smith, Patricia.  Africans in America. America’s Journey through Slavery.  1998.  Harcourt Brace & Company, New York, NY.

Quarles, Benjamin.  Lord Dunmore as Liberator.  The William and Mary Quarterly.  Third Series Vol. 15, No. 4, Oct. 1958, pp 494-507.

Russell, David Lee.  The American Revolution in the Southern Colonies.  2000.  McFarland & Company, Jefferson, North Carolina

Scribner, Robert L.  Revolutionary Virginia, the Road to Independence.  1983.  University of Virginia Press.

Thwaites, Reuben Gold & Van Tyne, Claude Halstead.  Lord Dunmore’s War.   A published address delivered before the Society of Colonial Wars in the State of Michigan. 1911.

WEB:  Revolutionary War Journal.  John Murray:  The Fourth Lord Dunmore.  http://www.revolutionarywarjournal.com//?s=Lord+Dunmore

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