Escaped Slave, British Soldier, and the Greatest Guerrilla Fighter Of the American Revolutionary War
It is late fall, 1775. A British officer stares out over the river. The wide mouth of the James River is choked with dark hulls that sit peacefully at their anchors, their towering masts swaying in the stiffening breeze that flows off the ocean. Each week, more vessels ship in from England, the West Indies, and ports all along the coast. British and Loyalist alike, they are committed to the Crown and gather to escape the storm of aggression that has erupted throughout the colonies. In Norfolk, under the protective eye of Lord Dunmore, Royal Governor of Virginia, ship captains and crews alike wait patiently. They hope that either politics or swift military action will soothe the passions of war so they may go about their business.
The officer looks down at his feet as he paces the wide and worn planking. The wharf is flanked by warehouses and docks that jut out over the water. He stops and looks toward the river. His gaze, as it has been for over an hour now, is centered on a northern merchantman that came in with the morning tide. Word reached his Captain shortly after dinner and he was dispatched to the river’s edge.
“Come on you buggers,” he growls then turns to cover the same stretch of decking. Reaching the end of his forced routine he looks to his sergeant who remains a respectable distance to the side. “I will give them five more minutes and no more,” he grumbles, then turns towards the ship. “Finally,” he sighs heavily.
A small boat skirts the bow of the merchantman and heads directly towards him. He watches as it nears and is able to make out four figures huddled in the stern, their coats pulled tight against their bodies. The small craft levels alongside the pier while a crewman aptly ties off the bobbing boat. Moments later, the four men hurry up a narrow ramp. Upon reaching the top, they see the British man and step lively towards him. Hats are whipped off and they quickly line up before the immaculate officer.
With eyes cast downward, each man feels the fear and strain of anticipation. All but one. He stands erect. His eyes remain forward and unblinking. The officer stands before each black man, asking their names and from whence they came. He comes to the last man.
“What do they call you?” the officer asks.
“Tye,” the man answers.
“That is all? Nothing more?”
“It is all I care to keep.”
“Where are you from?”
“Does it matter?” the man asks, his voice rich and unwavering.
The officer stares long into the face of the runaway slave. He slowly nods before moving to stand beside his sergeant.
“A shabby lot as any I seen,” the sergeant offers in a thick Scottish accent.
“Aye,” the lieutenant says, “that they are.” He turns and looks once more at the one who calls himself Tye. “But not that one. There is a fire in his eyes that speaks the desire in his heart. And I dare say we shall see the results when he is given a musket.” He faces his sergeant. “Show them their bunks. I must delay no longer if I hope to sup with Major Leslie.”
Titus Corlis of Shrewsbury, Monmouth County, New Jersey, proved to be the most feared and revered guerrilla fighter/warrior of the entire Revolutionary War. As leader of a band of former slaves called the Black Brigade, Tye struck terror into the hearts of New Jersey residents. He raided patriotic farms to provide sustenance for the British army, intercepted military dispatches, attacked army outposts, captured militia garrisons spiking their cannon, and executed renowned patriots – all seemingly at will. He was one of the few men for whom General Washington posted a substantial bounty for his capture or death.
When hostilities between the British and rebel forces reached their peak in the summer of 1775, Tye, or as he was known at the time, Titus Corlis was a slave of John Corlis in Shrewsbury, Monmouth County, New Jersey. John Corlis was a Quaker and, as doctrine demanded, he was to educate his slaves, granting them freedom when they turned twenty-one. He was also to provide £200 to assist with their new start in life. Unfortunately, many Quakers in Shrewsbury did not uphold their part, seeking to deny their slaves freedom until the bondsmen reached their thirties or later and withholding the required payment. John Corlis was by far the worst of them all. He often whipped Titus for the most trivial offenses. He never taught him to read or write and offered no religious instruction, and when Titus turned twenty one, John Corlis refused his freedom.
Titus, at the first opportunity, escaped and made his way south towards Delaware, working at odd jobs for board and food. His former master advertised for his return stating that Titus was near six foot tall and not very black. The advertisement offered a £4 reward for his return. It was about that time that Lord Dunmore’s proclamation filtered north. It stated that escaped slaves of rebels [patriots] would be offered freedom if they “are able and willing to bear Arms, joining His Majesty’s Troops as soon as may be, for the more speedily reducing this Colony [Virginia] to a proper Sense of their Duty.”
Titus found passage on a ship to Norfolk. He changed his name to Tye and promptly became part of Lord Dunmore’s Ethiopian Brigade of former slaves which numbered over three hundred men. He was issued a musket, gear, and splendid uniform with the words ‘Liberty to Slaves’ emblazoned on the chest. It was not long before his keen intellect and determination was noted by his British commanders. They soon gave him the title of captain and put him in charge of a company of former slaves. Tye soon became the pride of his regiment.
In mid November Tye was involved in a major skirmish at Kemp’s Landing, defeating a group of patriot militiamen and capturing their commanding officers. Later, on December 9th, he participated in the Battle of Great Bridge which proved disastrous for the British forces. By the summer of 1776, Lord Dunmore had fled Virginia with his fleet, never to return. A large portion of the fleet sailed south to the Indies while several ships sailed north to New York City. On board were the remains of the Ethiopian Brigade who had been ravished by smallpox. Tye and the others arrived in time for the invasion of New York by General Howe’s forces. New York City became British Headquarters from which all hostilities towards the rebels could be conducted.
Not much is known about Tye during the next two years. He continued to offer his services to the British, most likely as pioneer [carting supplies, digging trenches, cleaning camp]. Sometime during late 1777, he became an active raider among a growing number of New Jersey loyalists. Assembling his own unit of former slaves from Monmouth County, he led approximately fifty men in what became known as the Black Brigade.
History has Tye participating in the Battle of Monmouth in 1778. He and his Black Brigade fought hard and captured Captain Elisha Shepard and several of his company. It was after this battle that the British Command fully recognized the talents of Tye and his forces and began supplying them with shot and ammunition.
Tye continued to conduct raids in Monmouth County and his former home of Shrewsbury. He knew the geography, and over time he sharpened his ‘hit and run’ tactics against patriots, including many of the area’s slave masters. He and his men were no doubt motivated by the cruel treatment they received at the hands of these men; many having been their former masters. The Black Brigade’s numbers grew to regimental force as more and more slaves freed by the raids joined the Brigade’s ranks. Also, many white loyalists angered over patriot attacks on their homes chose to follow Tye’s lead. The British soon bestowed the Brigade’s leader, Tye, with an honorary title of Colonel. Colonel Tye continued to command incursions into New Jersey that solidified his reputation as a shrewd tactical soldier.
In late 1779, his Black Brigade joined forces with the Queen’s Rangers, a loyalist regiment once headed by the renowned Robert Rangers. They soon terrorized New Jersey patriots, confiscating large stores of food and supplies to replenish the British Army’s needs. So too they began executing known patriot leaders. Many of the men they hanged had also assailed loyalist farms, executing known supporters of the crown. This eye for an eye retribution continued unabated for several months.
In June of 1780, Colonel Tye’s forces captured and executed Joseph Murray, a local militia leader well known for murdering captured loyalists. Three days later, Tye’s men boldly stormed a military outpost imprisoning the militia’s leader Captain Barnes Smock and twelve of his men. Throughout the 1780’s, Tye’s forces assaulted New Jersey farms with impunity causing an outcry from patriots across the region. Any attempt by Continental troops to thwart the Brigade’s actions became fruitless by Tye’s keen knowledge of the area and his skill as a leader.
Colonel Tye’s fortunes ran out in September 1780. With a smaller band of men, he attacked the home of militia Captain Josiah Huddy. Huddy was hated by loyalists and the British military for his brutal murder of those loyal to the crown. Huddy was able to hold off the attack for several hours. When his house was set ablaze, he was captured. On the way back to New York City, Tye’s forces were set upon by American militiamen. In the sharp battle, Tye was shot in the wrist. The minor wound turned fatal when tetanus set in. Colonel Tye died of lock-jaw days later.
Huddy managed to survive, but as the war wound down, he was snatched off a British prison ship in 1782. It was reported that he was hanged by former Black Brigades-men on the shore of Monmouth County. The incident caused such an uproar among the Americans that it stalled the Paris Peace Talks.
Had he fought with the Americans, Colonel Tye no doubt would have been heralded in historical text books throughout the United States as one of the greatest warriors of the time. He represents a large and forgotten number of escaped African American Slaves who fought with the British for a principle that they felt just as strongly, if not greater than those spouting freedom in the American cause. He represents the great ‘paradox’ that historian Benjamin Quarles remarks upon: African Americans who fought with the British, “sought the same liberty that had moved Patrick Henry, John Hancock, and George Washington to seek American independence (Quarles, pg. 32).
Hodges, Graham Russell, Slavery and Freedom in the rural north: African Americans in Monmouth County. 1997: Madison House Publishers, Madison, Wisconsin.
Holton, Woody. Black Americans in the Revolutionary Era: A Brief History with Documents. 2009: Bedford/St. Martin’s Publ., Boston, MA
Kaplan, Sidney, & Emma Nogrady Kaplan. The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution 1770–1800 (1989). 1989: University of Massachusetts Press.
Public Broadcasting System (PBS). Africans in America, Part 2, Colonel Tye, 1763–1780. Available online at http://www.pbs.org/search/?q=Colonel+Tye
Quarles, Benjamin. The Negro in the American Revolution. 1961& 1996: The University of North Carolina Press.