Ethiopian Regiment

Ethiopian Regiment

Lord Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment or Ethiopian Regiment was the name given to a British colonial military unit organized during the American Revolution by John Murray, Earl of Dunmore, and last Royal Governor of Virginia. It was composed of runaway slaves from Patriot masters serving under British officers and sergeants.


In 1775 John Murray, Earl of Dunmore, Royal Governor of Virginia, issued his proclamation offering freedom to all slaves of Patriots who were willing to join him under arms against the American Revolutionary War. According to Fleming 500 Virginia slaves promptly abandoned their Patriot masters and join the ranks of Lord Dunmore. The governor then formed them into the Ethiopian Regiment, also known as Lord Dunmore's Ethiopian Regiment.

This black British military unit called Lord Dunmore's Ethiopian Regiment, composed of runaway slaves, was probably the first black regiment in the history of English-speaking North America. By December 1775 there were nearly 300 blacks in the Regiment including its most famous member, a runaway slave called Titus who would in later years after being discharged from the regiment be known as Colonel Tye. The Ethiopian Regiment saw service from 1775 to 1776. Private Tye, and his comrades in arms, seemed to believe that they were not just fighting for their own individual freedoms but for the freedom of other blacks in American slavery. Across their regimental uniforms or sashes inscribed with the words "Liberty to Slaves". Although used for foraging, they also saw battle.

The Ethiopian Regiment perhaps saw action for the first time at the Battle of Kemp’s Landing in November 1775. Here the Earl of Dunmore defeated the colonial militia. Two of its colonels were captured. One colonel was taken by one of his former slaves.

The existence of a black regiment in British service held a powerful attraction for Americans of African descent who saw it as a symbol of hope. Its very existence -- blacks as soldiers in the world's best Army trained to kill white people -- was as revolutionary as the war itself. There was the story of the black New Yorker who named her child "Dunmore" in His Lordship's honor; or the black Philadelphian who manhandled white pedestrians who felt he should jump out of their way as they passed saying to them proudly, just wait until "Lord Dunmore and his black regiment come..."

In 1775 the Queen's Own Loyal Virginia Regiment, the Ethiopian Regiment, and the 14th Regiment of Foot participated in the fall of Norfolk, a Virginia seaport city. The Earl of Dunmore occupied the port and converted it into the British headquarters that he so desperately need.

General George Washington felt that removing Lord Dunmore from Norfolk was vital to overall victory. Washington ordered Colonel William Woodford in command of 500 Virginia Patriots to extricate Lord Dunmore.

On the march to Dunmore at Norfolk, a barricade held up the Patriots at Great Bridge - a causeway that connected the mainland to the port of Norfolk. Colonel Woodford decided to tempt his enemy Lord Dunmore by building a fort at the mainland side of Great Bridge. Woodford then sweetened the Earl's temptation by sending a black man to Dunmore as a double agent with false news of Woodford's strength (a mere 300); and that it was composed of green recruits who would frightfully show their backs in shameful flight at the first shot.

The Earl was fooled by this spy. Dunmore ordered Captain Charles Fordyce to lead 120 man of the 14th Regiment of Foot down the causeway to the makeshift Patriot fort. The Ethiopian Regiment stood ready on Great Bridge supported by British cannon. Patriots sentries, notably the black Patriot William Flora, slowed the British advance with "buck and ball". Alerted by the noise of battle, the Patriots manned the breastwork. The Patriots did not fire, and waited until the British were very close. Emboldened by the lack of an all-out assault, the British rushed forward. "The day is ours!" declared Captain Fordyce. Silence was followed by gunfire. Fordyce and 12 privates were cut down. The others showed the Patriots their backs in flight. Woodford marched his men through the swamps and attacked the Ethiopian Regiment's flank, forcing them back in confusion. Two cannon were seized by the Patriots. Lord Dunmore was forced by his defeat to evacuate Norfolk. Woodford's Virginians stormed across Great Bridge.

The Patriots suffered no losses. Of the 61 casualties three were British officers, 13 were dead Loyalist, and 18 were taken prisoners wounded. Of the wounded two were ex-slaves of the Ethiopian Regiment: James Sanderson was wounded in the forearm or his bones were shattered and flesh torn; and Cesar was wounded in the thigh.

Dunmore's defeat was the first engagement of the American Revolution after the Battle of Bunker Hill and the first battle of the war fought in the South. This American victory also ended the exodus of runaway slaves in Virginia to Dunmore's ranks.

The Ethiopian Regiment was disbanded in 1776.

Colonel Tye, the Ethiopian Regiment’s Most Famous Recruit

Titus had emancipated himself the day before Lord Dunmore’s proclamation of emancipation to any slaves of American rebels who would join his ranks. He was on the run when he heard of Lord Dunmore's proclamation. The fugitive made his way to Virginia and enlisted in Lord Dunmore's Ethiopian Regiment. It is known that Titus served in the Regiment due to a reference to him by Moore as "one of Lord Dunmore's crew". Lord Dunmore created the Ethiopian Regiment under white officers and NCOs. Although it is possible (if not probable) that some of the black recruits rose to the rank of sergeant (possibly even Tye himself); it is certain that no black who served in the Ethiopian Regiment ever reached the rank of commissioned officer. The British commissioned no blacks in the 18th or 19th centuries. Nothing is known of Private Tye's (or Sergeant Tye's) activities between 1776 - 1778. His first recorded fighting debut is at the Battle of Monmouth in June 1778. The man formerly known as Titus, who has served in the Ethiopian Regiment, would be known for the duration of the war as the Black loyalist guerrilla leader called Colonel Tye - "rank" of "colonel" being an honorific title of respect at best.


Lord Dunmore's letter to Major General William Howe on board the Ship William off Norfolk in Virginia 30th November 1775 (Primary source)

Thomas Fleming, “Liberty! The American Revolution” (secondary source)

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