African American Soldiers And The Revolutionary War In Virginia
In November 1775, Lord Dunmore, the last royal Governor of Virginia signed a proclamation stating that any able bodied slave of a rebel master could run to his Royal Ethiopian regiment to fight the Americans and gain their freedom. Dunmore did not free the enslaved workers belonging to Loyalist Masters and he did not free his own slaves.
300 Enslaved African Americans Join Dunmore’s Army
Within a week of Dunmore signing the proclamation, over 300 enslaved workers ran to Norfolk, Virginia to join his army. The Patriots were terrified knowing their runaway slaves would now have guns. The Virginia Gazette advised slaves to “cling to your kind masters.” But in the end, around 800 runaway slaves fought in Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment. Their uniforms were emblazoned with the words, “Liberty to Slaves.”
The Attack On Great Bridge In Chesapeake Virginia
On November 15, Lord Dunmore called in his British troops to Kemp’s Landing to defend a large store of gunpowder that had been recently moved there from Norfolk. Militia companies from Princess Anne County, Virginia (present-day Virginia Beach) assembled to fight the British. Virginia’s inexperienced Militia fired too soon. Lord Dunmore’s disciplined regulars returned fire and most of the Patriot Militia scattered. This clear victory for the British made Lord Dunmore overconfident. He decided to attack the Patriots at Great Bridge (in present-day Chesapeake, Virginia.)
Early in the morning on December 10, 1775, The Royal Ethiopian regiment marched across the bridge with the other British troops. The British troops were within fifty feet of the Patriots who were hiding. The Patriots revealed themselves and fired rapidly, decimating the ranks, and the attack quickly turned into a panicked retreat. The battle lasted less than an hour. By the time it was over 100 British soldiers were dead or wounded. Lord Dunmore retreated to Norfolk and boarded his ships.
Lord Dunmore and his troops stayed on these ships in and around Norfolk until May, when he eventually retreated to Gwynn’s Island near the mouth of the Rappahannock River in the Chesapeake Bay. Being on these ships in the cold and damp weather caused a great deal of sickness, including smallpox. Smallpox was widespread in Great Britain — nearly all the British troops in America had caught it as children and those that hadn’t were inoculated before they left England. The enslaved that ran to the Royal Ethiopian Regiment had no immunity to the disease. This meant that smallpox was quickly an epidemic among the runaways. The situation on Gwynn’s Island became worse when typhoid fever also broke out. Slaves continued to run to Lord Dunmore’s Regiment, but because the high mortality rate among the Runaway slaves was so high the Royal Ethiopian Regiment never had more that 150 effective men.
The Fate Of African American Soldiers In The Royal Ethiopian Regiment
By July the remains of Dunmore’s forces sailed north to New York. The Patriot forces then took over the island and the scene that greeted them was a grisly one. Bodies of the Royal Ethiopian soldiers littered the coastline, smallpox victims thrown from the British ships as they sailed away. On the island itself the scene was even worse. One eyewitness wrote, “The deplorable condition of the miserable wretches left behind is beyond description.” The island now belonged to the dead and dying. The sick soldiers were lying out in the open or in brush tents, many of those in the tents were burned alive as soldiers sought to control the smallpox. Lord Dunmore’s Royal Ethiopian Regiment was gone, only in existence for one year. However, not all of the Royal Ethiopian Regiment died on Gwynn’s Island — one of the survivors was Titus Cornelius or, as he was later known, Colonel Tye. His story will be told in the next blog.