African American Loyalists During the Revolutionary War: 10 Significant People, Events, and Things

African American Loyalists During the Revolutionary War: 10 Significant People, Events, and Things

Khalid Elhassan - August 3, 2018

The American Revolution brought hope to America’s slaves, as the Patriots’ talk of “Liberty” and “Equality” ignited their dreams. However, as African Americans discovered, even the greatest champions of freedom were hesitant to extend it to black people. By contrast, the British had few compunctions about discomfiting the Patriots by offering freedom to slaves who fled their rebel masters and sided with the British. So it is unsurprising that many African Americans became Loyalists, preferring the British who offered them freedom, to the Patriots who did not.

Following are ten significant people, things, and events from the history of Black Loyalists during the American Revolutionary War.

Why Many African Americans Fought For the British

Today, the struggle between Britain and the American colonists is usually presented as a fight for liberty between tyranny and a people yearning for freedom. However, from the perspective of many colonists of African descent, it was not so straightforward, and the side that offered them liberty and freedom from tyranny was that of the British, not the Patriots.

In 1775, Samuel Johnson summed up one of the greatest contradictions of the Patriots’ fight for freedom: “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of Negros?” Many of the American colonists’ foremost advocates of liberty and equality owned hundreds of other human beings as chattel slaves. Some, such as Thomas Jefferson, lived lavishly off the sweat and blood of hundreds of slaves who toiled for their benefit, driven by the lash and the threat of extreme violence.

Blacks fought for the Patriots in the war’s early battles of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill. However, when George Washington took command of the Patriot forces, he was appalled to see blacks bearing arms. With slave uprisings being a constant fear of slaveholders, the sight of armed blacks was guaranteed to discomfit a plantation owner such as army’s new commander. So he decreed an end to the recruitment of black soldiers, and eventually purged them from the Continental Army. It was only later, after his forces were drastically reduced by desertions and diseases, that Washington was forced to turn a blind eye to black soldiers in his army. The British thought differently about arming blacks, and sought to turn the rebels’ slaves against them. In November of 1775, Virginia’s British governor, Lord Dunmore, offered slaves their freedom in exchange for service to the Crown.

That struck slaveholders such as Thomas Jefferson as monstrous, and convinced many of the undecided amongst their ranks to side with the Patriots. In a nod to that sentiment, the Declaration of Independence, despite the “All men are created equal” part, assails the British for offering the colonists’ slaves an opportunity to secure that equality.

African American Loyalists During the Revolutionary War: 10 Significant People, Events, and Things
Slaves being branded. Gauk ArtiFact

In 1779, general Henry Clinton, the British commander in chief in America, went even further, and issued the Phillipsburgh Proclamation, which decreed that any slaves who fled their rebel masters and made it to British lines were free. Bondsmen took up the offer and fled by the thousands, hoping to trade slavery under the Americans for freedom with the British. For example, in South Carolina a quarter of the slave population – about 25,000 slaves – fled to the British. So did a quarter of Georgia’s slave population, and about 30,000 slaves in Virginia. Many runaways were caught and savagely punished by their masters, then returned to slavery, but those who reached British territory were free. During the war, over 100,000 slaves succeeded in escaping bondage by making their way to freedom behind British lines.

The freed slaves aided the British as laborers, guides, spies, and fighters. Many served with conspicuous courage, sporting sashes that read “Liberty to Negroes” – freedom fighters in the most literal sense of the word. Unsurprisingly, many former slaves, after years of mistreatment and indignities, were quite eager to spill the blood of their former masters when given the chance.

African American Loyalists During the Revolutionary War: 10 Significant People, Events, and Things
A member of the Ethiopian Regiment. Wikimedia

Lord Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment

In November of 1775, Virginia’s governor, Lord Dunmore’s issued a proclamation offering freedom to slaves in exchange for service to the Crown. Within weeks, hundreds of slaves escaped their American owners and joined his troops in Norfolk. Hundreds more arrived each week, and as the number of runaways steadily grew, so did the fear and ire of American slave owners.

Lord Dunmore’s proclamation did not win him or the British many hearts and minds amongst colonial whites, but it certainly won the hearts and minds of many colonial blacks. It also helped alleviate a severe manpower shortage that had confronted Virginia’s British governor by increasing his side’s manpower, and simultaneously reducing that available to rebellious colonists.

Arming and hastily training the escaped slaves, Dunmore doubled his available forces within a few weeks. Unfortunately for him and his black recruits, diseases – particularly typhoid and smallpox – swept the escaped slaves. The standards of medical care and sanitation in those days were generally low even in ideal conditions, and conditions in the camps hastily thrown up for the new recruits were far from ideal. Epidemics swept the runaways’ camps, killing them off almost as fast as they were assembled, and preventing Dunmore from raising the vast slave armies he had once envisioned.

Nonetheless, the survivors were assembled in what came to be known as Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment, led by white officers and sergeants. On November 15th, 1775, the new soldiers got their first taste of combat in the small scale Battle of Kemp’s Landing. It was a British victory over colonial militia, in which one of the militia colonels was captured by a former slave fighting for the British.

Dunmore grew overconfident as a result of the easy victory at Kemp’s Landing, and became convinced that the Patriots were cowards. A few weeks later, on December 9th, 1775, the Ethiopian Regiment fought in the Battle of Great Bridge, in which the British were tricked by a double agent into making a frontal assault across a bridge. They were decisively repulsed. The Patriot victory compelled the British to evacuate Norfolk.

With British prospects in Virginia collapsing, Lord Dunmore disbanded the Ethiopian Regiment in 1776, and many of its members joined other units, particularly the Black Pioneers, in New York. A former member of the Ethiopian Regiment, a runaway slave from New Jersey named Titus Cornelius, grew famous upon his return to his birthplace, where he became a Loyalist guerrilla leader nicknamed Colonel Tye.

Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment marked a significant step in British policy, as its members were the first of thousands who fought for the British during the war. The recruitment of black soldiers by the British also led the Continental Congress to override George Washington’s wishes to keep blacks out of the Continental Army. In 1777, Congress restored the eligibility of blacks to serve in Continental forces – which Washington had rescinded in 1775.

African American Loyalists During the Revolutionary War: 10 Significant People, Events, and Things
A Black Loyalists in the American Revolutionary War. YouTube

The Black Pioneers

In April of 1776, a British expedition into North Carolina under the command of general Henry Clinton was joined by 71 runaway slaves. Clinton took an immediate liking to the runaways, and formed them into a company that came to be known as the Black Pioneers. He placed a Royal Marine lieutenant in charge, assisted by white subalterns and black noncommissioned officers. The rank and file were comprised of runaway slaves, mostly from North and South Carolina, plus a few from Georgia.

Clinton ordered that the men be treated with respect and decency, and that they be adequately clothed and fed. He also promised the runaways emancipation at the end of the war. Clinton’s North Carolina expedition ended in failure, but he took the Black Pioneers with him when he sailed north, where they participated in that city’s fall to the British in 1776. Later that year, Clinton was tasked with taking Newport, Rhode Island, and the Black Pioneers were the only provincial unit that accompanied his British regulars. From Rhode Island, they were dispatched back to New York, and thence to Philadelphia, which fell to the British in 1777.

In 1777, Clinton’s runaways became the nucleus of the Black Loyalist Company – a noncombatant force to replace Lord Dunmore’s disbanded Ethiopian Regiment. In 1778, the company was merged into the Guides and Pioneers in New York, and given the name the Black Pioneers and Guides. As Pioneers, the new unit’s soldiers were put to performing military engineering, fortification, and construction tasks. As Guides, they served as scouts and raiders.

The Black Pioneers were not treated as a standard regiment, but were instead parceled out in small ad hoc units – typically companies of about 30 men each – that were attached to British armies. They served those armies by performing scouting, raiding, and military engineering missions. In their role as engineers, they were not a fighting unit, but they were often called upon to work under heavy fire, digging and shoring up entrenchments and fortifications.

In 1779, Clinton sailed to besiege Charleston, South Carolina, and took the Black Pioneers with him. They performed vital military engineering tasks that contributed to the city’s fall. The company then returned with Clinton to New York, where they remained until the end of the war. The Black Pioneers were one of the last provincial units remaining in New York, and accompanied the British when they evacuated the city in 1783.

African American Loyalists During the Revolutionary War: 10 Significant People, Events, and Things
George Washington’s plantation, Mount Vernon. PBS

Harry Washington

One of the slaves who responded to Lord Dunmore’s promise of freedom for slaves who fled their rebel masters was Harry Washington. In 1776, he ran away from Mount Vernon, the plantation of the rebel armies’ commander in chief, and future first president of the United States, George Washington. Harry succeeded in evading pursuit, and made it to safety behind British lines, where he enlisted in the Ethiopian Regiment.

Harry was born in the Gambia river region in West Africa, circa 1740. He was enslaved and transported across the Atlantic, surviving the horrific Middle Passage to disembark in Virginia around 1760, where he was bought by a plantation owner. After his master’s death in 1763, Harry was purchased by George Washington, who put him to work draining swamps in southeast Virginia.

After years of toil in appalling conditions, enveloped by heat, humidity, and clouds of mosquitoes, Harry was taken to Washington’s plantation, Mount Vernon, and tasked with looking after Washington’s horses. In 1771, he was demoted from his skilled tasks to grueling manual labor, prompting him to flee. However, he was recaptured a few weeks later, and restored to slavery.

In 1775, the Revolutionary War started, and Virginia’s governor offered slaves their freedom if they fought for the British. Mount Vernon’s manager assembled the plantation’s slaves, and urged them to trust the benevolence of slavery’s paternalism over the precarious dangers of freedom. Harry preferred the dangers of freedom over the benevolence of slavery, and risking savage penalties if caught, he fled Mount Vernon along with two other slaves.

He evaded the slave patrols and pursuit, and made it to British lines, where he enlisted in the Ethiopian Regiment. He survived the epidemic diseases that wracked the unit, as well as the fighting in Virginia. In 1776, the British position in Virginia became hopeless, prompting the evacuation of the state and the disbandment of the Ethiopian Regiment. Harry then sailed to New York, where he joined the Black Pioneers, serving in a company attached to a British artillery unit.

He rose to the rank of corporal, and accompanied Henry Clinton’s British army in its invasion of South Carolina. There, corporal Harry Washington was placed in charge of a pioneer unit attached to the Royal Artillery Department in Charleston in 1781. After the war, he was evacuated to Nova Scotia, and later joined the first group of colonial black migrants who were returned to Africa, settling in Sierra Leone. In 1800, he joined a brief rebellion against British rule. The rebellion was swiftly crushed, and Harry Washington was arrested, convicted of sedition, and sentenced to internal banishment elsewhere in Sierra Leone, where he died of illness soon thereafter.

African American Loyalists During the Revolutionary War: 10 Significant People, Events, and Things
An ad placed by Titus Cornelius’ master after his escape, offering a reward for his return. Wikimedia

Titus Cornelius, AKA Colonel Tye

Titus Cornelius, better known as Colonel Tye, was born a slave around 1753 in Monmouth County, New Jersey. He grew up toiling in the farm of a Quaker owner named John Corlis, who parted company with his denomination’s growing opposition to slavery. The few Quakers who did own slaves were in the habit of teaching their bondsmen how to read and write, then freeing them at age 21. Not so Titus’ master, who not only refused to educate his slaves, but was a cruel master to boot.

Slavery was gradually declining in New Jersey, and Titus’ master became one of the last few slaveholders in Monmouth County. Titus grew up getting routinely whipped for trifles, and seeing other slaves enduring the same treatment from Corlis. When Titus reached age 21, the age when most owners in the region – particularly Quakers – typically freed their slaves, it became clear that Corlis had no intention of freeing him.

So Titus decided to free himself by running away in 1775. Fortuitously, he escaped one day after Virginia’s governor, Lord Dunmore, had issued a proclamation offering freedom to all slaves who escaped their American masters to serve the British. So Titus made his way to the Virginia Tidewater region, where the new freedman changed his name to Tye.

He settled in Williamsburg, Virginia, and initially made his living performing a series of odd jobs. Eventually, Tye enlisted in Lord Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment, took to his new life under arms like a fish to war, and distinguished himself. The fortunes of war eventually returned him to New Jersey, and he ended up in the birthplace where he had been enslaved, Monmouth County, as a freedman under arms in British service. There, he would distinguish himself, and earn his place in history as Colonel Tye.

African American Loyalists During the Revolutionary War: 10 Significant People, Events, and Things
Colonel Tye as portrayed in PBS’ ‘Slavery and the Making of America’. Wikimedia

Colonel Tye’s Guerrilla Activities in Monmouth County

Titus Cornelius had escaped slavery in Monmouth County, New Jersey, changed his name to Tye, enlisted with the British, then returned to his birthplace under British arms. In his first combat experience, the Battle of Monmouth, June 28th, 1778, Tye distinguished himself by capturing a Patriot captain of the Monmouth militia, and returned with his captive to British held New York City.

Having grown up in Monmouth County, Tye had intimate knowledge of the local geography, which made him well suited to the guerrilla warfare that wracked the region. While the Redcoats and the Continental Army fought each other in formal pitched battles, a nasty civil was simultaneously being fought between Loyalist and Patriot militias and armed bands throughout much of the colonies.

The guerrilla warfare was intense in New Jersey, a border region sandwiched between the British stronghold in New York, and the Patriot capital in Philadelphia. In Monmouth County, things got particularly vicious, as Patriot vigilantes took to hanging Loyalists and confiscating their property. That prompted William Franklin, New Jersey’s Loyalist governor despite being Benjamin Franklin’s son, to sponsor Loyalists in fighting fire with fire.

In July of 1779, Tye led a racially integrated Loyalist guerrilla group in a daring raid on Shrewsbury, NJ, in Patriot territory, that captured dozens of cattle, horses, as well as two prominent local Patriots. Tye and his men eventually set up a base that they named Refugeetown in Sandy Hook, at the northern end of the Jersey Shore. From there, they conducted a series of nighttime raids that targeted prominent and wealthy local Patriots, particularly slaveholders.

Tye proved himself a successful guerrilla leader in the summer of 1779, as he led his men in a hit and run campaign that terrorized and enraged the local Patriots, seizing food and provisions, destroying property, and freeing numerous slaves. It was during this period that Tye became known as Colonel Tye – an honorific bestowed upon him by the British, albeit not an actual rank.

By the winter of 1779, Colonel Tye, after having distinguished himself in combat, had joined the Black Brigade – a unit of about two dozen black Loyalists. They fought alongside the Queen’s Rangers – a white Loyalist unit that was eventually integrated by incorporating into its ranks the Black Brigade, and black Loyalists from some other units.

African American Loyalists During the Revolutionary War: 10 Significant People, Events, and Things
Black Loyalist reenactors. Pintrest

The Black Brigade

By 1779, the war in the northern colonies had entered a stalemate. So units such as the Queen’s Rangers and the Black Brigade fought to defend the Loyalist stronghold in New York, while the British shifted their military focus to the southern colonies. The Black Brigade continued Tye’s guerrilla campaign of raiding into Patriot held territory in Monmouth County and the surrounding region.

In addition to arming Tye and his men, the British paid them bonuses in gold for their raids and other successful military operations. The Black Brigade rustled cattle and other livestock, then drove it across British lines to feed Loyalist forces. Additionally, they seized valuables, and captured prominent Patriots, whom they took to New York as prisoners.

One type of raiding for which Tye and his men needed little encouragement or financial reward from the British was that against slave owners. The Black Brigade fell upon slaveholders with a special relish – paying particular attention to the farms and holdings of the brigade members’ former masters. They freed numerous slaves, or otherwise facilitated their escape into freedom behind British lines. They then helped transport the escapees to a new life as freedmen and freedwomen in Nova Scotia or other British holdings.

Tye and his men were particularly dreaded by their foes. As rumors flew that the Black Brigade planned to lead blacks in massacring whites in various parts of New Jersey, many Patriots were gripped by panic. As one commented: “The worst is to be feared from the irregular troops whom the so-called Tories have assembled from various nationalities- for example, a regiment of Catholics, a regiment of Negroes, who are fitted for and inclined towards barbarities, are lack in human feeling and are familiar with every corner of the country“.

Fearful Patriots in Monmouth County set up an Association of Retaliation, and persuaded the Patriot governor to declare martial law. Throughout the opening months of 1780, the Black Brigade’s raids increased in both frequency and intensity, as the fighting between Patriots and Loyalists descended into a cycle of tit for tat killings. In September of 1780, Tye led a raid against a particularly vicious Patriot militia leader named Joshua Huddy, who had become infamous for his habit of executing Loyalist prisoners. The raiders succeeded in capturing Huddy, but he was then freed in a surprise Patriot counterattack. During the ensuing fight, Tye was shot in the wrist – a minor injury in of itself, but one which soon became infected. He died of gangrene and tetanus a few days later.

African American Loyalists During the Revolutionary War: 10 Significant People, Events, and Things
The capture of New Jersey Patriot militia captain Joshua Huddy. Wikimedia

Stephen Blucke Led the Black Brigade, Then Founded Birchtown, Nova Scotia

The origins and eventual demise of black Loyalist Stephen Blucke (circa 1752 – circa 1795) have long been shrouded in mystery. The historical record shows him taking over the command of the Black Brigade after the death of Colonel Tye in 1780, and successfully leading it through the end of the war. After the war, he went on to found Birchtown in Nova Scotia.

The details surrounding the rest of his life are decidedly sparse, other than that he was born in the British island of Barbados to a white father and a black mother sometime around 1752. At some point, exact year unknown, he arrived in Britain’s American Colonies, where he married a woman named Margaret, and the couple eventually adopted a daughter, Isabel.

When the Revolutionary War erupted, Blucke was swayed by British promises to free all negroes who voluntarily joined them, and became a black Loyalist. He joined the Black Brigade in the late 1770s, and distinguished himself while serving in its ranks. In 1782, he took command of the unit after the death of its leader, Colonel Tye, from wounds sustained in a failed attempt to capture bloodthirsty militia leader Joshua Huddy.

Blucke successfully led the Black Brigade for the remainder of the war, even after the British surrender at Yorktown. On March 24th, 1782, Blucke and his men completed Tye’s final (and failed) mission, and took part in the capture of Joshua Huddy. The Loyalists finally avenged themselves on Huddy by hanging him in the Navesink Highlands in Monmouth County, NJ, on April 12th, 1782.

After the war, Blucke joined the exodus of Loyalists, and ended up in Nova Scotia. There, in 1784, the governor commissioned him a lieutenant colonel in the province’s black militia. Blucke was also tasked with scouting for land in which to settle fellow Black Loyalists, and decided on Birchtown. There, he built himself a comfortable and spacious home, and took up a career as a schoolmaster. Then, one night, he simply disappeared. It was speculated at the time that he must have been killed by wild animals, as torn clothes resembling his were found in the town’s outskirts.

African American Loyalists During the Revolutionary War: 10 Significant People, Events, and Things
Thomas Peters. Wikimedia

After Fighting For the British, Thomas Peters Went On to Become the Founding Father of a Country

Thomas Peters was a Yoruba born in today’s Nigeria, circa 1732. He was captured by slavers and transported across the Atlantic, where he was sold in then-French Louisiana. After three escape attempts, he was sold to a North Carolinian, who took him to work in his flour mill near Wilmington, NC. In 1776, Peters fled his master, made it to British lines, and enlisted in the Black Pioneers.

He distinguished himself while serving under fire, was twice wounded in battle, and rose to the rank of sergeant. After the war, he was among the thousands of Black Loyalists transported by the Royal Navy to Nova Scotia, where he settled with his family in Annapolis Royal. He became a recognized leader of Nova Scotia’s black communities, representing their concerns to provincial authorities.

Peters met and befriended abolitionist Granville Sharpe, who advocated the resettlement of freed blacks in Africa, and was converted into an enthusiastic recruiter for the project. In 1791, Peters travelled to London, where he lobbied the government and helped convince it to establish a colony for the resettlement of Black Loyalists in Sierra Leone.

He then returned to Nova Scotia, where he convinced over a thousand blacks to sail across the Atlantic to what became Freetown, Sierra Leone. Adjusting to the new settlement proved to be no easy task, and diseases and the climate took their toll on the settlers while they adjusted to local conditions. Many felt duped, and blamed Peters, causing him to lose much of his influence with the settlers. Soon thereafter, he was accused of theft, and a resentful black jury convicted him – an inglorious end to an eventful life. Today, he is honored in Sierra Leone as one of that country’s founding fathers.

African American Loyalists During the Revolutionary War: 10 Significant People, Events, and Things
A freed slave fighting for the British during the American Revolutionary War. Pintrest

The Fate of the Black Loyalists

In October of 1781, an allied Franco-American force trapped, besieged, and forced the surrender of general Cornwallis’ British army at Yorktown. It was to be the war’s final major pitched battle, as the British, exhausted by years of fruitless fighting and the mounting costs in blood and treasure, threw in the towel. Defeat at Yorktown led to the fall of the pro war government in London, and its replacement with one that sued for peace.

From the Black Loyalists’ perspective, that was calamitous news, because it meant that the side that had offered them freedom had lost, and their former masters had prevailed. Thousands of slaves-turned-freedom-fighters found themselves bottled up with the British in enclaves such as Charleston and New York, unsure whether the Crown would actually honor its promises to them. They had good reason to worry: American negotiators had added a last minute clause to the 1783 Treaty of Paris, forbidding the British from “carrying away” American property. That “property” included the runaway slaves who had fought for the British.

After the war ended with the signing of the peace treaty in 1783, the fate of the Black Loyalist escaped slaves became a bone of contention between the Patriots and British military commanders. According to the terms of the treaty, the British were bound to deliver their black comrades in arms to their former masters, but the British on the ground refused to do so.

In addition to basic decency and honor, the contest over the fate of the escaped slaves offered the British an opportunity to demonstrate moral superiority over the victorious Patriots. As the British commander in South Carolina put it: “those who have voluntarily come in under the faith of our protection, cannot in justice be abandoned to the merciless resentment of their former masters“. The British commander in chief concurred, and directed that: “such that have been promised their freedom, to have it“.

That incensed George Washington, and it was touch and go for a while whether hostilities would erupt anew over the issue. The British in New York finally resolved the issue, to the ire of the slave owners, by issuing thousands of “Certificates of Freedom” to Black Loyalists. The documents entitled their bearers to decamp to British colonies such as Nova Scotia “or wherever else He/She may think proper.” In South Carolina, the British also honored their commitment to Black Loyalists, taking them with them when they evacuated the state.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources & Further Reading

Black Loyalist – Washington’s Revolution (Harry, that is, not George)

Black Past – Peters, Thomas, (1738-1792)

Black Then – Stephen Blucke: Black Loyalist and Birchtown Founder

Bright Hub Education – Famous African Americans Of the Revolutionary War

Canada’s Digital Collections – The Black Pioneers

Horne, Gerald – The Counter Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America (2014)

Kolchin, Peter – American Slavery: 1619-1877 (1993)

Online Institute For Advanced Loyalist Studies – A History of the Black Pioneers

PBS – George Washington’s Runaway Slave, Harry

Selig, Robert A. Colonial Williamsburg, Summer, 1997 – The Revolution’s Black Soldiers

Virtual Museum of Canada – Margaret and Stephen Blucke

Wikipedia – Colonel Tye