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Within a week of Dunmore's proclamation, over 300 escaped slaves had flocked to his troops in Norfolk. Every week hundreds more arrived, desperate for freedom. Dunmore's desperate ploy had nearly doubled his army in a couple of weeks, and the Patriots were both terrified and incensed by the steady stream of escapees. By any measure, it was a success. Some of these black troops fought in the early battle at Kemp's landing, where unprepared Patriots were surprised by Dunmore's men and fled quickly. Dunmore was convinced of the value and effectiveness of blacks as soldiers.

Dunmore hurried to have the blacks trained in the basics of musket shooting and formation marching, and had special uniforms made for them with the provocative insignia 'Liberty to Slaves' embroidered on their breasts. Some of those first recruits fought in the fall of the south side of Norfolk and worked extensively preparing the fortifications at Great Bridge.

The rebels were encamped on the south side of the Norfolk river, and both sides set to building fortifications against an attack on their side of the river. Every morning they would fire a few shots at one another, and scurry back into their camp.

Dunmore, made overconfident by the easy victory at Kemp's Landing, was convinced that the Patriots were basically cowards. He decided to order an attack based on the deception of a Patriot double agent who told him that most of the patriots had left for other parts of Virginia. Early on the morning of December 10th, the Ethiopian Regiment marched across the bridge with the other British troops. The Patriots revealed themselves and fired many times, decimating the ranks - and the attack quickly turned into a panicked retreat. Soldiers of every colour, scrambled to get out of the line of fire. Another attack was ordered, but by this time the fight was basically over.

Within days, Dunmore gave up Norfolk and had his troops loaded onto the British fleet. There, he hoped to train his recruits to become proper marksmen and soldiers, but it seemed fate had another agenda. In the cramped and damp quarters filled with wounded and hungry soldiers, disease soon took hold. Smallpox spread through the British troops. Already miserable from such trials, French and American privateers soon began harassing the British fleet. Dunmore made the decision to retreat to New York. By this time, of the original 800 black soldiers, only about 300 were still alive. Most went on to serve in the Black Pioneers.

Two members of the Ethiopian Regiment went on to later fame: Thomas Peters and Titus or Colonel Tye.

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The Royal Ethiopian Regiment
Soldiers in the Royal Ethiopian had 'Liberty to Slaves' embroidered on the breast of their uniform.

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Colonel Tye

Thomas Peters