Cornelius Titus

Illustration of Black Man in Ethiopian Regiment Uniform with words Liberty to Slaves across his chest
Uniform of Ethiopian Regiment during American Revolution

Renegade. Runaway Slave. Traitor. Guerilla Leader. Black Loyalist.
African American Freedom Fighter.

All these titles easily describe Cornelius Titus. Dubbed Colonel Tye by the British Army during the American War for Independence, Cornelius Titus aka Colonel Tye and his “Black Brigade”, were the greatest guerilla fighting force of the Revolutionary War. A rag-tag collection of escaped African slaves, Native Americans and escaped, white,indentured servants the “Black Brigade” struck terror into the hearts of New Jersey Patriots during America’s War for Independence.

Cornelius Titus was born into slavery around 1753 near Colt’s Neck, Monmouth County in the province of New Jersey. Like most enslaved Africans during this time his true date of birth is unknown. Nothing is known of Titus’s early life. We do know that New Jersey became a British colony in 1702. White settlers were encouraged to come to the new colony by an offer of 60 free acres of land for each African slave brought along. By 1704 the first slave laws were enacted restricting the movement and lives of both free and enslaved Africans. By the onset of the American Revolution there were approximately 8,200 enslaved Africans living in the New Jersey colony.

Titus was owned by a Quaker named John Corlies. Corlies owned a large farm located along the Navesink River near the town of Shrewsbury. Corlies was an unusual Quaker in that he seemed quite comfortable with the institution of slavery contrary to most of his Quaker brethren. Most Quakers in the New Jersey colony at that time were moving toward opposing slavery on both moral and religious grounds. Common practice for Quakers was to provide their slaves with some education as well as emancipation at the age of 21. Corlies was not that type of Quaker, and refused to free his slaves. In fact he was known in the community as a hard taskmaster and quick to use the whip. When Corlies was approached by a delegation from the Quaker community with their concerns he was quoted quite bluntly stating “I have not seen it as my duty to give them their freedom”. The Quaker Society revoked Corlies membership in the order for his unyielding refusal to emancipate his slaves in 1778.

Life changed drastically for Titus in November of 1775 when John Murray, the 4th Earl of Dunmore and Royal Governor of Virginia, issued a proclamation. This decree offered any indentured servant or enslaved African that escaped and joined the British their freedom. The day after the proclamation was issued Titus ran away from the only home he had ever known. With little more than the raggedy clothes on his back Titus walked to Cornelius, Virginia, towards freedom. Through sheer force of will Titus made his successful escape to Virginia. There he joined the newly formed Ethiopian Regiment, established by the Royal Governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore. These men were the first all-black regiment to serve the British Crown. These newly freed Africans were proud to be fighting for freedom and considered themselves fighting for the freedom of all enslaved Africans in North America. Emblazoned across the chest of these new soldiers were the words “Liberty to Slaves”. These proud soldiers stood as a symbol of hope for all enslaved people. Trained to bear arms against all, which would include killing whites, was a concept that was unfathomable at the time. The very thought that slaves could and would kill whites enraged and terrified colonial Patriots.

Unfortunately the Ethiopian Regiment were not properly trained and ill-equipped for battle. Although successful in their first engagement, a subsequent battle proved to be disastrous. The regiment was tricked into an ambush at the battle of Great Bridge in Virginia. Surrounded by the enemy the fighting soon turned into a hasty and panicked retreat. Many of the Ethiopians lost their lives that day and Lord Dunmore was devastated, but sincerely impressed with the soldier’s bravery in the face of slaughter. He realized the men desperately needed training. Only 300 or so men survived the Virginia campaign. These survivors eventually were shipped north to New York where the British had a stronghold. Among these men was Titus.

It is around this time that Titus began to call himself Tye. He had thus far survived escape from a cruel master several battles for which he was ill-prepared, as well as the spate of diseases that decimated the regiment. In June of 1778, Tye found himself once again in Monmouth County of the New Jersey colony. Tye took part in the famous Battle of Monmouth near Freehold New Jersey. Tye distinguished himself in battle by capturing a captain of the Monmouth County militia. Showing himself to be fearless combined with his knowledge of the lay of the land Tye proved himself invaluable to the British. So admired was Tye that the British bestowed upon him the honorary title of Colonel. His leadership skills and bravery propelled him to be placed in charge of a command of a large regiment of fighting men. Although the regiment was called the “Black Brigade” the make-up of men consisted of escaped slaves, Native Americans and whites.

Colonel Tye and his band of renegade fighters found refuge at the British stronghold on the Sandy Hook peninsula. Tye and his band were charged with destabilizing the region. Executing one daring raid after another Tye and his men were the scrounge of Monmouth County. Tye and his men often targeted wealthy slave-holding Patriots, attacking at night and confiscating goods to help the Loyalist cause. Colonel Tye and his men also sought to free any slaves they encountered. Using guerilla tactics, which he learned from his Native American men, combined with his vast knowledge of the local terrain, Tye and his brigade became the most feared guerilla fighting force of the Revolutionary War. Throughout 1779 and 1780 Colonel Tye led raid after raid into Monmouth County, focusing on known Patriot militia officers and their farms and homes. Patriot leaders were captured and turned over to the British on Sandy Hook sometimes to be executed. Local newspapers of the day chronicle Tye's many "diabolical" escapades. In September of 1780 Tye led his most daring and audacious attack to date. He and his men attempted to capture the notorious Patriot leader Joshua Huddy. Tye and his men were able to get Huddy to surrender after setting fire to his house, but the cost for this victory was terrible. Colonel Tye was shot through the wrist by a cannonball. This seemingly minor injury would prove fatal. Within a few days Tye was dead from tetanus (lockjaw).

Colonel Tye was born into slavery yet he gained his freedom, his honor, and the respect of his fellow men. Freedom has never been free for the downtrodden. It has been speculated that if Colonel Tye and his “Black Brigade” had fought on the side of the future Americans perhaps the war would have ended sooner.

Last updated: June 15, 2021

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