By James A. Fargher
The 1874-1884 Egyptian-Ethiopian War is one of the 19th century’s more obscure conflicts. One of the most surprising aspects of the conflict is that it involved a group of ex-Confederate officers who had been hired by an Ottoman viceroy to conquer an empire in central Africa. These Confederate veterans had fought in the US Civil War, in part to preserve a social system based on the enslavement of Africans and their descendants. However, along with some Union officers, less than five years after the fall of the Confederacy they found themselves posted over 6,000 miles away from home, in new uniforms and leading columns of African troops into the Ethiopian highlands.
Though technically a self-governing province of the Ottoman Empire, Egypt was ruled by the ambitious Khedive Ismail (1863 – 1879) who dreamed of elevating his kingdom to the stature of one of the great European powers. In order to do so, he planned to push Egypt’s borders south to Lake Victoria and to encompass everything above the Equator between the Sahara Desert in the west and the Indian Ocean in the east. This included consolidating Egypt’s grip over the vast territory of Sudan, which was already ruled as an Egyptian colony, and establishing Egyptian hegemony over the east coast of Africa from Suez to Somalia.
Ismail became convinced that the new methods of warfare pioneered by the Americans could make his vision a reality by modernising the Egyptian army. Egypt was the wealthiest and most developed state in northeastern Africa in the 1870s, but less powerful empires and kingdoms in the region, including Ethiopia, were still capable of meeting the Egyptian challenge. The armies of Emperor Yohannes IV of Ethiopia, for example, vastly outnumbered Egyptian expeditionary forces. Ismail recognised that he would need to introduce technological innovations and reforms into his army before he could begin his conquest of the African interior. The khedive was therefore somewhat ahead of his time, as contemporary Europeans continued to look to the wars of the 18th century for guidance on all matters tactical and strategic.
The Khedive was originally introduced to the idea of hiring American officers to reorganize his army when he met Thaddeus Mott, an ex-Union artillery officer, and adventurer in the sultan’s court in Constantinople in 1868. Mott regaled Ismail with testimonies about the advances the Americans had achieved in technology and tactics during the US Civil War that he convinced the Khedive to hire American veterans to oversee the modernisation of Egypt’s armed forces. In 1870, the first of these military overseers, ex-Confederate officers Henry Hopkins Sibley and William Wing Loring, arrived in Egypt on the recommendation of General William Tecumseh Sherman.
Initially, these men were put to work designing coastal fortifications and lighthouses, with later arrivals helping to conduct surveys of the African territory already under Egyptian control. In 1874 the Khedive launched an invasion of the ancient Christian empire of Ethiopia, Egypt’s principal rival in northeastern Africa, with his armies led in part by American officers.
One of these officers, William W. Loring, published a memoir of his experience in the Ethiopian War. A North Carolinian, Loring sided with the Confederacy during the Civil War and was put in command of an army in northwestern Virginia. He subsequently served in the western theatre until the collapse of the Confederacy in 1865. In 1870, he was appointed by the Khedive as Inspector-General of the Egyptian army, and in 1875 he was promoted to become the chief of staff to the commander-in-chief of the Egyptian military expedition in Ethiopia.
Loring’s recollections of his time in Ethiopia provide a fascinating glimpse into one of the 19th century’s intra-African wars, fought in an area of the world virtually unknown to Europeans and Americans at the time. Twice, Egyptian columns marched deep into the interior of Ethiopia, once from the Red Sea coast and once from the Sudan, only to be met by an overwhelming number of enemy forces. Although the Egyptians were better equipped than their medieval Ethiopian counterparts, who were often armed with swords and chainmail, they operated on extended supply lines deep inside enemy territory. On both occasions, the Egyptian columns were crushed by the sheer weight of Ethiopian numbers.
American officers played a small but noteworthy role in orchestrating these campaigns. At the Battle of Gura in 1876, for example, William Loring may have altered the course of the war by taunting his Egyptian commanding officer into action. Confronted by an Ethiopian detachment which outnumbered his column, the Egyptian commander was goaded by Loring into leaving the safety of a local fortress and marching out to meet the Ethiopians in the open plain. The ensuing battle was a disaster as the Egyptian column was overwhelmed, forcing a general retreat. The war subsequently lapsed into a stalemate until the British admiral Sir William Hewett brokered a final peace treaty in 1884.
Egypt’s attempts to conquer Ethiopia were effectively extinguished after the Battle of Gura. The involvement of US Civil War veterans in the Egyptian-Ethiopian War has ended only as a fascinating footnote in the history of Egypt’s failed attempt to forge an African empire. The legacy of these American officers, however, is intertwined with the memory of Egyptian imperialism which continues to overshadow regional relationships in northeastern Africa in the present day.
James is a second-year doctoral candidate in the Laughton Naval Unit specialising in British imperial and naval history.
 Thomas Pakenham, The Scramble for Africa, 1876-1912 (London: Abacus, 1991), 77.
 Margaret MacMillan, ‘Thinking About War Before 1914,’ Lecture, Humanitas Lectures from University of Cambridge, Cambridge, 10 February 2014.
 Cassandra Vivian, Americans in Egypt, 1770-1915: Explorers, Consuls, Travelers, Soldiers, Missionaries, Writers, and Scientists (Jefferson: McFarland & Co., 2012), 171.
 Ibid., 172.
 William Loring, A Confederate Soldier in Egypt (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1884).
 Bennet Burleigh, Desert Warfare: Being the Chronicle of the Eastern Soudan Campaign (London: Chapman and Hall, 1884) 235.
Feature image: Miniature toy figures depicting the Egyptian confrontation with Ethiopian warriors (1875), available here: https://agrabbagofgames.wordpress.com/2017/01/12/a-ridge-too-far-the-egyptian-invasion-of-ethiopia-1875/