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Cincinnati's Black Brigade

Updated: Dec 29, 2023


The Confederate Heartland Campaign of 1862 would come within miles of the seventh largest city in the United States, and the largest west of the Allegheny Mountains - Cincinnati. With its strategic location on the north bank of the Ohio River, and its manufacturing capabilities, the Queen City would indeed be a prize worth having, if even for a short time, for the Confederacy. In early September local men were called out to build defenses in northern Kentucky in response to the invasion. Raw Federal troops were rushed to the front, and the famed Squirrel Hunters turned out by the thousands to defend the border between Ohio and the states to the south.


One body of men, later to be known as the Black Brigade, had experiences a bit different than their white counterparts. Claimed as the "first organization of the colored people of the North actually employed for military purposes" the Black Brigade was organized under the declaration of martial law by General Lew Wallace, who assumed command of Cincinnati on September 1st, 1862. His declaration included in part:


“This labor ought to be that of love. The undersigned trusts and believes it will be so. Anyhow, it must be done. The willing shall be properly credited, the unwilling promptly visited. The principle adopted is Citizens for labor, soldiers for battle.”


Cincinnati Mayor George Hatch would issue a proclamation the next day that would be published in the local newspapers:


“Mayor’s Office, City of Cincinnati

“In accordance with a resolution passed by the City Council of Cincinnati on the 1st instant, I hereby request that all business, of every kind and character, be suspended at ten o’clock of this day, and that all persons, employers and employees, assemble in their respective wards, at the usual place of voting, and then and there organize themselves in such manner as may be thought best for the defense of the city. Every man, of every age, be he citizen or alien, who lives under the protection of our laws, is expected to take part in the organization.

“Witness my hand and the corporate seal of the city of Cincinnati, this 2d day of September, A. D. 1862.

“GEORGE HATCH, Mayor.”


The mayor's proclamation was clear enough to most, this meant that "all persons" would be called to duty. This however still was a cause of confusion in the black community as they had no voting locations. Asking local policemen, the blacks were told:


“You know damned well he doesn’t mean you. Niggers ain’t citizens.”

“But he calls on all – citizens and aliens. If he does not mean all, he should not say so.”

“The Mayor knows as well as you do what to write, and all he wants is for you niggers to keep quiet.”


But the military authorities did intend for all to turn out and serve. Blacks were not allowed to volunteer, but instead were impressed into service on the night of September 2nd, men being dragged from their homes and placed into a pen on Plum Street. The orders to round up the blacks were clear: "Now, then, I want you fellows to go out of this pen and bring all the niggers you can catch. Don't come back here without niggers.” Those blacks that were brought to the pen faced even more indignities. After being told "Damn you, squat" the police captain in charge ordered his men to "Shoot the first one who rises."


This treatment carried through the hot day of September 3rd, but on September 4th Judge William M. Dickson was given the task, as ordered by General Wallace who by this time had received word of how the blacks were being treated, to organize these men into working groups and provide for their care:


"HEAD-QUARTERS U.S. FORCES,

"CINCINNATI, September 4, 1862.

"William M. Dickson is hereby assigned to the command of the negro forces from Cincinnati working on the fortifications near Newport and Covington, and will be obeyed accordingly.

"By order of Major-General LEWIS WALLACE.

"J. C. ELSTON, JR., A. D. C."


The men were allowed to return to their homes to gather up items needed for camp-life, something they had been denied on the night of the 2nd and during the 3rd. It was thought that after their treatment that these black men would not return to duty, but the next day the amount of black men answering the call nearly doubled the 400 or so that had been impressed. For nearly three weeks the men of the Black Brigade worked on fortifications, trenches, and military roads in northern Kentucky, often working closer to the enemy than the regiments of volunteers tasked to defend the city.

Part of the Black Brigade memorial within Smale Park, Cincinnati

On September 20th, the 706 men of the Black Brigade were ordered to fall into line, and were marched back to Cincinnati, their efforts being complete. Judge Dickson, serving as a colonel, received a sword from the men of the Black Brigade for his fair treatment. This act is replicated as a statue in Smale Park, where visitors can reflect on the service of these men at the memorial for the Black Brigade.

Colonel William M. Dickson being awarded a sword from Black Brigade member Marshall P. H. Jones
Powhatan Beaty

Many of the Black Brigade men would go on to further service in their support of the Union. Powhatan Beaty would earn a Medal of Honor at New Market Heights as part of the Fifth United States Colored Infantry and be a noted actor after the war. Other men would serve in the ranks of the famed Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts. Their service has mostly been forgotten, many of their graves unkept in a handful of African-American cemeteries across Cincinnati.


For those wanting more information on the Black Brigade I have taken Peter Clark's 1864 publication and have added footnotes, illustrations, stories on a few select members, and where one can visit their efforts today. This expanded version can be found on Amazon and Lulu.

 

Source:

Clark, Peter H. - The Black Brigade of Cincinnati, Being a Report of Its Labors and a Muster-Roll of Its Members; Together With Various Orders, Speeches, Wtc., Relating To It. Cincinnati, 1864.

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