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Our Rich History: The Black Brigade, mistreated heroes of the Siege of Cincinnati

By Steve Preston
Special to NKyTribune

As the City of Cincinnati mobilized to meet the forthcoming threat of Confederate invasion in late summer 1862, all able-bodied men were expected to help defend the city.

African-American men were no exception. They organized themselves into a unit to take up arms against the Confederates. Fearing armed African Americans, however, city officials rejected their offer, going so far as to block a planned second meeting by the group. They were told that it was not their war.

Powhatan Beaty (1837-1916) was a member of Cincinnati’s Black Brigade. Later, he volunteered for the 127th Ohio Volunteer Infantry (reconstituted as the 5th United States Colored Troops). He served with distinction, earning the Medal of Honor. After the Civil War, he became an actor and orator. Beaty died in Cincinnati. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Undeterred, these patriotic African-American men endeavored to contribute to the defense of Cincinnati and, in the process, became the first organized African-American group employed for military purposes in the Civil War. Unfortunately, the beginning actions of what would become known as the “Black Brigade” would be coerced and founded in bigotry.

On September 1st, General Lew Wallace declared martial law in Cincinnati, as the city mobilized to a war footing. Despite being told by some that this was a white man’s war, a sentiment echoed in the Cincinnati Commercial newspaper, many African Americans still expressed their desire to help.

There was a desperate need for men to dig gun emplacements, rifle pits, cut trees and build fortifications. On the morning of September 2, 1862, Cincinnati policemen rounded up many African-American men, took them at bayonet point to a mule pen on Plum Street and then across a pontoon bridge to serve as forced labor for the troops. Some dug defenses. Others were taken away at gunpoint by Union soldiers to do menial jobs in their camps, such as cooking.

All of this changed when General Lew Wallace saw the treatment given to the group. On September 4, 1862, General Wallace appointed Judge William Martin Dickson to lead the group of African-American men. He personally went into the military camps and rescued those who were forced into labor. Once all the 400 or so men were accounted for, Dickson sent them home to their families. He asked them to consider returning voluntarily the next morning.

Flag of the Black Brigade of Cincinnati. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

On the morning of September 5, 1862, 700 African-American men reported for service. Dickson organized the group, dubbed them the “Black Brigade,” and led them across the pontoon bridge to assist in the defensive preparations. Dickson’s aide, James Lupton, gave them their own battle flag that they proudly carried at the head of their column.

The brigade arrived at present-day Evergreen Cemetery in Newport. From there, the men were organized into units and set about digging rifle pits, building breastworks, clearing timber, and building roads west to the Licking River. Even as an attack seemed ready to come at any moment, some of this work was done by groups well forward of the military defense’s mainline. Some worked so far out in front of the Union forces that they were nearly mistaken for the enemy.

The work of the Black Brigade continued well after the invasion threat had subsided. The brigade was disbanded on September 20, 1862. They would only be paid for their work for the second and third weeks. The Black Brigade lost one man, Joseph Johns, who was killed by a falling tree on September 17th. As a token of their appreciation for their treatment and his defense of their rights, they gave Judge Dickson an engraved sword.

Though the brigade was disbanded, it would not be the end of the war for some of them. Many would go on to serve honorably in the Union Army, some enlisting in the 54th Massachusetts Regiment made famous by the movie Glory.

The battle flag given to them by Dickson and Lupton is now in the collections of the Ohio Historical Society.

Steve Preston is the Education Director and a Curator of History at Heritage Village Museum. He received his MA in Public History from Northern Kentucky University.

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