Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Black Brigade: Violent beginning, valiant end

City of Cincinnati on September 27, 1862. Visit Sons of the South

When Union forces were defeated at Richmond, Kentucky on August 30, 1862, Cincinnati, Ohio lay vulnerable to an attack by rebel forces.  There was no one to defend Cincinnati.  When Fort Sumter fell, citizens of Cincinnati and African Americans of Cincinnati began meeting for the purpose of defending the city should the need arise.

They organized the "Home Guard" which incited certain citizens of Cincinnati, and the police took the keys of the schoolhouse.  When they selected a different location, they were required to take down the American flag because they were not considered citizens.  They were discouraged from getting involved in a war that mobs believed did not concern them.

Eventually on September 1, 1862, the city was put under martial law by General Lewis Wallace calling for laborers and soldiers to secure the city.  Mayor George Hatch called on all citizens and aliens to come to the voting places to enroll.  African Americans did not vote at that time so they had to place to report, and they believed as they had been previously told to stay out of the business of the war.

They did not know the reference to aliens meant them.  They were violently and forcibly removed from their home by the Cincinnati police without notice and herded across the river to a mule pen at the point of bayonet.  No explanation was given to family members.  No time was allowed to prepare supplies for living in an outdoor camp.  The African American troops were concerned that they were getting dangerously close to the Kentucky border where they could be captured and forced into slavery.

The Gazette published the following protest:

"Let our colored fellow-soldiers be treated civilly, and not exposed to any unnecessary tyranny, nor to the insults a race which they profess to regard as inferior.  It would have been decent to have invited the colored inhabitants to turn out in defense of the city.  Then there would have been an opportunity to compare their patriotism with that of those who were recently trying to drive them from the city.  Since the services of men are required from our colored brethren, let them be treated like men."  See Ohio Genealogy Express.
General Wallace was apprised of the situation, and on September 4, 1862, he sent William M. Dickson, a 34 year old lawyer to take command of the African American forces at Fort Mitchell.  General Wallace knew that Dickson would treat the African Americans fairly.

After arriving at Fort Mitchell, Colonel Dickson sent relieved the police and sent the troops home to ease their families and adequately prepare to return the next day. They were presented a national flag with the inscription, "The Black Brigade of Cincinnati" by Captain Lupton, assistant to Colonel Dickson: 

"I have the kind permission of your commandant, Colonel Dickson, to hand you, without formal speech or presentation, this national flag - my sole object to encourage and cheer you on to duty.  On its broad folds is inscribed, 'THE BLACK BRIGADE OF CINCINNATI.'  I am confident that, in your hands, it will not be dishonored.
    "The duty of the hour is work - hard, severe labor on the fortifications of the city.  In the emergency upon us, the highest and the lowest alike owe this duty.  Let it be cheerfully undertaken.  He is no man who now in defense of home and fireside, shirks duty.
    "A flag is the emblem of sovereignty - a symbol and guarantee of protection.  Every nation and people are proud of the flag of their country.  England, for a thousand years, boasts her Red flag and Cross of St. George;  France glories in her Tri-color and Imperial Eagle; ours the 'Star-spangled Banner,' far more beautiful than they - this dear old flag! - the sun in heaven never looked down on so proud a banner of beauty and glory.  Men of the Black Brigade, rally around it!  Assert your manhood, be loyal to duty, be obedient, hopeful, patient.  Slavery will soon die; the slaveholders' rebellion, accursed of God and man, will shortly and miserably perish.  There will then be, through all the coming ages, in a very truth, a land of the free - one country, one flag, one destiny.
    "I charge you, Men of the Black Brigade of Cincinnati, remember that for you, and for me, and for your children, and your children's children, there is but one Flag, as there is but one Bible, and one GOD, the Father of us all." See Ohio Genealogy Express.
The Black Brigade became the first group of African American troops in the North to be employed by the military.  They were a group of at least 1000 men, but records have been lost and only 706 are known.  See the Muster Roll of the Black Brigade of Cincinnati.

The men of the Black Brigade performed many jobs in defending Cincinnati. The main tasks they were in charge of were making military roads, digging trenches and riffle-pits, felling forests, and building forts and magazines. During their first week of service, The Black Brigade received no compensation for their labor. The second week they were given $1.00 per day, and the third week they received $1.50 per day. They never actually participated in combat; however, at one point they were only a mile away from the line of battle, unarmed, with only the cavalry between them and the Confederate troops. There was only one casualty among the Black Brigade, which was an accident that occurred while cutting down trees. By September 11, Confederate troops were retreating back into Kentucky. During a speech, General Wallace declared, "When the history of Cincinnati during the past two weeks comes to be written up, it will be said that it was the spades and not the guns that saved the city from attack by the Rebels."

By September 20, the Black Brigade was sent back home to their families. They presented Dickson with a ceremonial sword to thank him for his leadership and kindness. Colonel Dickson accepted the gift and led his troops through the streets of Cincinnati proudly, with music playing and banners flying. After their service to the Black Brigade many of those men went on to become part of colored regiments for the Union Army. In fact, Powhatan Beaty, member of the Black Brigade was one of less than twenty African-American men to receive a Congressional Medal of Honor for his service and bravery in the U.S. Army. The men who so readily helped defend Cincinnati went unnoticed for the most part. The white troops, the Squirrel Hunters, have been honored by the state. However one of the most important rolls in defending Cincinnati too often goes unnoticed. See Black Brigade of Cincinnati.
 During this point of the war, African Americans were not allowed to serve from Ohio, so members of the Black Brigade went on to serve in different regiments on different battlefields.

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