The Black Brigade of Cincinnati

Alexandra Lightle

During the summer of 1862, (a little more than a year after the start of the Civil War) the Confederate Troops were pushing further north than ever before. In August of that same year, citizens of Cincinnati, which was Ohioís greatest metropolitan city at the time, felt the threat of war hit close to home. The Confederate troops had defeated Union troops in Richmond, Kentucky, and appeared to be moving further north into Ohio. Governor David Tod called upon all loyal Ohioans to help defend their southern borders. 15,766 white males reported for duty, and these minutemen earned the nickname "The Squirrel Hunters." These men were honored by the government for their bravery and service. All members of the Squirrel Hunters received a printed discharge, one months pay ($13.00), and their name recorded by the Adjutant Generals Office. These men helped resist attack on Cincinnati; however, they couldnít have done it alone.

The Black Brigade of Cincinnati played a significant role in causing Confederate Troops to retreat. Yet, they arenít given the same recognition as The Squirrel Hunters. This may be due to the fact the Civil War was considered a "white manís war" until Abraham Lincolnís emancipation of the slaves in September 1863. The Black Brigade consisted of 706 black males who were violently and brutally forced from their homes, work, and farms by Cincinnati Police. The forcefulness of the police is often blamed on Cincinnati Mayor George Hatch, who was rumored to have little opposition against the Confederate Army, and didnít want help from the colored citizens. However, against Hatchís wishes, General Lew Wallace ordered every able-bodied man to come together to protect the Queen City. The African- American men who were taken by the police were held overnight in a mule-pen with no way of contacting their families. The next day (Sept. 3) General Wallace appointed William Martin Dickson, a 34-year-old lawyer, to be in command of the Black Brigade. Dickson found his troops laboring at Fort Mitchell. They were weary, anxious about their families, and the cruel treatment they had received the night before. "Colonel" Dickson sent them home with orders to report back to him the next day at 5:00 a.m.

On September 4, approx. 700 black men reported for duty. These men served their community as if they had been formally sworn into the Army of Ohio. In reality however, these men were not an official military organization, but merely a working party that was divided into three small regiments and seventeen companies. These men marched under a flag bearing the name "The Black Brigade of Cincinnati," which is what they were called henceforth. The flag was the first to ever wave over colored soldiers helping to defend the free state of Ohio.

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.

In the legislative year of 2003, a bill will be presented to Ohioís Legislature asking that the same recognition that was given to the Squirrel Hunters be extended to the Black Brigade, who played an important and significant role in Cincinnati, as well as Ohioís history.

 

Maintained by the Washington Research History Class

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