When Confederate forces in Kentucky threatened Cincinnati in August of 1862, black residents of the city met to organize a home guard and offer their services to the defense of the city. City authorities rejected their offer, forbade further meetings, and instructed them that this was not their war. Despite this, General Lew Wallace, military commander of Cincinnati, and the man responsible for the city’s defense, intended to enroll blacks for service in the construction of defensive fortifications in northern Kentucky.
Before a plan had been drawn up by Wallace and his staff for the employment of blacks in this work, police on September 2nd began forcibly rounding up male African American citizens, many roughly abducted from their homes or workplaces without explanation, and took them across the river where they were put to work. Assigned to tasks piecemeal, the rough treatment of the men continued as they labored. Some of the men were marched off at bayonet point to serve as camp cooks or servants. The Cincinnati Daily Gazette was the only local newspaper to denounce the treatment of the blacks and call for them to be “treated like men”.
General Wallace, alarmed at the reports of the treatment of the men, selected local judge William Martin Dickson and asked him to take command of the situation. Dickson, known for his fairness and ability, immediately undertook the assembly of the men into a single body. He visited the camps of the various regiments and removed any of the black men who had been seized, and brought them back. He then let the approximately 400 men return to their homes and families to make preparations for continued service commencing the following day. The next morning, September 5th, about 700 African American men voluntarily reported for duty.
William Martin Dickson
Portrait Collection Cincinnati History Library and Archives
Cincinnati Museum Center
Organizing the men along military lines and christening them the Black Brigade, Dickson and the unit marched across the river under the National flag and commenced the hard work of digging rifle pits, clearing trees, and building forts, magazines, and roads. The Black Brigade often conducted its work nearly a mile in front of the lines. The force continued its labors until the 20th of September when the threat to Cincinnati had finally subsided. Only in the second week did the men begin to receive pay for their service. The effort to protect the city cost one Black Brigade member his life when a falling tree hit and killed Joseph Johns on September 17th.
Preparations for Defense at Cincinnati
Sketch by H. Mosler,
Harper’s Weekly, September 20, 1862, p.597
Cincinnati History Library and Archives, Cincinnati Museum Center
On the afternoon of September 20th, as the Black Brigade was disbanded, its members presented Judge Dickson with an engraved sword as a symbol of their esteem. In response Judge Dickson commented, “You have finished the work assigned to you upon the fortifications for the defense of the city.....you have labored cheerfully and effectively. Go to your homes with the consciousness of having performed your duty.....and bearing with you the gratitude and respect of all honorable men.”
Many members of the Black Brigade later served in the Union Army, some in the famous 54th Massachusetts Regiment. It is believed that the Black Brigade was the first case of African Americans being organized and utilized for military purposes in the North.
To learn more about the Black Brigade,
consult the following resources:
The Siege of Cincinnati by a Pearl Street Rifle
By Louis J. Tucker, editor,
in the Bulletin of the Historical and Philosophical Society of Ohio, Vol. 20, No. 4. October 1962, pages 255‑273.
General 906 H673B View article (PDF)
Centennial History of Cincinnati and Representative Citizens
By Charles Theodore Greve
General f977.14 G837
See Vol. 1, pages 832‑834 and Vol. 2, pages 377‑378.
View catalog recordRequest slip
The Black Brigade
in the Cincinnati Daily Commercial, September 22, 1862
General 071.771.fC5cr Request slip
The Colored Brigade
in the Cincinnati Daily Gazette, September 4, 1862, page 2
General 071.771 fC5g Request slip