The Black Brigade of Cincinnati was a military unit of African-American soldiers, that was organized in 1862 during the American Civil War, when the city of Cincinnati, Ohio, was in danger of being attacked, by the Confederate Army.
When Confederate forces threatened Cincinnati in August 1862, Black residents organized a home guard and offered their services to defend the city. Authorities rejected their offer, forbade further meetings, and instructed them that this was the “White man’s war.”
General Lew Wallace, the man responsible for the city’s defense, intended to enroll Blacks to construct defensive fortifications in northern Kentucky. Before the plan was finalized, police abruptly and forcefully impressed black male residents to build fortifications, often at gunpoint and with rough treatment, and without a plan or explanation. The men were gathered and put in a mule pen on Plum Street, not knowing what would become of them and feared they might be left in Kentucky and become enslaved.
About 400 men were taken to regimental camps. They were held for two days, during which they worked continuously for 36 hours without sleep and received half rations of food. The Cincinnati Daily Gazette denounced the treatment of the Blacks, stating, “Let our colored fellow-soldiers be treated civilly” and “treated like men.”
A local judge, William Martin Dickson, visited the various regiments’ camps and removed the black men who had been seized. 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 arduous work of digging rifle pits, clearing trees, and building forts, magazines, and roads. The men return to their homes and families to prepare for continued service commencing the following day under General Wallace’s direction.
On September 5th, 700 Black men voluntarily reported for duty, including many who were securely hidden to avoid being captured by the police. In the second week, the Black Brigade soldiers received their own military unit flag and $13 a month—a Union Army private’s pay—along with various privileges, including the right to visit their families.
A total of 1000 men served the Black Brigade – 700 men built forts, magazines, and miles of military roads and breastworks along the riverfront and 300 men worked at military camps and on gunboats.
Fifteen days later, on September 20th, the Black Brigade was disbanded when there was no longer a threat to Cincinnati. When they were done, hundreds of acres of forests had been cleared and miles of rifle pits were dug to protect the city. One man, Joseph Johns, was killed when a tree fell on him.
Many Black Brigade members later served in the Union Army, some in the famous 54th Massachusetts Regiment. The Black Brigade was believed to be the first case of African Americans being organized and utilized for military purposes in the North.
In 2012, a resolution was passed within the U.S. Senate recognizing members of the Cincinnati Black Brigade as veterans. The Black Brigade monument, located in Smale Riverfront Park, pays tribute to this significant moment in Cincinnati’s social history.
The First 28, graciously sponsored by the Greater Cincinnati Foundation, celebrates Black Cincinnatians who were the first in their fields. Each day during Black History Month, we will celebrate athletes, artists, business leaders, civil rights activists, educators, physicians and politicians.
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