Black Brigade Monument Commomeration
September 1862 was a dangerous time to be a resident of Cincinnati. The Confederate Army was on the move in Kentucky; heading north out of Lexington, Kentucky toward Cincinnati, Ohio. Almost an entire year before Robert E. Lee’s famous march to Gettysburg, an invasion of the North was looming and appeared imminent in the nation’s interior. The Queen City (Cincinnati), the sixth largest city in the United States in 1860, was in danger of falling into Confederate hands, further endangering the Union’s hopes of winning the war.
In an effort to defend the city, several hundred free African Americans were forcibly consripted into service for the purpose of building fortifications in the hills of Northern Kentucky. This group would become known as the Black Brigade.
As the Confederate Army moved north toward Cincinnati, martial law was declared on September 2 as a way to maintain order and reduce panic in the city. The following day, approximately 400 of the city’s free African-American population were rounded up at bayonet point and placed in a holding pen on Plum Street. After several hours they were forced to march across the Ohio River on a pontoon bridge into Northern Kentucky and pressed into service in preparation for the defense of Cincinnati.
Once on the Kentucky side, these African Americans were mistreated by the Union officers stationed there; forced to perform kitchen duties, latrine dutes, and many other menial tasks as well as enduring verbal abuse from the officers. General Lew Wallace took charge of the situation, condeming the treatment the men were receiving, and he appointed Judge William Dickson to command the group. Dickson sent everyone home to gather their personal effects and to see their families with the condition that they report back to Northern Kentucky the following morning for duty. He promised them respectful treatment and designated them as the Black Brigade of Cincinnati; stating that they “should be kept together as a distinct body…that they should receive protection and the same treatment as white men…and that their sense of duty and honor would cause them to obey all orders given, and thus prevent the necessity of any compulsion…” The newly formed unit went back to Cincinnati that night with a feeling of purpose and a sense of pride. While 400 men went home that night, 700 ultimately reported for duty the next morning!
Encamped at Camp Lupton on the Licking River in Campbell County, the Black Brigade of Cincinnati labored for three weeks building fortifications and digging trenches in and around the hills of Northern Kentucky, completing their assignment on September 20. Colonel Dickson gave the brigade high praise for their efforts, and he even stated that they were the best workers he had ever seen. Spotting the heavily fortified hills as they approached, the Confederate troops made a hasty retreat withdrawing from the region without setting foot in Ohio. The invasion had been deterred, Cincinnati was safe, and no other large scale offensives into Ohio would be attempted for the reminder of the war.
Upon their return to the Queen City, the Black Brigade of Cincinnati was welcomed by cheering crowds, both black and white, who were grateful for the courage and sacrifice displayed by this group of African-American men. As they were being dismissed, Colonel Dickson addressed them, and delivered these heartfelt words: “You have labored faithfuly; you have made miles of military roads, miles of rifle pits, felled hundreds of acres of the largest and loftiest forest trees, built magazines and forts. The hills across yonder river will be a perpetual monument of your labors…Go to your homes with the consciousness of having performed your duty — of deserving, if you do not recieve, the protection of the law, and bearing with you the graditude and respect of all honorable men.”
Several memebers of Black Brigade of Cincinnati went on to serve in the newly formed United States Colored Troops regiments, including Powhatan Beaty, who became a 1st Sergeant in the 5th UCST and earned the Congressional Medal of Honor. Many who served also had successful careers following the war, including Peter Fossett, a former slave who was the pastor at the First Baptist Church in the Cincinnati neighborhood of Cumminsville for 34 years; and Dangerfield Early, who served as the pastor of the Walnut Hills Baptist Church, and who founded a school for African American children that would become the Douglas School.
The Black Brigade of Cincinnati saved the city from invasion in September 1862. However, their legacy reaches far beyond the actual events that took place. Through their efforts, racial barriers began to be breached; military integration became a greater reality, and ultimately this group of African Americans probably helpted to save the Union.
On Sunday, September 9, 2012, the Cincinnati Park Board and the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center will host the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Black Briade of Cincinnati. The main ceremony is scheduled to take place at 5:30 p.m. at the Black Brigade Monument in Smale Riverfront Park, but the entire day will be filled with exciting events and activities that the entire family will enjoy. A timeline of the day’s activities complete with a brief description is listed below.
11 a.m. – 5 p.m. – The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, a community partner for the event, will open to the public for a discounted admission of $5.00 per person ($7 off normal adult admission). Throughout the day, visitors to the Freedom Center will be able to view artifacts from the Black Brigade, and watch films on the story of the Black Brigade as well as the construction of the monument, experience a hands-on Civil War encampment, and much more!
4:30 p.m. – Information booths will be open in Smale Park near the monument for people to learn more about many of the local community organziations, including the Cincinnati Park Board, the Freedom Center, Cincinnati Civil War Roundtable, the National Park Service and more. Also, re-enactors will be around the mounument to help bring the story to life!
5:30 p.m. – The commemoration ceremony will take place at the Black Brigade of Cincinnati Monument.
7 p.m. – The Cincinnati Pops Orchestra will perform on the Schmidlapp Event Lawn, located between the Black Brigade Monument and the Freedom Center.
The commemoration and the concert are free and open to the public. Guests are encouraged to bring blankets, lawn chairs and picnic items if desired. Visitors can also purhcase food from outdoor concessions that will be set up adjacent to the Moerlein Lager House and the Schmidlapp Event Lawn.
For more information on the Black Brigade of Cincinnati, go to https://mysmaleriverfrontpark.org/black-brigade.htm and https://freedomcenter.org/freedom-forum/index.php/civi-war-150/black-brigade-cincinnati/