Friday, September 18, 2015

Black Brigade of Cincinnati

William Martin Dickson, in charge of the Black Brigade, courtesy cincymuseum.org

It would not be September if I did not make at least one post discussing some aspect of the Siege of Cincinnati of September 1862. One of the more interesting aspects of it was the creation of the Black Brigade of Cincinnati. This link came up in my Facebook memories a couple days ago and I thought it was worth sharing again, with a bit more discussion of it then I had gone before.

This booklet is very informative and interesting reading. It seems to repeat the same information a bit as some of what it describes at the start seems to be taken from William Martin Dickson's report, which it prints in its entirety. The writer was obviously sympathetic towards the men, especially regarding Cincinnati's racial climate and the issues it caused for them, so it may not be the most objective viewpoint. Also, Dickson probably prepared his report his own self-interests in mind and to present himself in the best light, like many officers did. He did not write it until almost 18 months after the siege occurred, so questions of his memory (or of how thorough his existing notes were) of the exact details are probably fair as well.

With that said, this still is a valuable resource, providing a fairly timely perspective (2 years after the brigade's creation and while the war was ongoing - perhaps some of the details are not exact, but the main narrative should be reliable) on the existence of this group, particularly in describing the areas where they worked and some of the challenges the men faced, such as being impressed by the white troops or a near friendly-fire incident. I have seen this group mentioned occasionally in period newspapers, but not very often, and since they were not a government-sanctioned military body, like later regiments of African-American soldiers, and only together temporarily for a local emergency, they were not a frequent part of official military records besides Dickson's. That makes this booklet even more valuable.

It mentioned there were few disciplinary issues, but did not offer any specifics. The local Cincinnati Enquirer helps here with a brief mention on September 5, 1862, in its  "Newport News" (referring to news in Newport, Ky.) section: "Deserters - A couple of members of the “negro brigade” deserted yesterday, but were subsequently captured and lodged in jail"

All of this occurred before even the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation was issued and before the United States allowed African Americans to enlist as soldiers, so it was a progressive step, especially in a city so close to the south and slavery as Cincinnati. The men were not permitted to take up arms, had to face poor treatment when trying to volunteer and even from some of their white colleagues, but they were paid, even the same amount as white laborers by the time their service ended. It certainly did not end discrimination or slavery but was an early example of the willingness and ability of African-Americans to help defend their homes and face potentially dangerous situations.

The immediate Cincinnati area did not experience a major battle during the Civil War. The "Siege of Cincinnati" was the closest it came to such, along with John Hunt Morgan's "Great Raid" of 1863. The siege was a major threat to this important trading city, the 6th largest in the country at the time. During the War, Cincinnati provided storage for supplies like tents and food, and even had a ship-building industry along the river. A couple minor skirmishes took place, but the quick gathering of tens of thousands of local militia, including the Black Brigade, to build and man a series of batteries and fortifications in Northern Kentucky helped prevent any major fighting.(Ironically, most of the defenses of 
Cincinnati were actually in Northern Kentucky, much like the current "Greater Cincinnati" airport is.)

The Black Brigade has received more recognition in recent years, including a statue dedicated along the riverfront a few years ago and occasional newspaper mentions. The existence of the National Underground Railroad Museum (aka the "Freedom Center") has helped as well. Hopefully it's contributions will continue to gain recognition for the loyalty and bravery of its men. It is certainly a tale worth reading, remembering and sharing. Perhaps future studies will uncover more of their story and maybe I will be able to share this'd discoveries too.


Black Brigade statue, Cincinnati, courtesy wvxu.org

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