The Black Brigade

Ohio Historical Marker titled, 'The Black Brigade of Cincinnati'

According to the description, ‘Judge William Martin Dickson, who favored enlisting black soldiers in the Union Army, assumed command of the brigade, composed of 1,000 African American volunteers determined to fight to end slavery. From September 2-20, they cleared forests and built military roads, rifle pits, and fortifications. Receiving deserved praise for their labor, the unit disbanded when the Confederate forces no longer imperiled the city.’

This version of the story is incomplete and in its omission, misleading.

The sign is toward the east end of Sawyer Point Park. But if you go a mile west, to the part of the park opposite the Moerlein Lager House, you’ll come to a larger memorial.

There are a series of sculptured plaques interspersed with poetry.

On September 2, 1862, when white volunteers enlisted, black residents were told they were not welcome.

Panel from The Black Brigade memorial, showing white men enlisting
The Black Brigade Monument in Smale Riverfront Park, Cincinnati OH (2012)

White shopkeepers,

farmers, traders

have assembled

of their own accord,

under one flag

with one sword.

But we are not welcome

to defend our home

because our skin

is black.

– Tyrone Williams

Then, on September 3rd, the ‘locally organized Provost Guard’ forcibly pressed Black men into service by whatever means necessary. Hundreds of Cincinnati’s Black residents were dragged from their homes.

Panel from The Black Brigade memorial, showing a Black man being hauled from his home, while his wife and children look on in horror
© John Hebenstreit

Who are you?

What do you want?

My husband is

a free man!

Leave him be!

Where are you

taking him?

My God! My God!

Somebody help us!

– Tyrone Williams

The men were herded into mule pens on the banks of the Ohio River and ordered to squat. The guards were told, “Shoot the first one who rises.”

Panel from The Black Brigade memorial, showing Black men squatting in a pen while white guards oppress them
© John Hebenstreit

Don’t sit.

Don’t stand.

We can only

crouch, hunker.

Halfway positions,

halfway men.

Not slaves,

not yet free.

– Tyrone Williams

The Cincinnati Daily Gazette published news of the atrocity and the result was that ‘the men are immediately returned to their homes to allay the fears of their families and to prepare themselves for voluntary service. Those who are willing are asked to report at five o’clock the next morning…’

Return these men

to the free state

of Ohio.

Return them to

work and family,

free to remain

at home or to

return here.

– Tyrone Williams

The next morning, ‘over seven hundred men report for duty, three hundred more than had been previously abducted by the Provost Guard.’

Panel from The Black Brigade memorial, showing The Black Brigade preparing to make fortifications
© John Hebenstreit

We return on

this new morning,

twice as many

strong.

Ready to defend

our city and home.

Ready to safeguard

our families

and future.

Ready to believe

in unity.

– Tyrone Williams

When the Confederate troops arrived, they noted the overwhelming fortifications.

A grey cap

with field glasses

scans the front line,

stops on me.

I stare back

I want to shout

“Black men

built these forts!”

– Tyrone Williams

The Confederate forces withdrew on September 13th.

Panel from The Black Brigade memorial, showing The Black Brigade in a parade in downtown Cincinnati
© John Hebenstreit

We left as men,

returned as heroes

to doffed hats,

waving hands.

Cheered by the

colorful crowd at

Fifth and Broadway,

we are citizens

knighted by a

sword not used.

– Tyrone Williams

Perspective

Artwork from The New York Times that says, "You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body Is a Confederate Monument The black people I come from were owned and raped by the white people I come from. Who dares t tell me to celebrate them?"

Caroline Randall Williams, The New York Times

Chewing the Cud of Good

Photo from inside the Castle of Air, showing a patch of sky with a bright sun and tops of trees, surrounded by blackness
Castle of Air, Peter Haimerl

Thankful for evolving attitudes around what should be memorialized and what should not.

2 thoughts on “The Black Brigade”

  1. This is a powerful story, and thank you for sharing it. I’m glad Cincinnati has the plaques to teach us.

    1. Chris, I’m proud of Cincinnati for building the monument but… 150 years? That’s a long time to wait to recognize an atrocity. Then again, that’s what the country is debating right now, isn’t it?

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