Cincinnati’s Black Brigade

Here’s another post about Cincinnati’s past that helped me understand its present, from July 2020.
It helps to understand the geography. Cincinnati sits on the northern bank of the Ohio River in southwest Ohio. Across the river is Kentucky. During the Civil War, when the country split in half, Ohio was in the North, and Kentucky was in the South.

Map showing location of Cincinnati in Southwest Ohio

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

According to the description on the iron marker, ‘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, along the banks of the Ohio river. 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

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.

PS: This reflective sculpture is in Cincinnati’s International Friendship Park, a gift from the city of Munich, one of Cincinnati’s ‘sister cities’ (known as ‘twin towns’ in Europe).    

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