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Doc. 35.-siege of Cincinnati.

Operations of the Black brigade.

To His Excellency, John Brough, Governor of Ohio:
I beg leave to present to you, for preservation in the archives of the State, the accompanying enrolment of the “Black brigade of Cincinnati,” serving in the defence of that city in September, 1862.

This brigade was not formed under the authority of the State; but its labors were in the defence of her soil, and it seems but proper that some memory of it should be preserved in her records. The enrolment is not complete. It has seven hundred and six names, (706;) the brigade numbered about one thousand. Some three hundred of these, in the beginning of its service, and before an enrolment had been made, were assigned to various duties, in camp, on gunboats, and in the city, separate from the rest of the brigade; and their names were never obtained. But the enrolment is complete as to the body of the brigade, who for three weeks, as a separate and distinct force, labored upon the fortifications in the rear of Covington and Newport, Kentucky, opposite Cincinnati. The rank and file, and all the company officers except three, were colored men. There was no complete military formation; the nominal brigade, regimental and company organization had reference to the convenience of the service to which they were assigned. The requirements of the occasion, and the prejudices of the time, limited this to duty as a fatigue force. The colored men did not shrink from this duty; they gladly performed it: but they desired the privilege of defending themselves, and the works their hands had made, with arms. Organized companies of them, armed and equipped at their own expense, tendered their services to aid in the defence of the city. But this privilege was denied them, and they cheerfully performed the duty assigned.

The defeat of the national forces at Richmond, Kentucky, August thirtieth, 1862, opened the way for rebel invasion of that State to the Ohio River. There was no organized force to resist this; none to protect Cincinnati.

Major-General Lewis Wallace, at that time in command of the city, promptly commenced the organization of a citizen force for the protection of the city. In the morning papers of Septemtember second, there appeared an order from him, declaring martial law, suspending business, and directing the “citizens” to assemble at designated places in each ward, for military organization. It was well understood that this order was not intended to, and did not, include colored citizens. Numbers of these, however, offered themselves for any service in which they might be useful. This offer was accepted; but before any arrangement had been made for their employment, before any order had been given them, or request made of them, on the morning of the third of September, 1862, the police, acting in concert, and in obedience to some common order, in a rude and violent manner arrested the colored men wherever found — in the streets, at their places of business, in their homes — and hurried them to a mule-pen on Plum street, and thence across the river to the fortifications; giving them no explanation of this conduct, and no opportunity to prepare for camp life. This unwonted and cruel procedure filled their minds and the [311] minds of their families with alarm and terror, and called forth for them the sympathy of the citizens who witnessed it. Some of these informed General Wallace of this conduct, and remonstrated against it. He condemned it, and for the purpose of protecting the colored men and organizing them for their work, requested me to take command of them, publishing the following order:


headquarters U. S. Forces, Cincinnati, Sept. 4, 1862.
William M. Dickson is hereby assigned to the command of the negro forces from Cincinnati, working on the fortifications near Newport and Covington, and will be obeyed accordingly. By order of

Upon assuming the command, September fourth, I organized my staff, as follows:

Timothy C. Day, Assistant Adjutant-General.

J. Stacy Hill, Quartermaster.

William Woods, Commissary.

James Lupton, Volunteer Aid, Acting Camp Commandant.

Jacob Resor, Jr., James W. Cossefield, John W. Hartwell, William J. Dickson, William H. Chatfield, Alexander Neave, David A. James, Volunteer Aids.

I then proceeded to the fortifications where the colored forces were. I found them at work, on the rifle-pits and trenches about Fort Mitchel, on the Lexington road, in the rear of Covington. They had been faithfully laboring during the preceding night, and had already been commended by the engineer in charge for efficient work. They were, however, weary from long labor, and anxious about their families.

They were also alarmed because of the treatment they had received from the regiments of soldiers near them. These seemed to look upon the colored men as abandoned property, to be seized and appropriated by the first finder. They detailed squads of soldiers, who appeared among the negroes at work, selected from them the number they wanted, and at the point of the bayonet marched them off to the camps of the regiments — there to be employed as cooks, or in some menial capacity for the officers. A corporal's guard was engaged in this business when I reached Fort Mitchel.

The colored men objected to this; they justly apprehended that they might be carried off with the regiments, or abandoned in Kentucky, where their presence as freemen was one of the most grievous crimes known to that State's laws — punishable with the enslavement of them and their posterity for ever. They expressed entire willingness to labor on the fortifications under proper protection; but they desired to first return to their families, and make preparation for camp-life.

My first care was to visit the camps of all the regiments in the vicinity, and to bring from them the kidnapped colored men. Having done this and assembled them together, I marched them back to the city, to the intersection of Sixth and Broadway streets--where I established “headquarters” --reaching there about dusk. I then advised them that I designed forming them into a black brigade for fatigue duty; that they should be kept together as a distinct body and have assigned to them a given part of the fortifications for their work; that they should receive protection and the same treatment as white men; that the necessities of the hour required of them constant and severe labor; that I expected this to be cheerfully rendered, and that their sense of duty and of honor would cause them to obey with alacrity all orders given, and thus prevent the necessity of any compulsion; that at all events I would try them, and would, therefore, dismiss them to their homes, expecting every one of them to meet me the next morning promptly, at five o'clock, to proceed to the fortifications, there to remain until their labors were ended.

They received this promise of protection and fair treatment with grateful emotion, and assured me that they would endeavor to do their duty. They felt some apprehension that the police would arrest them; but as I had advised the city authorities of my action in the premises, and had received assurances that there would be no more arrests, I told them that they could go home without fear in this respect, and dismissed them. In this I was, however, mistaken. Scarcely had these men, wearied with thirty-six hours constant labor, upon half-rations, and without sleep, broken ranks, when they were set upon by the police, and numbers of them, with blows and imprecations, dragged to the nearest cells. I reported the matter to General Wallace, and bore from him to Mayor Hatch, a peremptory order prohibiting the arrest of any colored man except for crime. This opened the prison-doors, and by a late hour of the evening, with the assistance of my staff and some citizens, all the men arrested had been released and returned to their homes. This order secured them exemption from arrest for some days, until Major-General Wright assumed immediate command of the city, when, for some unknown reason — perhaps because it was thought that the removal of General Wallace from the command had annulled his orders — the police, a third time, began arresting the colored men, those to whom for sickness, or other cause, I had given passes to return to the city. I again bore a peremptory order, this time from General Wright, to Mayor Hatch, commanding him not to arrest colored men except for crime. This again opened the prison-doors, and since that time, no colored man has been arrested in the city of Cincinnati, merely because he was a colored man. Whether these arrests were made by the police, of their own volition, or in obedience to orders from superiors, I know not. Each time I delivered a peremptory order from the Commanding General to Mayor Hatch, he promised obedience to it.

The number of men dismissed on the evening of the seventh was about four hundred; on the [312] morning of the fifth, at the given hour, five o'clock, about seven hundred men reported for duty. A number of them were detailed for special duties, and about five hundred marched with me across the river to Newport, and thence to the cemetery on the Alexandria road in the rear of Newport. A handsome national flag, presented to them by Captain James Lupton, was borne in their midst; and their march was enlivened by strains of martial music, proceeding from a band formed from the ranks of their own motion. They were cheered on the way to their work by the good words of the citizens who lined the streets, and by the waving handkerchiefs of patriotic ladies. As they passed the different regiments in line of battle, proceeding to the fortifications, mutual cheers and greetings attested the good feeling between these co-workers in the same cause.

The section of work assigned to their special care lay between the Alexandria road and Licking River, along the Cemetery ridge and Threemile Creek. It embraced the making of military roads; the digging of rifle-pits and trenches; the felling of forests, and the building of forts and magazines. The men commenced their work in the rifle-pits on their arrival at Cemetery Ridge.

Every thing had to be improvised. The quartermaster and commissary departments required immediate attention, and gave most trouble; but in a few days all was in complete working order. The men discovered a special aptitude for camplife, and with grass, brush, and trees made “Camp Lupton” an agreeable summer residence. New accessions were received to the ranks every day; colored men, singly, in squads and companies, from every part of Southern Ohio, joining them, until the number exceeded seven hundred, independently of the details made for special duties. Upon the section assigned to them, they continued to labor until the twentieth. During this time they worked faithfully, always doing more than was required of them, and receiving again and again the commendation of the engineers in charge, to the effect that they were the most efficient working force in the service. There was no occasion for compulsion, and for discipline but a single instance. They labored cheerfully and joyfully. They made miles of military roads, miles of rifle-pits, felled hundreds of acres of the largest and loftiest forest trees, built forts and magazines. Some of them discovered a high order of intelligence, a ready insight into the work they were doing, making often valuable suggestions. Upon one occasion, one of them suggested a change in the engineering of a military road ascending a steep hill. The value of the change was obvious when named, and admitted by the engineer; yet he ordered the road to be made as originally planned, and deprecated further suggestion.

They committed no trespass on private property. In one instance, upon changing the camp, a German asked me if they could not remain longer, as they protected his grapes!

They were not intimidated by any danger, though compelled to labor without arms for their protection. During the few days that the soldiers stood in line of battle expecting an attack, the Black Brigade was working nearly a mile in front of the line of battle, and with nothing between it and the enemy except the cavalry scouts. Upon the occasion that it moved upon St. John's Hill, overlooking Licking Valley, so far was it in front of the line, that Colonel Jonah R. Taylor, of the Fiftieth Ohio volunteer infantry, then in command as Acting Brigadier-General of the forces nearest it, supposed it was the enemy; sounded the alarm, ordered out a battery to bear upon it, and in his trepidation actually ordered it to be fired upon; but this was prevented by the good sense of the officer in command of the battery, who refused obedience, and when pressed, fired blank cartridges, and then induced the sending of a flag of truce. This was received with becoming formality, and the fears of the redoubtable commander were allayed. The men were fully advised as to their position, but said they would go wherever they were ordered.

During the first week, they labored, as did the entire fatigue force, without compensation. During the second week, they received a dollar a day per man; and during the third week, a dollar and a half; as did, also, all the fatigue force, black and white.

Upon the twentieth, their labors were ended; the siege of Cincinnati had been raised; the banners of rebellion had receded, never to return and the men, with happy hearts, with the goodwill of soldier and citizen, returned to the city and were dismissed to their homes; and thus closed in joy and happiness a service that had been commenced with violence, in anxiety and gloom.

I was much indebted to the intelligent and efficient aid that I received from the gentlemen composing my staff — volunteers to an arduous and then thankless duty. It will not be considered by any of them an unfair discrimination, when I particularize in a single instance. To the constant attention, by day and by night, and to the discreet supervision of James Lupton, as camp commandant, the brigade was greatly indebted for its well-being and comfort.

Many of the members of the brigade have since entered the military service. Many are there still. Some have fallen, and now sleep well amid the sands of Morris Island, and of the banks of the Mississippi; others have been taken prisoners, and their fate is enshrouded in impenetrable mystery. All have done their duty.

It is to be regretted that they were not permitted to enter the service under the auspices of their own State, whose soil they had defended; but this privilege which the authorities of their State denied them, was granted them by the sagacious, patriotic, and noble Governor of the ancient commonwealth of Massachusetts.

But there has been progress; and since then numbers of the Black Brigade have entered the service in their own State. [313]

There can now, therefore, be no objection to preserving in the archives of the State, as a part of the history of the times, this enrolment of the first organization of colored men in the West for military purposes.

Respectfully yours,

William M. Dickson, Commandant of the Black Brigade. Cincinnati, January 12, 1864.

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