A Brief History of the Black Brigade and Powhatan Beaty
The Siege of Cincinnati in September of 1862 represents a time when the community came
together in a crisis. Local men and soldiers worked together to erect an eight-mile defensive
line from Ludlow to Fort Thomas to defend against the Confederate invasion of Kentucky.
Men dug rifle pits, erected forts, and cut trees for a clear field of fire using the tree limbs as
barriers against infantry. This defensive effort resulted in a great victory when 8,000
Confederate soldiers marched to within a few miles of Fort Mitchel, known today as Fort Mitchell, observed for
two days, and decided that the defenses, manned by 22,000 Union troops and 50,000 local militia, were too
strong. The Confederate invaders withdrew into the night.
After the declaration of martial law on September 2, 1862, Cincinnati Mayor George Hatch ordered the police
department to gather any and all able-bodied African-American males for work on fatigue duty on the
fortifications in Northern Kentucky. Men were driven from their homes and businesses by bayonet point to a
mule pen on Plum Street in Cincinnati. After hours of solitude, the men were taken as a group across the Ohio
River to begin work on the earthwork fortifications. This group became known as the Black Brigade of
Cincinnati. Union General Lew Wallace, who later would go on to write the novel Ben-Hur, learned about the
poor treatment of the men. On September 4, 1862, he commissioned Judge William Martin Dickson as
commander of the Black Brigade.
After receiving his appointment, Colonel Dickson changed the brigade into a working regiment. On the evening
of September 4, 1862, Dickson dismissed the men to tend to their families as well as gather personal supplies for
the days of work ahead. He promised them that he was forming the brigade for fatigue duty and they “should
be kept together as a distinct body, . . . that they should receive the same protection and the same treatments
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. . . .” In return for these promises, Dickson expected the men to
meet the next morning for work on the defensive fortifications. In his official report to Ohio Governor John
Brough in 1865, Dickson stated that around 400 men were present when he dismissed the brigade on September
4, 1862. The next day over 700 men reported ready for duty!
For 18 days, the brave men of the Black Brigade worked on the fortifications in Northern Kentucky. Colonel
Dickson reported that they were the best workers he had ever seen. He wrote, “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 men in the service.”
After almost three weeks of grueling work, the men of the Black Brigade finished their work on the
20th of September and returned home to their families. They marched with pride through the streets of
Cincinnati and were cheered by both blacks and whites. Colonel Dickson addressed them for the last
time in Cincinnati. He thanked them by proclaiming:
. . . You have labored faithfully; 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 receive, the protection of
the law, and bearing with you the gratitude and respect of all honorable men.
Many of the men within the Black Brigade were inspired to join the Union army after the Black Brigade was
dismantled. After the Emancipation Proclamation took effect on January 1, 1863, millions of African-
Americans found an opportunity to serve their country. By the summer of 1863, African-American regiments
had been mustered into the Union army and many of them would later become immortalized for their efforts to
change the course of the war.
One member of the Black Brigade found fame and glory during the Civil War. Powhatan Beaty was born in
Richmond, Virginia and moved with his family to Cincinnati in 1849, where he
spent the majority of his life. After serving in the Black Brigade, Powhatan Beaty
enlisted as a private in Company G, of the 5th United States Colored Troops
(USCT) on June 7, 1863. He was a 24-year-old farmer when he enlisted and stood
5' 7" tall. Powhatan Beaty was promoted to the rank of First Sergeant on June 9,
1863 at Camp Delaware, Ohio, just two days after enlisting. Beaty earned the
Medal of Honor, one of only 20 African-Americans soldiers to do so in the Civil
War, for bravery shown during a battle at Chaffin's Farm (Fort Harrison), VA on
September 29, 1864. His citation reads Beaty "took command of his company, all
the officers having been killed or wounded, and gallantly led it." The Medal of Honor was presented to
Powhatan Beaty on April 6, 1865.
Powhatan Beaty died on December 6, 1916 and is buried in the Union Baptist Cemetery in Cincinnati, Ohio
along with nearly 150 other USCT veterans.
Bartlett III, Alvin L. With “Marvelous Celerity” and Valor - A History of the Black Brigade of
Clark, Peter H. The Black Brigade of Cincinnati: Being a Report of its Labors and a Muster-Roll of its
Union Baptist Cemetery Members; Together with Various Orders, Speeches, Etc. Relating to It. Cincinnati: 1864.
Ramage, James A. “Panic in Cincinnati.” Blue and Gray Magazine, April-May 1986, 12-15.
James A. Ramage Civil War Museum
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Fort Wright, KY 41011
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