The Black Brigade of Cincinnati
The Great Fright.
Cruel Treatment of the Colored People by the Police.
Bill Homer and his Roughs.
SOURCE: William Wells Brown. THE NEGRO IN THE AMERICAN REBELLION: His Heroism and his Fidelity. Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1867. Reprinted from the original edition in the Wesleyan University Library by Kraus Reprint Co., New York, 1969.
HATRED to the negro is characteristic of the people of Cincinnati; more so, probably, than any other city in the West. Mobs in which the colored citizens have been the victims have more than once occurred in that place, to the utter disgrace of its white inhabitants, --- mobs resulting often in the loss of life, and always in the destruction of property. The raid of John Morgan in the month of July, 1862, and, soon after, the defeat of the Union troops in Kentucky, had given warning of impending danger. This feeling of fear culminated on the first of September, in the mayor of Cincinnati calling on the people to organize and prepare for the defence of the city, in the following proclamation: -
"MAYOR'S OFFICE, City Of Cincinnati.
"In accordance with a resolution passed by the City Council of Cincinnati on the first instant, I hereby request that all business of every kind or character be suspended at ten o'clock of this day, and that all persons, employers and employees, assemble in their respective wards, at the usual places of voting, and then and there organize themselves in such manner as may be thought best for the defence of the city. Every man, of every age, be he citizen or alien, who lives under the protection of our laws, is expected to take part in the organization.
" Witness my hand, and the corporate seal of the city of Cincinnati, this second day of September, A.D. 1862.
"GEORGE HATCH, Mayor."
At two o'clock on the morning of the same day, the mayor issued another proclamation, notifying the citizens that the police force would perform the duty of a provost-guard, under the direction of Gen. Wallace. The mayor's proclamation, under ordinary circumstances, would be explicit enough. " Every man, of every age, be he citizen or alien," surely meant the colored people. A number thought themselves included in the call; but, remembering the ill-will excited by former offers for home defence, they feared to come forward for enrolment. The proclamation ordered the people to assemble " in the respective wards, at the usual places of voting." The colored people had no places of voting. Added to this, George Hatch was the same mayor who had broken up the movement for home defence, before mentioned. Seeking to test the matter, a policeman was approached, as he strutted in his new dignity of provost guard. To the question, humbly, almost tremblingly, put, "Does the mayor desire colored men to report for service in the city's defence? " he replied, "You know d----d well he doesn't mean you. N----rs ain't citizens."-- -"But he calls on all, citizens and aliens. If he does not mean all, he should not say so." --" The mayor knows as well as you do what to write, and all he wants is for you n----rs to keep quiet." This was at nine o'clock on the morning of the second. The military authorities had determined, however, to impress the colored men for work upon the fortifications. The privilege of volunteering, extended to others, was to be denied to them. Permission to volunteer would imply some freedom, some dignity, some independent. manhood. For this the commanding officer is alone chargeable.
If the guard appointed to the duty of collecting the colored people had gone to their houses, and notified them to report for duty on the fortifications, the order would have been cheerfully obeyed. But the brutal ruffians who composed the regular and special police took every opportunity to inflict abuse and insult upon the men whom they arrested. The special police was entirely composed of that class of the population, which, only a month before, had combined to massacre the colored population, and were only prevented from committing great excesses by the fact that John Morgan, with his rough riders, had galloped to within forty miles of the river, when the respectable citizens, fearing that the disloyal element within might combine with the raiders without, and give the city over to pillage, called a meeting on 'Change, and demanded that the riot be stopped. The special police was, in fact, composed of a class too cowardly or too traitorous to aid, honestly and manfully in the defence of the city. They went from house to house, followed by a gang of rude, foul-mouthed boys. Closets, cellars, and garrets were searched; bayonets were thrust into beds and bedding; old and young, sick and well, were dragged out, and, amidst shouts and jeers, marched like felons to the pen on Plum Street, opposite the Cathedral. No time was given to prepare for camp life; in most cases no information was given of the purpose for which the men were impressed. The only answers to questions were curses, and a brutal "Come along now; you will find out time enough." Had the city been captured by the Confederates, the colored people would have suffered no more than they did at the hands of these defenders. Tuesday night, Sept. 2, was a sad night to the colored people of Cincinnati. The greater part of the male population had been dragged from home, across the river, but where, and for what, none could tell.
The captain of these conscripting squads was one William Homer, and in him organized ruffianism had its fitting head. He exhibited the brutal malignity of his nature in a continued series of petty tyrannies. Among the first squads marched into the yard was one which had to wait several hours before being ordered across the river. Seeking to make themselves as comfortable as possible, they had collected blocks of wood, and piled up bricks, upon which they seated themselves on the shaded side of the yard. Coming into the yard, he ordered all to rise, marched them to another part, then issued the order, "D---n you, squat." Turning to the guard, he added, "Shoot the first one who rises." Reaching the opposite side of the river, the same squad were marched from the sidewalk into the middle of the dusty road, and again the order, "D---n you, squat," and the command to shoot the first one who should rise.
The drill of this guard of white ruffians was unique, and not set down in either Scott or Hardee. Calling up his men, he would address them thus: "Now, you fellows, hold up your heads. Pat, hold up your musket straight; don't put your tongue out so far; keep your eyes open: I believe you are drunk. Now, then, want you fellows to go out of this pen, and bring all the n----rs you can catch. Don't come back here without n----rs: if you do, you shall not have a bit of grog. Now be off, you shabby cusses, and come back in forty minutes, and bring me n----rs; that's what I want." This barbarous and inhuman treatment of the colored citizens of Cincinnati continued for four days, without a single word of remonstrance, except from: the " Gazette."
Finally, Col. Dickson, a humane man and gentlemanly officer, was appointed to the command of the "Black Brigade," and brutality gave way to kind treatment. The men were permitted to return to their homes, to allay the fears of their families, and to prepare themselves the better for camp-life. The police were relieved of provost guard duty, and on Friday morning more men reported for duty than had been dragged together by the police. Many had hidden too securely to be found; others had escaped to the country. These now came forward to aid in the city's defence. With augmented numbers, and glowing with enthusiasm, the Black Brigade marched to their duty. Receiving the treatment of men, they were ready for any thing. Being in line of march, they were presented with a national flag by Capt. Lupton, who accompanied it with the following address: -
"I have the kind permission of your commandant, Col. Dickson, to hand you, without formal speech or presentation, this national flag, -- my sole object to encourage and cheer you on to duty. On its broad folds is inscribed, 'THE BLACK BRIGADE OF CINCINNATI.' I am confident, that, in your hands, it will not be dishonored.
" The duty of the hour is work, -- hard, severe labor on the fortifications of the city. In the emergency upon us, the highest and the lowest alike owe this duty. Let it be cheerfully undertaken. He is no man who now, in defence of home and fireside, shirks duty.
"A flag is the emblem of sovereignty - a symbol and guarantee of protection. Every nation and people are proud of the flag of their country. England, for a thousand years boasts her Red flag and Cross of St. George; France glories in her Tri-color and Imperial Eagle; ours the 'Star-spangled Banner,' far more beautiful than they - this dear old flag! - the sun in heaven never looked down on so proud a banner of beauty and glory. Men of the Black Brigade, rally around it! Assert your manhood, be loyal to duty, be obedient, hopeful, patient. Slavery will soon die; the slaveholders' rebellion, accursed of God and man, will shortly and miserably perish. There will then be, through all the coming ages, in very truth, a land of the free - one country, one flag, one destiny.
I charge you, men of the Black Brigade of Cincinnati, remember that for you, and for me, and for your children, and your children's children, there is but one Flag, as there is but one Bible, and one God, the Father of us all."
Fur nearly three weeks the Black Brigade labored upon the fortification, their services beginning, as we have seen, Sept. 2, and terminating Sept. 20.
When the brigade was mustered out, the commander thanked them in the following eloquent terms:--
"SOLDIERS OF THE BLACK BRIGADE! YOU have finished the work assigned to you upon the fortifications for the defence of the city. You are now to be discharged. 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. You have, in no spirit of bravado, in no defiance of established prejudice, but in submission to it, intimated to me your willingness to defend with your lives the fortifications your hands have built. Organized companies of men of your race have tendered their services to aid in the defence of the city. In obedience to the policy of the Government, the authorities have denied you this privilege. In the department of labor permitted, you have, however, rendered a willing and cheerful service. Nor has your zeal been dampened by the cruel treatment received. The citizens, of both sexes, have encouraged you with their smiles and words of approbation; the soldiers have welcomed you as co-laborers in the same great cause. But a portion of the police, ruffians in character, early learning that your services were accepted, and seeking to deprive you of the honor of voluntary labor, before opportunity was given you to proceed to the field, rudely seized you in the streets, in your places of business, in your homes, everywhere, hurried you into filthy pens, thence across the river to the fortifications, not permitting you to make any preparation for camp-life. You have borne this with the accustomed patience of your race; and when, under more favorable auspices, you have received only the protection due to a, common humanity, you have labored cheerfully and effectively.
" 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. You have learned to suffer and to wait; but, in your hours of adversity, remember that the same God who has numbered the hairs of our heads, who watches over even the fate of a sparrow, is the God of your race as well as mine. The sweat-blood which the nation is now shedding at every pore is an awful warning of how fearful a thing it is to oppress the humblest being."
A letter in "The Tribune," dated Cincinnati, Sept. 7, giving an account of the enthusiasm of the people in rallying for the city's defence, says, While all have done well, the negroes, as a class, must bear away the palm. When martial law was declared, a few prominent colored men tendered their services in any capacity desired. As soon as it became known that they would be accepted, Mayor Hatch's police commenced arresting them everywhere, dragging them away from their houses and places of business without a moment's notice, shutting them up in negro-pens, and subjecting them to the grossest abuse and indignity. Mr. Hatch is charged with secession proclivities. During the recent riots against the negroes, the animus of his police was entirely hostile to them, and many outrages were committed upon that helpless and unoffending class. On this occasion, the same course was pursued. No opportunity was afforded the negro to volunteer; but they were treated as public enemies. They were taken over the river, ostensibly to work upon the fortification; but were scattered, detailed as cooks for white regiments, some of them half-starved, and all so much abused that it finally caused a great outcry. When Gen. Wallace's attention was called to the matter, he requested Judge William M. Dickson, a prominent citizen, who is related by marriage to President Lincoln, to take the whole matter in charge. Judge Dickson undertook the thankless task: organized the negroes into two regiments of three hundred each, made the proper provision for their comfort, and set them at work upon the trenches. They have accomplished more than any other six hundred of the whole eight thousand men upon the fortifications. Their work has been entirely voluntary. Judge Dickson informed them at the outset that all could go home who chose; that it must he entirely a labor of love with them. Only one man of the whole number has availed himself of the privilege; the rest have all worked cheerfully and efficiently. One of the regiments is officered by white captains, the other by negroes. The latter proved so decidedly superior that both regiments will hereafter be commanded by officers of their own race. They are not only working, but drilling; and they already go through some of the simpler military movements very creditably. Wherever they appear, they are cheered by our troops. Last night, one of the colored regiments, coming off duty for twenty-four hours, was halted in front of headquarters, at the Burnet House, front faced, and gave three rousing cheers for Gen. Wallace, and three more for Judge Dickson."