Following the success of Confederate forces in eastern Kentucky and General John Hunt Morgan's raids there in 1862, Cincinnatians believed that Southern invasion was imminent. Anxious officials ordered Cincinnati citizens to form home guards, but black men willing to volunteer were rebuffed when they attempted to join a defense force. Instead, police serving as provost guards rounded up many and marched them by bayonet to build fortifications in Kentucky. Reacting to the shameful treatment of the blacks eager to support the Union, the commander of the Department of Ohio dispatched Major General Lewis Wallace to command the civilians and to liberate black men forced into service.
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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. Members of the Cincinnati Black Brigade, first black unit with military purpose in the Civil War, later fought with the 127th Ohio Voluntary Infantry and other black regiments.