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  • Writer's pictureTim Burke

Powahatan Beaty

Cincinnatian, Medal of Honor Winner & Shakespearian Actor

Most history enthusiasts in Greater Cincinnati have heard of Cincinnati’s Black Brigade, a Civil War military outfit memorialized at Smale Riverfront Park. I doubt however, many are familiar with one of its members who went on to win the Medal of Honor and renown as a Shakesperian actor, one Powhahtan Beaty.

Though Beaty was not born in Cincinnati he spent most of his life here, arriving in 1849 at the age of 12 from Richmond, Virginia, the place of his birth. Nothing is known about his life in Virginia ouside of the fact he was held in slavery as a child.

Life in Antebellum Cincinnati for African Americans was difficult at the least. Though Ohio never permitted slavery strong sentiment for its existence could be found in pockets across Southern Ohio including in places like Cincinnati. On at least three occasions in 1829, 1836 and again in 1841 free African- Americans were targeted by white mobs in an effort to drive black Cincinnatians out of the city. Property was destroyed, people were beaten and, in a few cases, killed. As a consequence of the violence in 1829 an estimated 1,100 Africa-Americans are thought to have left for Canada. However, the city also played an important role in the Underground Railroad with ardent supporters of abolition found throughout. Slave holders and those contracted by them to hunt down those who escaped to freedom in Ohio, made regular appearances in Cincinnati to abduct those regarded by the law as “fugitive slaves” in often violent incidents. Violence and discrimination spilled over into the lives of “free” African-Americans and occasionally into the lives of white abolitionists as regional tensions over slavery grew from the 1830’s forward, with mob violence becoming an expectation. In 1841 a canon was even turned on an African American neighborhood in the vicinity of Sixth Street and Broadway before the riot was stopped by the militia.

Many wealthy Cincinnatians saw the abolitionist movement as a threat to the city’s business interests and openly opposed it, though the city’s importance as a stop on the Underground Railroad continued to grow throughout the 1840’s and 1850’s.

By the time of Powhatan Beaty’s arrival in 1849, Cincinnati was squarely on the fault line of sectional tensions. It is not known exactly how the 12 year old Beaty ended up in Cincinnati though it could be surmised he was considered legally free because he remained here rather than making his way further north to a safer location through one of the established networks than ran through the city. We do know he fell under the influence of two extraordinary men in Cincinnati, Henry Boyd a local business owner and Peter Clark, a public-school teacher.

Beaty was apprenticed as a cabinet maker under the guidance of Henry Boyd , the owner of a large furniture making company renowned throughout the West. Boyd had also once been held in slavery but successfully bought his freedom with money earned from his carpentry skills and at age 24 made his way to Cincinnati in 1826. Over the next three decades he parlayed his carpentry skills and business acumen into the creation of the highly successful H Boyd Company. He also was very active in Cincinnati’s Underground Railroad, with his workshops at Eighth and Broadway thought to have been one of the first stops a fugitive on the run from slavery would make in Cincinnati, making it likely young Beaty was either directly or indirectly involved . [i]

Another figure that influenced a young Beaty was Peter Clark, a Cincinnati born teacher who taught in the first public high school for African-American students in Ohio.[ii] An ardent abolitionist and writer, Clark was not afraid to express opinions which for an African-American in Cincinnati were both professionally and physically dangerous. None the less Clark persisted in his efforts to make public education available to African-Americans in Cincinnati and who according to Beaty urged his students “to do something and be something, "in the world’s broad field of battle”. [iii]

With the influence of such strong mentors, it is no surprise that Beaty did set out to do something “in the world’s broad field of battle” as Confederate forces approached Cincinnati in the summer of 1862. As the city began to organize its defenses, African-Americans who planned to volunteer were rejected and summarily told “this is a white man’s war” in the most insulting terms possible. A few days later on September 1, 1862 General Lew Wallace took command of Cincinnati’s defenses and using martial law ordered African-Americans to provide labor in building fortifications. The city police force and a special auxiliary police unit took it upon themselves to forcefully conscript African- Americans at bayonet point and hold them overnight in a makeshift stockade to be used as forced labor much as slaves were used by the Confederate army. Never given the opportunity to volunteer and be treated with dignity, Peter Clark pointed out they would have volunteered enthusiastically enmass if given the chance.[iv]

The hateful treatment came to an abrupt end when Judge William Dickson was given direct command of the Black Brigade, as the African-American unit came to be called. Dickson dismissed the special police guards and permitted the men of the Brigade to return home each night to sleep in their own beds. The next day Clark noted, “more men reported for duty than had been dragged together by the police”, all happy to work toward the defeat of the Confederacy. For the next three weeks the Brigade including Powahatan Beaty a member f the Company 1, Third Regiment set about building fortifications around Cincinnati which appeared at an amazing speed. When the Confederate threat to Cincinnati suddenly dissolved, the Brigade was dismissed from service on September 20 with effusive praise fromColonel Dickson (judge Dickson) for their hard work. [v]

Beaty and many others however, wanted to continue their service in the Union army which remained closed to African-Americans until the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. On February 1 of that year the state of Massachusetts established the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment for African-American troops, the first of dozens of segregated combat regiments that would play a critical role in the Union cause until the end of the war. Beaty was among a group of African-Americans from Cincinnati that attempted to join the 54th Massachusetts but was left frustrated when it was discovered the regiment had been recruited to capacity. However, Beaty and others from the old Black Brigade of Cincinnati, appealed to Governor Tod of Ohio to open Ohio regiments to African-Americans.

In the summer of 1863 Ohio followed the lead of Massachusetts establishing the 127th Ohio Infantry for African-Americans which immediately began training at Camp Delaware, Ohio though it was redesignated as the segregated 5th USCT Infantry . Powahatan Beaty was among the first twelve men recruited into the new regiment, the core of which came from Cincinnati. The enlisted ranks of the new regiment were made up soley of African-Americans with white officers appointed by the governor. This pattern of segregating the US military would remain long after the Civil War until President Harry S. Truman ordered the desegregation of the armed forces of the United States in 1948, though the use of African-American commisioned officers began much earlier.

The 5’7” 150-pound Beaty was appointed 1st Sergeant of Company G making him the highest ranking African-American in his 80 plus man company. [vi] Though it varied from state to state, the non-commissioned officers were often elected by the enlisted members of a regiment meaning the 26-year-old Beaty was already viewed with high degree of respect by the men of Company G. It was more likely his leadership skills and competence made a strong impression not his 5’ 7” frame.

After training at Camp Delaware outside of Columbus, Ohio the regiment departed for Norfolk, Virginia in November of 1863. Beaty’s regiment participated in patrols and expeditions in Virginia and North Carolina throughout the winter resulting in numerous skirmishes. In May of 1864 the regiment was tasked with taking part in operations against Richmond and Petersburg along the James River. By the middle of June 1864 Beaty and the rest of the regiment were posted to the siege trenches outside of Petersburg and for the next six months endured the muddy and monotonous hell of trench warfare, sporadically interrupted by terrifying assaults on the fortifications established to protect the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. It was during one such attack that Beaty and the 5th Infantry assaulted fortifications located on New Market Heights in what became known as the Battle of Chaffin Farm.

Assigned to the center of the assault line, the 5th USCT Infantry was in the unenviable position of charging uphill against trenches and palisades fronted by multiple lines of abatis. The initial attack on the morning of September 29th was met with withering fire from Confederate fortifications decimating the ranks of men around Beaty and forcing a general retreat. The fire was so intense Beaty literally had his hat shot off his head and his knapsack cutaway from his shoulders by Minnie balls which also pierced his canteen and even tore away part of his boot.[vii] When Beaty reached the relative safety of Union lines he noticed the company flag bearer had been killed leaving their colors on the field of battle which he found unacceptable. Without warning he responded by scrambling some six hundred yards under intense fire to the flag and returning it to the Union lines.

The first assault had devastated the 5th, killing and wounding dozens. With Company G losing all three of its officers, Beaty stepped forward and took command, organizing the company for what surely would be a second assault on the heights. When the charge was sounded Beaty led company G under an intense barrage of fire up the hill for a second time, though this time the outcome was different, with the regiment reaching the heights and overrunning the fortifications, but at a great cost. Beaty could only count 13 infantrymen standing out of the 83 who started the day in Company G.

First Sergeant Beaty’s actions were so impressive at New Market Heights that Major General Benjamin Butler recommended him for Medal of Honor later in the week. Beaty however, was not finished, he went on to distinguish himself at the Battle of Fair Oaks almost a month later and was recommended for a commission not once but twice by the Colonel Giles Shurtlief the commander of the 5th infantry, but both times the promotion was denied. There is no doubt the denial was based strictly on Beaty’s race though Beaty was recognized as breveted lieutenant, a kind of temporary rank that would exist through the duration of the war. Years later Beaty made it clear he preferred being addressed as a First Sergeant rather than a lieutenant. By the war’s end First Sergeant Beaty had fought in 13 major battles and dozens of skirmishes across Virginia and North Carolina before returning home to Cincinnati.[viii]

In the years immediately after the war Beaty returned to his cabinet making trade while “devoting his spare time to the study of the stage”, something in which he had developed a strong interest before the war. Beaty’s interest in acting had been awakened while a student and continued later under the tutelage of local actors including native Philadelphian James E. Murdock who gained a degree of national renown on the stage.[ix]

Throughout the 1870’s and 1880’s Beaty developed his stagecraft, generously participating in charitable events throughout Cincinnati supporting churches, the Orphan Asylum and charitable organizations like the Masons and Odd Fellows- both singing and through the performance of Shakespearian soliloquies. In one such charitable event in 1882, Beaty performed at Allen Temple, the first AME church in Cincinnati located on Broadway St., to raise money for the Civil Rights League in an ongoing civil rights suit to be heard before the Supreme Court.[x] In 1880 the multitalented Beaty even wrote a play he titled, Scenes in the Southland, set in the years between 1859 and the end of the Civil War focusing on the African-American experience as slavery was destroyed. Though it was seen at private performances by critics who praised it profusely, Scenes in the Southland was never performed publicly, probably due to the potential controversy created by Beaty’s examination of slavery’s destruction.

By the middle of the 1880’s Beaty was touring other cities, often in Shakespearian roles including Philadelphia, New York and Ford's Theater in Washington DC where won praise like that from the Cincinnati Commercial, Mr. Powhatan Beaty as Macbeth threw himself into his part with masterly energy and power.” After one particular rousing performance as the Roman gladiator Sparticus, the reviewer noted, "The audience leaned forward and listened eagerly to catch every wordof his impassioned delivery, and when finished they fell back into their seats with a sigh of relief that plainly expressed how they had been affected. Mr. Beaty is indeed a grand artist...". Regardless of his success, Beaty found it necessary to make a living as a building superintendent, later becoming an assistant engineer of Cincinnati’s water works.

The mundane jobs he held back at home put food on the table. Both positions were tied to the Republican political machine that dominated Cincinnati and Hamilton County, that of George Cox or Boss Cox as he became known. As a superintendent he managed the building housing the Lincoln and Blaine Clubs, both Republican political organizations, while his position with the waterworks was a patronage job connected very closely to the Cox machine. Beaty's name appeared repeatedly in newspapers as a speaker and delegate at local Republican political conventions. During the late 19th century, African Americans in Cincinnati and across the nation were overwhelmingly loyal to the Republican Party, viewed as the party most friendly to their causes. The fact the Cox machine relied on Beaty as a link to the local African-American community speaks to his prominence in Cincinnati and the surrounding area until his death in 1916.

Powahatn Beaty’s accomplishments and character mark him as one of Cincinnati’s greatest 19th century citizens and among the least known, particularly in light of the limited opportunities he had due to racism. Beaty left behind two sons, John who was a member of the United States Army and A. Lee Beaty who earned a law degree from the University of Cincinnati and later went on to become an Assistant US Attorney General for the Southern Ohio District and to serve two terms in the Ohio General Assembly.

If you liked this post check out earlier posts on John Parker, Underground Railroad operator extraordinaire and Cincinnati and the Civil War, a look at Cincinnati in 1861.

[i] Preston, Steve, Northern Kentucky Tribune, 2/11/2019 [ii] Shotwell, John; A History of the Schools in Cincinnati, 1902, p. 453- 455 [iii] Depugh; The Western Garrick, April 19, 1885. [iv] Clark, Peter ;The Black Brigade of Cincinnati, p. 7-8 [v] Ibid, p. 36. [vi] The Western Garrick, April 19, 1885. [vii] Cincinnati Post, September 3, 1898. [viii] The Western Garrick, April 19, 1885 [ix] Ibid. [x] Cincinnati Enquirer, April 13, 1882

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