Saturday, October 12, 2013

Powhatan Beaty, born October 8, 1837

Powhatan Beaty
wearing his Medal of Honor


Powhatan Beaty was born into slavery in Richmond, Virginia.

It is unknown when and how he escaped slavery.

He moved to Cincinnati, Ohio in 1849.  While in school, he developed an interest in theater and made his public acting debut at a school concert. 

After leaving school, he was apprenticed to Henry Boyd, a black furniture maker, and became an experienced wood lathe operator.  

Boyd had been born a slave in 1802 in Kentucky. His owner hired him out as a cabinetmaker, and he was able to buy his freedom at 18. Upon his arrival in Cincinnati, he couldn't find work in his trade. Instead he worked for 10 years as a longshoreman and house builder. Boyd eventually earned enough money to purchase the freedom of his brother and sister. He saved his money to open his first furniture shop in 1836. In 1842, he moved to a second factory, a four-building complex at Broadway and Eighth Streets, where Boyd employed 50 people: a mix of black, white and immigrant workers. Boyd developed a process to make the "Boyd Bedstead". 
Reproduction of Henry Boyd Advertisement
It had rounded side rails that screwed into the bedposts. The technique for mortising various parts of beds made them popular with hotels throughout the South and Southwest. They were easy to take apart and clean. Unable to obtain a patent because of his race, Boyd made sure that he stamped his beds with his name to ensure that the completed piece had been made by him.


Boyd's Furniture Stamp
Beaty continued to study acting privately and received training in the field from several coaches, including James Edward Murdoch, a retired professional stage actor from Philadelphia.


James Edward Murdoch
In the 1860 census, Beaty was listed as living with Henry Boyd and his family. Boyd's factory at Broadway and Eighth Street was burned three times by whites; he rebuilt twice with the help of the Quakers, but after the third fire in 1862, he was forced to shut down because he couldn't get insurance.

Powhatan Beaty was 23 years old when the Civil War began.



The Defense of Cincinnati occurred from September 1 through September 13, 1862, when Cincinnati, Ohio was threatened by Confederate forces.  The "Queen City" would have been a prize of incalculable value to the Confederacy: although they would not have been able to stay long, they could have captured or destroyed huge stocks of war material stored in the city warehouses (particularly shoes, overcoats, and blankets, all badly needed in the Southern armies).  Confederate General Henry Heth had been sent north to threaten Cincinnati, then the sixth largest city in the United States.  Heth was under orders from his superior, General Edmund Kirby Smith, not to attack the city, but to make a "demonstration".  

Cincinnati's mayor, George Hatch, ordered all business closed, and Union General  Lew Wallace declared martial law, seized sixteen steamboats and had them armed, and organized the citizens of Cincinnati, as well as the riverfront cities of Covington and Newport, Kentucky, for defense. On the 1st of September, Wallace set up headquarters in the Burnet House hotel, where he met late into the night with the mayors of Cincinnati, Newport and Covington.  By the next morning, 15,000 volunteers were drilling in the streets.

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 downtown Cincinnati. After being held overnight, with no way of contacting their families, on September 3rd the men were taken as a group across the Ohio River to begin work on the earthwork fortifications.

The Cincinnati Gazette published the following protest:
Let our colored fellow-soldiers be treated civilly, and not exposed to any unnecessary tyranny, nor to the insults a race which they profess to regard as inferior. It would have been decent to have invited the colored inhabitants to turn out in defense of the city. Then there would have been an opportunity to compare their patriotism with that of those who were recently trying to drive them from the city. Since the services of men are required from our colored brethren, let them be treated like men.
William Martin Dickson
Wallace learned about the poor treatment of the men. On September 4, 1862, he commissioned Judge William Dickson, a family friend of Abraham Lincoln (his wife was a cousin of Mary Todd Lincoln), 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 protection and the same treatment 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, 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.

Among those men was Beaty, who served in Company Number 1 of the Brigade's 3rd Regiment. His unit was assigned to build defenses near the Licking River in Kentucky. For the next fifteen days, they cleared forests, constructed forts, magazines and roads, and dug trenches and rifle pits.



The Black Brigade labored on the earthwork fortifications and military roads for more than two weeks. Their commanders and army engineers recognized their efficiency. The main tasks they were in charge of were making military roads, digging trenches and riffle-pits, felling forests, and building forts and magazines. During their first week of service, The Black Brigade received no compensation for their labor. The second week they were given $1.00 per day, and the third week they received $1.50 per day.  During a speech, General Wallace declared, "When the history of Cincinnati during the past two weeks comes to be written up, it will be said that it was the spades and not the guns that saved the city from attack by the Rebels."

Memorial to Black Brigade, Cincinnati, Ohio
Upon completing their work, Judge Dickson said,
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.
Memorial to Black Brigade, Cincinnati, Ohio
By June 1863, Ohio had not yet fielded an African American combat unit, but Ohio blacks were being recruited for service in the regiments of other states.  Beaty enlisted from Cincinnati on June 7, 1863 for a three-year term of service in the Union Army; he was among a group of men recruited for a Massachusetts regiment.  He joined as a private but was promoted to sergeant only two days later.  He was placed in charge of a squad of forty-seven other recruits and ordered to report to Columbus, Ohio, from where they would be sent to Boston.

Upon arriving in Columbus on June 15, however, they learned that the Massachusetts regiments were full and unable to accept their service. The Governor of Ohio, David Tod, immediately requested permission from the Department of War to form an Ohio regiment of African Americans. Permission was granted, and on June 17, Beaty and his squad became the first members of the 127th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, later re-designated the 5th United States Colored Troops.


127th Ohio Volunteer Infantry
After three months of recruitment and organization in Camp Delaware, outside of Delaware, Ohio, the unit set out for Virginia.  By the Battle of Chaffin's Farm on September 29, 1864, Beaty had risen to the rank of first sergeant in Company G. 

The Confederacy viewed the use of United States Colored Troops (USCT) as “inciting servile insurrection.”  The Confederate Secretary of War made it clear that “slaves in flagrant rebellion[meaning USCTs] are subject to death” and that they “cannot be recognized in any way as soldiers subject to the rules of war…summary execution must therefore be inflicted on those taken [prisoner].” And it wasn’t just Southern soldiers who despised USCTs. One Virginia woman wrote to her husband who was a soldier in Lee’s army that he must, “shoot [black soldiers], dear husband, every chance you get…It is God’s will and wish for you to destroy them. Your [sic] are his instrument and it is your Christian duty.” So the black soldiers and white officers who attacked New Market Heights suffered form no delusions as to what might happen to them should they fall into enemy hands.

For the most part, the black regiments who assaulted New Market Heights had not seen heavy fighting. Many of them had seen sporadic fighting when the Union army made its initial attempt to seize the city of Petersburg, and many had been held in reserve during the Battle of the Crater – just close enough to watch their comrades get slaughtered and take a few random casualties from the storm of lead that was flying through the air at the time. New Market Heights would be their first – and in many cases, last – taste of full scale combat.


The Battle of New Market Heights
September 29, 1864
Beaty's regiment was among a division of black troops assigned to attack the center of the Confederate defenses at New Market Heights. The defenses consisted of two lines of abatis and one line of palisades manned by Confederate General John Gregg's Texas Brigade.  The attack was met with intense Confederate fire and was turned back after reaching a line of abatis.  During the retreat, Company G's color bearer was killed; Beaty returned through about 600 yards of enemy fire to retrieve the flag and return it to the company lines. 

The regiment suffered severe casualties in the failed charge.  Of Company G's eight officers and eighty-three enlisted men who entered the battle, only sixteen enlisted men, including Beaty, survived the attack unwounded.  With no officers remaining, Beaty took command of the company and led it through a second charge at the Confederate lines. The second attack successfully drove the Confederates from their fortified positions, at the cost of three more men from Company G.  By the end of the battle, over fifty percent of the black division had been killed, captured, or wounded.

In the aftermath of the battle, some Confederate soldiers were moved to sympathy after witnessing such a brave charge into the face of certain death. One wrote that “in my opinion, no troops to that time had fought us with more bravery than did those negroes.” A soldier in the same brigade, however, recorded in his diary that “our men now have a perfect contempt for negro soldiers. It is almost a pity to put such things into battle.”



Although Confederate newspapers downplayed the Union victory – the Richmond Examiner writing, “The country will be surprised that so much noise had been made and so little damage done” – accounts of USCT heroism abounded in the Northern press.  Thomas Morris Chester, a black reporter for the Philadelphia Press, filed a report from Richmond later that week stating that General Charles Paine's division “had covered itself with glory, and wiped out effectively the imputation against the fighting qualities of colored troops.” 


Charles Paine
J.D. Pickens of the Texas Brigade later wrote, “I want to say in this connection that, in my opinion, no troops up to that time had fought us with move bravery than did those Negroes.”

Four days after the battle, General Benjamin Butler reported to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, “My colored troops under General Paine. . . carried intrenchments at the point of a bayonet. . . It was most gallantly done, with most severe loss. Their praises are in the mouth of every officer in this army. Treated fairly and disciplined, they have fought most heroically.”

Benjamin Butler
“The capacity of the Negro race for soldiers,” Butler later wrote regarding the Battle of New Market Heights, “had then and there been fully settled forever.

For his actions, Beaty was commended on the battlefield by General Benjamin Butler, and seven months later, on April 6, 1865, awarded the Medal of Honor. There were a grand total of 16 Medals of Honor awarded for this one action – 14 of which went to African American soldiers.


Medal of Honor
Beaty continued to distinguish himself in the 5th Regiment's further engagements. His actions during the Battle of Fair Oaks in October 1864 earned him a mention in the general orders to the Army of the Potomac. The regimental commander, Colonel Giles Shurtleff, twice recommended him for a promotion to commissioned officer. Nothing came of Colonel Shurtleff's requests; however, Beaty did receive a brevet promotion to lieutenant.

Giles Shurtleff
By New Year's Day 1865, according to historian Shelby Foote, blacks in the Union ranks well exceeded the total size of all the armies of the South. They represented some 10 percent of all Union forces. By the time Beaty was mustered out of the Army, he had participated in thirteen battles and numerous skirmishes.

After the war, Beaty returned to Cincinnati.  On July 27, 1865, he married Mary C. Lee.  They had several children, with only three living to adulthood: Albert Lee Beaty (born 1871), Powhatan Beaty (born 1877), and John Beaty (born 1879).

He worked as a turner, cabinetmaker, and janitor. In the early 1870s he was a porter on a steamboat, City of Vicksburg, which ran from St. Louis, Missouri to Vicksburg, Mississippi.  He incurred a hernia by lifting a heavy trunk  in 1873.  He was also employed at the Lincoln and Blaine Clubs. 

He continued to pursue amateur acting and public speaking engagements.  He gave public readings for charitable causes and became a well-known elocutionist among the African American community of Cincinnati.  Through the 1870s he acted in local theaters and directed music and drama exhibitions in the city.  He wrote a  play about a rich southern planter entitled Delmar, or Scenes in Southland, which was performed in January 1881 with himself in the lead role. Set in Kentucky, Mississippi, and Massachusetts, the work covered the end of slavery and transition to freedom for blacks from 1860 to 1875.  The privately run play was well received, but Beaty did not engage in self-promotion and it never moved into public theaters.


Henrietta Vinton Davis
In January 1884, Beaty was working as an assistant engineer at the Cincinnati water works when Henrietta Vinton Davis, a prominent African American actress, came to perform in the city. Together, he and Davis put on a large musical and dramatic festival in Melodeon Hall, which was very successful.  Included in the show were productions of Ingomar, the Barbarian and Robert Montgomery Bird's The Gladiator, in which Beaty took the role of Spartacus. The culmination of the festival was a performance of selected scenes from  Macbethwith Beaty playing the title role and Davis as Lady Macbeth. Newspapers in both the black and white communities of Cincinnati praised the performances of the two actors, with the Commercial stating that Beaty "threw himself into his part with masterly energy and power".


Melodeon Hall, downtown Cincinnati, Ohio
The successful festival led to Beaty being invited to play as a principal actor in a Washington, D.C., Shakespearean production organized by Davis. A company including Davis, Beaty, and amateur actors from the D.C. area performed Richard III, three scenes from Macbeth, and one scene from Ingomar, the Barbarian. Davis, the premier black Shakespearean actress of the time, was the star of the show and Beaty played opposite her as Macbeth, King Henry VI, and Ingomar.


Frederick Douglass 
The May 7, 1884, production was played in Ford's Opera House to a full house of more than 1,100 people; among them were Frederick Douglass and his family. There was some heckling during the play, primarily from some of the white attendees; however, a reviewer from The Washington Post reported that "the earnestness and intelligence of several of the leading performers were such as to command the respect of those most disposed to find cause for laughter in everything that was said or done".  Washington newspapers praised the principal actors, but noted that the inexperience of some of the supporting cast was evident. Reviewers for African American newspapers were especially pleased to see such a production in an important venue like Ford's Opera House. The New York Globe wrote of the performance "[t]hus leap by leap the colored man and woman encroach upon the ground so long held sacred by their white brother and sister".

Beaty continued to tour with Davis and performed a show in Philadelphia before returning to Cincinnati. 
He helped form his city's Literary and Dramatic Club and, in 1888, became the organization's drama director.

In a pension report in 1891, he stated that he was unable to earn a support by manual labor by reason of defective eye sight,  and a fracture in his skull caused by falling in a charge at New Market Heights, Virginia.

Beaty's wife died in 1899.  He died at a the age of 79 on December 6, 1916.  He was buried at Union Baptist Cemetery. 


Grave of Powhatan Beaty
His son, A. Lee Beaty, became an Ohio state representative from Hamilton County, and an assistant U.S. District Attorney for southern Ohio. 

In 2001, the State of Virginia honored Beaty by naming the bridge that carries Route I-895 (the Pocahontas Parkway) over Virginia Route 5 for him.  Virginia state legislators Henry L. Marsh and Dwight C. Jones teamed up to introduce legislation to honor Powhatan Beaty for his heroism. The vote establishing the Powhatan Beaty Bridge signaled a turnaround in political sentiment. For decades, descendants of the vanquished Confederacy refused to recognize the valor of the victorious Union Army. And despite African American politicians' repeated efforts to honor Black troops, no credit was given. Many of the troops were former slaves who fought for their freedom.

Marsh said after the dedication ceremony, "To recognize the heroism of Powhatan Beaty is the right thing to do. He was an extraordinary soldier and American. That's the kind of heroism that Americans have established over the years."

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