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First Kansas Colored Infantry


colored infantry  We all know the story of where the Civil War supposedly started right? Well maybe we should take into account the border wars between Missouri and Kansas prior to the 1861 statehood of Kansas.

Pro and anti-slavery forces clashed regularly along the border, with cold blooded murders, armed encampments and even the repeated burning of the city of Lawrence Kansas by Quantrell’s Raiders.

John Brown’s forces had traveled to the state for the explicit reason of seeing that pro-slavery forces did not settle there.

 At the time, the United States was split equally on this issue and Kansas was to be the deciding vote. The way this was set up made all of this bloodshed inevitable. When Kansas gained Statehood, there was to be a popular vote of the residents that were already there, and that vote would determine if slavery would be legal there. The ensuing rush to the Kansas territory by both sides led to the “Bleeding Kansas” moniker.

 As a proud Kansan, I believe the Civil War started right here. I also believe that the Kansas “Buffalo Soldier” has been overlooked in most popular history. In 1989 the Oscar winning movie ‘GLORY’ captivated the public with the heroism of the 54th Massachusetts, the African American regiment depicted in the movie.

 This film incorrectly billed the story as”America’s first black soldiers during the Civil War.” In reality, that distinction should be given to the First Regiment Kansas Colored Infantry which first saw action in the fall of 1862 and, in less than a year, distinguished itself by fighting at Honey Springs, Indian Territory. They would be the first African Americans recruited in the Northern states for service in the Civil War; the first to see battle, and the first to die in action.

Their recruiter was U. S. Senator James Henry Lane, a prominent figure in Kansas since 1855, who was deeply involved in the turmoil in bringing Kansas into the Union as a free state. His effort to raise black troops was based on his interpretation of an order to recruit regiments. His counterparts in other northern states did not agree with him and insisted it was illegal!

 Most Kansans advocated the use of black troops early on, and during the fall of 1862, a portion of the regiment engaged in battle with a rebel force at Butler, Missouri, thus gaining distinction as the first “colored soldiers in the Union army” tested in battle. “The blacks behaved nobly,” reported the Lawrence Republican, “and have demonstrated that they can and will fight.” According to the Republican’s correspondent, Lieutenant W. H. Smallwood, “the battle of Toothman’s Mound [also Island Mound],” October 29, proved “that black men can fight,” and they were “now prepared to scour this country thoroughly, and not leave a place where a traitor can find refuge.” On October 28, 1862, a detachment of 225 men faced 500 Confederates at Island Mound in Bates County, Missouri. Ten were killed and 12 wounded, but the Confederates were driven off. 

 They were the fourth African American unit to be mustered into the federal army, 13 days ahead of the 54th Massachusetts and three months after Island Mound.

The First Kansas Colored was stationed at Baxter Springs, a former Osage Indian village, and during the spring of 1863 were assigned to escort duty in Indian Territory (Oklahoma). At Cabin Creek on July 2, 1863, blacks fought alongside whites for the first time and drove away Confederate troops. It is recorded that the white officers and men allowed no prejudice to interfere in their duty.

Fifteen days later, on July 17, at Honey Springs the First Kansas Colored had perhaps its best day of the war. Here the soldiers held the federal center against attack, effectively ending any doubts about the abilities of black soldiers. After an all-night march, Union troops under command of Major General James G. Blunt came upon a strong rebel force under General Douglas Cooper and after a “sharp and bloody engagement of two hours’ duration” forced Cooper’s command to flee the field. During the fight the Negro regiment, which held the Union center, moved up under fire to within 50 paces of the Confederate line and there, still under fire, halted and exchanged volley fire for some 20 minutes before the rebels broke and ran. The First Kansas captured the colors of a Texas regiment. “I never saw such fighting done as was done by the negro regiment,” Major Blunt wrote in a letter published in the Cincinnati Daily Commercial on August 12, 1863. “They fought like veterans, with a coolness and valor that is unsurpassed. They preserved their line perfect throughout the whole engagement and, although in the hottest of the fight, they never once faltered. Too much praise can not be awarded them for their gallantry.”

The following April found troops of the First Kansas Colored engaged in fierce combat at Poison Springs, Arkansas, where on April 18, 1864, they suffered heavy casualties—117 died and 65 were wounded. The death toll was aggravated by the execution of the captured and wounded men left on the field. For black soldiers in the West, “Remember Poison Springs!” became a battle cry. “This was the most important battle in the regiment’s entire history,” according to Cornish, and, along with the 54th Massachusetts’ gallantry at Fort Wagner on July 18, “set to rest a great deal of criticism of the use of Negroes as soldiers.” (for more info see the Kansas State Historical Society)

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