Free to Fight
By NICOLE ETCHESON
Andrew Williams was a slave child in Mount Vernon, Mo., when Union troops from Kansas came to his master’s house in the fall of 1862. Despite President Lincoln’s promise to leave slave owners in loyal states alone, a Union officer invited Williams’s mother to “be free,” along with the rest of the slaves on the property. They loaded into a wagon and drove off. Even before President Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation, freedom was coming to the Midwest.
Like many contrabands from Missouri, the Williams family traveled to Lawrence, Kan. A Fort Scott man estimated the daily migration of emancipated slaves out of Missouri at somewhere between 50 and 100. By the end of the war, a greater proportion of Kansas’s population would be black than ever before or since.
Some white Kansans organized relief societies to aid the contrabands who often arrived destitute. Others welcomed them as troops who could help “crush the rebellion.” Although the War Department authorized African-Americans only as laborers for the military, Lt. Col. Daniel Read Anthony of the Seventh Kansas Regiment insisted that his men not only free any slaves they encountered but also “arm or use them in such manner as will best aid us in putting down rebels.” Kansas’s new senator, James H. Lane, organized the refugees into military units, making Kansans among the first Northerners to accept African-Americans as soldiers.
In August 1862, Lane set up a recruiting office in Leavenworth, Kan., and informed Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton that he was enlisting blacks as well as whites under the militia act of July 17, 1862, which allowed “persons of African descent” to be received into military service as laborers or for “any military or naval service for which they may be found competent.” Stanton replied that only the president could authorize black troops and that Lane’s regiments would not be received into the Army. Ignoring the reprimand, Lane continued to recruit — some would have said impress — black refugees from Missouri, Arkansas and the Indian Territory.
Lane’s motives were not necessarily enlightened. In June 1862 he told an audience at the Emancipation League in New York City: “I would like to see every traitor who has to die, die by the hand of his own slave.” But his main focus was on winning the war, whatever the cost – including African-American lives: “A Negro could stop a bullet as well as a white man.” At a Leavenworth mass meeting, Lane declared that “the Negroes are mistaken if they think white men can fight for them while they stay at home.” Indeed, he would force them into service if necessary: “We have been saying that you would fight,” Lane told African-Americans, “and if you won’t fight, we will make you.”
But Lane also cited African-American martial qualities. He reviewed the history of black military service, including under Andrew Jackson in the War of 1812. Lane noted that as formerly submissive slaves became soldiers, they began to stand straighter and “look God straight in the face.”
And he was right. By October 1862, Lane had filled the First Regiment of Kansas Colored Volunteers, which was commanded by Col. James M. Williams and drilled at Fort Scott, Kan. Like Lane, Williams believed “that this race had a right to kill rebels.”
In late October, the First Kansas moved into Missouri against Confederate guerrillas. Near Island Mound, a detachment from the First Kansas seized and fortified the house of the guerrilla leader John Toothman. For the next few days they skirmished with the guerrillas, whose forces Major Richard G. Ward estimated at almost 800, four times the size of the Kansas force.
During one such skirmish, the guerrillas shouted “come on, you damned niggers” at the First Kansans. On Oct. 29, the Confederate forces set fire to the prairie grasses around the farm. Capt. Henry Seaman had the men set a backfire in defense but also ordered some of his troops out beyond the fire. Against orders, they engaged the Missourians. Seaman sent reinforcements.
One group of 25 Union soldiers found itself surrounded by four times that number of Confederate guerrillas. Rather than surrender, the black troops fought hand-to-hand against the mounted guerrillas. Ward reported that he “never saw a braver sight than that handful of brave men” fighting a much larger force of mounted men. “Not one surrendered or gave up a weapon.” The troops may have known that they would not be taken as prisoners. The guerrillas were eventually driven from the battlefield by the threat of entrapment posed by advancing Union troops. Ward believed the guerrillas “had tested the niggers and had received an answer to the often mooted question of ‘will they fight.’”
Eight men of the First Kansas were killed, including a Cherokee Indian, John Sixkiller, who had joined the Kansans at the Toothman house. But they killed perhaps four times as many Confederates.
Although Union officers in South Carolina had already organized and led black troops in battle, also in defiance of the War Department, the victory of the First Kansas Colored at Island Mound was the first victory by black soldiers in the Civil War.
It was not until January 1863, after the Emancipation Proclamation allowed black troops, that the First Kansas officially mustered into the United States Army as the 79th United States Colored Troops. While African-American soldiers would go on to prove their valor at more famous battles like Fort Wagner, some considered the matter already settled. “It is useless to talk any more about Negro courage,” The Chicago Tribune reported after the Battle of Island Mound. “The men fought like tigers.”
Such acclaim didn’t mean the men were treated as equals to their white comrades. Three African-Americans who had served as officers in the First Kansas were denied commissions when it was officially mustered into federal service: Henry Copeland, a free black educated at Oberlin College who served as a first lieutenant until it entered regular service; William D. Matthews, who had commanded a company in the First Kansas and left to become a recruiter; and Patrick Minor, a mixed-race Louisianan, a second lieutenant who also became a recruiter when he could not get a commission.
Still, the men continued to fight with distinction. In July 1863, Colonel Williams of the First Kansas led a Union supply train from Fort Scott into Indian Territory. At Cabin Creek, on the Santa Fe Trail, the Union force drove off an attack on the train by Confederate Indians under Stand Watie – the first engagement in which blacks and whites found alongside one another in battle.
About two weeks later, at Honey Springs, the First Kansas fought alongside white and Native American troops against a Confederate force that included Choctaw and Cherokee regiments. The Union force drove off the Confederates. Maj. Gen. James G. Blunt reported, “The First Kansas (colored) particularly distinguished itself; they fought like veterans.” The First Kansans were in the “hottest of the fight,” outnumbered by Texas troops, but “their coolness and bravery I have never seen surpassed.” A Wisconsin officer whose regiment was at Honey Springs attested, “I never believed in niggers before, but by Jasus, they are hell for fighting.”
Such fighting – and the fact that the First Kansans were black – meant they would suffer significant casualties, not always on the battlefield. At Poison Spring, Ark., in April 1864, Confederates under John S. Marmaduke cut off a Union foraging party and forced it to retreat. Many of the Union wounded and captured were killed by the Confederates. Colonel Williams heard “the most positive assurances from eye-witnesses” that black troops “were murdered on the spot.” The First Kansas lost 117 men, either killed outright or missing and presumed dead. “Remember Poison Spring!” became the rallying cry of other black Kansas regiments. By the end of the war, the regiment’s losses had mounted to 156 men and five officers, all killed in action, with another 165 soldiers succumbing to disease, making it the regiment first among Kansas regiments for the number of men lost.
Although less famous than Eastern black regiments like the 54th Massachusetts, Kansas’s black troops were at “the forefront of change,” according to historian Pearl T. Ponce, in creating a diverse soldiery that included African-Americans and Native Americans. Kansas’s adjutant general, Col. C.K. Holliday, wrote of Kansas’s black soldiers: “They faltered not, but with a steadiness and a gallantry worthy of themselves and the cause, have earned an honorable reputation among the defenders of the Union.”
If you have any interest in the American Civil War, I highly recommend following the NYT's Disunion blog.
Black American History
Truth burns up error. ~ Sojourner Truth
- Free to Fight