BUTLER, Mo. —
In October 1862, Rufus Vann’s journey brought him to the farm of imprisoned bushwhacker John Toothman in Bates County.
Vann had seen a great many changes in the preceding years. In 1861, he had been a slave in what was then Indian Territory, now Oklahoma. When the Civil War began, his owner Katie Williams — perhaps seeing the destiny of all blacks as a result of the war — freed Vann and her other slaves.
A married man with 10 children in his early 40s, Vann made his way to the free state of Kansas. In Mound City, he enlisted in the Union Army.
At the time, Brig. Gen. James Lane — uncompromising abolitionist, unapologetic Jayhawker, and U.S. senator for the new state of Kansas — was recruiting escaped slaves and other blacks for the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer infantry regiment.
Most of the men came from Missouri, Indian Territory and Arkansas, and they were put under the command of the regiment’s colonel, James Williams, an abolitionist and Kansas leader of the Underground Railroad.
“I have long been of the opinion that this race had a right to kill rebels,” Williams said of the blacks.
In October 1862, his unit got its chance to do just that.
What is remembered today as the Battle of Island Mound would mark the first time in the American Civil War that blacks fought in combat. The account Vann and others soldiers gave of themselves at that fight opened the door for other former slaves to join the Union Army and fight for their freedom.
Lane faced a singular obstacle when he started organizing the 1st Kansas Colored: It wasn’t legal.
President Abraham Lincoln hadn’t authorized freed slaves to join the Union Army, except as laborers, cooks and wagon drivers. Lincoln feared alienating residents in the border states, including Missouri, whose connection to the Union was but the slenderest of threads, one that might tear if he armed blacks in states where slavery was still legal and still practiced.
Then there was the matter of white Union troops, many of whom had no desire to serve with or along side blacks.
Said one Union soldier: “If a negro regiment were to come and camp out near an old regiment out here, the men would kill half of them.”
But Lane would let neither the law nor prejudice stop him.
It hadn’t yet, in the six years of warfare along the Kansas-Missouri line.
The late Pittsburg (Kan.) State University history professor Dudley Cornish wrote in “The Sable Arm” that Lane and his abolitionist colleagues were willing to recruit anyone of any color with the goal of eliminating slavery.
“From the beginning of the Civil War, they displayed an easy disregard for the feelings and property rights of their neighbors across the Missouri border,” Cornish wrote. “Not only were fugitive slaves encouraged to seek sanctuary in the free state of Kansas; the Jayhawkers took particular delight in expeditions of liberation in the slaveholding state conveniently along the eastern flank.”
He wrote that Lane and his colleagues saw the Civil War as a continuation of their activities during the years of Bleeding Kansas leading up to the war.
“That Negroes should have been openly enrolled as Union soldiers in Kansas in the fall of 1861 was entirely consonant with the logic of radical abolitionism and Kansas territorial history,” Cornish wrote.
Through the summer of 1862, the soldiers of the 1st Kansas Colored drilled at Fort Scott and elsewhere.
“General Lane is still going on with the work of organizing two colored regiments, notwithstanding the refusal of the president to accept black soldiers,” read the Aug. 16, 1862, edition of the Fort Scott Bulletin. “Last Tuesday about 50 recruits were raised here.”
“I have seen them come into the camp, looking down as though slaves, “ Lane wrote. “By-and-by, they begin to straighten themselves, throw back their shoulders, stand erect and soon look God straight in the face.”
Lane had established Fort Lincoln about 15 miles northwest of Fort Scott. It was there that John Toothman, the bushwhacker from Butler, was imprisoned.
Vann was among a detachment of more than 200 soldiers from the 1st Kansas who arrived at the Toothman farmhouse on Oct. 26, 1862. Confederate guerillas under the command of Bill Truman and Dick Hancock, as well as members of the Missouri State Guard under the command of Col. Jeremiah Cockrell, watched on horseback as the black soldiers approached on foot. The 1st Kansas seized the house and fortified it with fence rails. They renamed the bushwhacker’s residence Fort Africa.
Capt. Henry Seaman was the overall commander of the mission.
Joining the Union soldiers at Fort Africa was a Cherokee Indian, John Sixkiller.
Their target was Hog Island, also called Osage Island, a supply base for the bushwhackers about two miles from the farm.
Initially, there were small skirmishes between the black troops and the guerillas, explained Jim Rehard, district supervisor for Missouri Division of State Parks, which has acquired the battlefield.
The New York Times reported the bushwhackers taunted white Union commanders from a hill, shouting down to them “damned n----r stealers.”
The main action occurred Oct. 29. Union troops were running low on supplies and sought reinforcements that never arrived. Meanwhile, Confederate guerillas on horseback surged to as many as 400 to 500, according to accounts. As the black troops ate after a foraging mission, the Confederates set fire to the dry prairie grasses surrounding the farm. Seaman ordered a backfire set, to prevent the fire from overtaking them.
Seaman then ordered Sixkiller and several others to swing around the fire, but instructed them to stay within sight of the camp. Instead, they went far beyond the camp and engaged the bushwhackers and members of the state guard. Seaman sent out another group of troops, led by Lt. Joseph Gardner, who caught up with Sixkiller, but, he also became involved in skirmishes far from the base camp.
Union Capt. Richard Ward dispatched more troops to aid them, while Seaman also sent troops to the area.
The guerrillas, in force and on horseback, moved between the Union units. Gardner’s troops tried to make it back to camp, but they were cut off by the bushwhackers. Gardner’s 25 men were surrounded by 117 guerrillas on horseback, demanding their surrender.
“I have witnessed some hard fights, but I never saw a braver sight than that handful of brave men fighting 117 men who were all around and amongst them,” Ward wrote in his report on the battle. “Not one surrendered or gave up a weapon.”
Gunfire from the black soldiers hit several guerrillas, knocking them from their horses. Bloody hand-to-hand combat followed, using bayonets, sabers and rifle butts.
According to some, surrender wasn’t an option.
“They knew in a fight with the Confederates, they would be given no quarter should they be captured,” said Ann Raab, an archaeologist working at the Fort Africa site.
The guerrillas soon found themselves trapped by approaching Union troops. Gardner’s men rejoined the advancing Union units and the bushwhackers were eventually driven from the area.
Killed in the battle were eight on the Union side, including Sixkiller. Some reports say that as many as 40 on the Confederate side were killed.
It was the first time in the war that black soldiers fought in combat.
By most measures, the fighting amounted to little more than a skirmish, one of an estimated 10,000 during the war. The battle of Island Mound had little strategic significance, but its value was incalculable as a public relations victory for blacks and their supporters.
Besides The New York Times, there were accounts of the battle in the Chicago Tribune and Harper’s Weekly magazine.
The Nov. 10, 1862, edition of the Chicago Tribune reported: “Their performance is so encouraging that it is useless to talk anymore about Negro courage. The men fought like tigers, each and every one of them.”
The victory by the former slaves turned soldiers rippled throughout the country.
Lincoln decided to officially accept black troops in combat roles in the Union Army, with six companies of the 1st Kansas Colored mustering in at Fort Scott on Jan. 13, 1863 — less than two weeks after he issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
A U.S. Senate Report (No. 1214 on the 51st Congress) notes the connection between the fight in western Missouri and the president’s decision.
“The discipline acquired and the courage displayed by the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteers in camp and on field during the last months of 1862 influenced the action of President Lincoln in issuing his proclamation of New Year’s Day 1863, which ... forecasted the freedom and citizenship of persons of African descent.”
Joseph Glattharr, distinguished professor of history at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, author of “Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers,” said the significance of the Battle of Island Mound cannot be overestimated.
“There are events that are far greater than the event itself and that is one of them,” Glatthaar said.
Rufus Vann survived the battle of Island Mound and eventually was promoted to corporal.
After Butler, the regiment went to Baxter Springs, Kan., in May 1863. While stationed there, a foraging party of 45 men was sent to the village of Sherwood in Jasper County, Mo., near the present intersection of Peace Church and Fountain roads north of Joplin. On May 18, 1863, the foragers were ambushed by about 75 Confederate guerrillas, who killed 15 Union soldiers and mutilated their bodies.
On July 2, the regiment, with other Union troops, encountered Confederate forces while guarding a supply train destined for Fort Gibson, in present-day Oklahoma. The Union troops succeeded in resisting the attack over a two-hour battle at Big Cabin. It was another first for the Civil War — the first time white and black Union soldiers fought alongside one another in a battle.
Cornish wrote in the Kansas Historical Quarterly that white Union soldiers allowed no prejudice against the African-American soldiers “in the face of an enemy alike to both races.”
“The 1st Kansas particularly distinguished itself,” wrote Union Maj. Gen. James G. Blunt. “They fought like veterans and preserved their line unbroken throughout the engagement. Their coolness and bravery I have never seen surpassed.”
The regiment distinguished itself again on July 17, 1863, at the Battle of Honey Springs in Oklahoma, another Union victory.
“I never saw such fighting as was done by that Negro regiment,” Blunt wrote of the battle in a letter published in the Aug. 12, 1863, Cincinnati Daily Commercial. “Too much praise cannot be awarded them for their gallantry.”
The African-American soldiers experienced defeat and heavy casualties at Poison Spring, Ark., on April 18, 1864. Of the 301 men killed on the Union side in that fight, 117 were from the 1st Kansas. Another 65 from the regiment were wounded. Confederates executed many of the captured and wounded African-American soldiers.
At the war’s end on April 18, 1865, the 1st Kansas Colored had suffered more casualties than any other Kansas regiment. Five officers and 173 enlisted men were killed in action and one officer and 165 enlisted soldiers died of disease. Among the latter was Cpl. Rufus Vann, who died of dysentery in Little Rock, Ark., on Feb. 21, 1865. He is buried there.
The Missouri Department of Natural Resources has acquired 40 acres south of Butler where the Toothman Farm was located and where the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Regiment created Fort Africa. The Battle of Island Mound Historic Site, under the department’s Division of State Parks, will open in the fall of 2012, in time for the 150th anniversary of the battle.
Raab, a doctoral student at the University of Kansas, said she had identified two potential locations for the Toothman homestead. One location has a water well and a certain perennial flower.
“There are iris everywhere,” Raab said. “That’s very indicative of a homestead.”
Another location is where a Methodist church was built in the 1870s. Raab said the presence of window glass dating to before the Civil War at the location indicates the church may have been built on the foundation of the former home. She said she had found nothing of a military nature.
Bill Bryan, director of Missouri State Parks, said the former slaves proved their value in Butler.
“They were outnumbered, on foot, confronted by bushwhackers on horseback,” he said.
Bryan said the historic site will endeavor to do justice to the soldiers and the significance of the battle.
“The Battle of Island Mound was a watershed event in our nation’s history,” he added.
Last month, people were allowed to tour the archaeological dig. Among the participants were four great-grandchildren of Cpl. Rufus Vann.
One of them, Willadine Johnson, of Kansas City, Mo., proudly wore the cap of a Union soldier. Johnson provided many of the details of Vann’s life. She said some other ancestors also were members of the regiment.
“You don’t know the pride that we have to know that our great-great-grandfather fought to abolish slavery,” Johnson said. “To leave that legacy for us means so much.”
The narrative was reconstructed from a variety of sources, including the Kansas State Historical Society, American Heritage magazine, Dudley Cornish’s “The Sable Arm,” Congressional reports and interviews with Missouri State Park officials, the Fort Scott National Historic Site and Ann Raab, archaeologist.