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.”