By Roger McKinney
Members of the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry regiment had been in Jasper County in large numbers on previous foraging missions. Coming from their outpost in modern-day Baxter Springs, Kan., the armed former slaves in Union uniforms had entered the property and homes of white residents to take their food or other useful supplies.
“The 1st Kansas had come in in force,” said Jasper County archivist and amateur historian Steve Weldon. He said armed former slaves had been a longtime fear in Missouri and other slave-holding states. He said there was a lot of resentment and hatred in the area against the black soldiers.
“They’re madder than hornets,” Carthage author and historian Steve Cottrell said of county residents.
The 1st Kansas Colored had distinguished themselves in October 1862 at what is known as the battle of Island Mound, near Butler. The skirmish was the first combat experience of black soldiers in the Civil War, a Union victory.
Since the last visit of the 1st Kansas to Jasper County, Confederate guerilla activity had increased substantially. On May 13, 1863, Union Maj. Edward B. Eno and 184 of his men went on a scouting expedition into Jasper County, searching for Confederate guerilla leader Thomas Livingston.
The 1st Kansas, under Col. James Williams, its white commander, also had previously encountered Livingston’s men, in a successful assault on a camp of guerillas on an island in Spring River.
“Livingston would not underestimate the regiment after this raid,” wrote John Paul Ringquist in his 2009 doctoral dissertation for the University of Kansas titled “Color No Longer a Sign of Bondage: Race, Identity and the First Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry Regiment (1862-1865).”
On May 14, Eno’s soldiers caught up with Livingston’s men in hand-to-hand battle near present-day Oronogo, with the guerillas repulsing Eno’s Union troops.
The Union troops reorganized, and went on pursuit of Livingston and his men. Livingston’s guerillas split up to avoid capture.
But on May 18, a foraging party from the 1st Kansas came to Livingston’s attention. It was a small group comprised of 25 black soldiers with the 1st Kansas and 22 white soldiers with the 2nd Kansas Volunteer Artillery Battery. They had five wagons, each pulled by six mules.
“It was not well thought out,” Weldon said of the expedition. “They didn’t have the protection they should have.”
They arrived at the farmhouse built by William Rader, a few miles east of the village of Sherwood. William Rader had died years before. His son, Andrew Rader had lived in the house but was enlisted in the Confederate Army. Weldon said probably just Andrew Rader’s wife was there when the Union soldiers arrived at the two-story pine farmhouse.
The black soldiers had set their weapons aside as they threw corn stored upstairs out a window and into the wagons outside.
Livingston and around 70 of his men had been trailing the Union soldiers and emerged from the woods to the south of the farm. The black soldiers didn’t have time to reach their weapons. White soldiers, on horseback, rode away to escape.
Weldon said some of the black soldiers tried to surrender, but they were shot by the guerillas.
“The Rader farm attack lasted no more than five to 10 minutes,” Weldon said.
Fifteen black Union soldiers from the 1st Kansas were killed, including two who were killed after being taken prisoner. Three white Union soldiers from the 2nd Kansas were killed, including one who was killed after being taken prisoner.
Union officer J.K. Graton, based in Baxter Springs, wrote an account of the battle in a letter home to his wife dated May 22, 1863.
“The artillery boys, and our officers being mounted were able to get out of (the) way, but the black boys being on foot had to take it and most of them were killed.”
Graton wrote that the guerillas chased the mounted Union soldiers for six miles, resulting in two more Union deaths.
Ringquist wrote that the black soldiers could offer no resistance after their white leadership fled.
“Instead of standing and dying in common cause with their soldiers, the flight of the white officers set off a panic amongst the dismounted majority,” Ringquist wrote. “Abolitionist sentiments evaporated in the face of imminent annihilation.”
Union soldiers returned to the location the next morning, May 19, finding the bodies of the black soldiers stripped naked and mutilated and their heads bashed.
Weldon said it wouldn’t be good to automatically assume that the guerillas mutilated the bodies.
“There is no proof who in the world did that,” Weldon said. He said it could just as well have been area residents.
Weldon said the white Union soldiers received proper burials, but the bodies of the black soldiers were piled in the farmhouse. There was a final touch.
Union soldiers had found one of Livingston’s men, John Bishop, his shirt bloodied from the battle.
“The colonel had him marched into the house and shot, his body placed upon the pile and the house burned,” Graton wrote about Bishop, referring to the pile of bodies of black Union soldiers.
When the war was done, the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry regiment had suffered more casualties than any other Kansas regiment.
Weldon said an enraged Col. Williams ordered the village of Sherwood and every structure within five miles burned. Sherwood had a population of around 250 at the time and was the third largest town in the county, behind Sarcoxie and Carthage. It was located west of the Rader farm around JJ Highway and Fir Road. Historian and author Larry Wood said the highway was Liberty Street in Sherwood.
Graton wrote that he and his fellow Union soldiers had burned some dozen houses, giving families a few minutes to leave.
“It is pretty hard, but war is a serious business,” he wrote.
Weldon said the order destroyed western Jasper County, with many residents fleeing to Arkansas and Texas. There was no population there again until after the war ended.
Weldon said the story is complicated.
“It’s so full of things to think about,” he said. “There’s hatred and resentment and things boiling over.”