The 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry Regiment was more than just the first unit of African-American soldiers to see combat in the Civil War, they were men with compelling stories and diverse backgrounds, said federal historian Ian Michael Spurgeon earlier this week during a fall lecture series in Joplin.
“As this regiment was extremely important, these guys were most importantly men who came from amazingly difficult backgrounds but often, really fought to be treated as equals,” Spurgeon said.
Spurgeon’s discussion of his book, “Soldiers in the Army of Freedom: The 1st Kansas Colored, the Civil War's First African American Combat Unit,” wrapped up the three-month lecture series hosted by the Sherwood/Rader Farm Civil War Park near Carthage in Jasper County and Missouri Southern State University in Joplin.
The lecture series focused on different aspects of the Civil War. Three speakers gave special presentations once a month from September to November in MSSU’s Corley Auditorium.
Spurgeon is a military historian in the Europe-Mediterranean Directorate of the Defense POW/Missing Accounting Agency, which works to recover and identify the remains of missing U.S. service members from past wars. He wrote the book in his spare time. It was published in 2014 by the University of Oklahoma Press.
During his presentation, Spurgeon described the story of the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry as one of the most significant moments in Civil War history, but also one of the most forgotten. The regiment's experience included the first time an organized unit of black soldiers saw combat and fought alongside white soldiers during the Civil War.
Formation and Battle of Island Mound
The 1st Kansas Colored Infantry was formed in 1862 by the efforts of U. S. Sen. James Henry Lane who recruited the troops to fight against the Confederacy. Kansas became the first Northern state to recruit and send black soldiers into combat. Many of the recruits were escaped slaves from area states such as Arkansas and Missouri. Fort Scott became the regiment’s home base.
The soldiers ranged in age from 16 to 50 and were forced to use second-hand equipment from the white units. The regiment was technically illegal because President Abraham Lincoln's administration didn’t authorize Lane to form a black unit.
“At their first battle, black soldiers had not yet been formally mustered into federal service,” Spurgeon said. “They served under state authority. The regiment had not even been recruiting to fill its ranks. It was a novelty, opposed by many white soldiers of other units. Yet the black enlisted men and their white officers struggled to establish their regiment as the legitimate fighting force.”
Spurgeon described the first battle the black troops would see, the Battle of Island Mound that began on Oct. 27, 1862, in Bates County, Missouri. Detachments were instructed to camp near Wilson’s Creek in Butler, Missouri, and fight against Missouri guerillas to protect the Kansas-Missouri territory.
Reports arrived that Confederate guerrilla were operating a few miles from the Union camp and federal officers ordered a detachment of the regiment to chase them away. Spurgeon said Capt. Henry C. Seaman commanded one section of black soldiers and led 70 of the new recruits while Maj. Richard G. Ward commanded a second detachment of 150 men.
The Union soldiers marched into secessionist territory for their first combat, where they covered nearly 20 miles on day one without seeing any action. The next day, however, they met the opposing Confederate forces.
A diversion was created by sending a 60-man detachment to the enemy position. The men marched 2 miles before running into a small group of Confederate horsemen. The black soldiers fought against the guerrillas and killed several enemies while losing none of their men. The detachment was elated to have won its first fight, or so the members thought.
“The Confederates were not done,” Spurgeon said. “Only a few hours later, as the black soldiers sat behind their defenses eating their lunch, big black smoke began to waft into their lines. A grassfire quickly moved across the field toward them — the smoke screen set by the Confederates intended to mask an attack or even chase the black troops off of their fort. The real battle had just begun.”
The Union soldiers were vastly outnumbered and were later met by 130 guerillas. The detachment broke into a quick retreat and hand-to-hand combat ensued. Spurgeon said the stubbornness of the Union detachment kept the Confederates attention and allowed a large group of black soldiers from the fort to reach the scene.
“They blasted into the horsemen from two sides, stunning the Confederates and turning the tide of the battle,” Spurgeon said. “The rebel horsemen retreated, leaving their dead on the ground and the black soldiers in control of the battlefield. As the Union men gathered their dead and wounded, a force of 300 Confederate horsemen appeared in the distant tree line. Yet they did not attack.”
Spurgeon said the 1st Kansas Colored lost eight men and 11 were wounded on Oct. 29. It’s estimated that the regiment killed 18 Confederates and wounded 25. Their first battle was a success. The group later went on to fight in the Battle of Cabin Creek and Battle of Honey Springs, where they were victorious. The group also fought in other battles, including Poison Springs, Sherwood, Jenkins Ferry, Prairie Deanne and Camden.
“The legacy of this regiment will still live as long as we remember it, preserve the historical sites and tell the story of the brave regiment from Kansas,” Spurgeon said.
Many sites and museums in the area have memorials in place to pay homage to the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry. A memorial was placed in the Fort Scott National Cemetery in 2005 to honor the men who died in a guerrilla attack on Sherwood, Mo., in 1863. In 2008, Bates County citizens dedicated a statue to the regiment on the grounds of the courthouse.