“Black Men Can Fight,” proclaimed the headlines of the Lawrence Republican to Kansas subscribers October 31, 1862. Word had been received that a detachment of former negro slaves had defeated mounted Confederate guerillas at Island Mound near Butler, Missouri, two days before. Details of the battle revealed that nearly 500 Confederates had vowed to take no prisoners before charging the detachment. That may have been the incentive to sway the battle for the former slaves, outnumbered two to one and soon to be battle tested. The results speak for themselves. Knowing the fate that awaited, the ex-slaves not only won the battle they lost only ten men with twelve wounded. The men “fought like tigers,” according to a New York Times correspondent. More important, the engagement may have finally convinced Union officials that a large and able manpower resource was available. Eventually, 180,000 African Americans, freedmen and slaves, served in the army during the Civil War.
The controversial idea of training these former slaves, most of whom had fled to Kansas from Indian Territory, belonged to U. S. Senator James Lane active in promoting Kansas as a free state early in 1861. Lane argued that these freed men should be given an opportunity to serve. The results at Island Mound were positive evidence. On the following January 13, 1863 the First Kansas Colored Infantry Regiment was activated at Fort Scott.
By then the battle lines in the trans-Mississippi Civil War had long been drawn. Confederates convinced the Five Tribes to join their cause. Ultimately unconvinced, Cherokee Chief John Ross fled the previous August. At the onset of the war Fort Gibson was occupied by Confederates, who were driven off by Union forces during April of 1863. Surrounded, the fort was in need of supplies and reinforcements so in late June, 1863 a convoy including the First Kansas, commanded by Col. James Williams left Fort Scott, traveling on the Military Road. The Road entered Indian Territory at Baxter Springs, continued to Cabin Creek crossing, then west of the Grand River south to Fort Gibson.
Camping near Horse Creek, Colonel Williams became aware of a large concentration of Confederate troops at Cabin Creek. Arriving in the vicinity he discovered the creek was at flood stage, but on July 2nd ordered the Ninth Kansas Cavalry and the First Kansas Colored to cross and engage the enemy. Under heavy fire, the foot soldiers struggled through neck-deep water but managed to cross the creek. The enemy was successfully routed and days later the wagon train reached Fort Gibson.
Shortly after, on July 17, 1863, under the command of General James Blunt, The First Kansas, accompanied by several other units, participated in what has been labeled as the largest and most important battle in Indian Territory, Honey Springs near Checotah. The battle was won by Union forces and was unique in one respect, white soldiers were in the minority on both sides. The Kansas regiment was the first ordered into combat. Filing his report following the battle, General Blunt noted, “I never saw such fighting as done by the Negro Regiment…the question that Negroes will fight is settled.”
Moving into Arkansas in September of 1863, the First Kansas along with other units effectively gained control of the Arkansas River after capturing Fort Smith and Little Rock, but disaster awaited. Encamped south of Hot Springs, Colonel Williams was ordered to seize a large quantity of corn stored near Poison Springs. Soldiers from the First Kansas formed details to gather the corn while protected by a force of 500, who were attacked and soon overwhelmed by an estimated 3,600 rebel cavalrymen. After sustained fighting the Union troops retreated, pursued by the rebels for over two miles. The southern troops then turned their attention to the wounded and captured troops of the First Kansas, ultimately executing 182. Confederate killing of African Americans or enslaving them after battles, became frequent the remainder of the war.
Debate continues regarding the “first” African Americans to be organized as regiments in the Union Army. In 1989 Hollywood produced the Academy Award winning film Glory starring Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman as former slaves who enlisted in the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, activated March 13, 1863. The first action involving the 54th was at Grimballs’s Landing, South Carolina, on July 16 and the second much more publicized conflict was at Fort Wagoner on July 18th. The insinuation by Hollywood was that the 54th was the first African American Union regiment in combat. In fact the First Kansas Colored soldiers engaged in battle nine months before the Massachusetts 54th and in fairness, there may have been others. The composition of those two regiments also differed, the First Kansas was composed entirely of ex-slaves from Indian Territory, whereas the 54th included freedmen from New England, but no ex-slaves.
After the war, six Negro cavalry units were formed to serve in the west. Their duties were to control Indians, protect settlers, wagon trains, and railroad construction workers. By that time there was no more debating the fact that “Black men can fight.”
Books on the history of Northeastern Oklahoma are available on Amazon.com and BARNESANDNOBLE.com
Bruce Howell is an author and retired educator. His work includes 1806, an exploration of the Cherokee Nation in Indian Territory. He resides on Grand Lake with his wife, Kay.