About that First Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry
By John LaRoe, 5 February 2021
There is, in Butler, MO, a Civil War sculpture that belongs in the public square. It memorializes genuine heroes, commemorates their courageous acts in defense of the Union, and preserves real history in its plaque, which reads:
'First Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry'
The 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry fought and won the Battle of Island Mound, also known as The Battle of Fort Toothman, on October 28 & 29, 1862 in Charlotte Township approx 7.5 miles southwest of Butler. It is said to have been the only battle fought on Bates County soil in which regular U.S. troops were involved. The First Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry was the first black unit to fight in the Civil War. Reportedly, Southern rebels outnumbered the black troops five to one, attacked the fort and fierce hand-to-hand combat ensued. Of [them] it was written, 'They Fought Like Tigers.'
Volunteers were recruited into the 1st (& 2nd) Kansas Colored Infantry in 1862, making Kansas the first Northern state to recruit and train Black soldiers into a state's military service in the Civil War. But the units could not be mustered into federal service until the Emancipation Proclamation, which also authorized the recruitment of Black troops, was announced at the end of that year. (NPS)
On hearing of the recruiting of Blacks to serve as soldiers, Confederate commanders issued a general order (21 August 21 1862) that "crimes and outrages" such as that merited "retaliation." Any Union officer captured in command of Black troops, it was ordered, would be "executed as a felon." Southern troops would take no Black prisoners. They would, at best, be returned to slavery, but more likely would be slaughtered if captured (Carle).
By that time, the 1st Kansas had already been sent into battle, at Island Mound (aka Fort Toothman).
Captain William D. Mathews, commanding Company D of 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry Regiment, spoke in celebration of the unit's incorporation as a federal unit on 1 January 1863:
Today is a day that I always thought would come ... Now is our time to strike. Our own exertions and our own muscle must make us men. If we fight we shall be respected. I see that a well-licked man respects the one who thrashes him. (NPS)
Battles in which the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry fought:
In one of the Confederacy's most notorious atrocities of the war, Southern soldiers killed 117 and wounded 65 members of the 1st at Poison Springs, slaughtering and mutilating many of them as they lay wounded; and "Remember Poison Springs!" became a battle cry of Black troops serving in Union ranks in the West through to the end of the war (NPS & Carle).
At Cabin Creek, in the Indian Territory, the 1st Kansas Colored became the first Black troops to fight alongside white troops in the Civil War (Carle).
Following the Battle at Honey Springs, Major General James G. Blunt described their performance in that battle like so: "I never saw such fighting as was done by that Negro regiment. ... they make better soldiers in every respect than any troops I have ever had under my command" (Carle).
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