They charged through blood and fire, so that the nation might live. However, at the time of their military service, they were not even recognized as citizens of the country they fought so valiently to defend.
They were the men who comprised the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry. Their regiment compiled a proud campaign record in Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas and the Indian Territory during the Civil War.
Contrary to popular belief, the 1st Kansas was the first black regiment raised and trained by a state during the American Civil War. They were recruited to serve in the United States Army as a fighting unit. However, Hollywood would have you believe the 54th Massachusetts Infantry was the first black unit to serve as a fighting regiment. The 54th's story was portrayed in the 1989 film Glory.
But according to history, the honor belongs to the 1st Kansas.
Kansas senator James H. Lane began recruiting blacks as soldiers in June of 1862. He was successful at organizing two regiments.
The Fort Scott Bulletin reported on August 16, 1862, "Colored Regiments--Gen. Lane is still going on with the work of organizing two Colored Regiments, notwithstanding the refusal of the President to accept black soldiers. Last Tuesday about fifty recruits were raised here."
The 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry Regiment was mustered into the United States Army on January 13, 1863, at Fort Scott, Kan.
Colonel James M. Williams served as the regiment's commanding officer. Throughout the Civil War, white officers commanded black regiments. However, a few black soldiers would eventually earn an officer's rank. Others were promoted to positions within the regiment as non-commissioned officers.
War to the Knife
Civil War historians describe the war in the Indian Territory as "war to the knife and the knife was usually driven in to the hilt." This is the kind of war that the men of the 1st Kansas faced. This particular section of the Trans-Mississippi theatre of the war had one fact that was accepted by the soldiers on both sides. Prisoners would not be taken. Quarter was not asked and it was not given, even to the unfortunate wounded who could not escape.
Many people do not realize the war reached into the Indian Territory. Historians have found evidence of more than 110 Civil War battles and skirmishes that were fought in Indian Territory. The men of the 1st Kansas participated in many of these lost and forgotten battles of the war.
1st Kansas "Firsts"
The 1st Kansas was the first black infantry regiment to see combat in the war. They participated in the battle of Island Mound, Mo. on October 28,1862.
The 1st Kansas Colored Infantry also holds the unique distinction as the first black unit in the United States Army to fight alongside white soldiers. This event took place at what historians call the first battle of Cabin Creek, Indian Territory. The battle was fought July 1-2, 1863 at the Cabin Creek ford of the Texas - Military Road, which ran between Fort Scott, Kan. and Fort Gibson, Indian Territory.
Two weeks later, the regiment participated in the largest Civil War battle in Indian Territory. The battle of Honey Springs was fought near present-day Rentiesville, Okla. on July 17, 1863. The entire regiment of the 1st Kansas was engaged in the battle. Members of the regiment fought bravely and captured a Confederate battle flag from the 29th Texas Cavalry. The battle would prove to be the high water mark for Confederates in the territory.
The Texans and the 1st Kansas would meet again on April 18, 1864 at Poison Springs, Ark. A detachment of the 1st Kansas was helping escort a Federal wagon train of 200 wagons to the Union base at Camden, Ark., when a Confederate force attacked and captured the wagon train.
Federal reports in the Official Records cite the killing of the Union wounded, including all of the black soldiers the Confederates found on the field. It was also reported that the Confederate forces had brought thousands of pairs of shackles in order to take any captured black soldier back in to bondage. This report was substantiated after the war, when several pairs of shackles and chains were found near the Confederate lines.
The soldiers of the 1st Kansas also performed other duties, including escort, engineer and garrison duty during the war. Duty with haying parties and wagon train escorts were especially dangerous. Men often had to work with their weapons in easy reach, in case of enemy attack.
On September 16, 1864, a small detachment of the 1st Kansas was cutting and baling prairie hay for the command at Fort Gibson at Flat Rock, Indian Territory in the Cherokee Nation. The detachment also included men from the 2nd Kansas Cavalry.
A mixed Confederate force of almost 2,000 Texas and Indian cavalry led by Brigadier Generals Richard M. Gano and Stand Watie attacked the haying party, forcing the Union soldiers to seek shelter in a ravine on the prairie. As the Confederate cannon pounded the Federal position, Captain Edgar A. Barker made a decision. He would mount his remaining troops and try to break through the Confederate lines. The black soldiers would have to remain behind.
Of the 65 men who made the charge through the Confederate line, only 15 men succeeded. The rest were either killed or captured.
Lieutenant Thomas B. Sutherland now found himself in command of the black soldiers in the ravine. He told the men to "sell their lives dear" as the soldiers formed to volley fire into the on-coming Confederate line. The men of the 1st Kansas held off three separate attacks before being forced to flee. The Union forces suffered more than 100 casualties. It was reported that out of 37 black soldiers who had been with the detachment, only four remained left alive.
General Gano, a preacher after the war, reported that "the sun witnessed our complete success and that its last lingering rays rested upon a field of blood." Survivors reported that several black soldiers were murdered after they had surrendered. Several soldiers had been found hiding in a nearby creek. They were dragged out and shot.
"The Longest Walk I Ever Took"
A few days later, this same Confederate force attacked and captured a wagon train of 300 wagons at Cabin Creek, Indian Territory. The remaining men of the 1st Kansas regiment were called upon to try to recapture the wagon train. The regiment was camped between Fort Gibson and Fort Smith, Ark. Williams ordered his men to get ready to move as quickly as possibe. The soldiers had to march "at the double quick" an estimated 80 miles in less than 48-hours. Speaking to an interviewer years after the war, one aged veteran Corporal Allen Lynch recalled that it was "the longest walk I ever took."
Colonel Williams and his troops arrived at Pryor Creek, located a few miles south of Cabin Creek and tried to lay a trap for the enemy. They attacked the advance party of the Confederate force as it came down ahead of the wagon train. Skirmishing continued until sundown and Williams ordered his men to stay in line. The soldiers had had no rest or hot food. Now they were ordered to sleep in battle formation.
Williams was sure there would be a battle the next morning. He and his men were ready. However, when dawn came the next day, the Confederates were gone. They has slipped out during the night. Williams was unable to pursue the train due to the exhausted condition of his men.
On December 13, 1864, a general reorganization of the black regiments was done and the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry became the 79th United States Colored Troops.
The 79th U.S. Colored Troops would be one of the last regiments mustered out at the end of the Civil War. They would do their duty until October 30th, 1865.
President Lincoln later called the 180,000 men who served in the U.S.C.T. "the sable arm" and credited them for helping turn the tide of the war.
The Friends of Cabin Creek Battlefield are taking steps to recognize the 1st Kansas and their service. The group will dedicate a monument to the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry at 10:00 a.m. on Saturday, July 7 at the Cabin Creek Battlefield Park. The park is open daily from daylight to dusk and is located off of Oklahoma Highway 28 six miles east of Adair and three and a half miles north of Pensacola, Okla.
Combat Record of the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry
Island Mound; near Butler, Missouri -- October 28, 1862
Reeder Farm; near Sherwood, Missouri -- May 18, 1863
Cabin Creek, Indian Territory -- July 1-2, 1863
Honey Springs, Indian Territory -- July 17, 1863
Poison Springs, Arkansas -- April 18, 1864
Flat Rock Creek, Indian Territory -- September 16, 1864
Timber Hills, Indian Territory -- November 19, 1864
The Prairie Was on Fire: The Civil War in Indian Territory
The Sable Arm: Negro Troops in the Union Army Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers
Brilliant Victory: The Second Civil War Battle of Cabin Creek, Indian Territory
Kepi's and Turkey Calls: An Anthology of the War Between the States in Indian Territory
Army Life in a Black Regiment
Documentary: "Last Raid at Cabin Creek" available on Amazon.com
*Originally published February 2008