Most of the men of the First Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry were escaped slaves. Many fled to Kansas from farms and towns in Missouri or Arkansas to find freedom. Some may have been "stolen" in Jayhawk raids. Others in the regiment were free men of color who had moved to Kansas in the hope of a better life. All faced prejudice and bigotry from their white neighbors.
Recruiting the First Kansas Colored
In August 1862, Sen. Jim Lane was appointed Commissioner of Recruiting for the Union Army in the Department of Kansas. Capts. James Williams and Henry Seaman began recruiting African Americans almost immediately, even though President Lincoln had not authorized recruitment of black soldiers. On Aug. 5, Lane reported to the Secretary of War that "recruiting opens beautifully," and emphasized that he enlisted enough African Americans to form two regiments.
In Leavenworth, a prominent African-American businessman named William D. Matthews recruited an entire company (approximately 100 men) for the First Kansas. Matthews received a commission as captain of Company D. Two other African Americans, Henry Copeland and Patrick Minor, were commissioned as lieutenants for Company D. Lt. Minor took part in the fighting at Island Mound and gained the distinction of being the first African-American officer to serve in combat during the Civil War.
They Fought Like Tigers
On Jan. 13, 1863, less than two weeks after the Emancipation Proclamation took effect, the First Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry became the fifth African-American regiment to be mustered into Federal service - three months after they had fought and won their first battle.
On Oct. 29, 1862, part of the First Kansas Colored Infantry faced a force of Confederate guerillas more than double their number at Island Mound in Bates County, Mo. They were the first African-American regiment to come under fire in the Civil War. It was widely believed by white Americans that escaped slaves would not have the courage to engage in deadly combat with their former masters. The men of the First Kansas fought so valiantly that Eastern newspapers reported the battle. Even their enemy praised them. Guerilla leader Bill Turman reportedly said they "fought like tigers."
Throughout the Civil War, black soldiers knew they would be killed or returned to slavery if captured. At the Battle of Poison Springs, Ark. on April 18, 1864, Confederates violated the rules of war by executing captured and wounded black soldiers. In the West, "Remember Poison Springs!" was a battle cry of black regiments for the remainder of the war.
The First Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry Battle Honors
From the time that Jim Lane opened recruitment in August 1862, they were mustered out of service on Oct. 1, 1865, the First Kansas Colored Infantry saw extensive action. They fought in 16 battles and numerous small skirmishes.
Recruitment of the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry began, Aug. 1862
Island Mound, Bates County, Mo., Oct. 29, 1862
1st Kansas mustered into Federal service, Jan. 13, 1863
Sherwood, Mo., May 5 and 18, 1863
Cabin Creek, Cherokee Nation, July 1-2, 1863
Honey Springs, Indian Territory, July 17, 1863
Lawrence, Kan., July 27, 1863
Horse-Head Creek, Ark., Feb. 17, 1864
Roseville Creek, Ark., March 20, 1864
Prairie D'Ann, Ark., April 13, 1864
Poison Springs, Ark., April 18, 1864
Jenkins' Ferry, Ark., April 30, 1864
Flat Rock Creek, Indian Territory, Sept. 16, 1864
Fort Gibson, Cherokee Nation, Sept. 16-18, 1864
Timber Creek, Cherokee Nation, Nov. 19, 1864
Re-designated the 79th United States Colored Infantry, Dec. 13, 1864
Joy's Ford, Ark., Jan. 8, 1865
Clarksville, Ark., Jan. 18, 1865
Roseville Creek, Ark., March 20, 1865
79th USCI mustered out of service, Oct. 1, 1865
[1.] Sen. Jim Lane was an abolitionist who favored using former slaves in military service. His Jayhawkers brought hundreds of "liberated" African Americans to Kansas from their raids into Missouri and Arkansas. Many joined the First Kansas.
[2.] As a matter of Federal Army policy, when the First Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry was federalized in 1863 William Matthews was denied a commission in the First Kansas because of his race. He went on to serve as a 1st Lieutenant in the Independent Colored Battery at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.
[3.] Following the Battle of Honey Springs, Union Maj. Gen. James Blunt included a note about the First Kansas in his report: "The First Kansas (colored) particularly distinguished itself;...Their coolness and bravery I have never seen surpassed; they were in the hottest of the fight, and opposed to Texas troops twice their number, whom they completely routed."