During the fall of 1862, Bates County had become a haven for guerrillas and Confederate recruiters. One of their favorite haunts was a marshy tract on the Marais-des-Cygnes River, southwest of Butler, known to locals as "Hog Island." On Oct. 27, approximately 240 members of the First Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry marched into Bates County to clear out the rebels.
The black troops commandeered the farmstead of local Southern sympathizers, Enoch and Christiana Toothman, fortified the yard with fence rails, and christened it "Fort Africa."
Scouts and local citizens reported that a force of several hundred Southern sympathizers - bushwhackers or guerrillas - were in the area. Messengers returned to Kansas to request reinforcements. The First Kansas planned to skirmish with the Southerners until reinforcements arrived and then make a strong final attack. During the next two days, the black soldiers skirmished with the bushwhackers.
Fire on the Prairie
On Oct. 29, a detachment of about 30 black troops under Capt. Andrew Armstrong and Lt. Richard Hinton were sent to engage the bushwhackers as a diversion while a foraging party tried to replenish dwindling food supplies.
1. After the Kansas troops returned to camp, the rebels set fire to the prairie. The Kansans set a backfire to prevent the raging flames from reaching Fort Africa. Using the smoke as cover, rebel skirmishers shot at the black pickets, driving them back to Fort Africa. The rebels withdrew, hoping to provoke a pursuit by the First Kansas.
2. Capt. Henry Seaman sent out a party of eight to scout the rebel position. They were supposed to remain in view of camp. However, they ventured out of sight behind a low hill known as Island Mound.
Lt. Joseph Gardner and about 20 men left camp to find the scouting party. Instead of returning, they joined forces and proceeded into the river bottom to investigate a log house about half a mile away. Capt. Andrew Crew and Lt. Elkanah Huddleston left camp without orders and also joined the black force. The black troops had been lured farther away from their camp and into a rebel trap.
3. The small party of Kansans were about a mile from Fort Africa when some 130 rebel horsemen emerged from the woods bordering the Marais-des-Cygnes River and galloped toward the black soldiers. The black detachment retreated toward Island Mound and the shelter of a ravine. The Southern horsemen caught up to them before they could reach the ravine.
A Bloody and Desperate Battle
On the southern slope of Island Mound the two groups clashed in deadly fighting. Amidst the prairie fires set by both sides, the bloody and desperate battle was fought hand to hand with no mercy given.
There was no unit cohesion as the Southerners rode in among the trapped black soldiers. Outnumbered six to one, they faced a mounted foe armed with shotguns, pistols and sabers. The black soldiers fought back ferociously, using their bayonets and the butts of their rifles against their attackers.
4. Many Southern horsemen rode through the Federal position and around the western side of Island Mound. They were met by Capt. Armstrong's company, which was coming to the support of Gardner's embattled detachment. As the horsemen moved around Armstrong's position to flank him, Capt. Luther Thrasher's company took a position on the northeast edge of Island Mound.
5. As the Southerners rode around the northern side of the mound, Thrasher opened fire on them. Lts. Luther Dickerson and Patrick Minor blocked a rebel breakthrough to the north. The Southerners retreated over the top of Island Mound and back to Hog Island.
Casualties of the First Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry were eight killed and 11 wounded. Southern losses are not known but were probably similar. The day after the battle, Union reinforcements arrived and the combined force moved on Hog Island only to discover that it had been vacated. Newspapers across the nation reported on the battle. Accounts about the black soldiers' bravery helped to ease doubts about how former enslaved men might perform in battle.