On Sunday, the Columbia Daily Tribune reported that Missouri dedicated a new state historic site, intended to serve as a monument to the bravery of the black Union soldiers who served with the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry Regiment at a small, but important battle at Island Mound.
“At the time, there was a national discussion about whether African-Americans could be soldiers and stand up to white men and fight,” said Alison Dubbert, a historian with the Missouri State Parks Department.
“A lot of people figured they would throw their guns down and run away. This battle kind of put that to rest.”
One hundred fifty years ago this week, the 240 soldiers of the 1st Kansas, mostly escaped slaves, entered Bates County, Missouri, to clear out rebel recruiters and guerrillas.
“They commandeered the log home of local Southern sympathizer, Enoch Toothman, fortified the yard with fence rails and christened it ‘Fort Africa,’” the Missouri Civil War Sesquicentennial said.
On October 28, 1862, Confederates and black soldiers of the 1st Kansas engaged each other in skirmishes throughout the day.
The next day, a small detachment of about 30 black troops led by Lt. Joseph Gardner, engaged a force of over 100 well-armed Confederate horsemen in deadly hand-to-hand fighting on the southern slope of Island Mound.
A report in the official War Department record says that rebels charged Gardner’s forces.
“The boys took the double-quick over the mound in order to gain a small ravine on the north side, but while they were on the north slope the enemy came upon them. Nothing dismayed, the little band turned upon their foes, and as their guns cracked many a riderless [horse] swung off to one side,” the report said.
“The enemy cried out to the men to surrender, but they told them never. I have witnessed some hard fights, but I never saw a braver sight than that handful of brave men fighting 117 men who were all around and in amongst them. Not one surrendered or gave up a weapon,” the report added.
Confederate horsemen who rode through Gardner’s position encountered another detachment of Union troops who fired into the charging rebels.
Turning to outflank the Union soldiers, rebels ran into yet another volley of fire from a detachment of Union soldiers.
The combined Union forces forced Confederates to retreat toward Gardner’s soldiers, ultimately dispersing the rebel force.
“The black soldiers received praise from both sides on how hard they fought. If they gave up, they would either be killed on the spot or taken back to slavery. They were fighting for their lives and their freedom,” Dubbert said.
“This is what we have done. We have demonstrated that the Negro is anxious to serve his country, himself and race; that he can be drilled and made effective as a soldier; and that he will fight as well as any other set of men,” wrote Lt. Richard Hinton, a white officer who served with the 1st Kansas.
According to author Angela Y. Walton-Raji, “[t]he fact that black men on foot defeated men on horseback rocked the nation to its core,” and hastened “the eventual establishment of the Bureau of Colored Troops the following year.”
The performance of the 1st Kansas “paved the way for additional African-American regiments,” the Missouri Civil War Sesquicentennial said.
Ultimately, the Union enlisted some 200,000 black soldiers during the war.
“Formally mustered into the federal army in 1863, the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry Regiment would win praise as a disciplined and first-rate infantry unit,” the Associated Press said.
More of this series at quadrust.com can be found here.