The First Kansas Colored

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I had long been of the opinion that this race had a right to kill rebels.” Col. James M. Williams, commander of the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry, always spoke, said a contemporary, as though he were “grinding his molars or gritting his teeth.” His regiment of escaped black slaves had been the first organized into service for the United States government, and he was determined that it give a good account of itself. They had already been the first blacks in combat in the Civil War and the first to die serving the flag. Williams had worked his men hard for months, had strong-armed civilian authorities to get his way, wedding his Puritan abolitionist fervor with a self-conscious sense of personal dignity. Now the twelve hundred men of his command—camped for the night of July 1, 1863, at Cabin Creek, Indian Territory- were about to make history, and if Williams did not know it, he nonetheless had brought it to pass.

Never before in the Civil War had black troops fought alongside white ones. Most whites, even many abolitionists, refused to consider the proposition. Maybe blacks should not be slaves, but certainly they were not the equals of white men and should not dishonor white soldiers by taking up arms themselves. Yet at this moment Williams had under his command some white infantry and cavalry units from Colorado and Kansas. The Confederates had blocked the line of march; they stood between Fort Gibson and the essential mile-long supply train in Williams’s charge. Whatever white men might think in general, here they would have to work with black soldiers if they wanted to survive. The Rebels were only a few hundred yards away, on the other side of the creek. Williams would attack the next morning, and he would use all his men.

It had taken the efforts of some very unusual men in addition to Williams to get the colonel and his command to the brink of battle.

 

The Kansas senator James H. Lane, the “Grim Chieftain,” was an outrageous demagogue. Tall, lanky, with a high forehead, deep-set eyes, and hollow cheeks, Lane was histrionic, played to his audience with populist rhetoric, and always put on a good show. He had a habit of progressively undressing while haranguing a crowd, throwing off one garment after another as his voice grew more strident. Had his life taken a different turn, he might have become a road-show preacher (in fact, one of his campaign tactics was to find God and be rebaptized in the towns where he traveled to deliver his speeches and undress). Instead, he had gone from pro-slavery Democrat to abolitionist Republican. At the start of the war, when the Federal capital was threatened with capture, Lane had organized the “Frontier Guards” and camped with them in the East Room of the White House to protect the President. Lincoln found him amusing, but in need of a leash.

In June 1862 Lane started recruiting troops from among free blacks, especially the swelling numbers of fugitive slaves in Kansas, men who had fled their masters in Missouri and Arkansas. Raising black troops was against the law, and the public and Army were on the whole strongly hostile to it. One Northern soldier summarized the general feeling: “I will Never fight by the side of A Nigger & that is the feeling of the army.…” Said another: “If a negro regiment were to come and camp near an old regiment out here, the men would kill half of them.” And at the very moment Senator Lane was starting to form the 1st Kansas Colored in Leavenworth, on the basis of what he interpreted as a verbal approval from Lincoln, in Washington the President was telling a visiting delegation that “to arm the Negroes would turn 50,000 bayonets from the loyal Border States against us that were for us.”

Lane did not agree, or he did not care. Things were going poorly for the Union that summer of 1862, and Washington was moving inexorably toward a policy of total war. Lane was already organizing Indians and had been “liberating” blacks from their masters in Missouri for almost a year. The President was wary of Lane’s threat to lead thousands of Indian and black Jayhawkers on a vast scorchedearth reprisal raid across secessionist territory, but he needed the men desperately. He tried to sidetrack Lane from a combat command by appointing him recruiting commissioner for Kansas. The ploy worked. Lane started to stump the state with typical vigor: “Great God! They say Jim Lane can’t enlist colored troops!… That is what I am here for. And I hold in my hands a list of the copperheads, disloyal and rebel element in this community; and when I get through organizing colored troops, I am going off to draft these men as cooks for the Negro regiments.”