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The First Kansas Colored
They were the first black men to fight in the Civil War. They were the first to serve alongside whites. And they were the first to die.
February/March 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 1
Kansas had an unusually large number of people with progressive racial views. The territory had been settled in the 185Os, the defining group of men coming from New England with a moral purpose: to make sure Kansas entered the Union free of slavery. They had been fighting since 1854. John Brown had murdered in Kansas in the name of abolitionism before returning east to raid Harpers Ferry and become to abolitionists the martyred symbol of the North’s cause. The commander of Fort Gibson, which Williams’s supply train was struggling to reach, was Col. William A. Phillips, a friend of the abolitionist Horace Greeley and a free-soil veteran of the struggles in Kansas before the war. And the commanding general for the entire “Army of the Frontier” was James G. Blunt, a goateed, Maine-born abolitionist doctor who learned his fighting with John Brown during the “Bleeding Kansas” days and was as combative and paranoid as Lane was unscrupulous. The two worked closely together to get blacks under arms, formalities be damned.
Southerners hated Kansas soldiers because of what Kansas represented. Its citizens were in general strongly identified with New England, and Confederates everywhere showed their anti-New England feelings by calling all Northerners Yankees. Thomas J. Key, a Kansan who had supported slavery in the struggles there during the 185Os and who fought for the South, described the Southerners’ widespread beliefs when he said he “hated the base and amorous race of Puritans” because they advocated miscegenation. The Southern bushwhacker William Quantrill would sack and burn Lawrence, Kansas—the heart of abolitionist sentiment—and murder all the town’s men out of hatred for what Kansas abolitionists represented and partly in response to the successes of the 1st Kansas Colored.
Kansas’s reputation drew a steady influx of slaves fleeing Missouri and Arkansas as soon as fight. ing started. They tend- ed to congregate in Leavenworth, although many found greater acceptance, and safety, among the Indian tribes just beyond the white settlements. When the war began in 1861, Kansas had barely eight hundred blacks; by 1865, more than thirteen thousand had made their way to freedom there.
Caesar Johnson was typical of these fugitive slaves. He had belonged to a master in Arkansas, but once the war began, he escaped west into Indian Territory. For a time he lived among the Cherokees, even taking one for a wife. Eventually he made his way through the prairies north to Kansas, first to Lawrence because of its abolitionist reputation, then to Leavenworth to find work. He enlisted in the 1st Kansas Colored there.
Once in Kansas, many blacks had difficulty adjusting to freedom. Often they equated work with slavery and rebelled against it. Often they didn’t want to enlist either. They not only feared leaving their families helpless but also worried about mistreatment by the Army; some had heard that President Lincoln would sell them back into slavery once the war was over. In particular, blacks found insulting the terms Senator Lane offered them: ten dollars a month and a “certificate of freedom.” White soldiers received thirteen dollars, and blacks in Kansas did not need any certificate- they were free. Still, a lot did enlist. They preferred to fight their former masters than to hide from them, and to them, the war was about slavery.
It took a Kansas demagogue, a radical abolitionist general, and an eye-for-an-eye colonel to get the 1st Kansas into action.
Many more had no choice. As Colonel Williams drilled his first recruits outside Leavenworth in the summer of 1862—out of sight because of the hostility conservative whites felt about giving blacks uniforms and rifles—Senator Lane warned the ex-slaves: “Negroes are mistaken if they think white men can fight for them while they stay at home. We have opened the pathway. We don’t want to threaten, but we have been saying that you would fight, and if you won’t fight we will make you.” Some of the 1st Kansas Colored’s initial missions in the fall of 1862 were raids to “liberate” slaves and bring them into the Army at bayonet point.
Many officers in Kansas bickered about whether blacks should be allowed to serve in the Army as a result of Senator Lane’s recruiting and Colonel Williams’s drilling, and when President Lincoln announced the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862, some of them grew so disgusted that they resigned their commissions.
Williams’s response to the turmoil his activities were causing in Leavenworth was simple: he ignored it. The authorities were a problem, but after all, he had hundreds of armed men to enforce his will, and in mid-July 1862 Congress had at last made it legal to “enroll persons of African descent” for “any service for which they may be found competent.” So Williams did as he wished, and he wished to recruit, arm, and drill black men.