The First Kansas Colored

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By late August 1862 five hundred men were in camp outside Leavenworth. Only days before, they had been fugitives, slaves, property like someone’s horses and pigs. Now they wore red pantaloons imported from France and marched in step. The men exhibited enormous pride when in uniform and under discipline, and they impressed everyone with their “fine appearance” and their superb precision on the drill field. Their officers were white, as was the case in all black units throughout the war, but their noncoms officers were black. These noncoms were virtually all illiterate. Slaveholders had generally forbidden their chattel to learn how to read or write. Out from under the control of their masters, most black soldiers during the war showed great interest in learning to read, and benevolent societies of civilians formed around black units to teach them. Illiterate or not, the noncoms performed with diligence and competence throughout the war.

All the blacks in Williams’s new outfit had been denigrated as subhuman, assumed to be cowards at the same time they were forbidden to bear arms for fear of their savagery. For much of their service they were assigned to cut hay or carry crates, tasks whites considered less honorable than fighting. If they left the protection of the Union army, they risked summary murder as renegades by men who hated and feared them. After escaping from their masters and before enlisting, many had lived barefoot and in rags around Union camps in Arkansas in makeshift tents of quilts and blankets, with a few handfuls of straw for bedding and banked earth to block the wind, rain, and snow. Little more sustained them than a fatalistic and unhesitating faith in God. Unless the Army fed them, they starved.

But now the men of the 1st Kansas Colored were wearing the brass buttons stamped “U.S.,” and they had rifles on their shoulders. In a few months they would march into battle singing their own version of “John Brown’s Body”:

while weep the sons of bondage, whom he ventured to save, But tho ’ he lost his life in struggling for the slave His soul is marching on.

As one colonel back East later wrote, they had gone from “clanking chains to clashing arms.” They were taking control of their own lives. Whatever happened to them, society could not be completely the same again.

It was good that Williams worked his men so hard. For while even relatively sympathetic Kansans considered black troops a questionable experiment, the response of the Confederate government to the North’s arming of blacks was categorical: on August 21, 1862, Confederate army headquarters issued a general order that such “crimes and outrages” required “retaliation.” Any captured Northern officer who had commanded black troops would be “executed as a felon.” Southern troops made clear they would take no black prisoners. The best the 1st Kansas Colored could hope for if captured was to be returned to slavery. But Southern troops in Arkansas and Missouri spoke of the “First Nigger” regiment up in Kansas and would surely slaughter any defenseless black soldiers they found.

That fall a detachment of 225 men from the 1st Kansas Colored moved one hundred miles southeast to near Butler, Missouri. On October 28, 1862, a group of 500 Confederates surprised them. After a sharp skirmish the 1st Kansas drove off the enemy. Ten 1st Kansans died in the fighting, with 12 wounded. This was the first time anywhere in the war that black troops had been in combat.

Other, more recently organized companies of black troops joined the original five hundred men of the 1st Kansas Colored during the winter and spring of 1863. By early May all of them were fed up. They were constantly assigned the hardest work and given the least rest. Not only were white soldiers paid more, but many of the 1st Kansas had served for over ten months, and the regiment had not been paid even once, while all around them the white soldiers were paid regularly.

Men started deserting. Williams noticed “a restlessness and insubordination,” a “muti- nous” spirit. He protested to General Blunt, demanding that his men be paid, but instead he received marching orders; they probably saved the 1st Kansas Colored from disintegration.

These morale problems over pay are nearly all that we know of the individual feelings of the men in the ranks. Occasionally one finds allusions to their pride in drill or uniform, and once in a great while a soldier is quoted—but only exclaiming in combat or at the instant of being killed. No one, civilian or military, seems to have thought the soldiers’ remarks worthy of taking down. The one descendant of a 1st Kansas Colored soldier the author was able to locate confirmed that his grandfather, Caesar Johnson, was illiterate. Staff Johnson kindly shared what reminiscences his grandfather had told him; they have been incorporated in the text. However, if the record is all but mute about what these soldiers thought, it is very clear about what they did.