- Historic Sites
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
Williams had been ordered to move his men eighty miles south, to Baxter Springs, Kansas, as part of the general redeployment of troops out West in conjunction with Ulysses Grant’s actions around Vicksburg. Colonel WiIliams’s mission was to protect and reinforce the regular wagon trains that rolled by on their way south.
Williams now also had some white men under his command—most of them disgusted to be serving with blacks. The cavalrymen were particularly reluctant, and their balking forced Colonel Williams and his men to act with little knowledge of the enemy’s movements.
As a result, on May 18, 1863, a foraging party of twenty-five men from the 1st Kansas Colored and twenty white soldiers were surprised and routed by three hundred Rebels. The Confederates massacred twenty blacks, killed three whites, and took five prisoners, two of them black. Under a flag of truce the Confederate commander exchanged the white prisoners with Williams for Confederates whom the main body of the 1st Kansas Colored had captured earlier, but he refused to exchange the blacks. A little later Williams got word that the Confederates had murdered one of them. He sent another flag of truce, demanding the body of the person who had committed the “barbarous act.” The Confederate commander replied with an insult. Williams promptly ordered shot one of the Confederate prisoners he held. The unfortunate man was dead within thirty minutes. Williams informed the Confederate commander. For the next few weeks, at least, Williams’s ruthless firmness kept the Confederates in his immediate area from murdering black prisoners.
The next morning Williams visited the place where his men had been attacked: “I…for the first time beheld the horrible evidences of the demoniac spirit of these rebel fiends in their treatment of our dead and wounded. Men were found with their brains beaten out with clubs, and the bloody weapons left by their sides, and their bodies most horribly mutilated.”
From then onward Colonel Williams made sure his cavalry supported him.
The Union army in the summer of 1863 maintained a garrison at Fort Gibson, Indian Territory, a group of stone buildings on a bluff a dozen miles or so north of today’s Muskogee, Oklahoma. From there Federal forces were able to protect the Indians who had remained loyal to the Union from the raids of their Confederate brethren and could control much of western Arkansas and even threaten the Rebel capital of Little Rock. But half the Union troops in Kansas and Arkansas, twenty thousand men, had been sent east that spring to help Grant in his siege of Vicksburg. Late in June, to fill the gaps thus opened, General Blunt ordered Williams and the eight hundred men of the 1st Kansas Colored to accompany a large wagon train leaving the post at Baxter Springs on its ninety-mile trip south to Fort Gibson. The men were to strengthen the escort to the crucial supply train and then reinforce the beleaguered garrison. The milelong train of two hundred wagons was no secret as it rumbled out of camp. The Rebels had been expecting it, and their scouts and spies reported its departure immediately.
The Confederates were pressing Fort Gibson, hoping to force Grant to send some of his men back to Arkansas and ease the strain he was putting on the great stronghold at Vicksburg. The Union soldiers in Fort Gibson were almost besieged themselves. Their rations gone, they were surviving on the unsanitary beef and wheat of the Indians who camped around the fort. Cholera had broken out in the fort, and men were dying. If the Confederates could capture the supply train, the Federals would have to withdraw more than 150 miles north, to Fort Scott, Kansas. The South would regain control of Arkansas.
So the creeping supply train had become the key to the war’s westernmost theater. To capture it, the Confederates sent twenty-two hundred men, Indians and Texans under the command of the Indian leader Stand Watie and Brig. Gen. Douglas Cooper. With twice as many men and the initiative of choosing how and when to attack, their prospects looked good.
There had been heavy rains in late June, and high water held up the wagon train for three days at the Neosho River, fifteen miles south of Baxter Springs. When the river had finally fallen enough to cross on June 26, some Cherokee Indians who were part of the escort preceded the train across and noticed a fresh trail on the far side. They pursued it and found the Confederates awaiting them on the road to the south, at a ford over Cabin Creek. The Rebels had dug a line of rifle pits along the sloping bank on the south side of the creek, camouflaging them with willow boughs. The Cherokees saw the Confederate force but not the rifle pits. About this time six hundred white cavalry and infantry arrived to reinforce Williams’s command.
The 1st Kansas Colored and the wagon train trudged down the road, arriving at the ford about noon on July 1. There had been more rain since they crossed the Neosho, and Cabin Creek was too high for infantry to ford that day. Colonel Williams ordered the train parked in the open prairie, posted a one hundred-man guard, had the rest of his force camp for the night, and called in his officers for a war council.