The First Kansas Colored

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It had taken Kansas, which had already bled over slavery for nine years, a rabble-rousing senator, a radical abolitionist general, and a teeth-gnashing eye-for-an-eye colonel to bring the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry to the banks of an obscure creek where they would make history that few would notice and virtually all would forget. For at the exact moment the 1st Kansas stared across Cabin Creek in the fading light, millions of Americans strained to pierce the smoke and chaos a thousand miles to the east as 160,000 men fought each other at Gettysburg, and held their breaths as Grant wrestled to bring down Vicksburg and open the Mississippi.

 

Williams’s men rose at dawn on July 2. The colonel deployed one battery of artillery on an elevated position to his left, part of one at his center, only two hundred yards from the enemy, and a mountain howitzer on his right. He assigned a mounted company of the Third Indian Regiment to lead the attack and put the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry directly behind it as the main assault body.

On the far side of Cabin Creek the twenty-two hundred Texans and Indians awaited the attack they could see forming to their front. They would add the advantages of being dug in and on the defensive to their almost two to one numerical superiority. In the rifle pits General Cooper probably had deployed at least a regiment of a thousand men in “500 files,” two rows of five hundred men, one directly behind the other, covering a front of four hundred yards. That meant the 1st Kansas Colored faced a wall of five armed men across every two yards of front, men shooting downhill from concealed positions. To reach them, the Federals would have to cross several hundred yards of ground, wade a rain-gorged stream, scramble up the far bank, and then ascend a slope in battle line, marching shoulder to shoulder.

Civil War rifles were accurate to about 250 yards and lethal to more than 500. A soldier could load and fire his musket about twice a minute. That meant that if the Rebels were well commanded, every 100 yards of Confederate line that morning could fire a solid volley of 250 shots every fifteen seconds. This was almost a bullet spaced every twelve inches, four times a minute, toward a solid mass of advancing men. Colonel Williams’s months of drill had been to prepare the men to face this.

Williams had his twelve hundred men deployed by eight o’clock. He directed his artillery to open fire on the Rebel positions with shell and canister. The black soldiers knelt waiting, bayonets fixed. The men had already been in combat and were not afraid; they were willing to die for the Union, but they flinched involuntarily at each artillery report.

After forty minutes Williams decided the enemy had been sufficiently prepared. He ordered his artillery to cease fire and his men to charge. The Indian cavalry moved out screaming, crossed the creek, and advanced up the other side. The way seemed clear. Suddenly, fifteen to twenty-five yards in front of them, a line of Confederates rose from the concealed rifle pits, shouldered their weapons, and fired a point-blank volley. The Union officer commanding the assault fell from his horse wounded, and the men retreated back to the north side of the creek.

The assault had been blown apart, but the cloud of smoke from the volley revealed the Confederate positions. Colonel Williams ordered the 1st Kansas Colored, which had just reached the water’s edge, to file to the right along their own side of the creek and form a battle line directly across from the Confederates. As soon as they took up the new position, they found themselves in easy range of the Confederates and clawed at the rifle pits with a hot fire while the Union artillery opened up again.

An hour into the fighting Williams ordered his companies of Kansas cavalry to replace the Indian regiment in the advance and to assault the Rebel lines again. This time, under the strong supporting fire from the 1st Kansas Colored, the cavalrymen managed to establish a beachhead on the south side of the creek. But there were not enough of them to take the Rebel line. Williams pushed forward into the river, his infantry wading after him, waist deep in the water. Once across, the men of the 1st Kansas Colored stopped on the far bank to re-form ranks, then advanced at a run, yelling. Soldiers fell as the regiment went up the slope, but the line still closed on the firing Confederates.

It was too much for the Rebels. Their line in the rifle pits collapsed, but they regrouped four hundred yards farther back, forming up on the edge of the prairie. Williams ordered a third assault. This time the enemy had no entrenchments to help them hang on. The Union surged ahead, and the Confederates broke and ran. It was a rout. The Kansas Colored pursued them for five long miles.

Only eight men from the 1st Kansas Colored had been killed, thirty wounded, perhaps indicating that the Rebels shot too high in the heat of battle, a common error of troops firing downhill. The Confederates suffered about one hundred killed and wounded; their bodies floated by Fort Gibson for days afterward.