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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
The entire battle had lasted two hours. The wagon train was saved, the road to Fort Gibson opened. The train moved out that afternoon and reached the fort on the evening of July 5, ending the garrison’s near starvation and cholera. In the following weeks the 1st Kansas Colored went on with other Union forces under General Blunt to drive the Confederates out of nearly all of Arkansas.
Cabin Creek was a tonic to the men of the 1st Kansas Colored: their morale rose, they stepped spryly for weeks afterward, their relations with the white troops improved. And at long last, they even got paid.
The 1st Kansas Colored’s regimental historian noted the broader significance of the Cabin Creek battle: “This engagement was the first during the war in which white and colored troops were joined in action, and to the honor and credit of the [white] officers and men…be it said they allowed no prejudice on account of color to in- terfere in the discharge of their duty in the face of an enemy alike to both races.” The question of whether blacks would run from a fight was resolved too: the men of the 1st Kansas Colored “evinced a coolness and true soldierly spirit which inspired the officers in command with that confidence which subsequent battle scenes satisfactorily proved was not unfounded.”
Those who escaped watched the same Texans they had beaten at Cabin Creek taunt the wounded black men before killing them.
Colonel Williams was understandably proud. Two weeks later, in the major Battle of Honey Springs, he was seriously wounded in his face, chest, and both hands at the instant he ordered his troops to fire into the enemy line only forty paces away. General Blunt visited him in the field hospital after the battle: “The first thing the colonel said…was, ‘General, how did my regiment fight?’ The general replied, ‘Like veterans, most gallantly.’ And the colonel added, ‘I am ready to die, then.’” Blunt later remarked: “I never saw such fighting as was done by that Negro regiment.… they make better soldiers in every respect than any troops I have ever had under my command.”
Men less favorably predisposed than Williams and Blunt also were impressed. An officer of a Western cavalry regiment commented about Cabin Creek, “I never believed in niggers before, but by Jasus they are hell for fighting.” Because of the 1st Kansas Colored’s performance, white soldiers in the far West came to accept fighting alongside the former slaves.
President Lincoln’s attitude had also evolved throughout 1863. Late in August, after the 1st Kansas Colored had stood at Cabin Creek and Honey Springs, after other black units had seen action along the Mississippi and the 54th Massachusetts Colored Regiment had fought its famous battle at Fort Wagner, South Carolina, Lincoln reproved a group of visitors, come to complain about the arming of blacks: “You say you will not fight to free Negroes. Some of them seem to be willing enough to fight for you.” The same day he sent an open letter to his Democratic opponents, who were exploiting public hostility to blacks to damage Republicans: “You are dissatisfied with me about the negro [but] some of the commanders of our armies in the field who have given us our most important successes, believe … the use of coloured troops, constitute[s] the heaviest blow yet dealt to the rebellion.…when this war was won, there will be some black men who can remember that, with silent tongue, and clenched teeth, and steady eye, and well poised bayonet, they have helped mankind on to this great consummation; while, I fear, there will be some white ones, unable to forget that, with malignant heart, and deceitful speech, they have strove to hinder it.”
The 1st Kansas Colored carried on to the end of the war, marching and sweating, fighting and dying across much of Arkansas and present-day Oklahoma. Fighting alongside white units became routine. They saw more regular combat than any other black regiment of the war. Nine months after Cabin Creek the 1st Kansas was decimated in the disastrous Battle of Poison Springs, Arkansas, suffering half its men killed in four hours. They had been attacked by a greatly superior force while escorting another wagon train. Those who were able to escape were obliged to watch the triumphant Confederates—the same Texans they had beaten at Cabin Creek—taunt the wounded black men lying on the ground with shouts of “Where is the First Nigger now?,” answered by “All cut to pieces and gone to hell by bad management,” before they bayoneted or shot them. Losses were so severe that white non-commissioned officers had to be assigned temporarily to the 1st Kansas Colored’s ranks to plug the gaps.
The survivors vowed never again to take prisoners. For the rest of the war, the battle cry for black soldiers in the entire West became “Remember Poison Springs!”