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Fort Washita rebuilt barracks

Unsung Civil War Heroes

by Rex Griffin

 

American history, since its very inception, has been forged by unsung heroes. Among the most unsung--practically forgotten--are that group of black Americans instrumental in saving Oklahoma (then Indian Territory) for the Union during America's Civil War. Those heroes were the officers and men of the First Kansas Colored Infantry.

The famous 54th Massachusetts, portrayed in the movie Glory, was the first "official" US black regiment. That unit was formed after the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on January 1, 1863, the Year of Jubilee. But some prescient Union generals had come to the conclusion much earlier that black Americans wanted to fight for freedom.

In the Civil War's second bloody year, 1862, the Federal government had yet to sanction the enlistment of black troops. But a few Union generals defied the government and formed fighting regiments of black Americans, from both free men and escaped slaves. Former Senator Jim Lane, the famous Kansas Jayhawker, was among the first of these generals, organizing the 1st Kansas at Fort Scott in the spring of 1862.

In the Sea Islands of South Carolina, General David Hunter was raising a similar regiment at about the same time. In New Orleans, a regiment of free black Americans, which came together on its own in 1861 to defend the Confederacy, had a change of heart after that city fell to the Union. They offered their services to Union Major General Benjamin Butler in the spring of 1862.

But the 1st Kansas were the first black American troops to fight in the Civil War, taking on Confederate guerrillas at Island Mound, Missouri, on October 27, 1962. Throughout that autumn and into 1863, they skirmished with Rebel guerrillas along the Kansas-Missouri border.

Indian Territory, or the Five Nations, was home to the Five Civilized Tribes that had been moved there from parts of the South in the 1830's. Emulating Southern society, some of these Native Americans owned plantations and slaves. The two largest tribes, the Cherokee and Choctaw, would even have Congressional representatives in the Confederate Congress. While the Choctaw and Chickasaw were heavily pro-Confederate, the more northern nations, the Cherokee, Creek and Seminole, were factionalized from the days of their removal and by the time of the Civil War were seriously divided in their loyalties. This led to a bitter, vengeful, destructive war with Native Americans fighting on both sides.

The 1st Kansas stepped into this maelstrom on June 27, 1863. Assigned to guard a supply train from Fort Scott (Kansas) to Fort Gibson (now Oklahoma), they were attacked on Cabin Creek, near present day Locust Grove, by Brigadier General Stand Watie, the brilliant Cherokee warrior and the last Confederate general to surrender. Watie and his men were driven off and the 1st Kansas pushed on to Fort Gibson making it their home base for the next several months.

Skirmishes and battles were frequent during their stay at the fort (renamed Fort Blunt during the Civil War for its commander, Major General James Blunt). During one foray, known as the Battle of Flat Rock, a company of the 1st Kansas was sent out on a work detail to gather hay and were surprised by Confederates. Trying to surrender, the men of that company were massacred to a man.

But the 1st Kansas would have their revenge. In July Gen. Blunt learned that the Confederates he had been facing, under Brigadier General Douglas Cooper, were to be joined by a brigade under Brigadier General William Cabell. To forestall the juncture, Gen. Blunt marched out of Fort Gibson with a force of 3,000 black, white and native soldiers (distinguished historian Edward Bearrs called it the original Rainbow Coalition) to face a Rebel force of 5,700 Native Americans and Texans at the Confederate depot at Honey Springs.

 

At the crucial moment in the battle, the Union "Pin" Native soldiers (called "pins" because of the crossed pins they wore on their lapels) feigned retreat, drawing Cooper's Texans to charge forward. But behind the retreating natives stood the 1st Kansas, which held the center of the line. Disciplined and determined, they marched to within fifty paces of the Confederates and for twenty minutes delivered volley after deadly volley into the Texans until, decimated by heavily casualties, the Rebels finally broke and ran. General Blunt wrote after the battle, "I never saw such fighting as was done by the Negro regiment....The question that negroes will fight is settled; besides they make better solders in every respect than any troops I have ever had under my command."

After the Battle of Honey Springs (also known as Elk Creek or Shaw's Inn), the Confederate forces in Indian Territory were broken. Under Blunt the 1st Kansas fought in many other battles and skirmishes, even taking part in the burning of the Choctaw capital of Perryville (near present-day McAlester.)

Victorious in Indian Territory, the 1st Kansas was shifted to Arkansas to take part in the 1864 Camden Expedition under Major General Fred Steele. At the Battle of Prairie D'Aisne, they faced off against Confederate Brigadier General James Marmaduke. They met Marmaduke again at Poison Springs, where soldiers of the 1st Kansas were once again slaughtered as they tried to surrender in one of the worst atrocities of the war. (It is reported that the monument to the 1st Kansas at Poison Springs is regularly vandalized to this day.) But their courage was never in doubt as they fought back at the Battle of Jenkins Ferry.

The 1st Kansas was finally accepted into the regular (as opposed to volunteer) army on December 13, 1864. Redesignated the 79th US Colored Infantry, those men served out the war on the Frontier and became the forerunners of the famed Buffalo Soldiers of the Old West.

The practically forgotten Black Americans that made up the 1st Kansas Colored deserve a special place in American--particularly Oklahoma--history. It is fervently hoped that this article will inspire others to remember and revitalize interest in those American heroes.

For further information, or to contact the 1st Kansas Colored Living History Association, please contact Bruce Fisher at bfisher@ok-history.mus.ok.us or Omar Reed at oreed@ok-history.mus.ok.us.

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