In 1989 the movie-going public was captivated the heroism of the 54th Massachusetts, the African American regiment depicted in the movie Glory. Hailed as "one of the finest historical dramas ever made," this Oscar winning film was nevertheless incorrectly billed as the "story of America's first unit of black soldiers during the Civil War." In reality, that distinction could easily be given to the First Regiment Kansas Colored Infantry, which got its "baptism by fire" in the fall of 1862 and, in less than a year, distinguished itself as a fighting unit at Honey Springs, Indian Territory.
Controversy erupted as the First Kansas Colored began to form in August 1862. They would be the first African Americans recruited in the Northern states for service in the Civil War. These African Americans would soon be the first to see battle, and the first to die in action.
The recruiter of the First Kansas Colored was no stranger to controversy himself. U. S. Senator James Henry Lane had been a prominent figure in Kansas since 1855, and was often deeply involved in the turmoil in bringing Kansas into the Union as a free state. His efforts to raise black troops was based on his interpretation of an order to recruit regiments. It was not an interpretation shared by many on either the state or federal level.
As a result, five months would pass before the First Kansas Colored was accepted into federal service. The delay was due to an opposition to the arming of black troops among many in the North and federal policy that reflected this prejudicial attitude. This would not deter them from training or seeing action. Despite the existence of a widespread national reticence, many Kansans advocated the use of black troops early on, and during the fall of 1862, a portion of the regiment engaged in battle with a rebel force at Butler, Missouri, thus gaining distinction as the first "colored soldiers in the Union army" tested in battle. "The blacks behaved nobly," reported the Lawrence Republican, "and have demonstrated that they can and will fight." According to the Republican's correspondent, Lieutenant W. H. Smallwood, "the battle of Toothman's Mound [also Island Mound]," October 29, proved "that black men can fight," and they were "now prepared to scour this country thoroughly, and not leave a place where a traitor can find refuge." On October 28, 1862, a detachment of 225 men faced 500 Confederates at Island Mound in Bates County, Missouri. Ten were killed and 12 wounded, but the Confederates were driven off. The regiment's first taste of action had been a success.
The preserved regimental flag of the First Kansas Colored Infantry is a document of the gallantry of that unit. Recorded on it are the battle honors of Island Mound, Cabin Creek, Honey Springs, and Poison Springs, as well as the battles of Sherwood, Prairie Deanne, Jenkins Ferry, and Camden. It and three other flags of the regiment are the few remaining artifacts to remind us of a regiment that was the first in many ways.
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Colonel, James M. Williams; Lieutenant-Colonel, John Bowles; Major, Richard G. Ward; Adjutant, Richard J. Hinton; Quartermaster, Elijah Hughes; Surgeon, Samuel C. Harrington; Chaplain, George W. Hutchingson.
Organized at Fort Scott and mustered in as a Battalion January 13, 1863. Attached to Dept. of Kansas to June, 1863. District of the Frontier, Dept. Missouri, to January, 1864. Unattached, District of the Frontier, 7th Corps, Dept. of Arkansas, to March, 1864. 2nd Brigade, District of the Frontier, 7th Corps, to December, 1864.
Island Mound, near Butler, Missouri (October 28, 1862)
Reeder Farm, near Sherwood Missouri (May 18, 1863)
Cabin Creek, Indian Territory (July 1-2, 1863)
Honey Springs, Indian Territory (July 17, 1863)
Poison Springs, Arkansas (April 18, 1864)
Flat Rock Creek, Indian Territory (September 16, 1864)
Timber Hills, Indian Territory (November 19, 1864)
The composite roster of this regiment contains 2191 names.