Organized in 1862 as a state unit, the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry Regiment (later the 79th U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment) was the first African-American regiment to be organized in a northern state and the first black unit to see combat during the Civil War.
The 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry Regiment was the first African-American regiment to see combat during the Civil War. Organized in 1862 as a state unit, the regiment first fought at the Battle of Island Mound on October 29, 1862. Mustered into federal service with the Union Volunteer Army on January 13, 1863, the 1st Kansas Colored became the first unit of black soldiers to fight alongside white soldiers during the war at the First Battle of Cabin Creek on July 1-2, 1863. The regiment later took part in other notable engagements in the Trans-Mississippi Theater, including the Battle of Honey Springs (July 17, 1863) and the Battle of Poison Spring (April 18, 1864). Re-designated as the 79th U. S. Colored Infantry Regiment (New), on December 13, 1864, the regiment mustered out of federal service at Pine Bluff, Arkansas on October 1, 1865, and was discharged at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, on October 30, 1865.
During the first year of the Civil War, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln rejected the idea of recruiting African Americans for service in the Union Volunteer Army. Lincoln feared that mustering blacks into federal service might alienate Border States, prompting them to secede from the Union.
However, as Union military fortunes sagged in 1861 and 1862 (especially in the East), Republicans in Congress became more receptive to the idea. On July 8, 1862, Massachusetts Senator Henry Wilson introduced a bill focused on rectifying the Union’s mounting military problems. After a week of debate, the Senate approved Wilson’s amended proposal and sent it to the House, which passed it the next day. President Lincoln signed the bill, commonly known as the “Militia Act of 1862,” into law on July 17, 1862.
Among its many provisions, the legislation authorized the president “to receive into the service of the United States, for the purpose of constructing intrenchments, or performing camp service, or any other labor, or any military or naval service for which they may be found competent, persons of African descent . . . .” As an incentive for runaway or captured slaves to join the fight, section 13 of the act stipulated that the government would free former slaves who enlisted, along with their mothers, wives, and children.
James H. Lane, U.S. Senator from Kansas took the African American provisions of the Militia Act of 1862 one step further and authorized officials in his state to recruit African Americans for combat positions. Free blacks and former slaves who had escaped to Kansas responded enthusiastically. On August 3, 1862, Lane reported to the U.S. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton that, “Recruiting opens up beautifully. Good for four regiments of whites and two of blacks.”
Hearing no objections from Stanton for nearly three weeks, Lane continued recruiting African Americans for service. On August 4, 1862, the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry Regiment mustered into service as a state unit for Kansas, without federal authorization.
On August 23, 1862, Stanton belatedly informed Lane:
In regard, however, to that portion of your communication which contemplates the raising of two regiments of persons of African descent, you are informed that regiments of persons of African descent can only be raised upon express and special authority of the President. He has not given authority to raise such troops in Kansas, and it is not comprehended in the authority issued to you. Such regiments cannot be accepted into the service.
Undeterred, Lane continued recruiting blacks for state service. By November, over 500 African Americans had enlisted.
First Blacks to Fight in the Civil War
Battle of Island Mound: October 29, 1962
Throughout 1862, southern guerilla fighters, known as bushwhackers, operating out of western Missouri, harassed Union forces and civilians in eastern Kansas. On October 26, 1862, Major Benjamin Henning, the commanding officer at Fort Scott, in Kansas, ordered a detachment of roughly 225 soldiers from the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry Regiment on a mission into Bates County, Missouri, along the Kansas-Missouri border. Accompanied by members of the 5th Kansas Cavalry serving as scouts, their orders were to disperse a guerrilla band operating out of Hog Island in the Osage River.
Arriving in Bates County on October 27, the Kansans established an encampment, which they named Fort Africa, on the farm of John Toothman, a Confederate sympathizer. For the next two days, the black soldiers skirmished with the Missouri bushwhackers in the area. The fighting reached a crescendo on October 29, when the Rebels set fire to the prairie grass surrounding Fort Africa. Using the smoke as cover, the guerrillas briefly attacked and then withdrew, hoping to draw the Kansans into a trap.
When about thirty of the northerners took the bait and pursued, roughly 130 southern cavalrymen surprised them near a low hill known as Island Mound. Outnumbered four-to-one, the black soldiers fought fiercely and drove the Rebels off after reinforcements arrived.
Although the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry Regiment had yet to muster into the Union Volunteer Army, the Battle of Island Mound marked the first time black soldiers officially served as armed combatants in the Civil War. In the fighting’s aftermath, Lieutenant R. Hinton, one of the white officers leading troops, observed that the Island Mound campaign “proved that negroes are splendid soldiers.” The press was equally laudatory. A reporter for the Leavenworth Conservative wrote that “it is useless to talk anymore about negro courage—the men fought like tigers.” Likewise, the Lawrence Republican reported that “The blacks behaved nobly and have demonstrated that they can and will fight.” Senator Lane used the victory to affirm his assertion that Washington officials should allow African American soldiers to serve in combat roles in the Union Army.
On January 1, 1863, President Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation. Besides freeing slaves in areas in open rebellion against the United States, Lincoln’s executive order permitted African Americans to serve in the federal army and navy.
And I further declare and make known that such persons of suitable condition will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places and to man vessels of all sorts in said service. – President Abraham Lincoln, Emancipation Proclamation, January 1, 1863
Two weeks later, the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry Regiment officially mustered into the Union Volunteer Army on January 13, 1863. Headquartered at Fort Scott, Kansas, under the command of Colonel James M. Williams, it was the fourth black regiment to enter the army.
The African American soldiers did not enter the army on an equal footing with their white comrades.
The regiment’s two black officers, Captain William Matthews and Lieutenant Patrick Minor, were forced to give up their commissions when they entered federal service because the War Department would not commission black officers.
Also, unlike their white counterparts, black soldiers risked being summarily executed or forced into slavery if captured by Rebel forces. Despite the added risk, the War Department paid black troops $10 per month for their service—$3 less than white soldiers.
After being mustered into the Union Volunteer Army, the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry Regiment took part in several notable battles.
First Battle of Cabin Creek: July 1–2, 1863
On June 27, 1863, Colonel James M. Williams led a train of 300 wagons out of Fort Scott, Kansas, with supplies for Fort Gibson, Oklahoma (then Indian Territory). Union troops guarding the train included the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry Regiment.
After skirmishing with Confederate pickets on July 1, the Federals learned that 500 Rebels, led by Colonel Stand Watie, lay in ambush on the south side of rain-swollen Cabin Creek, near modern-day Vinita, Oklahoma.
Following a forty-minute artillery barrage against the Confederates on the morning of July 2, Williams ordered three companies of the 1st Kansas to ford the creek through chest-deep water as the wagons began their crossing. After the black soldiers crossed the creek, they engaged the Rebels in bloody hand-to-hand combat. Williams then ordered a cavalry charge that drove Watie’s men off.
The First Battle of Cabin Creek marked the first time an entire unit of black soldiers fought alongside white soldiers in the Union Army. During the fight, the men of the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry Regiment once again demonstrated their capability of serving as combat soldiers.
Battle of Honey Springs (aka Affair at Elk Creek): July 17, 1863
Following the Union victory at the First Battle of Cabin Creek, Brigadier General Douglas H. Cooper began assembling Confederate forces at Honey Springs, Oklahoma (then Indian Territory), a well-known watering hole along the Texas Road. After merging forces with Brigadier General James Cabell’s 3,000 soldiers en route from Fort Smith, Arkansas, Cooper planned to drive Union troops out of their tenuous foothold in Indian Territory at Fort Gibson, thirty miles to the north.
As Cooper planned his operation, Major General James G. Blunt and a division of his Army of the Frontier arrived at Fort Gibson on July 11 to reinforce the federal garrison. Blunt’s reinforcements expanded the number of Union soldiers at Fort Gibson to roughly 3,000.
When Blunt learned from Confederate deserters about Cooper’s plans to march against Fort Gibson, he launched a preemptive assault before the Rebel forces merged and launched their assault.
Blunt began crossing the Arkansas River between Fort Gibson and Honey Springs on July 15. By the next day, the black, white, and Native-American soldiers he commanded completed the river crossing and began a forced march toward Honey Springs. After marching all night, the Federals skirmished with Cooper’s scouts and pickets early the next morning before halting to rest and eat.
After resting his men, Blunt divided his force into two brigades—Colonel William A. Phillips on the left and Col. William R. Judson on the right. Judson’s troops included the men of the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry.
The battle began with an inconclusive artillery duel. When Judson ordered to advance, the First Kansas Infantry marched across open ground to within sixty paces of the Confederate line concealed in the forest.
When the firing started, the Rebels withstood the initial barrage and then mounted three failed counterattacks before retreating across Elk Creek. The First Choctaw and Chickasaw Regiment checked the federal pursuit one half-mile south of the creek long enough for the Confederates to withdraw to North Fork Town. The opportunity to push the Yankees out of Fort Gibson evaporated and the Federals established control over the Indian Territory north of the Arkansas River.
After the Battle of Honey Springs, which was the largest Civil War engagement fought in Indian Territory, Blunt reported:
The First Kansas (colored) particularly distinguished itself; they fought like veterans, and preserved their line unbroken throughout the engagement. Their coolness and bravery I have never seen surpassed; they were in the hottest of the fight, and opposed to Texas troops twice their number, whom they completely routed. One Texas regiment (the Twentieth Cavalry) that fought against them went into the fight with 300 men and came out with only sixty.
Blunt also observed:
I never saw such fighting as was done by the Negro regiment….The question that negroes (sic) will fight is settled; besides they make better soldiers in every respect than any troops I have ever had under my command.
Battle of Poison Spring: April 18, 1864
On March 23, 1863, Brigadier General Frederick Steele marched roughly 6,800 federal soldiers out of Little Rock, Arkansas, launching the Camden Expedition, a part of the Union’s Red River Campaign. After defeating Confederate forces at the Battle of Elkin’s Ferry (April 3–4, 1864) and the Battle of Prairie D’Ane (April 9–13, 1864), Steele’s soldiers occupied Camden, Arkansas, on April 15.
Steele was surprised and disappointed to discover that the large stock of Confederate provisions rumored to be stored at Camden did not exist. Desperately in need of supplies, Steele ordered Colonel James M. Williams to lead a wagon train on a foraging mission out of Camden on April 17. Among the roughly 1,000 Union soldiers accompanying the train were 438 men of the 1st Kansas (Colored) and their white officers.
After foraging (and plundering) the countryside west of Camden, Williams’ Union deployment regrouped near White Oak Creek on the evening of April 17. The next morning, 500 additional cavalry and infantrymen joined them.
As the Yankees began their return trip to Camden on April 18, they met roughly 3,600 Confederate cavalrymen commanded by Brigadier General John S. Marmaduke blocking their route near the small town of Poison Spring. Marmaduke’s troopers included a Choctaw Indian Brigade and some Texans who believed they had a score to settle with the Kansas Colored soldiers after the Confederate defeat at Honey Springs the previous summer.
When Williams encountered the Rebels, he formed a defense around his wagon train. Two Confederate attacks against the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry failed to crack the Union defenses. A third assault by four Rebel brigades broke the Federal lines and forced Williams’ entire command to retreat.
The Confederates briefly pursued the fleeing Yankees into the surrounding swamps before turning their attention to the wounded and captured members of the 1st Kansas. In the fighting’s aftermath, the Texans and Choctaw Indians mercilessly shot, bayoneted, and scalped the defenseless wounded and captive black soldiers.
The Battle of Poison Spring was a Union bloodbath. The 1st Kansas Colored Regiment bore the brunt of the casualties. Of the 438 men who went into battle, 117 were killed and another 65 were missing (presumedly murdered and mutilated). The black survivors of the massacre vowed to never again be taken alive by Confederate soldiers. For the rest of the war, the battle cry of black soldiers in the Trans-Mississippi theater became “Remember Poison Springs!”
1st Kansas Colored Infantry Regiment Service Summary
During its existence, the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry Regiment saw action on garrison duty and in numerous skirmishes and battles, including:
- Island Mound, Missouri: October 27, 1862
- Ordered to Baxter Springs: May 1863
- Scouting from Creek Agency to Jasper County, Missouri: May 16–19, 1863 (Detachment)
- Skirmish at Rader’s Farm, Sherwood, Missouri: May 18, 1863
- Skirmish at Bush Creek: May 26, 1863
- Skirmish near Fort Gibson: May 28, 1863
- Skirmish at Shawneetown, Kansas: June 6, 1863 (Detachment)
- March to Fort Gibson, Cherokee Nation: June 27–July 5, 1863 (with train)
- First Battle of Cabin Creek, Indian Territory: July 1–2, 1863
- Battle at Honey Springs, Indian Territory: July 17, 1863
- At Fort Gibson until September 1863
- Lawrence, Kansas: July 27, 1863 (Detachment)
- Skirmish near Sherwood, Missouri: August 14, 1863
- Moved to Fort Smith, Arkansas: October 1863
- Moved to Roseville, Arkansas: December 1863, (on duty there until March 1864)
- Skirmish at Horse Head Creek, Arkansas: February 12, 1864
- Skirmish at Roseville Creek, Arkansas: March 20, 1864
- Steele’s Camden Expedition: March 23–May 3, 1864
- Battle at Prairie D’Anne, Arkansas: April 9–12, 1864
- Battle at Poison Springs, Arkansas: April 1864
- Battle at Jenkins Ferry, Arkansas: April 30, 1864
- March to Fort Smith, Arkansas: May 3–16, 1864 (on duty there until December)
- Battle of Fort Gibson, Cherokee Nation: September 16–18, 1864
- Skirmish at Flat Rock Creek, Indian Territory: September 16, 1864
- Second Battle of Cabin Creek, Indian Territory: September 19, 1864
- Skirmish at Timber Hill, Indian Territory: November 19, 1864
1st Kansas Colored Infantry Regiment Attachment Summary
The War Department attached the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry Regiment to several larger units during its existence, including:
- Department of Kansas to June 1863
- District of the Frontier, Department of Missouri, to January 1864
- Unattached, District of the Frontier, VII Corps, Department of Arkansas, to March 1864
- 2nd Brigade, District of the Frontier, VII Corps, to December 1864
On December 13, 1864, the War Department re-designated the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry Regiment as the 79th U. S. Colored Infantry Regiment (New). The original 79th United States Colored Infantry Regiment (Old) organized as the 7th Infantry Corps d’ Afrique in Louisiana was deactivated in July 1864. The new 79th Regiment was attached to the 2nd Brigade of the District of the Frontier and served in Arkansas until the war ended.
79th U. S. Colored Infantry Regiment Service Summary
The War Department attached the 79th U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment to several larger units during its existence, including:
During its existence, the 79th U. S. Colored Infantry Regiment saw action on garrison duty and in numerous skirmishes and battles, including:
- Skirmish at Ivey’s Ford, Arkansas: January 8, 1865
- Battle of Joy’s Ford, Arkansas: January. 8, 1865
- Ordered to Little Rock, Arkansas: January 16, 1865
- Battle of Clarksville, Arkansas: January 18, 1865
- Skirmish at Roseville Creek, Arkansas: March 20, 1865
- Duty at Little Rock, Arkansas, until July 1865
- Duty at Pine Bluff, Arkansas, until October 1865
- Mustered out at Pine Bluff, Arkansas: October 1, 1865
- Discharged at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas: October 30, 1865
79th U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment Attachment Summary
The War Department attached the 79th U. S. Colored Infantry Regiment to several larger units during its existence, including:
- 2nd Brigade, District of the Frontier, 7th Corps, Department of Arkansas, to January 1865
- Colored Brigade, 7th Corps, to February 1865
- 2nd Brigade, 1st Division, 7th Corps, to August 1865
- Department of Arkansas to October 1865
No other Kansas regiment lost more men than the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry. Of the 1,192 men who served in the 1st Kansas (and 79th U. S. Colored Infantry) Regiment, during its twenty-nine months of service (state and federal), between 156 and 188 men were killed in action, ten died from wounds received in action, 166 perished from disease, and sixty-seven were discharged because of disabilities. Those numbers place the regiment twenty-first on the list of casualties of all Union regiments that served during the Civil War.
The 1st Kansas Colored Infantry Regiment was important because, as one of the first African-American units to serve in the Union Volunteer Army, it demonstrated that black men could effectively serve as combat soldiers. The valor of the men of the 1st Kansas Colored paved the way for over 186,000 enlisted soldiers of African descent who later volunteered to help preserve the Union.
The significance of the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry Regiment was perhaps best summarized in the Report of the Adjutant General of the State of Kansas, for the Year 1864. In his report, Colonel C.K. Holliday, Kansas Adjutant General wrote:
Though suffering severe losses, and fighting at great disadvantage, owing to the merciless treatment they were sure to receive if taken prisoners of war, yet they faltered not, but with a steadiness and a gallantry worthy[y] of themselves and the cause, have earned an honorable reputation among defenders of the Union.