In October 1862, a group of formerly enslaved and vastly outnumbered African American troops soundly defeated Confederate guerrilla fighters during the Battle at Island Mound in Bates County, Missouri.
It marked the first time that Black soldiers were engaged in Civil War combat, and it remains a victory that’s mostly been ignored.
“It was the first time the public had seen black soldiers marching,” said Peggy Buhr, director of the Bates County Museum in Butler. “Word about this spread across the county quickly.”
When the American Civil War began in 1861, President Abraham Lincoln said he wouldn’t allow former slaves and freed Blacks to serve in the military. The president was frightened that his supporters would turn against him for allowing African Americans to take up arms and potentially kill White men.
According to several historians, even as the South appeared to gain advantages during the war, Lincoln still held firm against allowing Blacks to fight mostly out of fear of backlash from slave owners in border states.
Confederate President Jefferson Davis demanded that if Blacks were allowed to fight and were caught, they would either be enslaved or immediately killed.
To dissuade both sides from enlisting African Americans, Davis decreed that white commanders who had Blacks in their units would also face execution for “inciting servile insurrection.”
Frederick Douglass counted among the abolitionists who championed the inclusion of African American soldiers, arguing that they would help the North with the war.
“Let him get an eagle on his button and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket,” Douglass said, according to a History Channel special on the Civil War. “And there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship.”
Even as Douglass and others spoke out, the Union Army that bordered Kansas and Missouri gradually began to lose ground to the opposition, who were known as bushwhackers.
White soldiers defending the Union had dwindled, comprising Missouri territory. Lincoln was forced to act, and on Aug. 4, 1862, Gen. James H. Lane authorized the troops that were dubbed “The 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry.”
The 240 Black soldiers — with 12 white officers — that comprised the infantry were assigned in Fort Lincoln, Kansas, and marched into Bates County and gallantly and victoriously fought the Battle of Island Mound, destroying the guerillas.
Following the battle and, later, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, more African Americans began to enlist into service.
“The Black soldiers fought valiantly,” Buhr said in a 2015 interview with The Topeka Capital-Journal. “They were extremely courageous and brave in holding their ground. This was a life-or-death struggle for them, and they knew that.”