The Civil War – black soldiers and their role in the war

By C.J. Johnson

A Federal mandate from 1792 prohibited black men from entering into military service, despite the fact that blacks served in both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. During the War Between The States, an estimated 179,000 soldiers and 19,000 sailors were blacks, both free men of color and escaped or former slaves. They comprised 10% of the U. S. Army during the war.

As the war moved into its second year in 1862, there was a growing need for more troops. The Second Confiscation and Militia Act of July 17, 1862, passed by the United States Congress, was the first official act to allow African-American men to enter federal service, to be used “for any purpose he [Lincoln] may judge best for the public welfare.” Following the release of his Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862, official sign-up began.

Lincoln did not utilize blacks in the Union army until January 1, 1863, when his Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in the states of rebellion. The Proclamation also stated that “such persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States.”

Despite this fact, Kansas was the first state to raise a unit of African-American troops – The First Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry, while Missouri was the first state to see black troops in battle, in late October 1862. This Kansas Infantry unit was the first to fight and the first to suffer casualties, at the Battle of Island Mound, Missouri.

The Kansas Historical Society has posted the following article on the First Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry. “William Matthews was so enthusiastic about the new First Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry in [August] 1862 that he was one of the first to volunteer. Matthews’ enthusiasm spread and he convinced a number of ex-slaves to enlist in the regiment. The Leavenworth businessman soon was appointed captain, the highest ranking African American officer in the regiment.

Ignoring the federal army regulations, U. S. Senator James H. Lane of Kansas quickly organized the First Kansas Colored. Recruiting began in mid-August with headquarters in Mound City. By October the 1st Kansas had six companies, around 600 men.

The First Kansas Colored was the first black regiment from a northern state. “I never saw such fighting as was done by the negro regiment… they make better soldiers in every respect than any troops I have ever had under my command,” said Major General James Blunt

The federal army refused to allow black officers. Matthews and his commanding officers were unable to gain an exemption for his service. Matthews went on to serve as a first lieutenant in Douglas’ Independent Colored Kansas Battery. The First Kansas Colored served out the remaining years of the war in Arkansas. Its three regimental flags are preserved at the Kansas Museum of History.”

During October 27 – 29, 1862, the First Kansas Colored Volunteers left no doubt about the fighting ability or courage of black soldiers, by holding their own against the attacking Confederates at the Battle of Island Mound, Missouri. The National Park Service states, “This was nearly nine months earlier than the better known 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry’s first combat action in South Carolina.”

According to a National Archives article, “A detail of soldiers of this unit went out on picket duty and were separated from the main part of the regiment. They took refuge in a ravine and held their ground. Capt. Richard Ward who commanded these troops stated, ‘I have witnessed some hard fights, but I never saw a braver sight than that handful of brave men fighting…Not one surrendered or gave up a weapon.’ One of the Confederates reported that ‘The black devils fought like tigers…not one would surrender, though they had tried to take a prisoner.’”

The National Park Service also stated, “The First Kansas Colored’s courage under fire strengthened President Lincoln’s position for enacting the Emancipation Proclamation and for the subsequent formation of the United States Colored Troops (the First Kansas Colored became the 79th USCT). Elements of the First and Second Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantries were mustered into federal service at Fort Scott in 1863.