Kansas Senator James H. Lane was a colorful figure. Known for his passionate oratory, often accompanied by choreographical theatrics, he could keep any audience enthralled and amused for as long as he chose to speak.
Lane's mental stability, however, was questionable. Early in the Civil War, President Lincoln, disturbed by Lane's bizarre escapades, sought to avoid giving Lane the combat command he desired by appointing him the military recruitment commissioner for Kansas.
In June of 1862, Lane took it upon himself to begin recruiting, and Colonel James Williams to begin training, troops from the growing number of black fugitives in Kansas who had voluntarily fled or had been forcefully liberated from their masters in Missouri and Arkansas. Some of Williams' troops willingly enlisted; others were coerced. But once enrolled, outfitted in red silk pantaloons and wool jackets, and drilled with real rifles, attitudes began to change. Army training and discipline completed the transformation. They had been slaves all of their lives, but now they were the proud men of the First Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry.
By mid-July 1862, when Congress at last made it legal to enroll "persons of African descent" into the Union Army, the First Kansas Colored was well on its way to being a fighting force to be reckoned with. There were 500 ex-fugitive soldiers in a camp outside Leavenworth by late August, ready to fight and, if necessary, die for their freedom.
A detachment of more than 225 men from the First Kansas under the leadership of white officers, including Colonel Williams and several others, moved 100 miles to the southeast in October 1862. Their orders were "to proceed to a point on the Osage, Bates County, Missouri, and there break up a gang of bushwhackers." On Oct. 27th they reached Dickies Ford. Their destination was "the large double log house of a notorious rebel named Toothman three miles from this ford." (Toothman was, at that time, an unwilling guest of the guard house at Ft. Lincoln.) But as they approached the house, they saw several mounted Confederate irregulars on "one of the mounds overlooking the valley." The command hurried to the house and utilized a "heavy rail fence" around the perimeter to build a barricade where they camped for the night. A scouting party confirmed the report of "women in the house" that the rebel forces were several hundred strong. The First Kansas Colored was vastly outnumbered. That night messengers were sent to both Ft. Lincoln and Ft. Scott for reinforcements.
Early the next morning, shots were exchanged and skirmishing continued most of the day. In the afternoon, a detachment of 60 men was sent out with orders to "skirmish with the enemy, holding them in play while a foraging party proceeded in search of salt and cornmeal." The rebels later "acknowledged seven killed and mortally wounded" in the skirmishing.
The Kansans were ordered to return to camp. They returned rather quickly as the rebels set fire to the prairie grass behind them. The wind was blowing briskly in the direction of the retreating soldiers and toward the camp. The soldiers were forced to build a counter fire around the camp to avoid being completely overwhelmed by the smoke. Upon their return to camp, an eight-man scouting party was sent out with orders to stay "within sight of camp." When the first party didn't return, a small search party was sent to find them. Both parties had united and were "returning across the prairie toward the mounds, in sight of camp" when "130 mounted rebels" appeared and began "advancing on the double-quick" toward them.
Two detachments of reinforcements were sent from the camp; but by the time they arrived at the scene, there had already been several casualties, and the battle had degenerated to hand-to-hand combat. After 15-20 minutes of heavy fighting, the battle ended as abruptly as it began. Both sides removed their dead and wounded from the field and retreated, the First Kansans to their camp at Toothman's farmstead and the rebels to "a point southeast, known as Red Dirk and Pleasant Gap."
The number of rebel dead and wounded was not ascertained, although an eyewitness claimed there were "several wagon loads," a prisoner taken said "about 30 were killed." The Kansas volunteers' casualties were 10 killed and 12 wounded. So ended the battle of Island Mound, the first time during the Civil War that black troops had been in combat. They had performed admirably.
Although the engagement at Island Mound was not of great importance militarily, its historical and psychological importance should not be underestimated. Eyewitness and other contemporary accounts of the "battle" were quickly and widely disseminated; all gave glowing accounts of the discipline, fighting ability, bravery, and even heroism of the First Kansas Colored. It seems likely that this wide reportage in praise of the First Kansans helped to encourage the enlistment of black fighting troops and their eventual use as Union regulars.
The psychological impact on rebel forces of armed ex-slaves in battle against their former masters can never, of course, be measured. However, for slave-holders who had lived their entire lives in fear of slave insurrection and retaliation at the hands of their black bondsmen, it must have seemed like a nightmare come true. The Confederate government's official response was that such "crimes and outrages" required retaliation. Captured white officers who had commanded black troops were to be "executed as felons" and no black prisoners were to be taken.
Of the black Missourians and Arkansans who fought at Island Mound, we know little. Most if not all of them were illiterate, and no historian recorded their words. However, years later J. H. Stearn wrote in his "reminiscences" of the event: "In this engagement, raw recruits just out of slavery earned the right to be called American soldiers..." Indeed, they earned the right at long last to be called Americans.