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Thursday, Sep. 18, 2014

"First to Serve"

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Jan. 13, 2006, was the 143rd Anniversary of a very significant milestone in American history, African- American history and the history of the United States Army. On Jan. 13, 1863, approximately 500 black soldiers joined, in Fort Scott, Kan., a new Union regiment that was designated as the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry Regiment. This regiment became part of the Volunteer Forces of the Union Army and was the "pathfinder" (one who goes where no one has gone before) for approximately 220,000 African-American soldiers and sailors who served in the volunteer forces of the Union Army and Navy during the Civil War. Never in the history of the United States, had so many black soldiers served in such large organized military units! This milestone was not without controversy, racism and prejudice.

There were big questions. Would, could and should they be used as soldiers? Would they fight?

There was really no question about that.

All one had to do was to look south of the Mason-Dixon Line to the plantation country of southern Virginia and Charleston, South Carolina were there had been "Black Rebellions" led by Nat Turner and Denmark Vessey. Many areas of the plantation/slave south existed under civilian martial law where daily and nightly mounted and pedestrian patrols occurred to make sure that the slaves stayed where they belonged and did not roam or congregate in groups of any size. History had already recorded the will to fight and the desire to escape from slavery or that "Peculiar Institution" as slavery was commonly called.

Small groups of African-Americans had been trained to fight in a disciplined way and participated in every American conflict as far back as and before the American Revolution, but never in large organized regiments that consisted of 1,000 soldiers.

All of the black soldiers who participated in the Civil War were pathfinders for and preceded the famous Buffalo Soldiers, who participated in the Indian Wars in the West from 1866-1900.

The 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry Regiment achieved an excellent combat record during the Civil War and also successfully performed garrison, engineer and escort duties. It was the first black unit to defeat Confederate Forces in combat and this occurred at the Battle of Island Mound, Mo., on Oct. 28-29, 1862. Other significant battle honors include the Reeder Farm, near Sherwood, Mo., on May 18, 1863, Cabin Creek, Indian Territory: July 12, 1863; Honey Springs, Indian Territory : July 17, 1863; Poison Spring, Arkansas: April 18, 1864; Flat Rock Creek, Indian Territory: Sept. 16, 1864 and Timber Hills, Indian Territory: Nov. 19, 1864.

At first, many Union officers did not believe that the soldiers of the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry Regiment would be good soldiers, but that would change as the following quotes indicate.

Major General James G. Blunt July 26, 1863:

"The 1st Ks. Colored particularly distinguished itself, The fought like veterans and preserved their line unbroken throughout the engagement. Their coolness and bravery I have never seen surpassed."

Lt. Colonel John Bowles July 20, 1863:

"In conclusion, I feel it but justice and my duty to state that the officers and men throughout the entire regiment behaved nobly and with coolness of veterans. Each seemed to vie with the other in the performance of his duty and it was with the greatest gratification that I witnessed Their gallant and determined resistance under the most galling fire."

Brigadier General John McNeil November 2, 1863:

"The 1st Ks. Colored Infantry Regiment is a triumph and discipline. Few volunteer regiments that I have seen make a better appearance. I regard them as first-rate infantry."

Colonel James M. Williams April 24, 1864:

"The officers and men all evinced the most heroic spirit and those that fell died the death of a true soldier."

The 1st Ks. Colored Vol. Inf. Regt. was discharged from the Union Army in October of 1865. During its two years as a combat unit, it lost the most soldiers killed in action (five officers and 173 enlisted soldiers) and to disease(one officer and 165 enlisted soldiers) than any other Kansas Regiment in the Civil War.

They all were the first to serve and 79 rest in peace in the Fort Scott National Cemetery. Indeed, they all died the death of true soldiers, as have all those who have died, are serving and will serve in the Armed Forces of the United States.

Arnold W. Schofield
Battlefield Dispatches