Missouri State Parks
BUTLER, Mo. -- A plot of rolling prairie near the Kansas border is Missouri's newest state park facility, serving as a monument to the bravery of the African-American Union soldiers who fought a small but important Civil War battle there.
Alison Dubbert, a historian with Missouri State Parks, said news of the battle, a Union victory, made headlines as far away as New York City. An illustration of the fight appeared in Harper's Weekly in 1863.
"At the time, there was a national discussion about whether African Americans could be soldiers, and stand up to white men and fight," Dubbert said. "A lot of people figured they would throw their guns down and run away. This battle kind of put that to rest." The Battle of Island Mound State Historic Site, amid the soybean fields in a rural area west of Butler, will be dedicated Oct. 27, the 150th anniversary of the day the First Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry marched into Missouri. The event will include living history activities and military demonstrations.
A kiosk at the site has interpretative panels that explain what happened, and why the battle was so significant.
Here is a summary of the fight: Bates County in far west-central Missouri had become a haven for guerrillas and Confederate recruiters. One of their haunts was a marshy area on the Marais-des-Cygnes River known as Hog Island. On Oct. 27, 1862, the First Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry was sent to clear them out.
The black troops commandeered a farmstead owned by Southern sympathizers, Enoch and Christiana Toothman. They fortified the yard with fence rails and called it "Fort Africa." The black troops eventually were lured from their camp and into a rebel trap. The two sides met on a low hill known as Island Mound. Outnumbered, the black soldiers faced a foe on horseback armed with shotguns, pistols and sabers. They fought back, using bayonets and the butts of their rifles.
"Fierce hand-to-hand fighting ensued," Dubbert said. "The black soldiers received praise from both sides on how hard they fought. If they gave up, they would either be killed on the spot or taken back to slavery. They were fighting for their lives, and their freedom."
Lt. Richard Hinton, a white officer with the First Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry, wrote of the battle: "This is what we have done. We have demonstrated that the Negro is anxious to serve his country, himself and race; that he can be drilled and made effective as a soldier; and that he will fight as well as any other set of men."
To reach Island Mound State Historic site, take Highway 52 west from Butler, and go south on Route K to the park signs. The 40-acre site has a circular gravel path that leads around a replanted swath of prairie, with three smaller interpretative panels along the walk.
Scattered sunflowers were blooming on the prairie on a fall morning when John Cunning led a walk on the path, and explained the battle. Cunning is program director for resource management and interpretation for Missouri State Parks.
"In that corner where the stand of trees is, we have evidence that indicates there was a building there -- it might have been the Toothman house," Cunning said. "What we have is the site of their bivouac, their headquarters, for three days."
Cunning explained that the guerrillas used the prairie and the rolling landscape in the battle. They set fire to the prairie as a smokescreen, and used Island Mound to hide their movements. Hog Island has disappeared over time, as the river changed its course.
"When the First Kansas arrived on the 27th, there was a notation that horsemen were on the ridge taking potshots at the house," he said. "Very likely, it was that ridge."
On Oct. 29, a small party of Kansans was about a mile from Fort Africa when some 130 rebel horsemen emerged from the woods. The two groups clashed on the southern slope of Island Mound. Two units of African-American troops arrived in support.
"They ended up with three different units firing on the horsemen, and that's what drove the guerrillas back onto Hog Island," Cunning said. "When reinforcements arrived from Kansas the next day, they found the guerrillas had abandoned the island." Eight members of the First Kansas were killed and 11 wounded. Southern losses are not known, but were thought to be about the same.
Cunning noted that the 1989 movie "Glory" received praise for telling the story of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, which was billed as the first formal unit of the U.S. Army to be made up entirely of African-American men.
The soldiers of the First Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry were officially mustered into the U.S. Army later, but they still fired the first shots.
"Because of the movie 'Glory,' many people believe that the 54th Massachusetts was the first African-American regiment to face combat in the Civil War, but they weren't," Cunning said. "Part of our goal is to help the visitor understand that history.
"The audience that I expect will visit the site will be people interested in Civil War history and African-American history. There was a surprising amount of press about this fight in 1862, especially considering how small the battle was. We want people to know about it in the 21st century as well."