- Date: October 29, 1862
- Location: Bates County, Missouri
- Adversaries: 1st Kansas Colored Volunteers vs. pro-Confederate guerrillas
- Size of Forces: approx. 240 Kansas soldiers vs. approx. 400 guerrillas
- Casualties: Eight Kansas soldiers killed and 11 wounded; guerrilla casualties unknown
- Result: The 1st Kansas Colored Volunteers are victorious and enter the federal service a few months later
The small skirmish that occurred on October 29, 1862, at Island Mound in Bates County, Missouri, was significant because it marked the first time during the American Civil War that a regiment of African American soldiers saw combat. The 1st Kansas Colored Volunteers who fought at Island Mound were in Kansas service prior to the Emancipation Proclamation’s implementation on January 1, 1863, but not in U.S. service because the Lincoln administration was reluctant to enroll black troops and risk tipping Union slave states, including Missouri, toward the Confederacy.
The area along the Missouri-Kansas border south of modern-day Kansas City was infested with many guerrilla bands. These bushwhackers, mainly pro-Confederate guerrillas, made life miserable not only for the Union military, but also for civilians on both sides of the border. Clay County, Missouri, especially, was a hotbed of bushwhacker activity. Several guerrilla bands, numbering over 500 bushwhackers and led by Colonel Sidney Jackman, were headquartered on Hog Island in the Marais des Cygnes River, approximately nine miles from Butler, Missouri. The only way to handle these guerrilla bands was to send federal military forces into the area. In mid-1862, though, the federal government had far greater priorities for its limited manpower resources than the Missouri-Kansas border.
A fortuitous sequence of events gave Kansas U.S. Senator James H. Lane an opportunity to advance the Radical Republicans’ agenda for freedmen’s civil rights. On May 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Lane the Commissioner for Recruiting for the Department of Kansas. Then the U.S. Congress passed the Militia Act of 1862, which allowed African Americans to serve a variety of roles in putting down the rebellion, including service in the military. Lane asked Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton for permission to raise an African American regiment on August 5. Stanton delayed reply until August 23, and claimed that only the president could authorize the enlistment of blacks. Lane assumed, wrongly as it turned out, that Stanton’s slow reply implied approval. By the time Lane received Stanton’s negative response, he had already recruited much of the regiment. Focusing his efforts in the Leavenworth area, Lane and others raised what became the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteers. Included in its ranks was Lieutenant Patrick H. Minor, the first commissioned African American officer.
Major Benjamin Henning, the commanding officer at Fort Scott, ordered the 1st Kansas into Bates County on Sunday, October 26, 1862, in response to bushwhacker attacks along the border. They were ordered to move on the guerrilla nest at Hog Island. Captain Henry Seaman commanded the expedition into Bates County with 11 other officers and approximately 240 men in the 1st Kansas, and finally, six scouts from the 5th Kansas Cavalry. The following day, October 27, the 1st Kansas occupied the Enoch Toothman farm, questioned the family and found out that the guerrillas numbered approximately 400. The Kansans dug makeshift fortifications and turned the Toothman domicile into a blockhouse they called Fort Africa. The bushwhackers also knew of the 1st Kansas’s presence, and the sides attempted to gauge the opposition’s strength with long-range skirmishing on Tuesday, October 28.
The bushwhackers decided to attempt to draw out a portion of the 1st Kansas by setting prairie fires on Wednesday, October 29. Their hope was that Seaman would send out a portion of the 1st Kansas to investigate, and then the bushwhackers could destroy the isolated detachment. Seaman sent several detachments out, but with strict orders to stay within eyesight of Fort Africa. Unfortunately for Seaman, none of the detachments stayed within eyesight. The bushwhackers attacked, overrunning the initial detachment under Private John Six-Killer.
Fortunately, the majority of the men survived the bushwhackers’ charge and ensuing hand-to-hand combat until another element led by Captain Andrew Armstrong rescued the separate detachments of the 1st Kansas and chased off the bushwhackers. Armstrong’s men collected the dead and wounded, as well as the separate detachments of the 1st Kansas and returned to Fort Africa, ending the skirmish. The 1st Kansas suffered eight killed and 11 wounded.
Listen to local historian Jim Denny discuss the Battle of Island Mound at the Kansas City Public Library.Although not a major fight, the Skirmish at Island Mound proved to be an ominous harbinger for the Confederacy: black soldiers had been blooded on the battlefield for the Union cause, and they proved to be up to the task. Although the Emancipation Proclamation—first announced by President Lincoln on September 22, 1862—would not go into effect until January 1, 1863, the Skirmish at Island Mound laid to rest questions about whether African Americans could or would fight. They could and did, with over 186,000 African Americans eventually fighting for the Union to end slavery. The 1st Kansas was redesignated the 1st Regiment Kansas Volunteer Infantry (Colored) when it entered federal service on January 13, 1863, and was one of the first African American units in federal service. Sadly, though, the two black commissioned officers in the 1st Kansas, Captain William Matthews and Lieutenant Patrick Minor, were forced to give up their commissions upon entry into federal service.
Berlin, Ira, Joseph P. Reidy, and Leslie S. Rowland, eds. Freedom's Soldiers: The Black Military Experience in the Civil War. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Cornish, Dudley Taylor. The Sable Arm: Black Troops in the Union Army, 1861-1865. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, reprint 1987. Originally published in 1956.
Glatthaar, Joseph T. Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers. Baton Rouge, Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press, 1990.
Tabor, Chris. The Skirmish at Island Mound, Mo.: The First Battle Fought by an African-American Regiment During the Civil War. Independence, MO: Blue and Grey Book Shoppe, 2001.