Montgomery, James

Encyclopedia entry by ,
University of Cincinnati

James Montgomery. Photograph courtesy of the Kansas Historical Society.

Biographical Information:

James Montgomery, abolitionist and federal army colonel, was born in Ashtabula County, Ohio, in Ohio’s deeply antislavery Western Reserve, on December 22, 1814. In 1837, his family moved to West Liberty in eastern Kentucky, where he taught school, served as a Church of Christ (or “Campbellite”) minister, and, after the death of his first wife, improbably married the daughter of a local slaveholder. He also purchased thousands of acres of mountain timber land and ran a sawmill operation on the Licking River until recurrent floods finally destroyed it in 1851. The following year, he sold out and moved his family to Pike County in eastern Missouri.

The deeply evangelical Montgomery was soon caught up in the controversy over slavery and popular sovereignty in the newly formed Kansas Territory, and in 1854 he relocated his family first to Jackson County, in western Missouri, and ultimately to near Mound City in Linn County, Kansas. There he became a leader of local free-state settlers and organized and led a “Self-Protective Company” that retaliated against proslavery “border ruffians” during the “Bleeding Kansas” conflict.

An ally of John Brown and Charles Jennison, Montgomery’s notoriety for partisan warfare became widely known during a spate of incidents that occurred near Fort Scott in 1858. Between April and December, Montgomery and his men fought a pitched battle with U.S troops. In retaliation for the execution of five free state men in what is known as the “Marais des Cygnes Massacre,” he drove proslavery settlers from Linn County and attempted to burn the Western (or Pro-Slavery) Hotel at Fort Scott, where the massacre plan was reputed to have been hatched. There, he forced the release of a Free-State settler jailed in Fort Scott on murder charges. Kansas’s then-governor, James W. Denver, sent federal troops to capture Montgomery and restore order.

Montgomery publicly vowed to drive all proslavery residents from Kansas and make good on his pledge to take his war of liberation into Missouri.

In December 1859, shortly after John Brown’s hanging for his raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia, Montgomery unsuccessfully attempted to rescue two of Brown’s jailed accomplices. Returning to Kansas, Montgomery publicly vowed to drive all proslavery residents from Kansas and made good on his pledge to take his war of liberation into Missouri. In response, in November 1860, Missouri’s Governor Robert M. Stewart sent a “Southwest Expedition” of some 600 state militiamen, largely from St. Louis, to the border counties to suppress Montgomery’s jayhawking raids. Simultaneously, federal troops led by Captain Nathaniel Lyon again arrived to attempt to capture Montgomery and Jennison. Again, they failed. (Although not himself an abolitionist, Lyon was a committed Free-Stater and reputedly conspired with Montgomery to thwart his attempted arrest.)

Within days of Fort Sumter, Montgomery was in contact with prominent Northern abolitionists, claiming his intention to liberate slaves should he be appointed an army commander. In July 1861, Montgomery received a commission as colonel of the 3rd Kansas Infantry and served as James H. Lane’s chief subordinate in the newly-formed Kansas Brigade. Montgomery participated in raids into western Missouri in 1861 and was involved in the controversial sacking of the town of Osceola by troops under the command of James H. Lane. Hundreds of slaves followed the force back to Kansas, where Lane and Montgomery employed them as teamsters, cooks, and guides and resettled others as farm laborers or in refugee camps.

Lane sought authorization for the formation of the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry, the first black regiment of the war.

In January 1862, Lane sought authorization for the formation of the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry, the first black regiment of the war. The regiment was composed of western Missouri slaves who had run to federal lines and followed Lane’s troops back across the state line. During that summer, Montgomery helped to enlist them as freedmen into federal service. To do so, he liberally interpreted: 1.) Congress’s July 17 authorization for the president to employ “as many persons of African descent as he may deem necessary and proper for the suppression of this rebellion,” and 2.) recruiting instructions that the War Department had sent Lane.

In December 1862, General David Hunter, a known abolitionist and friend of Abraham Lincoln’s then in command in the South Carolina Sea Islands (and formerly stationed in Missouri), received authorization to raise two black infantry regiments composed entirely of freedmen. He ordered Montgomery there to raise one of them, which would become the 2nd South Carolina Infantry. Fellow abolitionist minister and John Brown ally Thomas Wentworth Higginson commanded the other regiment, the 1st South Carolina.

During 1863, Montgomery led the regiment in the coastal regions of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. Montgomery’s jayhawking tactics there, including his raid on Combahee Ferry and burning of Darien, Georgia, drew widespread criticism. In the spring of 1864, during the Florida campaign, he commanded a brigade of black regiments that included the 54th Massachusetts. There he saw action in the federal defeat at the Battle of Olustee, where his brigade covered the federal retreat.

In September 1864, ill-heath forced James Montgomery to resign his commission and return to Kansas. During Sterling Price’s Missouri Expedition in October 1864, Montgomery took command of the 6th Kansas, a state militia regiment, and saw action at the Battles of Big Blue, Westport, Mine Creek, and Marais des Cygnes. After the war, Montgomery farmed and headed a First Day Adventist church congregation in Linn County. He died suddenly on December 6, 1871, leaving a legacy as one of the earliest and most committed practitioners of the entwined principles of abolition and hard-line tactics that ultimately came to define the Civil War as a whole.

Suggested Reading: 

Castel, Albert E. A Frontier State at War: Kansas 1861-1865. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1958.

Duncan, Russell, ed. Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune: The Letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1992.

Phillips, Christopher. Damned Yankee: The Life of General Nathaniel Lyon. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1996.

Cite this page: 
Phillips, Christopher. "Montgomery, James" Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict, 1854-1865. The Kansas City Public Library. Accessed May, 23, 2017 at http://civilwaronthewesternborder.org/encyclopedia/montgomery-james

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