Keep the Flag to the Front - Part 4
"The Colored Soldiers"
In the early days you scorned them,
And with many a flip and flout
Said "These battles are the white man's,
And the whites will fight them out."
Up the hills you fought and faltered,
In the vales you strove and bled,
While the ears still heard the thunder
Of the foes' advancing tread.
Then distress fell on the nation,
And the flag was drooping low;
Should the dust pollute your banner?
No! the nation shouted, No!
So when War, in savage triumph,
Spread abroad his funeral pall-
Then you called the colored soldiers,
And they answered to your call.
--"The Colored Soldiers" by Paul Laurence Dunbar, circa 1894
At the beginning of the Civil War, African Americans were not allowed to serve in the United States military. The idea came under consideration, though, as it became apparent the war would be lengthy.
The Kansas Historical Society has six flags from the First and Second Kansas Colored infantries. This is one of the largest collections of surviving African American Civil War flags in the nation.
First Kansas Colored Infantry
In Kansas, U.S. Senator James Lane began the recruitment of blacks into a military force during the summer of 1862. This was against the desires of the War Department, but Lane did not let that stop him. The result was the First Kansas Colored Infantry, the first African American regiment raised in the Northern states.
Although not formally accepted into the federal army until January 13, 1863, the First Kansas Colored was the first African American regiment to see fighting. Their first encounter took place on October 29, 1862, at Island Mound in Bates County, Missouri. This flag (top, left) is believed to have been present at this skirmish.
Printed on the flag is the following text, believed to have been added after the war:
First Reg. Kansas Colored Volunteers Comp. F. Leavenworth
This flag was made in August 1862, by the wives and friends of the men composing the company, which I enlisted into the service of the United States as soldiers, and under this flag fought the first battle, Oct. 29, 11 men killed, 11 wounded, for the Union and their freedom, fought by colored troops, while they, by the laws of the country, were yet slaves.--This flag was originally made more than twice its present length, too long for use. This part was furled and bound to the staff, till the end was worn to rags, which was cut off, and this part unfurled.
-- Ethan Earle, Capt. Co. F 1st R.K.C.V.
Later the First fought in several battles in what is now Oklahoma, including the Battle of Honey Springs where whites, blacks, and Americans Indians fought together on the same battlefield.
Second Kansas Colored Infantry
The Second Kansas Colored Infantry was organized in mid-1863, and saw action mainly in Arkansas and Oklahoma. Its commander was future Kansas governor Colonel Samuel Crawford.
At Jenkins Ferry, Arkansas on April 30, 1864, Col. Crawford was told by the commanding general his men would not fight. It is said that Crawford, "in language much more emphatic than Christian, replied that they could and would go as far as it was possible for any others to go." That day they led a successful-although bloody-charge against a Confederate battery.
At Poison Springs, Arkansas, the First Kansas Colored Infantry was caught in a situation where its wounded infantrymen were killed by the Confederates instead of captured. A few days later at Jenkins Ferry the Second Kansas Colored Infantry used the battle cry "Remember Poison Springs."
Ah, they rallied to the standard
To uphold it by their might;
None were stronger in their labors,
None were braver in the fight.
From the blazing breach of Wagner
To the plains of Olustee,
They were foremost in the fight
Of the battles of the free.
Yes, the Blacks enjoy their freedom,
And they won it dearly, too;
For the life blood of their thousands
Did the southern fields bedew.
In the darkness of their bondage,
In the depths of slavery's night,
Their muskets flashed the dawning ,
And they fought their way to light.
--"The Colored Soldiers," stanzas 5 and 7, poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar, ca. 1894
Keep the Flag to the Front: Battle Flags of Kansas is an online exhibit developed by the Kansas Museum of History.
- The Civil War, 1861-1865
- Rally 'Round the Flag
- Stories From the Front Lines
- The "Colored" Soldiers
- On the Border
- The Confederacy
- Save the Flags!
- Glossary and Explanation of Flag Types
Contact us at KansasMuseum@kshs.org