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First Kansas Colored Infantry Engagements

battle flag from First Kansas Colored InfantryThe First Kansas Colored Infantry (Union) was the first black unit to fight in the Civil War. Most of the regiment’s enlisted men had been slaves and all were new trainees. Only a few of the officers had any military experience.

Island Mound

The regiment had existed for less than three months when the first call to action came. On 26 October 1862 a detachment of the First Kansas Colored was ordered into Bates County, Missouri to suppress Confederate guerrillas. (Missouri, a slave state, stayed in the Union.) The 240 troops moved out that same day and arrived at their destination during the second day. About 800 Confederate guerrilla cavalry were just a few miles south of them. Scouts and pickets from both sides found each other and exchanged harassing fire.

The third day was occupied by a number of short-lived skirmishes. Runners were sent to Kansas to request reinforcements, thinking it was impossible for so few infantry to overcome so many cavalry. The fourth day, 60 Union skirmishers moved toward the rebels, pushed their pickets back four miles, and shot seven of the rebels off their horses while suffering no casualties of their own. Later that day there was an extended battle between larger numbers of soldiers and guerrillas. The Union troops held the field.

Over the next three days the Union troops scouted the area but could find no guerrillas; they had abandoned the area because fighting the First Kansas Colored was too costly. Those 800 cavalry were not willing to pay the price to overcome 240 Black infantry. The First had accomplished the objective at the cost of 10 men killed and 12 wounded.

The Emancipation Proclamation

On 1 January 1863 the Emancipation Proclamation took effect. The document said all slaves in areas still rebelling against the Federal government were then and forever free. The document also authorized black military service, but only for garrison duty. The First Kansas Colored Infantry was mustered into federal service a few days later. It was the first black unit mustered in.

Black officers were not authorized by the War Department, even though the Second Confiscation Act on 17 July 1862 authorized the president to, “... receive into the service of the United States, for ... any military or naval service for which they may be found competent, persons of African descent.”

So William Matthews, who had served as Captain and company commander while the First had only state status, and whose company had been recognized as the best in the regiment, was not recognized as an officer now that the unit had federal status. Every officer in the regiment signed a letter supporting Matthews’ commissioning. On 28 January 1863 the War Department ordered the Leavenworth recruiting office to muster in Mathews as an officer in a “colored regiment” of the U.S. Army but the order never was obeyed and those orders never were transmitted to the regiment or Matthews. In point of law Matthews never was a U.S. Army officer, but in point of fact he had served as such, and served with distinction. He never rejoined the regiment.

The Retaliatory Act

On 1 May 1863 the Confederate Congress passed the Retaliatory Act, which authorized the death penalty for every white officer in any Black unit fighting the Confederacy. The act also required captured Blacks tobe delivered to state authorities for punishment under state law.


Early in May of 1863 the First Kansas Colored was ordered to Sherwood, Missouri to disperse rebels operating there. On May 5th they found a group of 250 guerrillas. By the end of the next day, that group had been dispersed and a second guerrilla group had been routed. Both victories occurred without casualties in the First.

Baxter Springs

On May 18th a group of the regiment’s foragers was attacked and fifteen men were killed.

Brush Creek

May 26th there was a small skirmish with some rebels. There were no casualties on either side.

Baxter Springs

In a skirmish on June 8th the regiment lost one man killed and two captured. The small action was a loss for the regiment.

Cabin Creek

On June 30th a cavalry unit accompanying the First Kansas Colored routed some enemy pickets they encountered, without casualties. During the next two days the First routed the enemy force those pickets had been protecting. They killed 100 rebel guerrillas at the cost of only one soldier of the First being killed.


The men of the regiment never were paid for their service from August through December of 1862; the state didn’t pay them and they weren’t a federal unit. Early in July all the men of the regiment were paid for their federal service from January through June - sort of. White troops were to be paid $13 per month but black troops were to receive only $10 per month. Further, $3 each month could be considered paid as uniforms. So the men of the First Kansas Colored Infantry were paid $7 per month - a little more than half of the normal pay rate.

Honey Springs

Just under 3,000 men of the First and accompanying smaller units encountered a slightly larger force of rebel infantry. The First swept the rebels from the battlefield and eventually from the surrounding area. They killed six Confederates for every Union man killed. One of the Confederates wrote, “They are too strong for us. ... They are some seven or eight thousand and good fighters. I know it for I have tried them and they are as good as we are, better drilled and better armed.”

Canadian River

Beginning on August 22nd the First Kansas Colored Infantry advanced against Confederate forces at Canadian River. The rebel forces withdrew without a fight.


The regiment then advanced against forces at Perryville, Arkansas and the Confederates again withdrew without a fight. The First burned Perryville.

Fort Smith

Next the First advanced on Confederate Fort Smith, which was abandoned without a fight.

From August through November, men of the First were involved in a number of small-scale encounters with Confederate soldiers or guerrillas at unspecified locations. A Corporal and a Lieutenant were killed. During that time Brigadier General John McNeil said of the First, “The negro regiment is a triumph of drill and discipline, and reflects great honor on Colonel Williams in command, ... Few volunteer regiments that I have seen make a better appearance. I regard them as first-rate infantry.”

Prairie D’Anne

The First Kansas Colored Infantry advanced as part of a force of 12,000 men. About 7,000 Confederates were expected to get in their way. On 10 April 1864 the Union force overran the Confederate position at Prairie D’Anne, suffering few casualties in the process.

Poison Spring

Eight days later a detachment of Confederates ambushed a huge Union skirmishing party that was guarded by the entire First Kansas Colored and additional troops including cavalry and artillery. After four hours of fighting, the Union forces were overwhelmed. Those who could retreated. It was a total defeat for the Union.

After the battle, some Texas soldiers walked through the battlefield shooting and bayoneting wounded Blacks while shouting, “Where is the First Nigger now?”  Their companions in arms replied, “All cut to pieces and gone to hell!” Men of an Arkansas brigade challenged each other to count the number of “nigger heads” they could crush under the wheels of captured forage wagons as they were driven away. Choctaws mutilated and scalped the dead and dying black men.

Such atrocities were premeditated policy among Confederates. One newspaper reporter wrote, “... we cannot treat negroes taken in arms as prisoners of war, without a destruction of the social system for which we contend. We must claim the full control of all negroes who may fall into our hands, to punish with death, or any other penalty, or remand to their owners.”  One of the Confederate soldiers at Poison Spring wrote in a letter, “... our men is determined not to take negro prisoners ...”

For three days the Confederates would not allow Union soldiers onto the battlefield under flag of truce to bury their dead, as was the usual practice of the time.

Confederates captured four black soldiers and one white officer from the First, then killed them. Three black soldiers and two white officers of the regiment were captured but not killed. Another black soldier captured was sold into slavery and survived the war.

The First Kansas Colored Infantry lost 182 men of the 463 involved - a death rate very close to forty percent. Modern doctrine in the U.S. Army says a unit that suffers thirty percent casualties, whether killed or wounded, must be removed from combat. The First remained an active and effective line unit.

Jenkins Ferry

Five days later, at the battle of Jenkins Ferry, some men of the Second Kansas Colored Infantry charged some Confederate artillery. During that bayonet charge the blacks were heard yelling “Poison Springs!” as they shot and bayoneted rebels who tried to surrender. After the battle more revenge for Poison Springs was taken against Confederate prisoners.

Six men of the Second were captured by Confederates; an officer killed all of them. Higher Confederate commanders learned of this and the officer was hanged for the crime.

Some sources say the First was involved at Jenkins Ferry and other sources say they were not. Their regimental colors, shown at the beginning of this article, prove they were.

Flat Rock Creek

On 16 September 1864 yet another Union foraging train was attacked and destroyed by Confederate forces. Men of the First Kansas Colored who were captured were killed by Choctaws. The Choctaws took a white captive to their commander and asked if they should kill him too. Captain Grayson told them “no” and explained that, “it was negroes that we were killing now and not white men.”  General Gano reported that his troops captured 85 prisoners and killed 73 of them, “mostly negroes.”  A lieutenant, a sergeant, a corporal, and three privates from the First Kansas Colored were captured, not killed, and spent the rest of the war as prisoners.

Pryor Creek

A few days later Confederate forces were returning to their parent unit with still another supply train taken from a Union foraging party. At Pryor Creek they found the First Kansas Colored Infantry blocking their way. The sides exchanged skirmishing and harassing fire. During the night the Confederates kept camp fires burning while they drove one wagon in a circle over rough ground. In the morning the rebels were gone. They had moved around the Union force quietly during the night and continued on to their destination.

Timber Hills

On November 19th an isolated detachment of nine men from the First was attacked. Eight were killed or captured.


In December of 1864 the First Kansas Colored Infantry Regiment was renamed the 79th United States Colored Troops (New). “New” distinguished them from the original 79th, which had been organized earlier and then folded into a different unit.

Throughout the war, all black units of the Union Army were components of the United States Colored Troops and officered only by white men. There were no integrated units.

Complete Emancipation

The 13th amendment to the Constitution of the United States, abolishing slavery, was approved by the House of Representatives on 31 January 1865. By December 18th 27 states had ratified the amendment, making it law.

Going Home

General Lee surrendered to General Grant on April 9th, 1865 but General Lee was not the commander of all Confederate forces. Other components of the Confederate armies continued to fight until their separate commanders surrendered. There were 15 surrenders after General Lee’s. The last was that of Brigadier General Stand Watie on June 23rd. (Stand Watie commanded against the First Kansas Colored at Cabin Creek.)

During the war the regiment included one percent of black troops in the Union Army, but suffered six percent of black combat deaths.

The War Department relieved the 79th United States Colored Troops (New) from duty at Pine Bluff, Arkansas on 1 October. The officers, noncoms, and privates remaining in the regiment were mustered out that day.

In August of 1862, the first month of recruiting, 456 men agreed to join the regiment. Only 157 (a third of them) returned home as part of the unit at the end of the war.

The men were taken to Kansas by steamboat. They paraded through Leavenworth and were greeted with applause. After the parade they listened to several speeches praising their war service and then enjoyed a feast provided by the people of the city. The men went home. The unit permanently ceased to exist.

For More Information

Ian Spurgeon’s Soldiers in the Army of Freedom is “the go-to source” for this subject.

Ancestry.com, Fold3.com, and Alexander Street Press’ American Civil War Research Database contain massive amounts of information about Civil War soldiers and units. All are pay sites but are available for free at any of the LDS Church’s Family History Centers. For information about a FHC near you go to https://familysearch.org/locations/

Entry: First Kansas Colored Infantry Engagements

Author: Ted Bainbridge, Ph.D.

Date Created: May 2015

Date Modified: May 2015

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.