There has been much discussion recently about the state of the field of Civil War history. Although there are books being published that are superficial and poorly researched, these are balanced out by a number of well researched and creative studies of the Civil War era. A number of talented, young historians are crafting excellent books and journal articles about our favorite time period. Ian Spurgeon (pictured above) is part of the new generation of talented Civil War historians, and I've been pleased to highlight his work on my blog. Below is the conclusion to the interview with Dr. Spurgeon; I hope that you've enjoyed learning more about the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry!
What types of men served in the regiment?
As far as I can tell from available records, almost all of the enlisted soldiers had been slaves at some point in their lives. The original core of the regiment was made up primarily of former slaves from Missouri, most of whom were runaways from counties close to the Kansas border. Some had been in Kansas for months before the regiment was created. Others joined only days after escaping bondage. There were also former slaves from Indian Territory. Company I was created from a group of former slaves at the Sac & Fox agency. Some of the enlisted men were part Indian, while others were had grown up fully immersed in Seminole, Creek, or Cherokee culture.
As the regiment traveled into Indian Territory (modern-day Oklahoma) and then Arkansas, it recruited replacements among the then-freed black residents. Unlike the early recruits who had fled their homes for freedom in a different state, these replacements often joined the regiment from their local communities. And many of them traveled back to those homes after the war.
While the men were recruited in the Trans-Mississippi area, a large number of enlistment records list eastern states as residency. A surprising number of soldiers were listed as being from Kentucky. As there are a lot of inconsistencies in the records, I believe this information may have often recorded place of birth, not the soldier’s last residence. Overall, enlistment records of the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry list as many as fifteen states. One soldier even came from Canada—and he was a Black Hawk Indian.
Most of the men were simple laborers, and usually quite healthy. Their ages ranged from 16 to late 40s. They varied physically, but the average seemed to match the typical height and weight standards of the period. Of course, there were some standouts. For instance, one soldier was listed as 4’3” tall and his occupation was a “race rider.”
Overall, these men had experienced slavery and oppression, and willingly stood up for freedom and equality. But, they were regular guys. In the regiment’s history we find examples of heroism and bravery, as well as pettiness and anger. They strove for a future where they would be seen simply as American citizens.
We cannot forget the white officers. Most were committed abolitionists. Others had not begun the war as abolitionists, but embraced the leadership opportunities and sought to train their men as well as they could. A large number of officers were veterans of combat from other regiments. They brought practical knowledge of warfare, and a personal bravery, that proved vital to preparing the regiment for combat.
The 1st Kansas Colored was actually recruited before it was legal to do so and even fought in a skirmish before it was mustered in. How and why did that happen?
Military leaders in Kansas faced a particularly difficult problem for a northern state. Kansas occupied the furthest western position along the continuous sectional and military front. That left it largely isolated geographically, as well as a lesser priority for officials in the east. The state bordered a significant secessionist population (and pro-Confederate guerilla activity) in Missouri to its east, and a largely pro-Confederate population in Indian Territory to its south. This proximity to the war front required leaders in Kansas to raise troops for both home defense along its lengthy borders, as well as units for offensive operations to support the Union war effort. These requirements taxed the young state’s white male population.
The proximity to slaveholding Missouri and Indian Territory also meant that runaway slaves escaped to Kansas, especially due to its anti-slavery reputation from the battle over its statehood. As a result, the number of able-bodied, military age males rose significantly. They just happened to be black.
With the need for more soldiers to patrol the border and to launch offensive campaigns, and with an increasing pool of potential soldiers among the fugitive slave population, the last ingredient needed was an authority figure to take the relatively radical step of enlisting black soldiers. James Lane held the necessary authority, or influence, to take that step. And he was supported by a strong body of abolitionists—many of whom were combat veterans and capable leaders. Although raising a black regiment was against the instructions of the Lincoln Administration, Kansas’ isolation from Washington, D.C., allowed Lane and his supporters to act rather independently.
Overall, the intense military operations of the Trans-Mississippi Theater led political and military leaders in Kansas to seek new means of raising regiments. And the isolation of that theater allowed greater autonomy for figures to use unofficial and unauthorized means of accomplishing their objectives.
The regiment served solely in the trans-Mississippi. Do you think their combat experience differed from that of regiments in the Western or Eastern theaters? If so, how did it differ?
I think the experience of black troops in the Trans-Mississippi Theater was different in a number of ways. For instance, I recently read an article about the battle of New Market Heights in which the author noted that within the Union army black units were segregated into their own brigades. That may have been true in the Eastern Theater, but the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry had served within integrated brigades since 1863. At Cabin Creek, the 1st Kansas Colored fought alongside Indian and white regiments. Similarly at Honey Springs, the regiment served at the center of the Union line, flanked by Indian troops on its right and white troops on its left. At every major engagement the 1st Kansas Colored took part in, they fought directly alongside white troops. Although the regiments were largely segregated according to race, the Union brigades and the armies in the Trans-Mississippi Theater often were not.
Another difference was the wide variety of assignments the 1st Kansas Colored performed. Because of the vast space of the theater and the relatively limited number of available soldiers, the regiment was used for everything from chasing guerillas, to guarding wagon trains over hundreds of miles, to building fortifications, to foraging crops and supplies for the Union war effort, to battling regular Confederate troops in traditional engagements, to helping begin reconstruction efforts in the South. Regiments further east also engaged in these types of activities, but rarely was a single unit, let alone a black one, called upon for such a wide number of tasks. The military requirements within the theater forced officials to place the men’s race secondary and utilize them for what they had become – an effective military unit able to handle a variety of responsibilities.
Are you working on another research project now? If so, what is it?
Having had the goal of writing a book on the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry for so long, it was an odd feeling once I finished it. I literally I asked myself, “What now?” After a few weeks of consideration, I began research on two different books, both of which are much broader than my work on Lane and the 1st Kansas Colored. Without giving too much away, since they are both early in their development, one is a collaborative project with my father who is a legal scholar, and the other is a look at an element of Civil War tactics and technology.
Where are you employed? Tell us some about your work.
I am a military historian at the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office, part of the Department of Defense. My job is to find American soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen still missing from World War II. In a way, I am a history detective. My work involves analyzing historical records, military reports, and maps from a variety of archives, to understand what happened to a missing service member during World War II and try to find them. This includes conducting some fieldwork, such as going to old battle sites and aircraft crash sites. I am not an archaeologist, so I don’t do the actual excavation or recovery. But my colleagues and I help tell an archaeologist where to dig. Beyond that, one of the most important parts of my job is providing information to family members of the missing. There are around 73,000 Americans still missing from World War II. Many of their families received little more than a telegram from the War Department 70 years ago. So, we answer questions from the next of kin and help them understand what happened to a service member and why his remains were not recovered after the war. It is a great mission and a fulfilling way to use historical research to help people. (I should clarify that my book and my Civil War research are separate from my work at DPMO and that the views expressed in my book, and in this discussion, are mine alone and do not represent the Department of Defense.)