Ian Spurgeon, the author of the excellent Soldiers In The Army Of Freedom: The 1st Kansas Colored, The Civil War's First African American Combat Unit, agreed to participate in a question and answer session for my blog. This posting features part I of the interview, and part II will be posted tomorrow. The 1st Kansas Colored Infantry saw combat in Missouri, the Indian Territory, and in Arkansas losing 188 men killed or mortally wounded. The 1st Kansas Colored Infantry was a storied unit but one whose history was challenging to chronicle. Enjoy the interview!
How did you become interested in the history of the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry?
I am a Kansas native and fell in love with Civil War history in high school. Unfortunately, like most students of the Civil War, my attention was drawn to the Eastern Theater. I did not fully appreciate the rich and significant history of “Bleeding Kansas” or the Trans-Mississippi Theater until after I finished much of my education and had moved away from Kansas. (Even my Master’s Thesis at Kansas State University was about Confederate newspapers in Virginia and Georgia.)
Shortly after finishing my Master’s in 2000, I worked in the office of Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas in Washington, D.C. He knew of my interest in history and asked me to draw up a list of inspiring figures of Kansas history for a project. While working on that list, I remembered learning that the first black regiment to see combat during the Civil War was from Kansas. I had not looked into the topic much before, so I did some initial research. I was very surprised to find that there was no book-length work on the regiment. It is mentioned in some publications about overall black Civil War service, but no one had yet done a full narrative history of the unit.
In 2003, when I began a PhD program in history at the University of Southern Mississippi, I initially planned to write my dissertation about the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry. However, by the time I finished the coursework and exams, I had decided to take a different dissertation topic. Professors on my dissertation committee expected a strong thesis-driven analysis of a historical topic, something that I was excited to do, but not about the regiment. I envisioned writing a narrative history that would appeal to a broad audience, not strictly an academic one.
So, I wrote my dissertation on James Henry Lane, a leading Free State figure in territorial Kansas, who served as a Republican senator from the state during the Civil War, and was the person most responsible for the creation of the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry. My dissertation was an analysis of Lane’s political views from 1854 to 1865, which included his attitude toward slavery, African Americans, secession, and black soldiers. It was the perfect project to understand better the politics, military situation, leadership, and context of the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry’s creation.
By the time my dissertation, Man of Douglas, Man of Lincoln: The Political Odyssey of James Henry Lane, was published in a slightly revised form in 2008 by the University of Missouri Press, I was hard at work on this book.
Why was Senator Jim Lane, a racial conservative, so eager to recruit an African American regiment? What were his motivations?
It should be no surprise that I think James Lane is one of the most interesting figures of the Civil War era and the question above is a key part of the first couple of chapters of this book (and a section of my first book). Lane was not a traditional abolitionist. He is better described as a pragmatist. Even more, one could say that Lane often took the approach that the ends justify the means. Critics during his life, and many historians since, described Lane as an unprincipled opportunist who sought only personal gain. While he was no saint, I found that he had consistent dedication to certain principles and an almost fanatical dedication to the Union. Having engaged in both political and militia battles over slavery in Kansas Territory, he saw secession as a continuation of “Bleeding Kansas,” and approached the Civil War as a veteran of the struggle. His fury increased as he saw slaveholding interests now threaten his beloved Union. In early 1862, he spoke before a crowd in Kansas and announced, “When I think who caused this war I feel like a fiend,” and shouted that “I feel like taking them all by the throat—like throttling and strangling them all.”
Because of his absolute opposition to the Confederacy—and to secessionists in Missouri—Lane embraced a hard hand of war. He led a brigade into Missouri in 1861 and carried out Sherman-like tactics there three years before (and at a much smaller scale than) Sherman’s march to the sea through Georgia. As the Civil War dragged on, Lane looked for new ways to hurt the secession effort and he came to see the South’s slave population as a potential weapon against the Confederacy. Because of his racial conservatism, he first saw a role for freed blacks as servants to white Union soldiers. He described them to one audience as black squires to the Union’s white knights. By early 1862, he also admitted that, “If the squires get guns I don’t propose to punish the negro if he kills a traitor.” It was a practical interest in preserving the Union and punishing secessionists by turning slaves against their masters. And it was practical in the sense that as the war took its toll on the white population, Lane expressed a thought that many other northerners could appreciate: “I believe the negro may, just as well become food for powder as my son.”
Lastly, I will add that Lane’s views of black Americans progressed during the war. By 1864 he advocated in the Senate for equal pay and treatment of black soldiers, and argued that, “When we put the uniform of the United States upon a person, he should be the peer of any one who wears the same uniform, without reference to complexion.” I think this comment shows very well how the Civil War and black military service led to change among the attitudes of many Americans.
Why is the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry deserving of a full-length history?
The 1st Kansas Colored was a ground-breaking regiment. Namely, it was the first black unit to see combat during the Civil War. Considering the popularity of the 54th Massachusetts, and some other eastern USCT regiments, the history and accomplishments of this western unit needed a dedicated book.
Furthermore, regimental histories, in general, offer a great way of studying and appreciating history. For one, many people look at the Civil War through the prism of an ancestor’s story. A connection to the past can best be made by coming to know a historical person—or a particular group. The best way to understand the men of the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry and their actions is to follow them from the regiment’s creation to its end.
Finally, I found during my work on James Lane that I particularly enjoyed the biography style of research and writing. Writing about a large group of men offered some new challenges, but the regiment is itself an entity and identity, and I saw this as writing the biography of the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry.
Did any other regimental history (or histories) provide a model for your study of the 1st Kansas Colored? If so, how did they help you craft the unit history?
Actually, no, not really. I had two main goals with the book: to answer the question of why the first black unit to see combat during the Civil War came from Kansas and to tell the story of the enlisted black soldiers. It became a blending of some scholarly-style analysis with simple historical narrative – the how and why the regiment was formed, as well as the what, where, and when of the unit’s service.
There are some really good unit histories in print that also approach their topic with analysis and narrative, but many of them rely upon sources that were not available for a book on the 1st Kansas Colored – namely, first person wartime accounts from the enlisted men. I found no letters, diaries, or other wartime written material from an enlisted man during my research. Probably 95% or more of the enlisted men in the 1st Kansas Colored were illiterate. So, I literally had to ask, “How do I tell the story of men who did not tell their story?” I had to look to sources not regularly seen in regimental histories and let the material lead the way.
As is the case with all of the African American regiments, there is a dearth of documentation from the enlisted men. How did you find out more about the men in the ranks?
This was a particular concern of mine. There are many written records from white officers of the regiment. But I did not want the book to rely too heavily upon their experience. Without any good wartime written sources from the enlisted men, I had to reconstruct their experience in two ways. First, standard regimental records, such as rosters, enlistment forms, medical records, and courts martial, offer great bits of detail. Rosters and enlistment forms often provide information such as residency, age, profession, and height. While on the surface such details seem limited, this regiment differed from most white units of the Civil War in that the soldiers did not come from one community. Very, very few were from Kansas, and those that were had only been in the state a few years, at most. Most men were fugitive slaves or recently freed from areas far from where the regiment was raised, or recruited as replacements within the South (particularly Arkansas) while the regiment was in the area.
The second method proved to be the most important for learning about the men as individuals. Living in the Washington, D.C., area, I was able to spend a great deal of time going through pension files of veterans from the regiment at the National Archives. These files often give bits and pieces of information regarding the personal history and service of a soldier. Most importantly, they offered the only significant source of first person accounts from the veterans. Although most of the veterans were illiterate, pension officials would occasionally transcribe the applicant’s oral accounts. Sometimes these accounts are paraphrases of the veteran’s description. Other times they appear as direct statements from the veteran. The only indication that they were not written by the veteran is the “X” in place of a signature at the bottom of the page. You never know what you will find inside the file until you open it. A few pension files had photographs, and many spoke of a veteran’s postwar activities.