Friday, January 30, 2015

An Interview with Ian Spurgeon: Part II

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.)

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Soldiers In The Army of Freedom: An Interview with Ian Spurgeon

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.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Interview with Ian Michael Spurgeon Coming Soon!

Recently, I finished reading the much anticipated Soldiers In The Army of Freedom: The 1st Kansas Colored, The Civil War’s First African American Combat Unit by Ian Michael Spurgeon. The 1st Kansas Colored Infantry had a distinguished combat record and was the only regiment that served solely in the trans-Mississippi to be selected as one of Fox’s “300 Fighting Regiments.” The regiment has been long deserving of a full-length book, and Ian Spurgeon did an outstanding job of telling its story. He readily agreed to participate in a question and answer session for this blog, and the interview will appear in two parts. The first part will be posted tomorrow!

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Is The Trans-Mississippi Becoming Trendy?

At least for this week the trans-Mississippi is trendy! Earlier in the week, I received the complimentary copy of the March-April issue of Strategy & Tactics that features the Indian Territory during the Civil War. Two days later, the latest issue of Blue & Gray magazine arrived; “The General’s Tour” is about the Civil War in the Indian Territory between September 1863 and June 1865. I was pleased to see that the issue is dedicated to the State of Oklahoma.

One day later the newsletter of the Society for Military Historians was delivered. Included is an announcement that New Forums Press, based in Stillwater, Oklahoma, is “seeking chapter and book-length submissions examining the American Civil War in the Trans-Mississippi…The Forgotten War is a brand new series devoted to the study of military history throughout the Trans-Mississippi with an emphasis on scholars employing historical analysis through innovative approaches, comparative approaches, comparative perspectives, and original research methodology utilizing primary and secondary source material.” They are specifically interested in the guerrilla war in Missouri, “occupation policies of the Union army,” battle books, biographies, “ethnic or minority experiences,” and “struggles and conflicts in the command structures of the opposing armies.” New Forums is primarily known for books about higher education so this series is quite a departure for them.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015


The start of classes at my university last Monday and my work on my manuscript has eaten into the time that I spend on my blog. I vowed to post today even if it was just a bit of miscellany.

Today, I received a complimentary copy of the March-April issue of Strategy & Tactics in my work mailbox. Much to my surprise the cover story is “Warpath: Indian Territory In the American Civil War.” How odd that the one complimentary copy that I’ve ever received of the magazine features the trans-Mississippi. Readers can purchase the “Warpath” game for $35.

Next month, State House Press will publish Blood on the Bayou: Vicksburg, Port Hudson, and the Trans-Mississippi. The book is the third part of the “Louisiana Quadrille”; the previous two volumes have been highlighted by interviews with Dr. Frazier on this blog.

In June, Savas Beatie will be publishing John Schmutz’s history of one of the most renowned regiments of trans-Mississippians: the 5th Texas Infantry. My reading year is shaping up nicely!