African American Civil War Soldiers
William Matthews was so enthusiastic about the new First Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry in 1862 that he was one of the first to volunteer. Matthews’ enthusiasm spread and he convinced a number of exslaves to enlist in the regiment. The Leavenworth businessman soon was appointed captain, the highest ranking African American officer in the regiment.
At the beginning of the Civil War, African Americans were not allowed to serve in the U.S. military. By the summer of 1862 it was clear that additional troops were needed. To meet the need, Congress passed two bills that allowed the participation of black soldiers in the Union Army. The measure lacked popular support and the U.S. Army did not begin recruiting black soldiers until 1863.
Ignoring the federal army regulations, U. S. Senator James H. Lane of Kansas quickly organized the First Kansas Colored. Recruiting began in mid-August with headquarters in Mound City. By October the 1 Kansas had six companies, around 600 men.
“An effort is being made in Leavenworth to raise a regiment of negroes. There are contrabands enough in Fort Scott to fill up two companies.” Fort Scott Bulletin.
“The blacks behaved nobly and have demonstrated that they can and will fight.” Lawrence Republican.
When President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863, the Union Army began enlisting black soldiers. The First Kansas Colored was the first black regiment from a northern state.
“I never saw such fighting as was done by the negro regiment . . .they make better soldiers in every respect than any troops I have ever had under my command.” --Major General James Blunt
The federal army refused to allow black officers. Matthews and his commanding officers were unable to gain an exemption for his service.
The First Kansas Colored was assigned to escort Union supply trains south to Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma). When a large force of Texans attacked their supply train at Cabin Creek, the unit successfully protected the train. This marked the first time that black and white troops fought together. Fifteen days later the First Kansas Colored held the Union line against Confederate advances at Honey Springs, Indian Territory. The battle also was significant because for the first time American Indian, African American, and white troops fought together. The First Kansas Colored captured the flags of the Texas regiment after only 20 minutes.
The regiment’s greatest test came at the battle of Poison Spring in April 1864. When the Confederates ambushed the Union supply train, the African American troops took the brunt of the attack and suffered great losses. Many of the black soldiers who were captured or wounded during the battle were executed. The sacrifice of the First Kansas Colored served as inspiration for other black troops, who used the battle cry, “Remember Poison Spring!”
The cost was high for the First Kansas Colored soldiers. Around 25 percent of the regiment was killed in action or died. They faced bigotry from some of the white soldiers and officers. They received less pay than their counterparts. Yet the black soldiers succeeded in proving their ability.
Matthews went on to serve as a first lieutenant in Douglas’ Independent Colored Kansas Battery. The First Kansas Colored served out the remaining years of the war in Arkansas. Its three regimental flags are preserved at the Kansas Museum of History.
Entry: African American Civil War Soldiers
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: January 2010
Date Modified: April 2015
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