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First Kansas Colored Infantry: Organizing the Unit

battle flag from First Kansas Colored InfantryThe first black unit of the Civil War, the First South Carolina Colored Regiment (Union), was organized early in May of 1862. Three months later the unit still had not been authorized to take the field so the commanding officer disbanded it. The unit never fought.

The second black unit organized during the war was the First Kansas Colored Infantry. It was the first black unit to fight in the war.

Recruiting in Kansas

On 17 July 1862 Congress passed the Second Confiscation Act, which 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.” The War Department appointed Kansas Senator James Lane to be commissioner of recruiting in the Department of Kansas.

Early in August Lane notified Secretary of War Stanton that he expected to recruit four white regiments and two black regiments and said, “... receiving Negroes under the late act of Congress. Is there any objection?” About three weeks later Stanton replied that the president had not authorized any black units so they would not be accepted into the Union Army. That meant the units would not be equipped or supplied by normal army channels. It was not an auspicious beginning.

William Matthews in Union officer's uniform.Lane didn’t care. He continued recruiting. The first week in August, Lane opened his recruiting office in Leavenworth. Immediately upon his arrival Ethan Earle, a local man, told him Earle had been planning to recruit a black unit and had received a promise from Brigadier General James Blunt, commander of the Department of Kansas, to put those units into fights beside his white units. Earle insisted that William Matthews, a prominent local black man, must become a commissioned officer. Lane authorized Matthews to recruit and organize a company of black infantry to be officered by blacks. Orders to other Kansas units said Matthews’ unit was to be regarded as “regularly officered” and was to receive standard rations and equipment. As company commander, Matthews would be a captain.

Lane chose Captains James Williams and Henry Seaman of the Fifth Kansas Cavalry to recruit, organize, and command the First Kansas Colored Infantry. Newspapers advertised recruitment for the unit. Black men were offered pay of $10 per month instead of the standard $13 offered to white troops, uniforms, and subsistence (rations etc.). Men who had been slaves at the start of the war were promised freedom for themselves, their mothers, their wives, and their children.

Recruiting Outside of Kansas

Some Kansas men tried to raid Missouri and steal slaves so they could flee to Kansas and join the unit. This caused problems because Missouri was a slave state that stayed in the Union. Some Kansas men offered a $2 bounty for each slave stolen from Missouri and brought to Kansas.

A Missouri slave was a preacher. His owner trusted him so completely that he was allowed to go to Leavenworth alone on business for the owner. Each time he returned home, he told congregants he could trust how to escape to Kansas and join the First Kansas Colored.

Some Kansas men were forced into the unit. They deserted at the first opportunity.

Recruiters went east to find men for the unit. They enlisted men from Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.


The first day of recruiting, 6 August 1862, 50 men enlisted in Leavenworth and 50 enlisted at Fort Scott. Three companies were organized in about three weeks. By September 7th ten companies had nearly-full rosters.

Of the men who enlisted from August through December of 1862, 40 percent claimed Missouri as their homes and 35 percent said they were from Kentucky. The other quarter of the men said they were from Alabama, Arkansas, Indian Territory (later Oklahoma), Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. One can suppose that men from the southern states other than Missouri were describing their original homes rather than their most recent residences.

A large majority of the recruits had been slaves when the war started.

Except for Captain Matthews’ company, all the officers in the regiment were white. Some of them came from service in the regular army and some were veterans of Bleeding Kansas fights. Other officers were completely new to military service and learned from the experienced officers just as their troops did. More men wanted commands within the regiment than could be used.

Getting Equipment

Officers got what supplies and equipment they could from surplus warehouses. Some men got gray uniforms that were stored when the army earlier had changed all soldiers’ uniforms to blue. They were not happy about that. But in the summer heat all the troops soon realized that light gray was much more comfortable than dark blue.

The troops got muzzle-loader muskets that were not fit for duty. One person claimed that only 20 percent of the weapons fired when the trigger was pulled.


After the men reported for duty with their companies, they were trained according to strict schedules. Experienced officers taught them the organization and command structure of the regiment, and what we still call “customs and courtesies of the service.” They learned how to live in camp and keep their areas clean. Sergeants and corporals were chosen from the men who demonstrated the most aptitude and leadership skills. The men also learned how to walk guard duty, use their weapons, and move according to command on the battlefield.

Early in October, two months after recruiting had begun, Lane ordered all 400 men and officers to assemble at Fort Lincoln. The Chief of Staff of the Department of Missouri inspected the men at Fort Lincoln and reported to his commander, “[The Negro regiments at Fort Lincoln] exhibit a proficiency in the manual [that is, handling weapons] and in company evolutions [that is, moving on the field] truly surprising and the best company is the one officered by black men. ... I have seen very many Regts longer in the service than these which would appear badly beside them.”  The best company was Captain Matthews’ company; it was the only one officered by Blacks.

The Chief of Staff also noted that the men never had been paid.

Call to Action

On 26 October 1862 the commanding officer at Fort Scott ordered a detachment of the First Kansas Colored Infantry into Missouri to suppress Confederate guerrillas who were operating there. The troops moved out the same day.

Entry: First Kansas Colored Infantry: Organizing the Unit

Author: Ted Bainbridge, Ph.D.

Date Created: May 2015

Date Modified: May 2015

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