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Black History Month: First Kansas Colored Infantry

by Bradly Gill | February 7, 2023 at 5:00 a.m.

Black History Month: Milestones in Ouachita County

(Today's Camden News Black History Moment highlights the First Kansas Colored Infantry - the first black unit to fight alongside white soldiers and a regiment instrumental in the Battle of Poison Springs.)

According to the MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History, the U.S. War Department created the Bureau of Colored Troops, most commonly known at the United States Colored Troops (USCT), on May 22, 1863. All of the black regiments were led by appointed white officers.

The First Kansas Colored Infantry, made up of ex-slaves from Arkansas and Missouri, was the first black infantry regiment to see combat in the war. It participated in the battle of Island Mound, Missouri on October 28, 1862.

The 1st Kansas Colored Infantry was also the first black unit to fight alongside white soldiers. The regiment suffered heavy losses at the Battle of Poison Spring on April 18, 1864, accounting for 60 percent of the casualties.

Union General Frederick Steele occupied Camden, Arkansas, on April 15. Two days later, he sent 1,100 men to gather 5,000 bushels of corn west of Camden to help feed his men and livestock. They discovered half of the corn had been destroyed, but loaded the rest into 200 wagons. On the way back to Camden, these soldiers were attacked by 3,600 Confederate troops. The 1st Kansas Colored Infantry was placed between the wagon train and the Confederate forces.

The regiment fought off two attacks, but retreated after a third assault. The Union army lost 301 men killed, wounded, and missing at Poison Spring. Of those, 117 of the dead and 65 of the wounded were from the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry. Both Union and Confederate accounts agree many of the black troops were killed after the battle was over. No black troops were captured, and those left wounded on the battlefield were killed.

The Washington Telegraph, the major Confederate newspaper in Arkansas, justified the act by saying "We cannot treat Negroes taken in arms as prisoners of war without a destruction of social system for which we contend."

During the Battle of Jenkins' Ferry two weeks later, soldiers from the 2nd Kansas Colored Infantry stabbed several surrendering Confederate soldiers in retaliation for the killing of wounded soldiers from the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry Regiment after the Battle of Poison Spring.

Eyewitness accounts show:

"The First Kansas (colored) particularly distinguished itself, they fought like veterans and preserved their line unbroken throughout the engagement. Their coolness and bravery I have never seen surpassed."

- Major General James G. Blunt--July 26, 1863.

"In conclusion, I feel it but justice and my duty to state that the officers and men throughout the entire regiment behaved nobly, and with the coolness of veterans.

Each seemed to vie with the other in the performance of his duty, and it was with the greatest gratification that I witnessed their gallant and determined resistance under the most galling fire."

- Lt. Colonel John Bowles--July 20, 1863

"The negro regiment is a triumph of drill and discipline, and reflects great honor on Col. Williams, in command. Few volunteer regiments that I have seen make a better appearance. I regard them as first-rate infantry."

- Brigadier General John McNeil--Nov. 2, 1863

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