[Soldiers in the Army of Freedom: The 1st Kansas Colored, the Civil War's First African American Combat Unit by Ian Michael Spurgeon (University of Oklahoma Press, 2014). Hardcover, 5 maps, photos, roster, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:285/454. ISBN:978-0-8061-4618-8 $29.95]
By all indicators, Civil War writers and audiences are attracted to "firsts" of all manner. The First Kansas Colored Infantry Regiment was not the earliest all-black unit organized in support of the Union war effort but it was the first of its kind raised in a northern state. It was also the first to fight the enemy in the field, at Island Mound, Missouri in late October 1862. Recognizing that no proper modern history of this regiment has been published, author Ian Spurgeon does groundbreaking work of his own in his new book Soldiers in the Army of Freedom: The 1st Kansas Colored, the Civil War's First African American Combat Unit.
As Spurgeon demonstrates, the regiment's very existence owed much to the persistence and manic energy of Kansas Senator and general James H. Lane. Consistent with his general disregard for operating within the strictures of law and government bureaucracy, Lane exceeded his authority by organizing the 1st Kansas Colored as a combat unit, along the way successfully defying the established gubernatorial privilege of selecting officers (two of whom were black men, Lieutenant Patrick Minor and Captain William Matthews). Even so, his racial views were hardly among the most enlightened of the period and Spurgeon clearly falls in line with the consensus view that the Grim Chieftain was more practical than ideological when it came to supporting abolitionism and civil rights.
Recruits came from 15 states plus Indian Territory, with nearly three-fourths of the initial enlistees having Missouri and Kentucky origins. All evidence points toward the vast majority being former slaves. While Spurgeon does describe incidents of forcible conscription in Kansas and Missouri, as well as recruitment agents sent as far east as Pennsylvania, he repeatedly points to self-emancipation as the primary force behind the transformation from slave to 1st Kansas soldier.
Kansas is often portrayed in the literature as a heavily radicalized state, but Spurgeon relates many instances of conservative Unionist opposition to the organization of black Kansas regiments, from newspaper editorials to a variety of activities directed toward undermining the unit (including citizens directly enticing soldiers to desert). Early on, while military training seems to have gone well, camp discipline was a major concern. Discontent and lack of pay led to heavy desertion between summer 1862 and the legal organization of the regiment in January 1863. In accordance with army regulations requiring that all officers be white, the unit's two black officers were forced out when the regiment was finally officially mustered into federal service [the commission of Capt. Matthews, the man pictured on the jacket cover, was subsequently approved after heavy lobbying by Lane and others but the orders failed to reach the regiment and were never acted upon].
The comparatively small scale of the Trans-Mississippi fighting the 1st Kansas found itself in throughout the war allowed Spurgeon the freedom to not only offer detailed examinations of the regiment's specific actions during these events but also a descriptive collection of battle narratives comprehensive enough to stand on their own. Most authors wouldn't seize upon this opportunity but Spurgeon takes on the challenge with relish, his unit history simultaneously providing fine article length treatments of Island Mound, Cabin Creek, Honey Springs, and Poison Spring (as well as the damaging attacks sustained by the 1st Kansas during the Sherwood, Missouri foraging expedition and at the Flat Rock Creek prelude to the Second Cabin Creek battle). In strictly military terms, the Island Mound clash between a 1st Kansas detachment and Missouri guerrillas was an indecisive skirmish, but it overturned the prejudicial view that blacks could not be disciplined soldiers and stand toe to toe with the enemy in a fight. In Indian Territory at the battles of Cabin Creek and Honey Springs, the 1st Kansas helped anchor the Union center during both offensive victories, thereby earning the respect of white veteran units. At Poison Spring, during the 1864 Camden Expedition, the regiment fought well before being overwhelmed. Among the victors were vengeance seeking Texans previously defeated by the 1st at Honey Springs. They as well as Confederate Indians killed many wounded black soldiers, the Choctaws also scalping and mutilating the dead. The Poison Spring atrocities have been well documented in earlier books and articles and the research for Soldiers in the Army of Freedom didn't uncover new information on the subject. Supplementing the battle descriptions are a set of good quality original maps for each of the more important engagements.
Spurgeon's bibliography and notes indicate a solid research base, but, as he mentions in his source appendix, anyone seeking the common soldier's perspective will be hampered by the lack of manuscript material. No letters, diaries or memoirs from any 1st Kansas enlisted soldier have been discovered. Pension files do contain some personal information but much of it is specifically related to disability claims. On the other hand, writings from white company officers are available and were used to provide at least some insight into the experiences of those in the lower ranks. Adding to the reference value of his study, the author was able to compile a roster of those that served in the regiment from 1862-65, with information limited to short comments and basic elements like name, age, residence, and enlistment date.
Ian Spurgeon is to be heartily congratulated for his pioneering examination of a pioneering Civil War regiment. Given the amount of scholarly attention devoted to the contributions of black soldiers to the Union war effort in recent decades, it's rather surprising that it took this long for a 1st Kansas Colored regimental history to appear. Soldiers in the Army of Freedom will be the first stop for anyone seeking information about the regiment and an even broader audience will benefit from Spurgeon's revealing military treatment of Civil War strife along the borderlands of Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, and Indian Territory.
More CWBA reviews of OU Press titles:
* The Early Morning of War: Bull Run, 1861
* Battles and Massacres on the Southwestern Frontier: Historical and Archaeological Perspectives
* The River Was Dyed with Blood: Nathan Bedford Forrest & Fort Pillow
* Civil War Arkansas 1863: The Battle for a State (PB edition)
* Torn by War: The Civil War Journal of Mary Adelia Byers
* Columns of Vengeance: Soldiers, Sioux, and the Punitive Expeditions, 1863-1864
* Los Angeles in Civil War Days, 1860-1865
* Historical Atlas of Oklahoma, 4th edition
* George Crook: From the Redwoods to Appomattox
* Violent Encounters: Interviews on Western Massacres
* A Perfect Gibraltar: The Battle for Monterrey, Mexico, 1846
* Patrick Connor's War: The 1865 Powder River Indian Expedition (Arthur H. Clark)
* Texas: A Historical Atlas
* Civil War Arkansas 1863: The Battle for a State
* Jayhawkers: The Civil War Brigade of James Henry Lane
* Powder River Odyssey: Nelson Cole's Western Campaign of 1865 the Journals of Lyman G. Bennett and Other Eyewitness Accounts (Arthur H. Clark)
* Three Days in the Shenandoah: Stonewall Jackson at Front Royal and Winchester
* The Uncivil War: Irregular Warfare In The Upper South, 1861-1865
* The Civil War in Arizona: The Story of the California Volunteers, 1861-1865