1st Kansas Colored Volunteers (Later the 79th U.S. Colored Infantry)

Encyclopedia entry by ,
Albany State University

William Matthews fought for the Union as a captain in the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteers. He also managed a boarding house that served as a stop on the Underground Railroad, where he helped runaway slaves from Missouri escape to freedom in Kansas. Photograph courtesy of the Kansas Historical Society.

Unit Profile:

  • Affiliation: Union Army Regiment, Infantry
  • Dates Active: August 4, 1862 (mustered into Kansas service), January 13, 1863 (mustered into U.S. service) through December 13, 1864
  • Notable Engagements: Battle of Island Mound; Battle of Cabin Creek; Battle of Honey Springs; Camden Expedition; Battle of Poison Spring
  • First African American unit to fight in a Civil War battle
  • Suffered more casualities than any other Kansas regiment

The 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry (later the 79th U.S. Colored Infantry) was an African American regiment that served in the Union Army during the American Civil War. The regiment was organized prior to the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation and without federal authorization, thus becoming the first black unit to see combat alongside white soldiers during the war in October 1862.

Kansas had been the location of intermittent political violence since its settlement as a territory in 1854. Its entrance into the Union as a free state in January 1861 and the outbreak of the Civil War three months later prompted an escalation in violence, particularly by irregulars. By 1862 James H. Lane, a U.S. senator and Union general who had been an antislavery partisan during the Bleeding Kansas era, was a recruiting commissioner for Kansas north of the Kansas River. As an abolitionist “jayhawker” operating on the frontier of sectional violence, Lane disregarded Lincoln’s concern for maintaining Union loyalty in the proslavery border states and violated the direct orders of Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton by recruiting a regiment comprised of free blacks without federal authorization.

By 1862, countless escaped slaves from Arkansas and Missouri had made their way to free Kansas, and many of their journeys were made possible by James Lane, who led liberation raids into Missouri. Exploiting this new source of manpower, Lane circumvented Stanton’s wishes by enrolling black military recruits as “laborers.” On August 4, 1862, Lane issued an order to raise a full regiment under the command of Captain James M. Williams. Although the 1st Kansas marked a watershed in the enrollment of black soldiers, the motives of Lane and other proponents of black enlistment were a mixture of abolitionist enlightenment and political or military expediency.

The skirmish at Island Mound drew national media coverage, marking the first time an African American unit saw combat in the Civil War.

In October 1862 a detachment of roughly 225 soldiers of the 1st Kansas was ordered to proceed into Bates County, Missouri, to break up a guerrilla band. With a company of the 5th Kansas Cavalry serving as scouts, the Union regiments encamped on the homestead of Confederate John Toothman and encountered a considerable Confederate force on October 27, including the Missouri State Guard under Colonel Jeremiah V. Cockrell and local Confederate irregulars led by Bill Truman and Dick Hancock. Besieged by the guerillas, the Kansans nicknamed their earthworks on the Toothman Farm “Fort Africa,” with respect to the unit’s lineage. After two days of siege, the Kansans were drawn out by a diversionary fire set by Confederates. Several volleys of shot were exchanged before the Confederates were forced to withdraw. Union casualties were minimal and the number of Confederate casualties is unknown. In the coming days, the skirmish at Island Mound drew national media coverage, marking the first time an African American unit saw combat in the Civil War.

A memorial in the Fort Scott National Cemetery honors members of the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry who died in a guerrilla attack on Sherwood, Missouri in 1863. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

With the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, African American enlistment became federally sanctioned. The 1st Kansas was thus officially mustered in and organized into six companies at Fort Scott, Kansas, on January 13, 1863, under the command of Williams, now a colonel. It was the fourth black regiment to officially enter the army. The regiment’s inception came at a low point in Northern morale, and the creation of black regiments under the command of white officers represented practical self-interest as much as racial enlightenment on the part of Union policymakers. For example, black soldiers in Kansas and elsewhere were employed disproportionately as laborers and suffered from unequal and unreliable pay.

Despite the skepticism of Northern whites, the precedent of aptitude and bravery set by units like the 1st Kansas gradually drove public opinion as many skeptical white Northerners grew to favor black enlistment. As African American regiments became more common, the 1st Kansas saw continued service in southeastern Kansas, Missouri, and Arkansas. It saw action at Honey Springs, in Indian Territory, in July 1863, where it captured a Texas regiment’s flag and drew praise from superior officers. The 1st Kansas was renamed the 79th U.S. Colored Infantry on December 13, 1864.

Although later African American units, most notably the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, would surpass the 1st Kansas in both historical scholarship and popular memory, the regiment was groundbreaking in both concept and service. As Nicole Etcheson and other historians have explained, the use of black enlistment was pioneered in Kansas. Today, a 40 acre state historic site near Butler, Missouri, commemorates the Battle of Island Mound.

Suggested Reading: 

Cornish, Dudley Taylor. The Sable Arm: Black Troops in the Union Army, 1861-1865. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, reprint 1987. Originally published in 1956.

Etcheson, Nicole. Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004.

Cite this page: 
Stanley, Matthew. "1st Kansas Colored Volunteers (Later the 79th U.S. Colored Infantry)" Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict, 1854-1865. The Kansas City Public Library. Accessed Jun, 20, 2019 at http://www.civilwaronthewesternborder.org/encyclopedia/1st-kansas-colored-volunteers-later-79th-us-colored-infantry

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