Kansas was a special place in the American Civil War. Essentially, because of “Bleeding Kansas” the bloody fight between freesoil and pro-slavery settlers in the 1850s for control of the territory, the Civil War had arguably begun seven years earlier there than for the rest of the country. Hence, it was ready earlier in the conflict to embrace measures that further east many Americans still considered too extreme–like recruiting black soldiers into the Union Army.
On August 6, 1862, recruiting began for what would become the first black regiment to serve intact until its formal acceptance into federal service. Called initially the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry, it would eventually be re-designated 79th U.S. Colored Infantry.
However, like the 1st South Carolina Colored Infantry that preceded it, the 1st Kansas Colored was formed without federal authorization. The difference being, that except for one company, the first incarnation of the 1st South Carolina regiment did not survive intact to be accepted formally into federal service (a new version of the unit would be organized in early 1863).
The Kansas colored regiment was the brainchild of U.S. Senator and Union general, James H. Lane. Lane was a brash veteran of Bleeding Kansas, who had achieved notoriety the previous fall for his destructive raid into pro-Confederate areas of Missouri, including the burning of Osceola, Missouri. Lane, just as he had adopted hard war tactics early in the Civil War, also was one of the first Union leaders to accept the idea of black soldiers in the federal army and take affirmative steps to make it a reality.
Given his impetuous nature, it is not surprising Lane started recruiting blacks soldiers for the Union Army, then informed the War Department in Washington, D.C. On August 6, 1862, he sent the following telegram to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. It read simply, “I am receiving negroes under the late act of Congress. Is there any objection? Soon have an army.”
The War Department did object. Its disapproval manifested itself first on August 19, when the Assistant Adjutant General in Washington, D.C., sent letters to Union Army disbursing officer in Leavenworth, Kansas, prohibiting him from paying black recruits either a bounty or premium, and to Governor of Kansas prohibiting him from issuing officer’s commissions for the black regiment.
These communications were followed up on August 23 with a letter from Stanton personally to Lane. After congratulating the Senator/General for his success recruiting white soldiers in Kansas, he added more sternly:
In regard, however, to the portion of your communication which contemplates the raising of two regiments of African descent, you are informed that regiments of persons of African descent can only be raised upon express and special authority of the President. He has not given authority to raise such troops in Kansas, and it is not comprehended in the authority issued to you. Such regiments cannot be accepted into service.
Nonetheless, despite Stanton’s letter, James Lane kept the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry together, arming and supplying them from the state’s resources. And between October 27 and October 29, 1862, the unit skirmished with Confederate guerrillas at Mound Island in Bates County, Missouri, becoming the first black soldiers to see combat in the Civil War. Shortly after the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, on January 13, 1863, the War Department finally dropped its objections and the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry was formally mustered into federal service.
In any case, the continuous service of black soldiers in the Civil War was finally underway in August 1862, constituting a major step forward in the quest of the slaves for freedom. For military service gave African Americans not only a potent claim to freedom but also citizenship. In the 19th-century United States, military service was considered a duty of citizenship. Hence, by performing arguably the most onerous duty of the citizen, black soldiers staked a claimed for citizenship rights, and by becoming warriors also began to assert a long suppressed manhood.