Black Soldiers See The Elephant

When Civil War scholars and enthusiasts think of the first experience of black Union soldiers in combat in the American Civil War, what comes to mind is generally the early battles of black troops at Port Hudson (May 1863) and Milliken’s Bend (June 1863) in Louisiana, or especially the 54th Massachusetts at Fort Wagner (July 1863) in South Carolina. But in actuality black Kansas troops had already seen action the previous autumn in Missouri, or in the vernacular of the time they had “seen the elephant.”

Civil War Emancipation has already dealt with the story of the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry. If you are not familiar with it, <click here>. Although the federal government initially refused to recognize the unit (and would not until January 1863), they were equipped and trained by the State of Kansas under the patronage of U.S. Senator and Union General James H. Lane.

Part of the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry was sent with the 5th Kansas Cavalry to Bates County, Missouri (on the Kansas border) in late October 1862 to deal with reports of Confederate guerrillas operating in the area. Finding themselves outnumbered by the Confederates, who in actuality consisted not only of guerrillas but also pro-rebel Missouri militia, they retreated to the homestead of John Toothman, a guerrilla leader who previously had been taken into custody. The Kansans then proceeded to fortify the homestead, which they dubbed “Fort Africa.” The Confederates probed their defenses, but were kept at bay by the superior Austrian muskets with which Lane had equipped his black soldiers. The rebels then attempted to burn out the Kansans by setting a prairie fire, which was defeated with backfires. A series of inconsequential skirmishes then ensued between the Confederates, who were mostly mounted, and the Union forces, who mostly were not. Confederate losses were not recorded, but the Kansans lost eight dead, eleven wounded during an engagement that stretched between October 27-29 and became known as the Skirmish (or Battle) at Island Mound. It was a minor affair in a distant theater of the war, but African-American soldiers had been blooded. More would see the elephant in the months and years to come.

Island Mound was recently dedicated as a historic site by the State of Missouri in honor of the sesquicentennial of the engagement. The video of the dedication is below. (Thanks to Richard Phillips and Kevin Levin for bringing this to my attention in their respective blogs.)


About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at
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