The 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry Regiment was the first black military unit in the country, organized even before it was legal to have former slaves and freemen join the Union effort. Organized by ardent abolitionist Brig. Gen. James Lane, the 1st Kansas scored a victory at the Battle of Island Mound on Oct. 29, 1862 — the first time in the Civil War that a black unit fought in combat.
Next year, in time for the 150th anniversary of that fight, Missouri will open a park at the battle site to memorialize the regiment. The 40-acre park had been the home of guerrilla fighter and Confederate sympathizer John Toothman.
According to a story by reporter Roger McKinney of the Joplin Globe, Toothman was in jail when the 1st Kansas seized his house and set up what they called Fort Africa to attack a guerrilla stronghold and supply a base on Hog Island about two miles away. However, some of Toothman’s allies rode in to stop them and the battle was on.
In a report filed after the battle, an officer wrote, “I have witnessed some hard fights but I never saw a braver sight than that handful of brave men fighting 117 men who were all around them and amongst them Not one surrendered or gave up a weapon.”
When President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, that same black unit was the first to be mustered in to the Union Army. The date was Jan. 13, 1863, less than two weeks after the announcement.