On October 29, 1862 the Battle of Island Mound marked the first time that African-American troops were engaged in Civil War combat, nearly a year before the battle depicted in the film Glory. The current Battle of Island Mound State Historic site encompasses Fort Africa, where the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry were camped in 1862 before a pitched battle with pro-Confederate forces near a low hill named Island Mound. This battle and the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry had a major effect on later Union decisions to allow African-American units to fight.
The following report was given by Captain R. G. Ward of Company B and Colonel J. M. Williams, Commanding First Regiment Kansas Colored Volunteers.
DEAR SIR: I hereby respectfully submit the following report of the part taken by that portion of your command which accompanied me to Missouri:
By order of Maj. B. S. Henning, I started from Camp William A. Phillips Sunday, October , with 160 men and 6 officers, joining Capt. H. C. Seaman and command, comprising some sixty-four men (colored) and a small party of white scouts, and moved by the way of Mound City and Camp Defiance to the Dickey’s Crossing of the Osage, in Bates County, Mo., at which point we arrived Monday afternoon. Shortly after crossing the stream me were made aware of the presence of the enemy in force by their scouts and by information from citizens, who stated that Cockrell, Campbell, Hancock, and Turman had concentrated their forces on Osage Island, and that their combined force amounted to some 700 or 800 men, all splendidly mounted. We immediately took possession of old man Toothman’s house (a noted rebel guerrilla) and commenced skirmishing with the enemy’s scouts and pickets, we trying to draw them off the island and the enemy trying to draw us to the bushes. Tuesday we were engaged all day in desultory skirmishes, but the wind was so high were unable to injure them with our sharpshooters, they taking good care to keep a respectful distance. At night, after a consultation with Captain Seaman, we concluded to send runners to Kansas for a force of cavalry sufficient to aid us in dislodging the enemy. accordingly we sent three, one to you at Fort Lincoln, one to Fort Scott, and one to Paola. Wednesdsy morning I detached Captains Armstrong and Crew, with a force of some sixty men, to engage the attention of the enemy, while Captain Seaman, Captain Thrasher, of his command, and Lieutenant Huddleston, with a force of some fifty men, foraging, as we were entirely out of food with the exception of beef end parched corn. Captain Armstrong found a force of the enemy some two miles from camp, and immediately threw out his skirmishers, under command of Orderly Sergeant Smithers, of Company B, who immediately moved forward to the attack and drove the enemy from position to position until they had been driven some four miles from camp, the enemy shouting to the boys to “come on, you d—-d n—-rs,” and the boys politely requesting them to wait for them, as they were not mounted. We succeeded in placing seven men hors de combat, with no loss on our side, and the boys felt highly elated on their return at their success.
While at dinner the enemy made a dash at our pickets and ran them into camp and then drew off. Suspecting that they were concentrating troops behind the mound south of us, we threw out a small party of skirmishers to feel toward them and ascertain their force and retake our picket ground. The boys soon drove the enemy over the hill, and the firing becoming very sharp, I ordered Lieut. Joseph Gardner to take a force of some twenty men and proceed to rally the skirmishers end return to camp, while I placed Captain Armstrong’s force (consisting of detachments from Companies A, B, E, H, and G) under arms. I here found that Captain Crew and Lieutenant Huddleston had left the camp and had gone toward where our skirmishers were engaged. Becoming uneasy at the prolonged absence of Gardner and the skirmishers, I marched Armstrong’s force toward the firing and placed them behind the bluffs, and went forward myself to reconnoiter the position of affairs. I found a detachment of the enemy posted on a mound immediately south of me and some of our scouts occupying a mound west of me, on the right. I sent Adjutant Hinton to that point to ascertain where our force (Gardner’s) was. He returned with the information that they were at a house some 800 yards south of the mound and were making preparations to return, feeling confident that the enemy would attempt to cut them off. I ordered Armstrong to move by the right flank and gain a position in rear of the mound, and dispatched a messenger to camp to inform Captain Seaman of the position of affairs and requesting him to place other forces under arms and to be ready to move immediately. No sooner had this happened than the enemy charged with a yell toward Gardner’s little band of twenty-five men. The boys took the double-quick over the mound in order to gain a small ravine on the north side, but while they were on the north slope the enemy came upon them. Nothing dismayed, the little band turned upon their foes, and as8 their guns cracked many a riderless [horse] swung off to one side. The enemy cried out to the men to surrender but they told them never. 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 and in amongst them. Not one surrendered or gave up a weapon.
At this juncture Armstrong came into the [fight] like a lion, yelling to his men to follow him, and cursing them for not going faster when they were already on the keen jump. He formed them in line within 150 yards and poured in a volley. The enemy charged down the slope and were met by a volley from Captain Thrasher’s command, who had just been posted by Seaman. They swung to the right in order to out-flank Armstrong and gain his rear. I immediately ordered a detachment of men under Lieutenants Dickerson and Minor across the open angle between Thrasher’s and Armstrong’s, which was executed with promptness. The enemy finding themselves foiled, wheeled their force and dashed np the hill. The brave Armstrong saw them through the smoke (they, the enemy, having set the prairie on fire) charged his brave lads through the fire, and gave them a terrible volley in the flank as they dashed by. This ended the fight, although they had re-enforcements arriving, estimated by some of our best judges to be from 300 to 400 strong. They did not wish “anymore in theirs.” They had tested the n—-rs and had received an answer to the often mooted question of “will they fight.” Here commenced the most painful duty of the day, the removal of the killed and wounded. On that, slope lay 8 of our dead and 10 wounded, among the former the brave, lamented, and accomplished Captain Crew. He fell as a brave man should fall, facing the foe, encouraging his men never to yield, and casting defiance at the enemy. Three of them rode up to him and demanded him to surrender, saying that they would take him to their camp. He told them never. They said that they would shoot him then. Shoot and be d—-d,” was the reply of the heroic soldier, and set them the example by running backward and discharging his revolver at them, but almost immediately fell, pierced through the heart, groin, and abdomen. Among the wounded was Lieutenant Gardner. He fell shot in the thigh and knee by a heavy load of buckshot. While in this situation, unable to move, one of the cowardly demons dismounted, and making the remark that he would finish the d—d son of a b—h, placed his revolver to his head and fired. The ball, almost by a miracle, did not kill him; striking his skull and glancing around his head came out on the other side. He will recover. It is hard to make distinctions where every man did his whole duty, and I hereby return my thanks to every men and officer of the expedition for their splendid behavior. Captain Armstrong having called my attention to the good behavior before the enemy of Private Scantling, of Company B, Private Prince, of Company E, I hereby make honorable mention of them in this report. Captains Armstrong, Pearson, and Seaman also highly commend Orderly Sergeant Smithers, of Company B, for his coolness and assistance before the enemy. There are undoubtedly numerous instances of men being as meritorious as these, but I have not space in this already long report to particularize. Accompanying this you will find a list of killed and wounded, heroes all, who deserve the lasting gratitude of all the friends of the cause and race.* Thursday the enemy fled and nothing of interest occurred until you arrived and took the command.
I have the honor to be, sir, respectfully, your most obedient servant,
R. G. WARD,
Captain company B.
Col. J. M. Williams,
Commanding First Regiment Kansas Colored Volunteers.
*Nominal list (omitted) shows 1 officer and 7 men killed, 1 officer and 10 men wounded.
Missouri State Parks’ new short film depicting the story of the Battle of Island Mound, the first time that African-American troops were engaged in Civil War combat is coming soon to a state park or historic site near you.