Site Commemorates African-American Soldiers’ Civil War Service

Harper’s Weekly ran an illustration of the Battle of Island Mound in 1863.

A plot of rolling prairie near Butler on the Kansas border is Missouri’s newest state-park facility, serving as a monument to the bravery of the African-American Union soldiers who fought a small but important Civil War battle there.

The 240 soldiers, many of them escaped slaves, were members of the First Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry and took part in what became known as the Battle of Island Mound, marking the first time that black troops were used in Civil War combat.

The Battle of Island Mound State Historic Site, amid the soybean fields in a rural area west of Butler, will be dedicated Oct. 27, the 150th anniversary of the day the First Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry marched into Missouri. The event (click here for a video)will include living-history activities and military demonstrations.

A kiosk at the site has interpretative panels that explain what happened, and why the battle was so significant. Here is a summary of the fight:

Bates County in far west-central Missouri had become a haven for guerrillas and Confederate recruiters. One of their haunts was a marshy area on the Marias-des-Cygnes River known as Hog Island. On Oct. 27, 1862, the First Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry was sent to clear them out.

The black troops commandeered a farmstead owned by Southern sympathizers, Enoch and Christiana Toothman. They fortified the yard with fence rails and called it “Fort Africa.”

The black troops eventually were lured from their camp and into a rebel trap. The two sides met on a low hill known as Island Mound. Outnumbered, the black soldiers faced a foe on horseback armed with shotguns, pistols and sabers. They fought back, using bayonets and the butts of their rifles.

Lt. Richard Hinton, a white officer with the First Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry, wrote of the battle: “This is what we have done. We have demonstrated that the Negro is anxious to serve his country, himself and race; that he can be drilled and made effective as a soldier; and that he will fight as well as any other set of men.”

The guerrillas used the prairie and the rolling landscape in the battle. They set fire to the prairie as a smokescreen, and used Island Mound to hide their movements. Hog Island has disappeared over time, as the river changed its course.

On Oct. 29, a small party of Kansans was about a mile from Fort Africa when some 130 rebel horsemen emerged from the woods. The two groups clashed on the southern slope of Island Mound. Two units of African-American troops arrived in support, and drove off the guerrillas.

Eight members of the First Kansas were killed and 11 wounded. Southern losses are not known, but were thought to be about the same.

The 1989 movie “Glory” received praise for telling the story of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, which was billed as the first formal unit of the U.S. Army to be made up entirely of African-American men.

The soldiers of the First Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry were officially mustered into the U.S. Army later, but they still fired the first shots.

To reach Island Mound State Historic site, take Highway 52 west from Butler, and go south on Route K to the park signs. The 40-acre site has a circular gravel path that leads around a replanted swath of prairie, with three smaller interpretative panels along the walk.

Written by Tom Uhlenbrock for Missouri State Parks, a division of the Department of Natural Resources. For more information, visit mostateparks.com.