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THE FIGHT ON THE OSAGE RIVER

A NEGRO REGIMENT IN ACTION

Leavenworth, Saturday, November 8, [1862]

The First regiment Kansas colored volunteers, or a portion of it, have been in a fight, shed their own and rebel blood, and come off victorious when the odds were as five to one against them.

For the last few weeks the recruits composing this regiment have been in camp "Wm. A. Phillips," at Fort Lincoln, perfecting themselves in drill. On the twenty-sixth of October, Captain Seamen received an order from Major Henning, commanding at Fort Scott, to take such a force as he could raise and proceed to a point on the Osage, Bates County, Mo., and their break up a gang of bushwhackers. We marched from Fort Lincoln with seventy men of the battalion raised by himself, under Capt. Pierson, (formerly of the First Iowa,) and Lieut. Thrasher, (formerly of the Third Kansas,) and one hundred and seventy men from Col. Williams’s battalion, under the command of Capt. R.G. Ward, company B; Adjutant R.J. Hinton, Capt. A.G. Crew, company A, and J. Armstrong, Company H, (the latter was formerly in company B, Third Kansas) and Lieuts. Dickerson, company C, Huddleton, company E, Gardner, company F, and Minor, company D. This made in all two hundred and forty men, with the addition of half a dozen white scouts. The men were armed with the Prussian and Austrian rifled muskets, the former of which is an excellent weapon, and the latter a poor one, from constant liability to get out of order.

On the twenty-sixth the command marched twenty miles, and on the twenty-seventh reached Dickies Ford, on the Osage, at about two P.M. Our destination was the house of a notorious rebel, named Toothman, three miles from this ford. As we came in sight of it, we discovered at the same time a number of horsemen on the Osage bottoms, a mile to the south-east. The scouts and mounted officers galloped forward to reconnoitre, and soon discovered them to be rebel guerillas. A citizen with a load of wood, on inquiry, stated that they were reported as Cockerell’s, Hancock’s, and Truman’s gangs, moving south in the direction of Arkansas. Returning to the detachment, it encamped for the night, at Toothman’s. We erected a rail barricade around the door-yard fence. The reports of scouts, as well as the women in the house, warranted the assumption that the rebel forces were several hundred strong. Our camp was within two miles of the famous Osage Island, an extensive tract of land, so called because the Osage had cut for itself tow channels around it. That night we sent back messengers to Kansas for reinforcements. Being greatly in need of mounted men, we sent to the organized militia companies, also to Colonel Adams, commanding the Twelfth regiment, to camp at Fort Lincoln, and to Major Henning, at Fort Scott. We requested the latter to send what reinforcements he could along the south side of the Osage River, to Burnett’s Ferry. Our intention was to skirmish with them until these reinforcements arrived, and when major Henning’s force arrived to make an attack on the island from each side. All day we skirmished with the rebel pickets, at the same time sending out foraging and other parties. On the twenty-ninth the rebel pickets, which had occupied the highest mounds to the south-east of us, seemed to have been considerably reinforced. A detachment of about sixty men was sent out, under command of Capt. Armstrong and Adjt. Hinton with directions to skirmish with the enemy, holding them in play while a foraging party proceeded in search of salt and corn-meal. The rebels were evidently well handled. They designed to draw on some detachment far enough away from camp to overwhelm it before assistance could arrive. The skirmishing grew brisk, and shots were rapidly exchanged, though always at long-range and individual objects. The guerrillas would shout from the hill on which they were posted in the most derisive manner, cursing the white officers for "d---d nigger-stealers, etc, etc.

In fact they paid particular attention to the two or three white men on the field. The balls from long-range rifles came unpleasantly near. Soon after the commencement of the skirmishing, a shot from one of our men brought down a rebel. Soon another fell, evidently hit in the side, and then deploying the right wing of the skirmishers through a small ravine, and advancing up the slope beyond on the double-quick, we managed to give them a raking volley, which sent of several riderless horses. Passing over the ground, we discovered blood where one man had fallen. By the mouth of a prisoner whom Cockerell released that afternoon we afterward learned that the rebels acknowledged seven killed and mortally wounded in the morning skirmish. Returning to camp under orders, the rebels fired the prairie behind us, and advanced their pickets under cover of the smoke. The wind was blowing almost a gale, and we were compelled to set a counter fire around camp, in order to prevent ourselves being completely overwhelmed by the smoke. Under its cover our scouts were driven in. Capt. Seamen then sent out a party of eight Cherokee negroes, who soon managed to get to the windward of the fire. They were directed to keep within sight of camp, but their eagerness for the prey soon led to a disobedience of orders. Sixteen men were then sent out under Lieut. Gardner to reinforce and bring them in. The Cherokees being somewhat unmanageable except by their own officers, Capt. Pierson accompanied Gardner to aid this purpose. Captain Crew and Lieut. Huddleston both left camp without orders and joined the squad. They advanced to the edge of the mounds, united with the first party and in place of returning to camp, started to visit a log house half a mile distant, on the bottom land. There was the opportunity sought by the rebels, and they improved upon it, or sought to. The house was visited, and the party was returning across the prairie towards the mounds, in sight of camp, when from behind them to the south-east, on which the rebels had been posted in the morning skirmish, appeared about one hundred and thirty mounted men, advancing on the double-quick toward Gardner’s party. In place of returning to the log-cabin, where a successful resistance could be made till reinforced, our detachment headed steadily for the mound. In the mean while, alarmed at camp at the lengthy absence of the party, we had sent out a detachment of fifty as a reserve, under Capt. Armstrong. When the cavalry came in sight, Capt. Pierson, who occupied a position from which the movements could be observed, signaled for the reserve to advance, which they were directed to do b the Adjutant, who then galloped to camp and hastened the moving forward of two detachments which Captain Seamen was hurrying out. Lieut. Thrasher, in command of the first, went on the double-quick down the ravine to the west, followed closely by that under Lieuts. Dickerson and Minor.

In the mean while, the detachment under Gardner was attacked b the foe, who swept down like a whirlwind upon it. One volley was fired in concert which emptied several saddles, and then this devoted body was separated by the force of that sweeping charge. The fight thus became a hand-to-hand encounter of one man to six. The rebels wee mostly armed with shot-guns, revolvers, and sabres, our men with the Austrian rifle and sabre-bayonet. The latter is a fearful weapon, and did terrible execution I the hands of the muscular blacks. Six-Killer, the leader of the Cherokee negroes, fell with six wounds, after shooting two men, bayoneting a third, and laying a fourth hors du combat with the butt of this gun. Another one, badly wounded, Sergeant Ed. Lowrey, was attacked by three men; he had discharged his rifle, and had not time to load again, when they fell upon him with revolver and sabre. He was then badly hurt with a shot-gun wound. One man demanded his surrender, to which the reply was a stunning blow from the butt of the rifle, knocking him off his horse. The Negro, when approached, had his sabre-bayonet in hand, about to fix it on his gun. The prostrate man got a crashing blow from it on the skull as he fell and then, as the other charged, the bayonet was used with effect on the nearest horse, and the butt of the gun on the next man. The sergeant received three wounds in the mélee, but managed to get back to camp. I could give similar instances of nearly every man and boy of the party. There were several of the latter in the fight. One of them, Manuel Dobson, a lad of fourteen, received a ball through both arms. He afterward told Colonel Williams "that he couldn’t kill but one of ‘em," but adding, with commendable pride, "I brought my gun back."

But to return to the field. As the enemy charged, Armstrong’s detachment was seen coming up the hill on the double-quick. The boys broke for their lines. Lieut. Gardner, being a large and heavy man, had early endeavored to escape to them, but fell in the first and thickest of the fight with two wounds in his hip. One of the rebels dismounted as he fell forward, prone on his face, and placing his revolver to his head, fired. Fortunately the ball glanced, inflicting only a severe scalp-wound. Lieut. Gardner lay there till the prairie fire overtook him, when he made an effort and got upon burnt ground, where we found him after the engagement. Lieut. Huddleston was early separated from the men, and though the mark of many bullets, escaped unscathed. Captain Crew, retaining his position at the head of the few men who kept together, retreated with his face to the enemy, firing his revolver as he did so. He fell with a terrible wound in the groin, but again rose and retreated. Surrounded by half a dozen of o the foe, he was ordered to surrender. "Never!" he shouted, at the same time calling to the half-dozen negroes around him to die rather than give up. He then fell dead with a bullet in his heart. His body was instantly rifled of revolver and watch, though his purse was not found. Five minutes afterward the rebel who took the watch was killed by one of the negroes, who again took the watch from him and brought it into camp.

While these incidents were occurring, Captain Armstrong brought his men through the prairie fire on to the brow of the hill, within short-range of the enemy, who, as they discovered his approach, galloped round the hill in two files, opening in the form of a V, with the intention of charging upon him. A steady volley checked this movement, and a raking fire on their flank from the companies under Lieutenants Thrasher, Dickerson, and Minor, changed their advance into disorderly rout, in which a number of saddles were emptied. Captain Seamen, observing large reinforcements moving by the east, apparently toward our camp, ordered Captain Armstrong and the other officers to fall back to the camp. This was done, except by Lieut. Thrasher, who held the field from which the rebels had fled long enough to bring off our wounded, and all the dead but three. While engaged in this task, the enemy’s scouts fired the prairie in three different places, and advanced under cover of the smoke, endeavoring to pick off the men engaged in removing the wounded. Their killed and wounded had been removed as fast as they fell. They could be seen to dismount as fast as one fell, and, putting the body on a horse, remove it from the field. So ended the battle of Island Mounds, which, though commenced through the rash and impetuous daring of the officers, yet under most unfavorable circumstances, resulted in a complete victory to the negro regiment.

What I narrate I saw myself, and having witnessed several engagements since this rebellion commenced, I know what fighting amounts to. The following is a list of our casualties:

Killed – Captain Crew, Co. A; corporal Joseph Talbot. Privates, Samuel Davis, Thomas Lane, Marion Barber, Allen Rhodes, Henry Gash all of Co. F; John Six-Killer, Seamen’s battalion.

Wounded – Lieutenant Joseph Gardner, Co. F, head, hip and knee; private Thos. Knight, both legs; Geo. Dudley, both legs; Manuel Dobson, both arms; Lazarus Johnson, arm, all of Co. F; Sergeant Edward Lowrey, Seamen’s battalion, shoulder and arm; Sergeant Shelley Banning, Seamen’s battalion, right breast and hip; corporal Andy Hytower, left shoulder; Anderson Riley, left shoulder; private Ed. Curtis, back and mouth, all of Seamen’s battalion; corporal Jacob Edwards, Co. E. head and side.

After the fight the guerrillas retreated to a point south-east, known as Red Kirk and Pleasant Gap, where they have since been joined by Quantrel and Harrison. Our advent broke up their plans. They evidently had at first a most contemptible idea of the negroes’ courage, which their engagement speedily changed.

Bill Truman told in Butler on the Friday following the fight, that the black devils fought like tigers, and that the white officers had got them so trained that not one would surrender, though they tried to take a prisoner.

--- The New York Times

Moore, Frank, ed. The Rebellion Record, Vol. 6, Documents (New York: G.P. Putnam, 1863) 52-54.