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Interesting Reminiscences of Colored troops

Who Probably Saved Mound City From

the Fate of Lawrence.

The following paper was prepared and read before Montgomery Post G.A.R. by J. H. Stearns.

Researcher notes:  Stearns was one of the attached cavalry scouts from the 5th Kansas Cavalry.

"During the latter part of the summer of 1862 Gen. J. H. Lane, then United States Senator from this state obtained permission of President Lincoln to organize a regiment of colored troops from among the slave refugees that had been coming into Kansas since the beginning of the war. For this purpose he appointed Capt. J. M. Williams of Co. F 5th Kansas Cavalry, as recruiting agent for the territory north of the Kaw river and Henry Seaman, Captain of Co. D also of the same regiment for that part south of the river. Captain Seaman commenced recruiting in Mound City about the middle of August and soon had two or three companies under his command here--quartered, some in tents and some in vacant buildings along Main street.

At this time there was a great deal of opposition to the enlistment of colored troops among the loyal people of the North and even among the soldiers then in the field. The raising of this regiment--the first that had been authorized was therefore a subject for much bitter comment throughout he country. Some of this came as to be expected from those whose sympathies were with the South--some from those whose prejudices were so strong against the Negroes that they were unwilling that they should be utilized in any way in the work of putting down the Rebellion and some from those who feared and believed that it would be impossible to make effective soldiers of them.

A little incident occurred here soon after Capt. Seaman opened his recruiting office which illustrates to some extent the race prejudice then prevalent. A company of regulars on their way from Ft. Leavenworth to Ft. Scott camped one day near the spring west of town; this spring then as now was an important source for the water supply of our people and was utilized for this purpose by the colored recruits. At the hotel that afternoon the officers in charge of the regulars were very violent in their denunciations of the blacks declaring that it would be a disgrace to wear the uniform of an American soldier if the Government was going to put it on the backs of a lot of "niggers." That evening they placed a guard at the spring with instructions not to allow any of the "niggers" to come near it. This was a little more than Capt. Seaman was willing to quietly submit to, so he ordered a cordon of guards to be placed around his camp which he made to include four or five blocks on Main street and adjoining thereto with orders not to let any of the regulars pass in or out without a pass. For a time the relations between the two camps were somewhat strained. Several of the regulars were arrested trying to run the guards after which a conference was held and all the guards removed.

Researcher notes:  It is not known which unit the author is talking about.  Many units passed through Mound City during the war.  An interesting duality existed in the way Kansas troops viewed and treated African Americans.   On the one hand Kansas units made a special effort in western Missouri to emmancipate any and all slaves encoutered there during the first year of the Civil War.   However, many Kansans were as intolerant as the "secesh" of having African Americans within their midst.

About the 1st of September the command was ordered to Ft. Lincoln where the work of recruiting and drilling was vigorously prosecuted. The recruits were furnished with a gray uniform and armed with a lot of Belgian muskets with a kind of sabre bayonet. These muskets were a part of those Gen. Fremont purchased early in the war and for which he was severely criticized. They were a short gun with a caliber which made up in 'width' what the gun lacked in 'length' and in kicking proclivities they were as energetic as the most vicious army mule. About the middle of October the force at Ft. Lincoln was increased by a part of Capt. William's recruits. On Oct. 27th Capt. Seaman received instructions from Major Henning, commanding at Ft. Scott, to take a part of his command and make a reconnaissance of the island in the Marais des Cygnes and vicinity a few miles this side of Butler, Mo., where a squad of Bush-whackers were supposed to have their headquarters.

Researcher notes:  I believe that Mr. Stearns has his dates confused.  He did relate his account of the engagement nearly 40 years after the fact and such slips in recollection are to be expected.  The authors account of the events that transpired do agree with the other accounts of the "Skirmish at Island Mound," and bear a striking similarity to Captain Ward's report.

Accordingly on the morning of the 28th the command consisting of about 250 of the recruits with their officers and a few cavalrymen, mostly of the 5th Kansas, under the command of Capt. Seaman started out from Ft. Lincoln, crossed Mine creek at the old Military ford and late in the afternoon the Marais des Cygnes at Dickey's ford a few miles above the island. On emerging from the timber and tall grass on the other side of the river several horsemen were seen on one of the mounds overlooking the valley. Our advance started out on a gallop to interview them, but without waiting to learn what we desired to say they put spurs to their horses and left in the in the direction of the island. The command was hurried forward and went into camp around a large double log farm house whose owner, a man by the name of Toothman, by the way, was then an unwilling guest of the guard house at Ft. Lincoln. The heavy rail fence of the premises was utilized in building a barricade about the yard, and pickets were out for the night. That evening quite a force of horsemen were seen in the valley but nothing especial transpired till the next morning when a number of shots were exchanged between our pickets and some of the enemy.

Researcher notes:  John Toothman, the 22 year old son of Enoch and Christiana Toothman, was a POW at Fort Lincoln.  John had been implicated in Bushwhacker activities in Bates County that included the ambush of a forage party from the 1st Iowa Cavalry at the ford of the Fort Scott Road over the Miami Creek on May 15, 1862.  In fact, the actual owner of the Toothman farm was Christiana.  See the deed elsewhere on this website.

Along in the afternoon a small scout and foraging party was sent out in the direction of the river. Soon after a large body of horsemen emerged from the timber with the evident intention of attacking this party. The rest of the command was formed in line and moved out to the assistance of their comrades. The Rebs came on rapidly, and setting fire to the tall grass between their lines and ours--the wind blowing in our direction--moved up behind the smoke until the two lines were only a few rods apart. Quickly the order rang out, "Fix Bayonets, Charge" and then into that thick cloud of smoke and crackling flame, a living line of black humanity plunged; some to death, some to wounds disabling them for life--but all to victory. For some ten or fifteen minutes the conflict raged with demoniacal fury--a hand to hand fight--the first crucial test in our Civil war which proved the courage of the ex slave to meet his former master on the field of battle. With bayonet and clubbed gun he there did a deadly work unmoved apparently by a sign of fear, "Surrender, you black devil!" "Nevah!" and plunging his big sabre bayonet into the body of the white man, made a hole big enough to let out a dozen lives. The Rebels made a somewhat hasty retreat, leaving the field in the possession of the despised "niggers."

Researcher notes:  Here again the author has his dates confused.  This paragraph describes the events of Wednesday, October 29, 1862.

While gathering up our dead and wounded the enemy sent in a flag of truce asking permission to take away their dead and wounded of which there were several wagon loads; prisoners taken reported about thirty killed; our loss was ten killed and twelve wounded; among the former was Capt. Crewe, a gallant officer and among the latter Lieu't. Gardner; among the killed was a little Cherokee Indian who came up from the nation, bringing five of his slaves with him, and all enlisted in the same company together. Immediately after the fight the writer of this was ordered to report to Major Henning and ask for reinforcements. By dint of hard riding and dodging of rebel scouts he reached Fort Scott that night and was told to go to Ft. Lincoln, take the rest of the recruits there--about 150 in number, all that could be spared from guard duty, and proceed back by way of Trading Post, on the north side of the river, and that a force of Ohio cavalry with a section of artillery would be sent along the south side.

Researcher notes:  No other account mentions the rebels use of a flag of truce, but it could have happened.  The number of casualties stated is incorrect.  19 men were killed and wounded (8 KIA and 11 WIA).  Perhaps Stearns was dispatched after the battle as he states, but Captain Seaman had previously sent runners for reinforcements on either the evening of October 27 or the morning of October 28.

The colored reinforcements reached Ft. Africa, as the camp was called the next afternoon. The next morning the whole command moved out towards the island, expecting every minute to hear the boom of the Ohioan’s guns. Reaching the island we found the deserted camp of the enemy who had evidently left in great haste a short time before as we found quite a number of horses, some of which had been wounded in fight, and nearly a hundred head of beef cattle left behind. We followed the rebels' trail ten or twelve miles down the river but without coming in sight of them again. We learned afterwards that their scouts discovered the approach of the Ohio cavalry in time to avoid a collision. After scouting around in the vicinity for two more days the command returned to Ft. Lincoln--tired but jubilant--tempered with sorrow for the dead. In this engagement raw recruits just out of slavery earned the right to be called American soldiers, nor was this right forfeited in many succeeding battles in which they were engaged, notably at Cabin Creek, Honey Springs, and Poison Springs. Instead of a few bushwhackers, whom they were sent out to find, they had met and defeated more than their number of Confederate soldiers under the command of Colonel Cockerel.

But this sketch would not be complete without alluding to one other fact. Mound City may be justly considered the most fortunate town in some respects of eastern Kansas. While some of her sister cities have been ravished by war and others destroyed by fire, and still others devastated by death dealing tornadoes, she has seemed as it were to be in the hands of some protecting Providence. But at no other time does this seem more manifest than of this of which we have been considering. Prisoners told the writer that Col. Cockerel had been in the northern part of the state (Missouri) recruiting for the Confederate service, that with some five or six hundred recruits he had camped on the island a few days and that in connection with the bushwhacking squads of Bates and Vernon counties a raid upon Mound City and vicinity had been planned for the night we so fortunately came upon the scene, thus giving them other work to do.

Had it not been for our timely appearance Mound City would undoubtedly have met the fate of Lawrence and some other border towns. Everyone here was ignorant of the impending danger and wholly unprepared for resistance. Probably no other border town was more hated by the Missourians than was Mound City. It was everywhere known as the home of Montgomery and Jennison and of others who supported them. To have wiped it from the face of the earth would have been the cause of much rejoicing across the line. Was it a mere coincidence, so called, that this expedition of raw colored recruits was sent out on another mission just in time to thwart the designs of the enemy or was there a Providence in it? Perhaps both. Who can tell?

Linn County Republic January 31, 1902