Man wants glory for black Civil War soldiers

First troops killed in Missouri battle, not in South Carolina

November 26, 1999|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

BUTLER, Mo. -- Chris Tabor has a dream.

Someday what will be akin to an archaeological dig will take place 8 miles southwest of here, and human remains will turn up. Those bones, buried for 137 years, belong to the first black combat soldiers killed in the Civil War.

The public perception, cemented by the hit movie "Glory," is that black troops saw their first combat and suffered their first casualties in mid-July 1863 in the storming of Fort Wagner near Charleston, S.C.

Actually, Tabor said, the official record shows that the first black troops killed -- Cpl. Joseph Talbot, and Pvts. Samuel Davis, Thomas Lane, Marion Barber, Allen Rhodes and Henry Gash -- died nine months earlier, on Oct. 29, 1862. They were killed in the fight at what was called Island Mound or Toothman's farm along the old Fort Scott road in Missouri's Bates County.

The story is riveting. Enough so that 150 people piled into the civic auditorium at the Butler City Hall recently to hear it.

The Rev. Larry Coleman, pastor of the church that sponsored the event, was adamant:

"This is something that has to be told."

It is an unfamiliar story in western Missouri, said Tabor, probably for several reasons: Vestiges of the Civil War still linger; the engagement was relatively small, a bloody skirmish rather than a full-fledged battle; and the black contribution to the Union and the 180,000 blacks who wore blue had been largely forgotten until the mid-1950s, when Dudley Cornish, a professor of history at Pittsburg State University, wrote a seminal work called "The Sable Arm."

Tabor, who is white, is a former combat Marine who served in Operation Desert Storm and Somalia. He has a degree in geography and is finishing a graduate degree at the University of Missouri, Kansas City.

Tabor said there was a strange duality in Missouri about what happened here in the early days of the Civil War, which were particularly vicious along the Missouri-Kansas border.

"Go over to Jefferson City, and right there in the state Capitol is a diorama of the Island Mound fight," said Tabor. "It explains the whole thing," but few people in Butler know about it.

The story of Island Mound is straightforward, said Tabor, a native of Scranton, Pa.

In October 1862 about 200 black recruits, almost all of them escaped slaves from Missouri and Arkansas, were training at Fort Lincoln, a ramshackle post west of Fulton, Kan. President Abraham Lincoln had not yet authorized black troop levies, but that meant nothing to Kansas Sen. Jim Lane. He welcomed any man willing to fight and kill "secesh," a common term used for secessionists.

On Oct. 26, reinforced by other black troops from Fort Leavenworth, what would become the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry -- about 240 enlisted men, 10 white officers, and six white scouts -- tramped eastward into Bates County to confront bushwhackers in the vicinity of the Marais de Cygnes river.

Once at the farm of Enoch Toothman, the troops used the heavy fence rails to throw up a bastion they dubbed "Fort Africa."

On Oct. 28 there were brief contacts between the guerrillas and the troops. On the 29th the real fight started when a foraging party was sent outside the Union position.

Soon the rebels had set the surrounding prairie on fire. Running fights broke out, and a group of black troops soon was engaged in hand-to-hand combat with the mounted bushwhackers near the prominent mounds just south of the Toothman farm.

Union soldiers joined the black troops and the Confederates fled.

Tabor said two other Union soldiers died in the fight, Capt. A. G. Crew and Pvt. John Six-Killer, a Cherokee. Eleven other Union soldiers were wounded.

"I think the bodies may still be out there," said Tabor, referring to the black troops and Six-Killer.

The site of the Island Mound fight is in the hands of four landowners, Tabor said. Visits are discouraged.

"I like to see the state do something," Coleman said. "What happened here is important to all of us."

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