BUTLER, Mo. | The wind-whipped field looks no different from millions of others. Even as a field of battle, it is hardly distinguishable from thousands.
But these grassy acres west of town are hallowed.
Here, in October 1862, black men — escaped slaves and freedmen both — fought rebels in a bloody hand-to-hand skirmish as an American unit for the first time.
“Like tigers,” noted one Southern man who tangled with them here at Island Mound.
Willadina Johnson and her cousins had known nothing about the bravery of these African-American defenders of their country or how this moment made an early, indelible imprint in the uneven, bitterly long and sometimes bloody path to equality to be trod by their descendants.
But when they began looking into their family history, they found it — in the form of a bronze statue of a Union infantryman — staring back at them on the lawn of the Bates County Courthouse.
Civil War soldiers are fixtures on courthouse squares across half of America, but this one, erected in 2008 about 50 miles south of Kansas City, was of an African-American.
“We just filled up with this pride.” White America did not think black men could fight, Johnson said, “But they did. They fought valiantly and gallantly. They did not give up.”
Cpl. Rufus Vann, her great-great-grandfather, marched into Bates County with the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry Regiment, she said. He was among the 200,000 black men who filled out the ranks of the Union army.
Like 40,000 of his comrades of color, Vann did not survive. His 1865 death in Little Rock, not from bullets but from disease, was typical for the Civil War soldier.
Impressive numbers, yet, for many African-Americans, it is difficult to embrace the 150th anniversary of the war.
While white Civil War enthusiasts don uniforms — with a decided preference in Missouri for gray — and women slip into silk hoop skirts for balls, few African-Americans care to dress up as slaves.
“A dozen or so here and there” will participate as soldiers in battle re-enactments, said Hari Jones, curator of the African-American Civil War Memorial and Museum.
Jones blames “propaganda” that twisted the history of the black experience. Much Civil War literature, illustration and film, from “The Birth of a Nation” to “Gone With the Wind,” depicted African-Americans as pathetic, simpleminded, subservient and dependent.
“I’m sure that if they really knew the history of how African-Americans fought for their freedom, at Island Mound, Fort Wagner, at Honey Springs in Indian Territory, the Battle of Vicksburg and so many others, they would feel differently about their African-American history,” Jones said.
“For African-Americans not to celebrate the anniversary of the Civil War would be like Americans not to pop firecrackers on the Fourth of July.”
To that, the Rev. David A. Gilmore, pastor of Centennial United Methodist Church in Kansas City, replies that he knows of black Americans, “who, not only do they not celebrate the Civil War, but they don’t even celebrate the Fourth of July or call it Independence Day, because on that day in 1776 black people were still slaves.”
“It is easy to celebrate the end of something if you have been delivered from it,” he said. “But if you either consciously or subconsciously feel you are still caught in the throes of this thing, it is hard. As a people, we have not been delivered.”
Shortly after the war began, a Virginia slave named Harry Jarvis slipped off to Fort Monroe, held by Union Gen. Benjamin Butler. He asked to enlist, but Butler said no, that “it wasn’t a black man’s war.”
“I told him it would be a black man’s war before they got through,” recounted Jarvis, who was made a laborer as “contraband of war.”
Although black men had fought as individuals in the Revolution and in the War of 1812, a 1792 law barred them from the U.S. Army.
Even in spring 1861, when Washington looked as if it would fall before any Northern forces reached it, 300 of the capital’s free black community gathered for its defense. The War Department replied that it had “no intention … to call into the service of the Government any colored soldiers.”
Abraham Lincoln was among those resisting the idea of black soldiers at first. He had no love for slavery, but neither was he a believer in racial equality.
“In arguably his worst racial moment,” said David Blight, author of “Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory,” Lincoln addressed black ministers in 1862:
“I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races; I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people….”
He, like many other white leaders, believed that foreign colonies populated by black emigrants would solve the post-war race question.
Frederick Douglass, a former slave and guiding intellectual, was having none of it.
“Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letter, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket,” he said, “there is no power on earth that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship.”
In manpower-short Kansas, Sen. James Lane already had begun recruiting former slaves for an all-black unit, with even a few black officers, another breakthrough.
Lt. Patrick Henry Minor’s role at Island Mound appears to make him the nation’s first black officer to lead members of his race in battle.
The black soldiers are said to have sung…
Once a slave but now we’s free,
marchin’ in the infantry.
So lift your heads and hold dem high,
The 1st Kansas Colored is passin’ by…
That fall in 1862 they occupied the Toothman farm, put up some rough breastworks, dubbed it Fort Africa. Rebel irregulars rode up; the raw recruits came out and fought them off.
The Kansas unit, not even officially mustered in, lost eight men that day — six black, one Cherokee and one white officer. All but the white officer are buried here, but no stone marks the spot. That could change with plans to declare Island Mound a historic site.
By the time the 1st Kansas Colored was breathing powder smoke outside Butler, the thinking of Lincoln and others in the North had evolved.
The Union Army had been bled in a series of defeats, but Lincoln needed more than just new regiments. He wanted to take a higher moral ground to discourage European support of Richmond and slavery.
He revealed his intention to a divided Cabinet in mid-1862, but had to wait months for a Union victory so his plan wouldn’t be seen as desperation.
The Battle of Antietam offered his chance, and on Jan. 1, 1863, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Order, in some ways one of the strangest seminal documents of our history.
It would free 3.1 million of the nation’s 4 million slaves, but only those held in the deep South, most of whom were beyond federal reach.
Those in bondage in Missouri, Kentucky and Maryland, all under federal control, had to wait two more years. Lincoln needed every border state Unionist — including many holding slaves. He did urge the states toward their own gradual emancipations.
“Northern generals came to realize the huge advantage they had if they recruited black soldiers,” said Jimmy Johnson, a Kansas City archaeologist and high school history teacher. Unrelated to Willadina Johnson, he said his great-grandfather George Washington, a Platte County slave who escaped to Quindaro, Kan., also joined the 1st Kansas Colored.
For Johnson, who dresses as a Union soldier to make presentations based on the life of his ancestor, the Civil War should be celebrated for “the transition from that African-American slave to that African-American soldier.”
Before the war ended, 163 black units were formed; one out of every eight Union soldiers was black. And Lincoln heard himself called “Father Abraham” by the freed slaves.
“When the war comes up, many turn off because they think all blacks did was sit around as slaves and wait for whites to save them,” Joelouis Mattox, a volunteer at the Bruce R. Watkins Cultural Heritage Center, said of young African-Americans in Kansas City. “Some people do not know that 200,000 black men and women fought for their freedom — they fought like devils from hell to free their brothers and sisters.”
Even when wearing Union blue, however, black soldiers were treated differently. At first they were given lower pay than their white counterparts and had to pay for their uniforms, which whites did not.
Nor, Johnson said, “were they used as efficiently as they could have been.”
This new force often was relegated to wagon driving, grave digging, cooking and garrison duty in captured Southern towns. But while many units were assigned to such labor, thousands reached the battlefields. More than 20 black soldiers and sailors received the Medal of Honor.
“They were the bridge builders to our service today,” said Maj. Clinton L. Lee, Jr., operations officer for the 15th Military Police Brigade. “I get goose bumps when I talk about it. If they hadn’t gone through what they went through there is no way in the world someone like myself would be in the position that I am in today.”
The award-winning 1989 film “Glory,” based on the heroic attack on Fort Wagner in South Carolina by the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry, brought present-day attention to the black soldier’s significance in the Civil War.
Besides often getting substandard supplies and inadequate medical treatment, the black soldier faced one terrible hardship that his white comrades did not — the chance of slaughter by Confederate soldiers if captured.
At Poison Springs in Arkansas, 117 men of the 1st Kansas, renamed the U.S. 79th Colored, were killed, many after being wounded or captured.
The 79th got its revenge at the Battle of Jenkins Ferry, Ark., crying, “Remember Poison Springs!” as it charged.
“The war did give African-Americans a sense of pride and dignity and that they were a part of saving the Union,” said Antonio F. Holland, co-author of “Missouri’s Black Heritage.”
Johnson agreed that without the service of black troops in the Civil War, “then black soldiers in future wars would not have had the precedence.”
African-Americans would serve in every conflict since, although in segregated units for many decades. After each overseas duty, however, they returned home with an ever stronger sense that it was their country as well that they had fought for, pushing black pride and civil rights ahead in each generation.
Yet, the argument that African-Americans made poor soldiers would be heard as late as the Korean War, most commonly from the many Southerners in the officer corps. It was President Harry Truman, who grew up not far from Butler, who ended segregation in the U.S. military.
“We remember very well how our people were treated, and we know that was just a stigma placed on them,” Lee said. “But it does not stop me from knowing that I can achieve any level in today’s Army. We’ve had blacks on just about every level in the military today.”
Of the 1.4 million people now serving on active duty in the Armed Forces, 209,356, or about 18 percent, are listed as African-American.
Gen. Colin Powell served as the first black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the First Gulf War.
And today the commander-in-chief is President Barack Obama, widely praised for ordering a bold military operation that rid the world of Osama bin Laden.
Up a slight hill from Old Atherton Road, tiny orange flags stick up from the soil, property once owned by Jabez Smith, at one point Missouri’s largest slave owner.
The flags indicate the burials of what are believed to have been more than 200 slaves, many the victims of cholera.
Jackson County’s slave population grew from 193 in 1830 to 3,944 by 1860, but it was not the highest in the state. Lafayette County next door held 6,374.
The institution began here in 1720 when the first 500 slaves were dragged from Santo Domingo to toil in the lead mines around St. Louis.
By 1860, it was 115,000 slaves, about one-tenth the population, the lowest ratio of any slave state but Delaware. Then, the state auditor set their value at $44 million. Prime male slaves sold for $1,300; females fetched maybe $1,000.
The Missouri auctioneers’ cry was heard most often in St. Louis, but slaves were sold, too, on the old courthouse steps in Independence and at what is now Pioneer Park at Westport Road and Broadway.
“Slavery was a business, pure and simple,” said Holland.
In 1861, Mississippi’s Lucius Lamar made that clear: “A blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization …. We must either submit to degradation, and to the loss of property worth four billions of money, or we must secede from the Union.”
At a meeting of the Civil War Roundtable of Western Missouri, a member blurted, “Here in Missouri we treated our slaves good, in many cases like family.”
Diane Mutti Burke, a University of Missouri-Kansas City history professor and that evening’s lecturer, was polite, but later chuckled.
“There’s nothing ever good about owning another human being, about slavery,” she said.
Take Henry Clay Bruce, a slave who was never whipped by his owner, according to his memoir. But on neighboring farms, he noted, “someone was whipped nearly every week.”
Four out of five African-Americans today descended from enslaved ancestors.
“There is a lot of pain to think about the inhumanities and the indignities of slavery,” explained Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League. “There is a human instinct, which says I want to forget that pain; I want to move beyond that pain.”
The federal victory saw freedom inked onto paper in the words of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments.
But it did not prevent a whole new bucket of mean heaved at black Americans. Without money, property or education, their new freedoms often proved empty, indeed.
“There was great optimism on the part of the freed people that after the Civil War, they would get their 40 acres and a mule, and the yearning of democracy would be opened to them,” said Mary Frances Berry, history professor at the University of Pennsylvania and former chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
“But that land dream did not come to fruition,” she said.
To many, the oppressive sharecropping economy would seem little better than slave days. The Ku Klux Klan, led by former Confederate Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, initiated a wave of terror.
“The values that the South fought for, their way of life, which is the exploitation of African-Americans and the denigation of African-Americans, became the values of the North,” said Ajamu K. Webster, chairman of the Kansas City Black United Front.
“The North won the war but the South won the peace.”
The backlash against the black community, Morial calls “One of the great tragedies throughout history … a deep, deep betrayal to the important victories that the Civil War was meant to produce.”
In 1877, as part of a political deal that ended a presidential election dispute, Reconstruction policies and federal occupation were lifted from the Southern states. Many “redeemer” laws were quickly passed to restore white supremacy and black disenfranchisement.
“In Plessy v. Ferguson, the values that the South fought and stood for became the law of the land. It took another 100 years for us to get to where we are today,” Webster said.
The court case upheld what became the “Jim Crow” racial caste system that lasted into the 1960s. Across the South, “White only” signs hung everywhere. Sharing cafes, shops, hotels, trains, classes, water fountains and prison cells was prohibited. Black accommodations almost always were below the standards reserved for white Americans.
A person of color could not ride in the front seat of a car driven by a white; if it was a truck, the black person rode in the back. At intersections, the black driver did not have the right-of-way.
A black man could not offer to shake the hand of a white man, could not accuse him of lying, could not laugh at him. Blacks could not kiss in public; it offended whites. Kissing a white women meant death.
Joelouis Mattox grew up in Missouri’s boot heel, the cotton country around Caruthersville, “a community where black people survived because we knew our place and we stayed in our place.”
“We had colored schools and got accustomed to the second-hand books,” Mattox said. “Blacks could not swim in the public swimming pool, and we swam in the Mississippi River. We were told by our teachers that we had to be better than our white counterparts because of the color of our skin. Our teachers instilled in us we could be somebody, and we did not have to stay there and take it.
“However, it was not the worst place to live. Sikeston and New Madrid were much worse. Sikeston had (Missouri’s) last reported lynching of a black person in 1942.”
Between 1889 and 1918, more than 2,500 black men were hanged, shot or burned by mobs. In 1901, a bill to make lynching a federal crime was proposed. Southerners in Congress blocked it for more than 50 years.
Race riots sparked by whites broke out from New Orleans to Chicago. If law officers did not join in, then they stood by. In the early 1920s, thriving black communities in Tulsa’s Greenwood district and Rosewood, Fla., were wiped out.
“We are still dealing with the aftermath of the Civil War as a nation,” said Darryck Dean, president of Harmony, a Kansas City non-profit agency that promotes diversity and improved race relations. “If you look at the legacy of the war, Reconstruction, Jim Crow and so forth, we are still trying to correct the wrongs the South sought to keep.”
Roughly a century after the war, many enlisted in a second civil conflict, again, largely in the South.
Its battles included voter registration, sit-ins, bus boycotts, paratroopers escorting students, church bombings, police dogs and fire hoses, equal rights and voting rights laws, an “I Have a Dream” speech under Lincoln’s gaze and much, much more.
“Young African-Americans and the public in general must know that when we look at the Civil War and civil rights movement, there were many white people who stood on the side of freedom and died to make men free,” said Mattox.
Yet, with the gains, segregation is still found across the nation. Black Americans suffer economic difficulties disproportionately, still find their children in substandard schools.
“With all the sacrifices that have been made over the last 150 years, look where we are today,” said Gilmore. “We have a black man in the Oval Office, being called out in the middle of him giving a national speech; and being challenged about whether he was actually born in this country.”
Nothing points to the centrality of race to our past as much as the Civil War, said activist Julian Bond, grandson of a Kentucky slave.
“And nothing forces us to acknowledge its continued centrality to our present more than the refusal by some, after 150 years, to admit that the war was about slavery.
“Those who say that ‘race is history’ have it exactly backward,” he said. “History is race. The word ‘America’ scrambled, after all, spells ‘I am race.’”