- Soldiers in the Army of Freedom: The First Kansas Colored, the Civil War’s First African American Combat Unit by Ian Michael Spurgeon
Soldiers in the Army of Freedom offers a complex and multilayered account of the origins of the first African American combat unit raised during the early years of the [End Page 92] Civil War. A finely written and well-sourced regimental history, this book is, at its heart, a recovery work: Ian Michael Spurgeon hopes that it will bring “long overdue recognition to those who broke a key color barrier in American society” (6). Spurgeon understands that the most well known referent to African American service during the war is the 54th Massachusetts and its assault on Fort Wagner, South Carolina, and he applauds the wealth of scholarship that has focused on that particular regiment. However, he argues that it was the early successes of the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry that opened the door for an expansion of African American service in regiments like 54th Massachusetts.
The book’s first four chapters seek to answer a fundamental question: “Why was the first African American combat unit raised in Kansas in 1862?” The first section centers on the actions of Kansas senator James Henry Lane and his drive to raise an African American regiment in his state for both personal and political reasons. Spurgeon has previously written a biography of Lane, and his longstanding proximity to his subject is obvious from these early chapters: Lane is easily the most fleshed-out and complicated of any of the actors, of whom there are many, in this book. One of the most impressive feats of this work is the incredible depth of research into the lives of the men of the 1st Kansas Colored, most of whom were refugees and fugitive slaves. Spurgeon introduces readers to men whom most historians have probably never heard of, men like William D. Matthews, whose portrait adorns the book’s cover. Matthews was a company commander in the 1st Kansas and was one unfortunate event away from becoming the first African American commissioned officer in the United States Army. Individual stories like his are woven throughout the larger narratives of battles and campaigns, situating these lives within the war’s broader context.
The early chapters are key to understanding the complicated political dealings that led to the mustering of the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry and also help to explain why the regiment may have been relegated to “little more than a footnote” in other historical treatments of the war (5). This early section may develop slowly for a reader itching to see the first African American unit in action, but once the action comes, Spurgeon’s skill for battle narration makes it worth the wait. The later parts of the book follow the regiment through its first engagement with Confederate guerillas in Missouri at Island Mound, its participation in the campaigns throughout Indian Territory, and its major defeats in Arkansas. The accounts of the battles are interspersed with chapters that focus on the internal struggles within the regiment, its early morale issues due to massive desertion, and the broad political struggles to maintain its role as a fighting unit of a military in which a majority of officers did not consider black troops fit for combat.
While this book is primarily concerned with resurrecting the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry from the footnotes of history, its contribution to the scholarship on the Trans-Mississippi theater cannot be ignored. Spurgeon details Brig. Gen. James G. [End Page 93] Blunt’s 1863 expedition into Indian Territory and recounts the actions surrounding many of the important battles fought in Missouri and Arkansas. The 1st Kansas Colored Infantry acts as the instrument by which Spurgeon dissects these lesser-known battles, such as Cabin Creek, Honey Springs, and Poison Spring and places them into the larger context of the war in the southwest.
Soldiers in the Army of...