Man seeks glory for black Civil War soldiers killed in Missouri

Man seeks glory for black Civil War soldiers killed in Missouri


BUTLER, Mo. -- Chris Tabor has a dream. Someday -- perhaps in the not-too-distant future -- what will be akin to an archaeological dig will take place 8 miles southwest of here, and human remains will turn up. Those bones, 137 years old, will belong to the first black combat soldiers killed in the Civil War. By Jim Fisher, Knight Ridder newspapers

Stories about Man seeks glory for black Civil War soldiers killed in Missouri

Chris Tabor has a dream.


As dreams go, Tabor's is huge.

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 one recent Sunday to hear it, ignoring a gloriously warm autumn day and not bothering with the Kansas City Chiefs' whomping of the San Diego Chargers.
There were church services and a big dinner, and even re-enactors of the ninth and 10th Horse Cavalry Association of Leavenworth and Kansas City. The Rev. Larry Coleman, pastor of the Brooks Chapel A.M.E. Church, which along with the Mount Zion Methodist Church sponsored the event, was adamant:
"This is something that has to be told."

It is a story basically unfamiliar in western Missouri, said Tabor, probably for several reasons: Vestiges of the Civil War still linger; the engagement was relatively small, being a bloody skirmish rather than a full-fledged battle; and the fact that 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, then a professor of history at Pittsburg State University, wrote a seminal work called "The Sable Arm."

"One old black man came up to me and said, 'Why couldn't this have been in my schoolbooks?' " Tabor said. "It touches something in people."

Tabor is white and a former combat Marine who served in Operation Desert Storm and Somalia. He was discharged after 10 years of service when he injured his knees on his 82nd parachute jump. 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 eventually 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 "clean out a bunch of bushwhackers" in the vicinity of the Marais de Cygnes river.
Oddly enough, the Union recruits wore gray uniforms. Most carried surplus Austrian muskets.
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.
At that point a large number of the 1st Kansas came running and fired volleys into the enemy, thus driving them into another volley of fire from a blocking force.
The Confederates skedaddled.
Bill Turman, one of the rebel commanders, reportedly complained a few days later that the black soldiers "fought like tigers and the white officers had got them so trained that no one would surrender."
"Not that it would have mattered," said Tabor. "This was like most fights between black troops and rebels. It was fought 'under the black flag,' meaning that no quarter was given on either side. There were no prisoners."
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. Casualties on the other side probably will remain unknown, said Tabor, since irregular Confederate forces in Missouri left almost no records.
"I think the bodies may still be out there," said Tabor, referring to the black troops and Six-Killer. The officer's body was returned and might have been buried in Lawrence.

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bgill -Contributions private
12 May 2007
19 Jun 2013
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