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First Kansas Colored Infantry Flag

First Kansas Colored Infantry flag, after conservation treatment

Kansas has one of the nation's largest collections of flags used by African American regiments during the Civil War.

The first shots of the Civil War were fired about three months after Kansas entered the Union as a free state. Pre-war Bleeding Kansas had served as a crucible for the abolitionist cause, and many of the state's residents advocated the use of African-American troops early in the war although federal policy and many Northerners opposed it.

In a controversial move, U.S. Senator James Henry Lane gave broad interpretation to a presidential order authorizing the recruitment of regiments. No stranger to controversy, Lane had been a prominent figure in Kansas since 1855, and was deeply involved in bringing Kansas into the Union as a free state.

Many Firsts

During August, 1862, Lane began organizing a unit of African-American soldiers in Kansas. The First Kansas Colored Infantry was the first recruited in the northern states for service in the Civil War. They would soon be the first blacks to see battle, and the first to die in action.

Five months passed before the First was accepted into federal service, but this did not deter them from training or seeing action. On October 29, 1862, a detachment of 225 men faced 500 Confederates at Island Mound in Bates County, Missouri. Ten members of the First were killed and 12 wounded, but the Confederates were driven off.

The First was the fourth African-American unit to be mustered into the federal army on January 13, 1863. Much has been made of the service of the 54th Massachusetts, depicted in the 1989 movie Glory. The 54th probably did do more to lay to rest any doubts northern whites had about blacks making good soldiers, but authorization to recruit the 54th did not come until January 26, 1863—13 days after the First Kansas was mustered in, and three months after Island Mound.

Distinguished in Battle

The First distinguished itself throughout the Civil War. Most prominent were two battles in the Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) in July 1863. At Cabin Creek on July 2, blacks fought alongside whites for the first time in turning back Confederate troops. Fifteen days later, on July 17, at Honey Springs, the First had perhaps its best day of the war, holding the federal center against attack. This action effectively ended any doubts west of the Mississippi about the abilities of black soldiers. Major General James Blunt would later remark, "I never saw such fighting as was done by that Negro regiment . . . . they make better soldiers in every respect than any troops I have ever had under my command."

The worst day in the First's Civil War record came on April 18, 1864, at Poison Springs, Arkansas, where 117 died and 65 were wounded. The death toll was aggravated by the Confederates' execution of captured and wounded men left on the field. For black soldiers in the west, "Remember Poison Springs!" was a battle cry for the remainder of the war.

The preserved regimental flag of the First Kansas Colored Infantry documents the unit's gallantry. Recorded on it are the battle honors of Island Mound, Cabin Creek, Honey Springs, and Poison Springs, as well as the battles of Sherwood, Prairie Deanne, Jenkins Ferry, and Camden. The flag pictured here is one of the few remaining artifacts from a regiment that was the "first" in many ways.

This flag is in the collections of the Kansas Museum of History, along with a number of other flags from African American regiments. To view more Civil War flags in the collections, see the online exhibit Keep the Flag to the Front: Battle Flags of Kansas.

Save the Flags!

The Kansas Historical Society raises funds for flag conservation and preservation through the Save the Flags! project.

At right is an image of the Second Kansas Colored Infantry flag before it received professional conservation treatment.

Help us preserve our collections by donating funds to the Save the Flags! project through our Museum Store. Specify "Save the Flags" in the drop-down menu.

Entry: First Kansas Colored Infantry Flag

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: December 2000

Date Modified: October 2019

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.