Black Missourians’ Service in the Union Army
Through their spying efforts and their manual labor, black Missourians greatly aided the war effort, but the federal government initially refused to allow African American men to fight. In the summer of 1862, the Union Army finally began to enlist black men as soldiers. Kansas Senator James H. Lane organized one of the first African American regiments, the First Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry, which was primarily made up of former Missouri slaves who had escaped into Kansas.
In late October 1862, the First Kansas Colored Volunteers fought the first battle between African American soldiers and Confederate forces at Island Mound, in Bates County, Missouri, directly over the border from Kansas.
Enslaved men still living in Missouri could not officially enlist until November 1863, and during that winter they flocked into the Union Army. They understood that joining the army would guarantee their freedom, but many likely also hoped that valiant military service would demonstrate their manhood and fitness for citizenship, as well as lead to the freedom of their family members
A few Unionist slaveholders encouraged their slave men to enlist, while others promised them better treatment and wages. Henry Bruce’s master offered him “fifteen dollars per month, board and clothing” and a general pass if he would “remain with him on the farm,” and Spotswood Rice’s master guaranteed him land and a house if he would stay and manage his farm. Some remained a short while, but eventually many, including Bruce and Rice, ran off to enlist or fled to nearby free states. In contrast, many white Missourians used violence and intimidation to keep enslaved men from enlisting and owners and guerrillas patrolled the roads at night to thwart those who attempted to reach recruitment stations.
Men risked their own lives when they enlisted, but they understood that their decisions often had consequences for their families as well. Some women and children joined their men in Union military encampments, but as the risks of fleeing were great, many chose to stay with their owners. Many women complained that they paid dearly for the decisions of their husbands, fathers, and sons. Owners frequently required women to engage in work customarily assigned to men and many suffered physical abuse. Some Missouri slaveholders calculated that the work extracted from women and children was not equal to the cost of supporting them and so ejected them from their farms or transported them out of state for sale.
Soldiers often learned of the abuse suffered by their family members left in slavery and argued to their commanding officers that their dependents deserved protection and even freedom. In September 1864, Spotswood Rice penned a letter to the mistress of his daughter, Mary, in which he outlined these arguments. He informed Mary’s mistress that both the Union Army and the United States government backed him in his claims to his children, proclaiming: “[N]ow you call my children your pro[per]ty not so with me my Children is my own.”
Some soldiers took matters into their own hands, often with the assistance of white soldiers, and liberated their family members who remained enslaved.
Indeed, some soldiers took matters into their own hands, often with the assistance of white soldiers, and liberated their family members who remained enslaved. These return trips were made at great risk, as a former Platte County slave named Sam Marshall learned when Missouri State Militia soldiers severely beat him for attempting to take his children with him to Leavenworth.
By the end of the war, more than 8,300 black Missourians—39 percent of the state’s African American men of service age—served in the five United States Colored Infantry regiments that were recruited in the state, but many more enlisted in nearby Kansas, Illinois, and Iowa. Not all enslaved Missouri men took this route to freedom, however. Some men entered into free labor arrangements, while others flocked to nearby towns and cities or simply left the state altogether.
Missouri Freed People’s Uncertain Future
Enslaved Missouri men, women, and children left for the surrounding free states by the thousands during the war years, but most believed that the ray of freedom shined brightest in Kansas. As early as November 1861, Kansan John Wood reported that thousands of escaped Missouri slaves had already made their way to Lawrence. During the frigid winter of 1861-62, Platte County slave George Washington literally walked across the frozen Missouri River to freedom in the abolitionist stronghold of Quindaro, Kansas, and in April 1863, a Kansas City, Missouri, newspaper reported that large numbers of freed slaves were “constantly streaming through our streets,” presumably on their way to Kansas. A year later, Henry Bruce and his fiancée rode a train to Missouri’s western border and crossed over the river to freedom in Leavenworth, Kansas.
In reality, many former slaves faced continued difficulties even after they successfully fled from their owners. Women, children, and the elderly continued to seek protection in military camps and in towns along Missouri’s border, but both the army and these communities were overwhelmed by the refugees’ tremendous material needs. While some military officers worked desperately to secure supplies for the growing number of Missouri refugees, others began looking to relocation to Kansas as the best solution.
Many of the residents of the new state of Kansas did not eagerly welcome the newly freed people. Fueled by virulent racism and white supremacy, many Kansas whites feared competition from the influx of African American workers. Henry Bruce reported that some Leavenworth citizens took advantage of his lack of understanding of personal finances to cheat him out of the fruits of his labor.
A resolution of the now Republican-controlled Missouri State Constitutional Convention officially emancipated Missouri slaves on January 11, 1865, but by this time, most were already free, especially enlistment-age men. A number of white Missourians did not relinquish slavery as their system of labor or racial control without a violent struggle. Black Missourians were likely most concerned about what emancipation meant for their own families and communities. The years ahead would prove to be difficult for both black and white Missourians as they forged a new relationship in freedom, but Missouri freed men and women enthusiastically worked toward a future in which they could attain an education, secure gainful employment, ensure the safety of their families and communities, and assert their rights as American citizens.
Berlin, Ira, et. al. Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861-1867. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Bruce, Henry Clay. The New Man: Twenty-Nine Years a Slave. Twenty-Nine Years a Free Man. York, PA.: P. Anstadt & Sons, 1895.
Mutti Burke, Diane. On Slavery's Border: Missouri's Small-Slaveholding Households, 1815-1865. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2010.
Rawick, George, ed. The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography. Series. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1977– 1979.
Sheridan, Richard B., ed. Freedom's Crucible: The Underground Railroad in Lawrence and Douglas County, Kansas, 1854-1865: A Reader. Lawrence: Division of Continuing Education, The University of Kansas.