Monday, November 19, 2012
An unofficial black Union soldier in Civil War Missouri
During the summer of 1862, Confederate Colonel Joseph Porter rode around northeast Missouri recruiting men for the Southern Cause. He assembled about 2,000 recruits, many without any training or even weapons. Pursuing him came Colonel John McNeil of the 2nd Missouri Cavalry with about 1,000 trained and armed men. McNeil finally ran Porter to ground at the town of Kirksville on August 6, 1862.
In a three-hour battle, McNeil kicked Porter out of Kirksville and seriously weakened his force. Porter's scattered recruits would be hunted down over the next couple of weeks.
An interesting footnote to this battle is found in a letter by Union Lt.-Col. William Shaffer: "I must speak of Colonel McNeil's colored man Jim. To him belongs the honor of killing the first man in the fight. Armed with a Sharps rifle, he did splendid work through the entire afternoon. Whenever a rebel showed his head at long range, Jim was almost certain to get him."
While this was two months before the First Kansas Colored Volunteers became the first black regiment to see battle at the Battle of Island Mound, it isn't the first report of a black man bearing arms in Missouri. Even during the border wars with Kansas in the 1850s, there were scattered reports of Jayhawkers having black men in their ranks. These guys were probably slaves freed on previous raids by the Kansas Jayhawkers into Missouri territory.
One question is: was Jim a slave or a freedman? Despite the Emancipation Proclamation, slavery still existed in Missouri at this time because it wasn't considered a state in rebellion and therefore didn't come under the new law. Slaves were sometimes armed so they could go hunt for themselves and their masters, so a slave being a good shot isn't outside the realm of possibility. Some Unionists owned slaves and fought on the side of the North to preserve the Union, not free the slaves. Only some serious research could discover if Jim was a slave or a servant
It's also interesting to note that Jim was armed with a Sharps rifle, the finest gun at this time and a Jayhawker favorite. It's also the weapon of choice for the hero in my Civil War novel.
Photo courtesy Wikipedia.