Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

The Black Citizen-Soldiers of Kansas, 1864-1901

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

The Black Citizen-Soldiers of Kansas, 1864-1901

Article excerpt

The Black Citizen-Soldiers of Kansas, 1864-1901. By Roger D. Cunningham. (Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press, c. 2008. Pp. [xxii], 206. $34.95, ISBN 978-0-8262-1807-0.)

Historians of the Civil War are familiar with the story of the First Kansas Colored Infantry--a black unit that battled Confederate forces at Island Mound, Missouri, in October 1862. Even better known in popular lore are the military exploits of the postbellum buffalo soldiers of the American West. More obscure is the quest of hundreds of black militiamen of Kansas to realize the promise of freedom and citizenship through military service in the decades following the Civil War. These "citizen-soldiers," whose life stories lie buried in service records and black press archives, constitute the protagonists of Roger D. Cunningham's history of the Sunflower State in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

The militias of Kansas took shape during the guerrilla warfare in the West. Besides the African American regulars belonging to the United States Colored Troops (USCT), segregated units of black men came together in defiance of the Kansas militia law in order to defend their state against the incursions of Confederate warrior Sterling Price in 1864. These black companies included carpenters, barbers, and seamen. They were led by men who had helped operate the Underground Railroad or promoted black emigration to Canada before the Civil War. They saw military service as a path to civic and political equality, urging black suffrage and the right to military service on par with white citizens.

Yet Cunningham--a retired army officer himself--reminds us that as sectional conflict wound down and slavery as it was once known died, African Americans discovered just how elusive freedom could be, even in the "promised land" the abolitionist John Brown had sought to redeem with blood (p. 54). The Kansas National Guard excluded blacks, and even after the state constitution was amended to remove this limitation, African Americans continued to be relegated to the reserve militia and independent companies. …

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