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Freedom Fighters Before Emancipation

Only the skies were gloomy as Emancipation Day 1863 dawned and the First Kansas Colored Volunteers  — a mix of African Americans, Native Americans, and Black Indians — assembled at Fort Scott to celebrate President Lincoln’s long-delayed Emancipation Proclamation. The men had been fighting the Confederacy since war broke out in 1861. The white officers even longer — as radical abolitionists whom John Brown commanded in his Kansas battles to free slaves in the 1850s.

Flags, sewn by women of color, floated above the Fort Scott gathering of about 500 people. First people sang the “The Star-Spangled Banner.”  Then they shared a barbecue and strong liquor.

Then soldiers and officers burst into their song. They honored their “immortal hero” with “the John Brown song.” The soldiers added this line: “John Brown sowed, and the harvesters are we.”

This self-liberated army was commanded by the very officers Brown trained and led, and had the kind of volunteers he dreamed of leading in a Kansas guerilla war to end slavery. This was the time to complete “the old man’s work”

Years after John Brown was hanged for treason in 1859, a  political miracle had brought together soldiers and officers to complete his crusade.

The men of color were recruited from 10,000 people from the Seminole, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw and Cherokee Nations who followed Chief Opothla Yahola on what began as peace march — to avoid serving the Confederate cause — from the Indian Territory. Attacked three times by Confederate cavalry on their desperate voyage, they finally decided to head for Union lines in Kansas.

Only 7,000 survived by the time they reached Kansas, and many decided they were no longer pacifists. As early as October 1862, 225 men of the regiment drove off 500 Confederate troops. They continued Brown’s work with forays into Missouri to free slaves, relatives, loved ones and strangers. Their white officers were once hunted by the Federal government as John Brown traitors. Now as experts in Kansas guerilla warfare were sent west – considered an insignificant Civil War battlefield. There they and their men transformed the Civil War into a Revolution.

This heroic story is brilliantly told in Mark A. Lause, Race and Radicalism in the Union Army (University of Illinois Press, 2009) largely ignored since publication.

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William Loren Katz is the author of 40 books on African American history, and has been associated with New York University as an instructor and Scholar in Residence since 1973. His website is www.williamlkatz.com. Read an interview with Katz about his life teaching and writing history.

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