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New Missouri Park to Honor 1st Kansas Colored Infantry

State officials as well as volunteers are working to establish a state park in an area of Bates County, Mo., where the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry skirmished with Confederate guerrillas in October 1862. The encounter is known today as the skirmish of Island Mound.

The 250-man 1st Kansas, believed to have been the first African-American soldiers to see fighting in the war, had fortified its position inside a farmhouse on the property of John Toothman near the Kansas-Nebraska border. The Union troops managed to keep a larger guerrilla force at bay until the Rebels drove them into a river bottom. But the Kansans, many of them former slaves from Missouri and Arkansas, then held on until the guerrillas withdrew.

In the course of that engagement, the Union force lost eight men killed and another 11 wounded. Accounts place Confederate casualties as high as 30 killed. At the time of the skirmish, the 1st Kansas had not yet been officially mustered into the Union Army; it would be redesignated the 79th U.S. Colored Troops in December 1864.

The Missouri Division of State Parks recently purchased 40 acres of farmland where the fighting took place, which will be designated as a state historical site. Although the specific site of the skirmish and the Toothman homestead are still undetermined, they are believed to lie within the designated acreage according to Brant Vollman, an archaeologist with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. Testing is currently underway on the property to determine what happened exactly where.

Thomas Starr King Displaced in D.C.

“Though I weigh only 120 pounds, said Unitarian minister Rev. Thomas Starr King, “when I’m mad I weigh a ton.” Fortunately the diminutive King’s fiery passion for the Union led him to weigh into a hard-fought battle against secession in California in 1861. On George Washington’s birthday, for example, he harangued a huge audience about the need to keep California in the Union. “I pitched into Secession, Concession and [former U.S. Vice President John C.] Calhoun, right and left, and made the Southerners applaud,” he later boasted. “I pledged California to a Northern Republic and to a flag that should have no treacherous threads of cotton in its warp, and the audience came down in thunder.”

Had King been less persuasive, California’s extensive resources might have been thrown to the South. He also used his persuasive powers to raise funds for the U.S. Sanitary Commission, sending $1.25 million to New York. When King died of diphtheria and pneumonia in 1864, the state legislature passed a resolution calling him a “tower of strength to the cause of his country.”

Today King has been replaced—literally—as an iconic figure in California’s heritage by a more recent hero, President Ronald Reagan. This past June a statue of King that had long stood in the U.S. Capitol was replaced by one representing the late president. But since 1941 the eloquent King’s legacy has taken on new life in the form of a theological school: the Starr King School for the Ministry, formerly known as the Pacific Unitarian School for the Ministry, in Berkeley, Calif.

Will One Eyesore Replace Another at Monocacy?

The Frederick County Commissioners are proposing a trade- off of sorts: Advancing plans to build a widely debated trash incinerator not far from the Monocacy National Battlefield while they advocate tearing down an unsightly—and outdated—smokestack that is also within the battlefield’s view shed. The 300-foot-tall smokestack is part of the Essroc Concrete plant near Buckeystown, Md., and commissioners have been negotiating in recent months with the firm to find the cost of removing it.

As it turns out, a new 270-foot smokestack for the proposed incinerator is slated to be built even closer to the historic site. According to the Frederick News-Post, the Monocacy battlefield’s supervisor, Susan Trail, indicated she would be happy to see the Essroc stack go, but then said, “I’m still concerned…about the site itself. Are we substituting one stack for another stack? Basically, we would be.”

Pension Files: Treasure by the Roomful

Row upon row of dusty boxes, each containing dozens of pension files, fill room after room of the National Archives building in downtown Washington, D.C. The same structure that safeguards the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution is home to these unique records, which bring to life the soldiers, sailors and Marines who de – fended the nation.

More than any other kind of federal document, pensions chronicle the lives of their subjects from birth to death, not only summarizing military service but often disclosing when and where a veteran lived after the war, what he did, who he married, the names and birth dates of his children, and when and how he died. Ranging from a few pages to hundreds, the contents of a serviceman’s folder may include surprises. Photographs, war – time letters, commission documents, even marriage certificates turn up with pleasing frequency. Since injuries that occurred during service determined the amount of money given out, extensive medical testimony is particularly common.

Not everyone was awarded a pension, but even rejected applications were retained. Since Confederate veterans and their dependents were ineligible for federal benefits based on Civil War service until 1957, they are barely represented at all. Southern state archives preserve pensions granted to their residents who battled for Southern independence. “Stonewall” Jackson’s widow has a federal file, but it is based on her husband’s contributions during the Mexican War.

Not uncommonly, pension files contain painful revelations. Alcoholism, infidelity, desertion and indeed all the chicanery and frailty to which flesh is heir fill many a page of testimony. Even more frequently, wounds, sickness and sacrifice come to light in startling detail. The unparalleled richness and extent of this resource make it a fitting complement to the Founding Charters.

—Mike Musick

Mike Musick worked for 35 years at the National Archives (archives. gov) as the Subject Area Expert for the Civil War.

Rhode Island to Shorten Its Name?

The state that raised 41 Union regiments has had a long association with slavery. Many Rhode Islanders built fortunes on slavery, and a reminder is still extant in its official name: The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations—arrived at in 1636 by blending of colonies on the “Isle of Rhodes” and slave-owning plantations established by Roger Williams.

Joseph Almeida recently sponsored a bill to permit a referendum on eliminating the plantations reference, saying, “we don’t want that chapter of our history to be a…part of our name.” Opponents point out that when the state was founded, “plantations” was just a synonym for farming settlements.


Originally published in the October 2009 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here