October 15, 2021

One of the pleasures I take while driving on trips is to stop and visit the historic sites designated by markers along the highway.  Rather than just rushing from one location to the next, this allows me to take my time, get out of the car and stretch, and usually learn something new along the way.  As I drove down 1-49, I happened to see a brown and white sign indicating an historic site off the next exit.  I waivered as I had planned to fish later in the drive, but my curiosity got the better of me and I pulled off the highway.  As usual, the site was not along the highway, but neither was it too far away.  I followed directions as the signs guided me the five miles and two turns to reach the site.  This was a national battle site, and although there was not a visitors’ center (it would have been closed anyway) there was a flag, picnic area and shelter, and an interpretive kiosk and signs to explain what had happened.

The Battle of Island Mound took place early in the Civil War during the fall of 1862.  Bates County had become a haven for guerrillas and Confederate recruiters.  One of their favorite haunts was Hog Island, just southwest of Butler, Missouri.  A detachment of 30 men was sent from the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry to clear out the guerrillas who were stationed there.  The battle took place on the marshy prairie and included an attempt by the “bushwhackers” to burn the Union forces out of their main stronghold at Toothman Farm, which had been renamed “Fort Africa” by the soldiers.  The result of the battle was 8 soldiers killed and 11 wounded.  Southern losses were unknown but were probably about the same.  When Union reinforcements arrived the next day, they proceeded to Hog Island, only to find it deserted.    

The 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry was mostly comprised of escaped slaves from Arkansas and Missouri.  Some had been “stolen” during the Jayhawk raids of Missouri’s slave holding farms.  While the ex-slaves had moved to Kansas in hopes of a better life, they all faced prejudice and bigotry from their white neighbors.  In August 1862, the Union Army began recruiting Black soldiers in Kansas, even though this had not been authorized by President Lincoln.  A prominent Black businessman in Leavenworth, Kansas, recruited an entire company (100 men) and was commissioned as a Captain of Company D of the 1st Colored.  Two other Black men were commissioned as lieutenants for Company D.  When Lieutenant Patrick Minor gained distinction while fighting at Island Mound, he was the first Black officer to serve in combat during the Civil War.  The Company fought in 16 battles and numerous skirmishes before being mustered out of service on October 1, 1865.    

Thoughts:  Since the battle site had been designated a Missouri State Park, I was surprised by the language used to describe the battle and the opposing sides.  The Southerners were “bushwhackers” rather than guerillas, and the signage caried a note of contempt, despite referring to most of the men in the surrounding area.  The signs also pointed out the “surprising ferocity” of the Black soldiers described by the national press, even though everyone had suspected they would be timid and unfit for battle.  Like so many small battlefields, this quarter section of land has now returned to the Tall Grass Prairie it had been before the battle.  The scars of the battle site have been smoothed over by the grass and serene fields of cattle that surround it.  Much of our country’s history has been smoothed over in a similar way.  What was offensive at the time has been rewritten to make it more palatable, or even conveniently forgotten.  We cannot learn from what we cover up or dismiss.  Do the work.  Change is coming and it starts with you.

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