One-hundred-and-fifty years ago, Jan. 1, 1863, was a magic day and a day of jubilation in the camp of the First Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry Regiment in Fort Scott, Kan.
On this day, there was a joyous celebration commemorating the issuance of the "Emancipation Proclamation."
This document, signed by President Abraham Lincoln, declared that all slaves within the boundaries of the Confederate States of America were now and forever free from their bondage. However, the proclamation did not free all the slaves because it did not apply to the slaves in the border states of Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland or Delaware. The slaves in these states would have to wait a bit for their legal freedom. The slaves of Missouri and Maryland were declared free by state action in 1864 and those in Kentucky and Delaware by the passing of the 13th Amendment to the U. S. Constitution in 1865.
However, in Kansas, many slaves had achieved their basic "freedom" in 1861 and throughout the Civil War by escaping from slavery in Missouri, Arkansas and the Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) and traveling on a very often perilous journey to the "Land of Freedom" as they believed "Old John Brown" called Kansas. During the Civil War, African Americans traveled to Kansas by the following methods --walking unescorted, following Kansas troops returning home in wagons, riding horses or mules or being transported in "Union Refugee" wagon trains from places like Fort Gibson, Indian Territory or Fort Smith, Ark. As a result of this migration, Fort Scott became a haven for refugees from which many African-Americans were recruited for and joined the First and Second Kansas Volunteer Infantry regiments, and eventually in 1864, the Kansas Light Artillery Battery Colored.
The First Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry was the first African-American regiment from a northern state to join the volunteer forces of the "Union Army." It was baptized by the blood of battle on Oct. 28 and 29, 1862, in the Battle of Island Mound, Mo., where it defeated Confederate guerrilla forces in combat.
As a result of this victory, it was the first African-American regiment to defeat Confederate forces in combat during the Civil War.
From early November 1862 until May of 1863, the First Kansas was stationed in winter quarters at Fort Scott. Its camp was northeast of the town on the north side of the Marmaton River. It was there on Jan. 1, 1863, that the regiment approximately 500 strong, celebrated the Emancipation Proclamation with a "Day of Jubilation" that included speeches, songs and a special dinner.
On Jan. 31, the "Anglo-African," a Black newspaper in New York City, published a description of this celebration which has been highlighted and edited as follows.
"Jan. 1, 1863, was a cloudy, but not disagreeable day at Fort Scott, Kan., home to the 1st Kansas (Colored) Volunteer Infantry. A little past one in the afternoon, the men marched in a dress parade by companies, stacked arms and then took their places at the tables, which in the form of a parallelogram were set in front of headquarters.
Everyone sang the "Star Spangled Banner" and then the speeches began, marking the first official day of the Emancipation Proclamation.
"Capt. Ethan Earle, (commanding officer of) Company F, led off with some appropriate comments, after which Lt. A.T. Sholes gave 'three cheers and a tiger' for President Lincoln. Next to speak was the commander of Fort Leavenworth, who predicted that 'before many months roll over our heads, the official reports of some of our generals down South will electrify the land with details of battle wherein colored men will be mentioned favorably as having fought and bled for their country.'"
"A hymn written for the event was sung and then Col. James M. Williams, commanding the 1st Kansas, rose. Speaking with all the flowery effusion expected of serious orators of that day, Williams observed that the efforts African-Americans under arms 'will be no mere struggle for conquest, but a struggle for disenthralment of a people who have long suffered oppression and wrong at the hands of our enemies.' Another hymn followed, after which a white refugee from Arkansas praised the Western soldiers and a second original song was presented.
Then the Regimental Adjutant (Capt. Richard Hinton) stepped forward to read aloud the second paragraph of the Emancipation Proclamation:
"That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any state or any designated part of a state, the people whereof shall be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then and thenceforward and forever free; and the executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons and will do no act or acts to repress such persons or any of them, in any efforts that they make for their actual freedom."
Speaking next, Capt. William D. Mathews, commanding officer of Company D, said 'today is a day for great rejoicing with us. As a thinking man, I never doubted this day would come. Now is our time to strike. Our own exertions and our own muscle must make us men. If we fight we shall be respected. I see that a well-licked man respects the one who thrashes him. (Note: Capt. Mathews was an African-American and was not mustered into the Union Army because in 1863 "Black men were not permitted to be officers in the army." This would change by 1864 and Mr. Mathews was commissioned as a captain in the Kansas Colored Light Artillery Battery.)
"A verse of 'Dixie,' with appropriate changed lyrics followed. Then the regimental surgeon made a few observations and the adjutant stepped forward to deliver the keynote address, in which he extolled the service of African Americans in America's War for Independence and in the War of 1812.
Then, the John Brown song, with its stirring 'Hallelujah Chorus,' was then sung by the entire regiment with thrilling effect and the festivities terminated with nine cheers for 'A Free Union and its President Abraham Lincoln.'"
The First Kansas Colored volunteer Infantry remained in Fort Scott until May of 1863.
Then it was transferred on campaign and served with distinction in Arkansas and the Indian Territory where it compiled an excellent record in the crucible of combat, and of course, the war went on.