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Skirmishes, Standoffs & Civil War

Unidentified African American soldier in Union uniform with a Austrian Lorenz rifle-musket and Remington revolver in front of painted backdrop showing weapons and American flag at Benton Barracks, Saint Louis, Missouri
Unidentified African American soldier in Union uniform with a Austrian Lorenz rifle-musket and Remington revolver in front of painted backdrop showing weapons and American flag at Benton Barracks, Saint Louis, Missouri

Skirmishes, Standoffs & Civil War

The Midwest slavery conflict turned bloody even before the Civil War. When war came, 12,000 African American Midwesterners volunteered in the fight to free their brothers and sisters.

Slavery Standoffs

Armed standoffs between emancipated African Americans and southern slave catchers occurred across the region.  In 1848, armed Missouri slave catchers pursuing escaped African Americans were confronted by Quaker residents in Salem, Iowa.  In 1847, Adam Crosswhite, a free black resident of Michigan, was kidnapped by Kentucky slave catchers.  Crosswhite’s neighbors raced to defend their neighbor and friend, rescuing him at gunpoint.  Most famous was the 1858 Oberlin, Ohio rescue, where black and white abolitionists, several armed with pistols, freed an African American arrested under the Fugitive Slave Act.  The Oberlin-Wellington standoff ignited a political firestorm that contributed to the outbreak of the Civil War.

Kansas' Slavery War

In the Kansas slavery crisis known as “Bleeding Kansas,” armed standoffs turned deadly, resulting in vigilantism, guerilla warfare, and bloodshed. Dozens of settlers of the Kansas Territory — anti-slavery and pro-slavery alike — were killed, including during the infamous “sack of Lawrence” and the murders of pro-slavery settlers by radical abolitionist John Brown.

Black Midwesterners in the Civil War

Midwestern African Americans’ contributions to the Civil War was one of the greatest yet least appreciated stories of that conflict.

36 percent of all U.S. Colored Troops units from northern states — 12,666 out of 34,599 – came from the Midwest.  Only emancipated African Americans from slave-holding states provided more troops.   

The very first African American unit in the War was the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteers (the 54th Massachusetts is often mistakenly identified as the first).  The 1st Kansas was also the first African American unit to see combat, and gain national fame for their bravery, in a battle at Island Mound, Missouri.  Later, at the Battle of Poison Spring, Southern troops, in what many call a racist war crime, brutally massacred over 100 troops from the unit, many wounded and defenseless. Another early regiment, the 29th USCT of Illinois, saw action at the Battle of the Crater and in Galveston, Texas, in 1866 for the final liberation of African American slaves on a day we now celebrate as Juneteenth.

Following the end of the Civil War, the USCT regiments were disbanded or reorganized into what would later be known as the “Buffalo Soldiers.”

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