Stillwater News Press

February 23, 2014

Former Stillwater resident helps commemorate the unsung heroes of the Civil War

By Elizabeth Keys
Stillwater News Press

STILLWATER, Okla. — Growing up in Stillwater, Lonnie Vick and his 10 brothers and sisters knew they had descended from slaves and in the wake of the Civil Rights movement, they were encouraged with many in the family starting their own businesses. The Vicks’ entrepreneurial spirit began as young boys working as distribution carriers for the Stillwater News Press. Community members such as Walter Price reached out to help Vick through several rough patches over the years.

“Col. Price inspired me to be a better person,” Vick said.

He returned to Stillwater this month to visit his family and share his journey in learning about the struggles of the black man in history. Living near Ft. Scott, Kan., Vick has been volunteering throughout 2013 at the National Historic Site’s commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War Emancipation Proclamation.  

Ft. Scott National Historic Site Park Ranger Kelley Collins said, as the nation divided over the issues of slavery and self-determination, the United States Union Army reoccupied Ft. Scott during the Civil War. Union commanders viewed the town as a strategic point in southeast Kansas to establish a base of military operations, where the army could protect Kansas against a possible Confederate invasion.

She said Ft. Scott served as a major supply depot for Union armies in the West, a general hospital for soldiers in the region and a haven for people fleeing the war — displaced Indians, escaped slaves and white farmers. Many of these refugees joined the Union Army, greatly diversifying its ranks. Soldiers at Ft. Scott formed the first “rainbow coalition” during the Civil War, Collins said with African American, Native American Indian, and Euro-American soldiers fighting in the area.

Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation meant that the object of the war had shifted from one of just preserving the Union to having a dual purpose of also abolishing slavery, Collins said. Lincoln’s proclamation authorized the recruitment of African American soldiers, which was not only a step towards equality, but it also signaled a psychological shift due to the impact of former slaves taking up arms against their masters. Ft. Scott played a role in the recruitment and training of African American regiments with the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry the first to engage and defeat the Confederates in combat.

The National Park Service has been relaying the courage of African-American soldiers in the Union Army who fought not only the Confederates who swore to execute them if captured instead of holding them as prisoners, but prejudice within their own ranks.

“From Enlistment to Grave: A Ft. Scott Soldier in the Civil War is a program which tells the story of the life of a soldier in the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry,” said Collins.

By the time Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan.1, 1863, soldiers of the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry had already fought in hope of securing their freedom. Raised in the summer of 1862 by U. S. Sen. James H. Lane, the 1st Kansas Colored consisted mostly of able bodied black refugees from Missouri. Although the Union Army had many enlisted black men, they were generally relegated to maintenance and laundry duties. Nearly 200,000 black soldiers and sailors served with Union forces through the Civil War.

“The black soldiers wanted to fight for their freedom, too,” Vick said.

Within months of being organized, the 1st Kansas Colored was engaging guerrilla forces at Island Mound, Mo. It remained a front-line combat unit for the duration of the war. Many soldiers fell taking the fight to the enemy.

“Several black soldiers are buried at Ft. Scott National Cemetery,” Collins said. “While many died, many more lived to pursue their dreams of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Civil war heroes stood up for their beliefs and brought about change, Vick said.

“They fought like tigers,” he said.

The 1st Kansas Colored Infantry Regiment achieved an excellent combat record during the Civil War, and it also performed garrison, engineer and escort duty. They entered Oklahoma, known as Indian Territory during the Civil War, and fought battles at Honey Springs, Cabin Creek and Timber Hills.

Throughout the Civil War, white officers normally commanded black regiments. However, a few black soldiers eventually earned the rank of officer and many others were promoted to non-commissioned officers such as corporals and sergeants. The 1st Kansas Colored Regiment, mustered out in October 1865, incurring the most casualties of any Kansas Regiment with five officers and 173 enlisted soldiers killed in action, along with one officer and 165 enlisted soldiers succumbing to disease.

Union officers recognized the excellent combat reputation of the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry Regiment with Major General James G. Blunt writing in July 26, 1863:

“The First Kansas (colored) particularly distinguished itself, they fought like veterans and preserved their line unbroken throughout the engagement. Their coolness and bravery I have never seen surpassed.”

Although Vick has never served in the military, he has embraced volunteerism in re-enacting the beginnings of African-Americans’ service to their nation at Ft. Scott National Historic Site.

“He would have made me a good soldier,” Price said.