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Civil War General and Indian Fighter James M. Williams

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The military career of General James Monroe Williams spanned both the Civil War and the Indian Wars in the West, yet no biography has been published to date on his important accomplishments, until now. From his birth on the northern frontier, westward movement in the Great Migration, rush into the violence of antebellum Kansas Territory, Civil War commands in the Trans-Mississippi, and as a cavalry officer in the Indian Wars, Williams was involved in key moments of American history. Like many who make a difference, Williams was a leader of strong convictions, sometimes impatient with heavy-handed and sluggish authority. Building upon his political opinions and experience as a Jayhawker, Williams raised and commanded the ground-breaking 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry Regiment in 1862. His new regiment of black soldiers was the first such organization to engage Confederate troops, and the first to win. He enjoyed victories in Missouri, Indian Territory (Oklahoma), and Arkansas, but also fought in the abortive Red River Campaign and endured defeat and the massacre of his captured black troops at Poison Spring. In 1865, as a brigadier general, Williams led his troops in consolidating control of northern Arkansas. Williams played a key role in taking Indian Territory from Confederate forces, which denied routes of advance into Kansas and east into Arkansas. His 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry Regiment helped turn the tide of Southern successes in the Trans-Mississippi, establishing credibility of black soldiers in the heat of battle. Following the Civil War, Williams secured a commission in the Regular Army's 8th Cavalry Regiment, serving in Arizona and New Mexico. His victories over Indians in Arizona won accolades for having "settled the Indian question in that part of Arizona." He finally left the military in 1873, debilitated from five wounds received at the hands of Confederates and hostile Indians.

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1. Bleeding Kansas, Border Ruffians, and Jayhawkers

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Chapter One

Bleeding Kansas, Border

Ruffians, and Jayhawkers

J

ames Williams and his brother Sam arrived at Leavenworth, Kansas in

1856. They found the town growing at an explosive rate, with opportunity, excitement and conflict everywhere. Leavenworth had all the trappings of a western boomtown, and then some.

The Kansas-Nebraska act, signed by President Pierce two years earlier in 1854, opened huge expanses of the western prairie to settlers. Pierce’s signature prompted a major land rush and several years of bloody conflict.

Prior to the act’s implementation date, much of what would become Kansas was Indian land—off limits to white men.1 When the Kansas-Nebraska Act became law, there were fewer than 800 whites in Kansas. When the first territorial census was completed the following year, Kansas population numbered

8,000 whites and 192 slaves.2

The political heat of popular sovereignty and the conflict over slavery drew the Williams brothers into the maelstrom like moths to a flame. They became part of the volatile mix of immigrants with competing agendas crowding by thousands into Kansas at Leavenworth. There were abolitionist activists, proslavery advocates, and ordinary folks all capitalizing on opportunities for new land. The sheer number of such individuals was sure to create a flashpoint.3

 

2. Williams, Lane’s Brigade, and the Civil War

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Chapter Two

Williams, Lane’s Brigade, and the Civil War

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he Civil War in the Trans-Mississippi, or Frontier area of the United

States, was generally an annoyance to the authorities in Washington and

Richmond. Senior commanders and politicians were more focused on the huge formations of troops swarming across the eastern landscape, led by clusters of generals with impressive names. Casualties in the east defied imagination. Northern and Southern capitals were at stake. The Trans-Mississippi was far away, sparsely populated, and perceived to have little value in affecting the outcome of the conflict.

Across the Mississippi, in Kansas, Missouri, Indian Territory (now

Oklahoma), and Arkansas, the largely unheralded war was savage. Troop populations were smaller, resources were limited, and there were many old scores to settle. Civilian populations did not escape violence; their lack of density made them more vulnerable. The same enemies fought each other repeatedly, with each engagement ratcheting up in fury. Their numbers may have been fewer, but the stakes were just as high to them as they were to the people of the eastern United States.

 

3. The First Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry Regiment

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Chapter Three

The First Kansas Colored

Volunteer Infantry Regiment

W

hile Lane’s Brigade was being disbanded and Williams was resigning from the Fifth Kansas Cavalry, James Lane, back in the persona of United States Senator, was finagling to continue his behind-the-scenes involvement with elements of the military in Kansas. He became a godfather of sorts for some of his favored officers, such as James G. Blunt, former executive officer of the Third Regiment. Blunt later proved to be a good commander, progressed in rank, became a brigadier general, and then commander of the Department of Kansas. Supposedly, Lane engineered the appointments so that he could pull strings in the background.1 The godfather relationship spread down the chain, and by June of 1862, General Blunt had orders published attaching Williams to him on special duty.2

The next month, Senator Lane had the War Department appoint him recruiting commissioner for Kansas, with the rank of brigadier general. His authority extended to the recruitment of “one or more brigades of volunteer infantry.” 3 This gave him license to travel the length and breadth of Kansas, involving himself in military affairs.

 

4. They “Fought Like Tigers:” Island Mound, Missouri

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Chapter Four

They “Fought Like Tigers:”

Island Mound, Misssouri

O

n October 26, 1863, Major Benjamin Henning at Fort Scott, Kansas, ordered elements of the First Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry into

Missouri, near the Bates County town of Butler, on a mission to clean out a supposed bushwhacker (enemy guerilla) headquarters.1 Known locally as

Hog Island, it was an island formed by a split in the Marais des Cygnes River.2

Hog Island was about three miles long, and about a mile wide. The Marais des Cygnes flowed mostly on the north side, with only a narrow and muddy slough, or swamp, on the south. Thickets of dense undergrowth and swamp covered the island, making it easy for large numbers of enemy bushwhackers to hide.3

While James Williams was in Leavenworth on regimental business with

Captain Matthews, Captain Henry Seaman inherited responsibility to command the mission. He took nearly 240 men from both his own and Captain

Richard Ward’s battalions of the regiment.4 Ward’s battalion included 160 men and 6 officers. Seaman’s contingent included 64 men from the First

 

5. The Regiment: “A Day of Great Rejoicing,” and Grim Reality at Sherwood

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Chapter Five

The Regiment: “A Day of Great

Rejoicing,” and Grim Reality at Sherwood

T

he regiment continued to grow, but not without occasional bumps. In

November 1862, Williams had a run-in with the law in Lecompton.

Lecompton was not a community that would have extended a warm welcome to Williams. It had been the fraudulent capital of territorial Kansas established by the pro-slavery faction in the wake of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Emotions in the community ran high against free black soldiers. Williams and Captain

Matthews were there to apprehend some deserters. The mayor had Williams arrested on grounds that he had no right to arrest deserters. Lecompton authorities also asserted that the soldiers were not really in the army, as Lane did not have the authority to enlist them. Williams posted bond, reunited with Matthews, rounded up the soldiers, and escorted them out of town.

Williams subsequently returned to town to retrieve one more soldier who was in jail on a trumped-up charge. Williams barged into the jail, intimidated the jailer into releasing the soldier, and returned to camp. Several days later, he wrote a letter to General Blunt letting him know what he had done.1

 

6. Into Indian Territory: First Battle of Cabin Creek

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Chapter Six

Into Indian Territory:

First Battle of Cabin Creek

T

he Civil War was savage in the Trans-Mississippi region of the United

States, particularly in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). Battles were smaller in total numbers, but they were no less brutal than those in the east; they were, perhaps, even more so. Old animosities pitted neighbor against neighbor. Opposing forces knew each other well and fought over and over again. Guerrilla forces terrorized, murdered, and burned almost as they pleased without regard to the ideologies of their victims. Along the

Kansas-Missouri border, the fighting continued from 1855 to 1865, costing thousands of soldiers and civilians their careers, homes, and lives.

Conflicts within Indian nations stemmed from President Andrew

Jackson’s forced relocation of the Indians from southeastern states to Indian

Territory. Violent factions emerged between those who supported the relocation and those who did not. Confederate and Union governments sought

Indian loyalty, creating schisms within families and friendships. Political systems of the Indian nations fell apart. The result was a civil war within the

 

7. The Battle of Honey Springs, Indian Territory

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Chapter Seven

The Battle of Honey Springs,

Indian Territory

H

aving heard of Williams’ victory at Cabin Creek, General Blunt was enthusiastic about his achievement and its potential impact upon the course of the war in Indian Territory. He immediately left Fort Scott on July

6 on a forced march south to Fort Gibson with four hundred men and eight cannons. He was intent upon exploiting the Cabin Creek victory with a campaign to push the Confederate army out of Indian Territory. His options were either to drive the enemy east to Arkansas, or south to Texas. His total resources, with the new reinforcements, would include twelve cannon and four thousand men.1 Blunt made the 175-mile trip in five days, pushing hard.

The garrison at Fort Gibson treated him to a grand reception upon his arrival.

Phillips was of the opinion that the mere presence of Blunt and his command would cause Confederates to leave the area. Blunt reported the Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, speculating that they would prompt the return of troops to his command taken for the campaigns in the east, giving him even more resources.2

 

8. The Red River Campaign and the Camden Expedition

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Chapter Eight

The Red River Campaign and the Camden Expedition

T

he Red River Campaign was a Union effort to take the war into Texas.

Its objectives were to stall Emperor Maximilian of Mexico in his threats to the borderlands and potential alliance with the Confederacy; take control of cotton production resources in the Southwest; and crush the Confederate determination west of the Mississippi. The stage for this campaign was set with the Union victories at Vicksburg and Port Hudson in July 1863. The Union had successfully cleaved the Confederacy. It was time to exploit the gains.1

The overall strategy was a multi-axis attack on Confederates in the

Trans-Mississippi southwest. Army and Navy would work together under

Major General Nathaniel Banks and Rear Admiral David Porter. Banks would move west from New Orleans overland and link up with Admiral Porter, and his flotilla of gunboats moving up the Red River. They would then push north up the Red River with Shreveport as their target. Simultaneously, Union Major

 

9. The Battle of Poison Spring, Arkansas

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Chapter Nine

The Battle of Poison Spring,

Arkansas

S

teele soon discovered that the ideal base at Camden was as much a trap as a resource. As his corps flowed into Camden, he received word that the Confederate army in Louisiana defeated General Banks’ large Union command, forcing Banks to withdraw back down the Red River. Steele had to hold tight in Camden to determine what would be the future course of the overall campaign to Shreveport.1

There was nothing available in Camden to sustain Steele’s corps. The departing Confederate soldiers had left behind a welcoming gift of water wells contaminated with the corpses of dead animals.2 The region around Camden for many miles was devoid of forage and rations. Confederate soldiers based in Camden before the Yankee incursion had picked the countryside bare.3

The wagon train of supplies he so urgently ordered from Little Rock a week earlier was not coming to Camden. To his dismay, an untimely riverboat collision would delay the shipment indefinitely.4

 

10. Confederate Atrocities and Steele’s Retreat

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Chapter Ten

Confederate Atrocities and Steele’s Retreat

C

onfederate soldiers killed many of the First Kansas men who lay wounded on the battlefield at Poison Spring. The wounded Yankees’ comrades met the same fate in the previous racial massacre at Sherwood, Missouri.

Williams, infuriated by reports from survivors, yet unable to do anything about it, wrote in this report, “Many wounded men belonging to the First

Kansas Colored Volunteers fell into the hands of the enemy, and I have the most positive assurances from eye-witnesses that they were murdered on the spot.”1 Major Ward backed up Williams in his own report: “we were obliged to bring our wounded away as best we could, as the rebels were seen shooting those that fell into their hands.”2 An Arkansas Confederate soldier, probably in Cabell’s Brigade, wrote home: “If the negro was wounded our men would shoot him dead as they were passed and what negroes that were captured have

. . . since been shot.”3 The Choctaw Confederates went upon a gory rampage across the battlefield, scalping the casualties (whether live, dead, black, or white), and mutilating their bodies.4 To avoid the gruesome fate of their comrades, a few of the wounded lay on the battlefield feigning death until dark, then quietly crawled away. All who remained were murdered. General Cabell recorded that his men killed eighty stragglers.5

 

11. A Brigade, Another Massacre, and Second Cabin Creek

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Chapter Eleven

A Brigade, Another Massacre, and Second Cabin Creek

S

hortly after Williams’ assignment as brigade commander, Union forces in Arkansas underwent a reorganization. Regiments shuffled to various brigades and locations as dictated by the military threat. Williams’ headquarters moved to Fort Smith, on the border of Indian Territory. He was responsible for all aspects of the lives of 2,735 men and 10 cannon. Most of the soldiers in Williams’ new brigade were black Americans. They comprised four regiments that were the core elements of the command. His brigade included:

First Kansas Colored Infantry Regiment

Second Kansas Colored Infantry Regiment

Eleventh US Colored Infantry Regiment

Fifty-Fourth US Colored Infantry Regiment

First Arkansas Battery

Third Kansas Battery1

By mid-September, Williams’ brigade headquarters, and three regiments relocated west of Fort Smith on the road to Fort Gibson, Indian Territory.

Along with their garrison equipage, they included brigade medical staff and hospital supplies. The duration of their detachment was indefinite.2

 

12. Back to Arkansas: Final Campaigns, Promotion, Peace, and Transition

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Chapter Twelve

Back to Arkansas:

Final Campaigns, Promotion,

Peace, and Transition

O

n September 22, General Thayer sent a message to Williams ordering him to keep his brigade at Fort Gibson until further notice.1 Thayer had expressed dissatisfaction that the convoys from Fort Scott to Fort Gibson were without sufficient protection, compelling him to deploy regiments from

Arkansas, leaving him without sufficient troops to counter local Confederate activity.2 By positioning Williams at Fort Gibson, he could respond to needs from Cabin Creek south to Fort Gibson, an area in which Thayer considered highly vulnerable to enemy attacks. Williams’ brigade did escort at least one large wagon train from Cabin Creek to Fort Gibson without any reported enemy attacks.3

Life in the brigade became mundane as the brigades’ regiments went about re-provisioning, retraining, recruiting, and catching up administratively. Before and after Second Cabin Creek, recruitment was an issue for the brigade, especially the First Kansas, needing many replacements. The

 

13. Indian Wars in the West with the Eighth Cavalry

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Chapter Thirteen

Indian Wars in the West with the Eighth Cavalry

US

military needs did not fade with the closing of the Civil War.

Indeed, national security challenges abounded. Fenians (Irish nationalists) caused strife north of the Canadian border, and were stirring unrest through brother Fenians in the United States. Emperor Maximilian, a French surrogate for Napoleon III in Mexico, was giving the American government a case of nerves, with the possibility of a European power on our border, and an ongoing Mexican civil war between Maximilian conservatives and the US-recognized Juarez government. Occupation duty during

Southern reconstruction consumed a large proportion (about one-third) of the US Army. The western territories, a vast and rugged landmass larger than all the established states in the East, claimed army services where civil law enforcement was either inadequate or non-existent, and hostile Indians posed a threat to westward-bound settlers.

The onset of the Civil War had reduced the meager military presence in the West as most regular army units redeployed east to fight, leaving settlers exposed. The United States Army provided only two thousand men to garrison posts in the wartime West.1 Volunteer militia backfilled some of the vacancies, but national needs took precedence.2

 

14. Campaigning: Fort Whipple, Arizona Territory

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Chapter Fourteen

Campaigning: Fort Whipple,

Arizona Territory

I

n 1867, General Gregg established Eighth Cavalry regimental headquarters at Camp Whipple, Arizona Territory. Camp Whipple was outside the small community of Prescott, then the territorial capital. He went into Arizona to replace Colonel John Mason, commander of the District of

Arizona. Arizona had been under jurisdiction of California’s Union volunteers, filling the void left when Confederates pulled out in 1862, ending their brief occupation of the Confederate Territory of Arizona.1

The United States Congress established Arizona Territory, in its current configuration, in 1863. Union troops from California built Camp Whipple late in 1863 as a response to increased Indian activity in central Arizona.

A month later, the new territorial governor of Arizona, John N. Goodwin, directed the establishment of a territorial capital near Camp Whipple. In

May of 1864, the post—now designated Fort Whipple—relocated twenty miles southwest to more favorable terrain. Without missing a beat, Governor

 

15. Recuperation, a New Family, and Fort Selden, New Mexico

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Chapter Fifteen

Recuperation, a New Family, and Fort Selden, New Mexico

Territory

W

hile Williams’ success against the Indians, and their success against him were transpiring, life went on. Some personal paperwork originated by Williams worked its way through the territorial legislature. Accordingly, the Fourth Arizona Territorial Legislature acted to grant Williams a divorce from his wife, Lydia, on September 23, 1867. No reason is stated, but there were obvious indicators that Williams and his wife did not enjoy a relationship when he returned home after an absence of nearly four years during the

Civil War. He was evidently pursuing a different life after he mustered out of the army in October 1865, and immediately sought a commission in the regular army in the far west. In addition, during the interim, he took up residence in Washington, DC.1

In October 1867, three months after the ambush at Music Mountain,

Williams began a period of recuperative sick leave and light duty that lasted for nineteen or twenty months. The recuperative sick leave extended over five months. Transitioning to light duty, his responsibilities included recruiting and court martial service. The purpose of such light duty was to provide time for recuperation and rehabilitation of soldiers that had been wounded or

 

16. Fort Bayard, New Mexico Territory

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Chapter Sixteen

Fort Bayard,

New Mexico Territory

D

evin was responsible for resolving irregularities in accounts at various installations. Upon arrival at Selden, he summarily relieved the then post commander Major David Clendenin, making adverse record of his performance. Clendenin demanded a court of inquiry into “allegations against my integrity as an officer and a gentleman.” One of the mandates given Devin was to clean up Fort Bayard, near Silver City in southwest New Mexico, which was apparently in a demoralized state. He opted to give the task to

Williams, which was a bit out of synch given their poor relationship. He may have concluded that in spite of his dislike of Williams, he could expect positive results. He may have just wanted Williams away from him at Fort

Selden; or he hoped the reassignment would ruin Williams’ career. In any event, Williams left Fort Selden for Fort Bayard on March 21, 1871.1

Fort Bayard traced its origins to a camp established in 1863 by a troop of cavalry about 150 miles from El Paso in the mountains of southwestern New

 

17. Frontier Ranching, Congressional Accolades, and Redemption

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Chapter Seventeen

Frontier Ranching,

Congressional Accolades, and Redemption

W

illiams found opportunity in southern Colorado. He selected a site on the Santa Fe Trail, along the Purgatory River (also called Las Animas), about five miles northeast of the village of Trinidad. Trinidad was the gateway to the imposing Raton Pass through the Sangre de Christo Mountains separating Colorado from New Mexico. The constant flow of settlers along the Santa Fe Trail passed Williams’ new home en route through the pass. The place where he settled became the village of El Moro, in Las Animas County.

The Purgatory River, on which Williams established himself and his family, had a name which was an ominous herald of southwest-bound settlers coming trip through the mountains. Its full name was “El Rio de las Animas

Perdidas en Purgatorio,” translated, “The River of Lost Souls in Purgatory”—a name dating back to the days of New Spain. The Spanish sent an infantry regiment from Santa Fe to link New Spain (New Mexico) to Spanish Florida. The regiment started late and wintered over at the present site of Trinidad. With the arrival of spring, the regiment set out on its journey, leaving all its camp followers (including women, children, and some men) behind. The Spanish soldiers, following a stream into a canyon, marched around a bend and out of sight, never to be seen or heard of again. Over time, with the advent of

 

18. Conclusion

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Chapter Eighteen

Conclusion

L

ike Theodore Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena,” James Monroe Williams was the man on the ground when American history happened. He was not a spectator. Wherever he was, and whenever the muses of history needed a catalyst, he made it happen. He did so as a Jayhawker in the days of the antebellum conflict over slavery as it played out across the landscapes of Kansas and Missouri. He led his Jayhawking team into the first year of the war commanding them as a company of cavalry. Undeterred by social or political concerns, he stepped across the ethnic line ahead of his peers, recruiting and leading a regiment of escaped slaves who became outstanding infantrymen, amassing an enviable combat record. He went toe-to-toe, never backing away from a fight with an implacable Southern foe who might have been a neighbor before the Civil War. He led regiments and a brigade into battles involving black men, white men, and Indians in a theater of war not yet understood by most historians. He led postwar cavalrymen in Southwestern deserts and mountains in brutal campaigns against Apaches, Yavapai, and

 

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