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Civil War General and Indian Fighter James M. Williams: Leader of the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry and the 8th U. S. Cavalry

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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

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Growing Up in the North Country

As America wearily entered the fourth year of its cataclysmic civil war, James M. Williams commanded a brigade in the Union Army’s Seventh Corps in Arkansas. On February 13, 1865, he became a brigadier general at the age of thirty-one.1 He had come a long way from the distant days when he was the youngest of thirteen children on a farm in extreme northern New York. In the process of getting to that point, the events of his life thus far combined into an adventure characterizing that era of America’s history. His story was America’s story.

On September 12, 1833, Fannie Williams gave birth to James Monroe Williams and his twin sister, Mary. They joined their eleven brothers and sisters in an expansive farmhouse located in the remote North Country of New York.2 Their farm was northwest of the tiny village of Lowville, in the sparsely populated landscape east of where Lake Ontario flows into the Saint Lawrence River, defining America’s shared boundary with Canada.


1. Bleeding Kansas, Border Ruffians, and Jayhawkers


Chapter One

Bleeding Kansas, Border Ruffians, and Jayhawkers

James 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, pro-slavery 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


Chapter Two

Williams, Lane’s Brigade, and the Civil War

The 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


Chapter Three

The First Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry Regiment

While 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


Chapter Four

They “Fought Like Tigers:” Island Mound, Misssouri

On 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 Kansas, augmented by a small team of scouts from the Fifth Kansas Cavalry.5


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


Chapter Five

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

The 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


Chapter Six

Into Indian Territory: First Battle of Cabin Creek

The 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 Civil War. Tribes fought each other, as did factions within each tribe, particularly the Creeks and Cherokees. Families were wiped out, towns burned, farm fields lay fallow, and the residue of combat littered the landscape.


7. The Battle of Honey Springs, Indian Territory


Chapter Seven

The Battle of Honey Springs, Indian Territory

Having 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


Chapter Eight

The Red River Campaign and the Camden Expedition

The 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 General Frederick Steele’s VII Corps (with thirty-eight regiments in three divisions, with approximately twelve thousand men) was to strike southwest from Little Rock to Shreveport and link with Banks—setting the stage for an invasion of Texas.2 Williams’ First Kansas Colored Infantry was part of Steele’s command.


9. The Battle of Poison Spring, Arkansas


Chapter Nine

The Battle of Poison Spring, Arkansas

Steele 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


Chapter Ten

Confederate Atrocities and Steele’s Retreat

Confederate 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


Chapter Eleven

A Brigade, Another Massacre, and Second Cabin Creek

Shortly 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


Chapter Twelve

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

On 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 Regimental Order Book references many individuals, mostly officers, who were sent out on recruiting duty. Of course, there was guard duty and frequent scouting missions. Training and management issues took much of Williams’ time. General Thayer at Fort Smith sent a flurry of messages to various commanders alerting to an enhanced level of concern on his part about enemy action. Confederate guerrillas killed Captain Benjamin Welch, commander of Company K, First Kansas Colored Infantry in a skirmish at Timber Hills, ten miles east of Cabin Creek, on November 19.4


13. Indian Wars in the West with the Eighth Cavalry


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


Chapter Fourteen

Campaigning: Fort Whipple, Arizona Territory

In 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 Goodwin moved the capital to a site near the new fort, planting a seed that grew into present-day Prescott.2


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


Chapter Fifteen

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

While 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 seriously ill. The light duty continued until June 5, 1869, when he returned to Arizona and resumed command of Troop I.2


16. Fort Bayard, New Mexico Territory


Chapter Sixteen

Fort Bayard, New Mexico Territory

Devin 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 Mexico to protect settlers and the gold and silver miners from the marauding Apaches. In 1866, the 125th US Colored Infantry, a regiment of black, or “buffalo soldiers,” established a more permanent camp. The site selected was about nine miles east of Silver City, ten miles southeast of the mines of Pinos Altos, and eight miles from the copper mines at Santa Rita. It sat astride the war trails over which the Apaches rode on frequent raids on all those sites. It formally became a post for stationing troops, and was designated Fort Bayard.2 The post was named for Brigadier General George D. Bayard, killed at the Battle of Fredericksburg in the Civil War.3


17. Frontier Ranching, Congressional Accolades, and Redemption


Chapter Seventeen

Frontier Ranching, Congressional Accolades, and Redemption

Williams 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 French trappers into the region, the Purgatory evolved into “Le Purgatoire.” American mountain men bastardized the name into “Picket Wire.”1


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