Earlier this week, the golden prairie-grass pasture here 70 miles south of Kansas City was quiet except for whistling wind and the distant growl of a tractor.
On Saturday, though, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources expects 200 people to gather on this spot about a mile up a gravel-covered Bates County road off Missouri 52 at 11 a.m. A band will play patriotic music, dignitaries will speak and a flag will rise as the state dedicates this farmland as a historic site.
A bronze plaque will be unveiled on a stone monument at the edge of this field, which in the past year has been transformed into a state park.
Here — on the Old Toothman farm — the First Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry set up headquarters 150 years ago, calling it Fort Africa.
Just a few miles to the south, these black men wearing Union blue fought in the Battle of Island Mound. They were the first former slaves and freed men to defeat Confederate forces in the Civil War.
The Butler ceremony will be part of a two-day event that begins today in Kansas City at the Bruce R. Watkins Cultural Center, 3700 Blue Parkway. The free reception starts at 6 p.m. with historians discussing the battle’s significance.
On Oct. 27, 1862, a group of black soldiers had set out on a foraging expedition from Fort Africa. As they crossed over a low hill called Island Mound, the Union men encountered Confederate forces and engaged in a fierce and bloody clash.
It would later be said that those black soldiers “fought like tigers.” Eight members of the unit were killed, including one white officer and one Cherokee. The six black soldiers and the Native American were buried in the field. Eleven other men were wounded.
Rebel losses are unknown, but some historians speculate that as many as 40 were killed.
To date, despite state-funded archaeological digs, no soldiers’ remains have been found. Archaeologists have unearthed an old well believed used by John Toothman and his family, maybe even commandeered to quench the thirst of the First Kansas Colored. They also found some small artifacts from the era.
“But nothing marking the battle,” said Bill Bryan, director of Missouri State Parks. “We haven’t done a comprehensive survey of the property yet. This was a running battle; we very well may find other artifacts in the future.”
More than a year ago, Bates County presiding commissioner Donna Gregory on several occasions drove state visitors and others to the battle site. There were no benches, walking trails or water fountains then.
The idea of marking it as a historic site was still being considered by decision makers at the Department of Natural Resources.
“We have been working toward this dedication for a lot of years, and it has been an extraordinary journey,” Gregory said.
It will be Missouri’s first battle place dedicated as a state historic site since 1990, when the Battle of Carthage in Jasper County was recognized.
“We always knew about the Battle of Island Mound, but it was the location that we didn’t know about until after local interest brought it to our attention,” said Jim Rehard, a district supervisor with Missouri State Parks.
Local historians used land documents and a military report written by Maj. Richard Ward, an officer of the First Kansas Colored, to confirm the battle place.
Once the battle location was pinpointed, “the state of Missouri spent a lot of time and energy on this project,” Rehard said.
The state bought 40 acres of the old 80-acre farm for the park in 2008, and an archaeological workshop was held on the property in 2010. Prairie grass was planted last year.
This year, in the superheated month of August, Missouri parks workers began transforming the area, setting benches, building a shelter and wrapping a half-mile walking trail around the site.
“I think this is very important to African-Americans in Kansas City, in the region and throughout the country,” said Joe Maddox, who manages the historical items at the Bruce R. Watkins Cultural Center.
“The First Kansas Colored soldiers were the first to fight and the first to die on the battlefield at a time when most Northern generals thought black men could not be trained as soldiers,” Maddox said.
Dedicating the Butler farm as a historic site adds another monument to the contributions that African-Americans in Missouri made to this country, said Maddox.
Chris Tabor, who told the story of the battle in his 2001 book “Skirmish at Island Mound,” was thrilled when he learned the site was being preserved for history.
Tabor, a former Missourian who now lives in Houston, began researching Island Mound in 1999. At Saturday’s dedication, he will talk about that research.
“I’m still studying the First Kansas Colored even now,” Tabor said. “It’s a hobby, a passion and an obsession. But this really is so significant. These men — some of them weeks out of bondage, others just days out of bondage — proved that former slaves could meet their enemy on the field of battle and defeat them.
“This was a full nine months before the Massachusetts 54th (the black regiment in the movie “Glory”) stormed Fort Wagner.”
Tabor said that after President Lincoln heard an account of the Island Mound fight, “it affected his decision to officially muster black soldiers into the war. It affected his decision to sign the Emancipation Proclamation.”
The new state park and historic site marker for the battle is the second monument in Bates County paying homage to the black Civil War soldier. A statue of a black soldier stands outside the county courthouse in Butler.