Milliken’s Bend was a small but sharp fight during the American Civil War, occurring on June 7, 1863 on the Louisiana side of the Mississippi River, about 10 miles northwest of Vicksburg, Mississippi. The outpost had been an important Federal supply depot earlier that summer, but now it became one of several recruiting hubs for former slaves to join the Union army and become soldiers. Numerous white veterans from Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Tennessee took promotions to become officers in the new units, and often received ranks several grades above their positions in their old regiments. Only white men would serve as officers in the organizations recruited in the Mississippi Valley; former slaves were not considered educated or skilled enough to hold officers’ positions in the newly-formed “Colored Troops.” The white officers soon fanned out across the countryside, recruiting – sometimes by force – black men into the new regiments.
The Union forces at the battle of Milliken’s Bend would be composed of the 9th Louisiana Infantry, African Descent; the 11th Louisiana Infantry, A.D.; the 13th Louisiana, A.D.; the 1st Mississippi Infantry, A.D.; and a small fragment of about 120 men from the all-white 23rd Iowa Infantry who were called in as reinforcements.
Attacking the Federal outpost that morning would be Brig. Gen. Henry E. McCulloch’s Brigade of Walker’s Texas Division. The 16th Texas Infantry, the 16th Texas Cavalry (Dismounted), the 17th Texas Infantry, and the 19th Texas Infantry charged the Union works at dawn. Many of the black Union troops had only had their weapons for a week or less; none more than a month. Some men could only get off one shot before the two lines crashed together atop a fortified levee. Fierce hand-to-hand combat ensued, but in moments, the Union line was overpowered. The Yankees fell back pell-mell to a second levee to try to recover, but they were again overwhelmed by the Confederate forces, and tumbled back to the riverbank – their absolute last line of defense. Even the Confederates admitted the black men fought with tenancity, despite being overwhelmed. The Union garrison was saved by heavy artillery from two gunboats, the Choctaw and Lexington, which halted the Confederate onslaught. The battle petered out sometime late in the morning. Both sides were exhausted, and the thermometer registered 95 degrees. McCulloch withdrew, rested his men, and tended to his casualties.
Both sides were stunned at the violence of the battle. Numerous reports from companies on both sides had losses of nearly 50% in killed and wounded. Although both sides brought about the same number of men to the fight, the casualties were extraordinary. Union forces lost over 100 men killed, and nearly 250 wounded. McCulloch lost almost 200 killed, wounded, and missing.
The Confederate troops took a large number of Federals prisoner, and this would later prompt persistent rumors that the Rebels executed some black enlisted men and their white officers, though such rumors were usually emphatically denied by the Southerners.
Milliken’s Bend, at first glance, seems but a mere footnote in the Civil War. A minute speck of a fight in a vast ocean of suffering. But upon closer examination, one discovers it is quite significant. It was one of the earliest battles where African-American troops fought. More significantly, the majority of the Union forces were composed of black troops, and these, former slaves. Scarcely trained and just weeks from the cotton fields, these men fought with courage and tenacity. Their example would be invoked to encourage recruiting among African- Americans, both free and former-slave, and among white veterans to serve as officers. The rumored executions of both black and white Yankee prisoners in Confederate hands played an instrumental role in halting prisoner exchanges between the two powers.
Overshadowed almost immediately by the greater events transpiring at Vicksburg and Gettysburg, Milliken’s Bend vanished from the history books almost as soon as it occurred. The site of the battlefield, too, vanished – washed away into the Mississippi River early in the twentieth century.
Milliken’s Bend has been neglected for far too long. It has much to teach us, and reveals startling and unexpected complexities in a war that we all thought we knew. At last, its story will be told. Milliken’s Bend: A Civil War Battle in History and Memory, now available from LSU Press.