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Cyrus Sears, Hero at Iuka

Lt. Col. Cyrus Sears would command the far right wing of the Union defensive line at Milliken’s Bend, and it was two companies of his 11th Louisiana who made their stand behind some cotton bales that brought a devastating enfilading fire down upon the men of the 16th Texas Infantry. Sears’ troops would be the only portion of the Union line that maintained their original positions during the battle.

Although his leadership was clearly influential at Milliken’s Bend, he was an experienced soldier. On September 19, 1862, as a lieutenant with the 11th Ohio Battery of artillery at Iuka, he was in the center of the Confederate onslaught.

Detail of map from Civil War Trust

Confederate forces attacked the position three times. Casualties were so severe, that the 11th Ohio had 46 out of 54 cannoneers wounded or killed, ranking them among the top artillery units for losses during the entire war. Their battery was immobilized with only three out of 80 horses coming through unscathed. Sears’s commanding general cited him for his bravery: Sears left his post only after being wounded, and when his battery was just moments from annihilation.

Sears was awarded his Medal of Honor, like many Civil War veterans, well after the war. It would be 1892 before his steadfastness to duty received this recognition, and the citation was simple, understated sentence: “Although severely wounded, [he] fought his battery until the cannoneers and horses were nearly all killed or wounded.” His story and that of the 11th Ohio is told in much greater detail in The Story of American Heroism from which the image below is taken. A more modern explanation of the battle is written by Phil Spaugy, entitled: “Use Canister, Aim Low, and Give Them Hell!” Both of these accounts provide rich detail about the nature of the fighting, and the impossible odds faced and resisted by the 11th Ohio Battery.

No doubt because he advanced to the higher rank of Lt. Col. with the 49th U.S. Colored Infantry (the later name of the 11th Louisiana which fought at Milliken’s Bend), Sears’s tombstone lists that rank and unit.

Tombstone from Find-a-Grave

However, this gives the impression that his Medal of Honor came from service with that regiment. Unmentioned at his grave is his service with the 11th Ohio Battery, for which he received this honor.

The heroics at Iuka were well behind him by the time Sears served at Milliken’s Bend, again resisting another Confederate onslaught. Both battles held important memories for him in later years. He wrote “The Eleventh Ohio Battery at Iuka, The Bloodiest Single-field Battery Contest on Record”  which he read at a battery reunion in 1898. In 1908, he wrote the humbly-titled “Paper of Cyrus Sears,” recounting the battle at Milliken’s Bend, and indicting his fellow veterans for not taking a stand against the crime and horrors of lynching. So inflammatory was his text, that the Loyal Legion, before which it was read, refused to publish it. Sears did so at his own expense in 1909, and died later that year.

Summer Travels? Visit Hermione House

On this anniversary of the battle at Milliken’s Bend, I wanted to highlight the Hermione House in Tallulah, Louisiana, about 30 minutes west of Vicksburg off of Interstate 20. A small but impressive museum, the Hermione (pronounced “Her-mee-on”) House is owned and operated by the Madison [Parish] Historical Society. Staffed entirely by volunteers, hours can be variable, so always call ahead in advance of your visit to ensure someone will be there to greet you.

The focus of the Hermione House is to document and tell the history of Madison Parish through artifacts and other items. Unknown to most visitors from outside the parish, Madison Parish has an incredibly rich history, with a number of significant stories. Madam C.J. Walker, who made her fortune in hair care and cosmetic products for African American women, and who became the first female millionaire in America, was born in the parish. Teddy Roosevelt went on a famous bear hunt here. And Delta Airlines trace their origins to Scott Field here. Of course, Madison Parish is also the site of the battle of Milliken’s Bend, and they tell this story as well.

The collections, items, stories and people you can find at the Hermione House museum really are treasures. Unlike the massive Federally-funded operation at Vicksburg National Military Park across the river, the Hermione House is modest, but perhaps more impressive for the work it does as an all-volunteer operation. Vicksburg gets all of the attention – but Tallulah and Hermione House should receive more of it. They are doing important work to document stories that too few people know about. Local history is often hidden history, and it is only through the dedication of hard-working volunteers like those of the Madison Historical Society that these stories can be preserved and told.

Be sure to incorporate and plan a visit to this gem to learn more – about Milliken’s Bend, and so much more!

5 star reviews on TripAdvisor!

Three Memorial Days at Vicksburg

From the 1870s to the 1930s, Vickburg routinely had three different Memorial Day observances: one for Confederate veterans; one for white Union veterans; and one for black Union veterans.

Confederate Veterans

April 26 was designated Confederate Memorial Day in Mississippi. On this day, thousands gathered at the Confederate section of the city cemetery. Events were often organized in a joint effort by the Ladies Confederate Cemetery Association and the United Confederate Veterans. From 1893 to the 1920s, this tradition continued. But after World War I, Confederate Memorial Day was moved from the date of April 26 to the Sunday closest to that date, “a sure sign that schools and businesses were no longer willing to shut their doors to honor the Confederacy,” according to historian Christopher Waldrep. (p. 245)

White Union Veterans

White Union veterans, segregated into their own G.A.R. post, appear to have held separate Memorial Day observances from their black counterparts. Christopher Waldrep, in his book, Vicksburg’s Long Shadow, makes explicit mention of blacks holding separate commemorative activities at the National Cemetery, but he provides scarce information about what is implied to be separate Memorial Day activities for white Union veterans.

Even after more than two hours of additional research in preparation for this blog post, in both online and offline sources, I find virtually no mention about white Union veterans’ Memorial Day activities in Vicksburg. Clearly, this is something that needs to go on my “to do” list, to explore further.

Black Union Veterans

What is well-documented is that the National Cemetery at Vicksburg became an honored gathering place for black Union veterans in the post-war years, and well into the 20th century. Here, although restricted still by segregation, even in death, the black Union veterans could be buried with dignity and honor, with a Federal headstone. In 1887, more than 1,000 black veterans marched to the cemetery; after World War I, more than 10,000 participated in memorial events.

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was a routine and expected part of the Memorial Day ritual, given new significance by the setting in which it was read, and those who composed the audience. They were gathered there to herald a “new birth of freedom” and honor those who had died.

Learn more:

Read more about African-American commemorative celebrations:

Book Review: Defining Moments by Clark

And why Memorial Day is not just a day to loaf at the lake, eat hot dogs, or go to a baseball game:

Memorial Day 2014

Additional readings:

William A. Blair, Cities of the Dead: Contesting the Memory of the Civil War in the South, 1865-1914 (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2004).

David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 2001).

Kathleen Ann Clark, Defining Moments: African American Commemoration and Political Culture in the South, 1863-1913 (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2005).

Barbara A. Gannon, The Won Cause: Black and White Comradeship in the Grand Army of the Republic, (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2011).

 

Favorite Audiobook Now Available!

JUST RELEASED! I’m proud to announce that Milliken’s Bend: A Civil War Battle in History and Memory is now available in audiobook format! Narrated by Scott Connolly and published by University Press Audiobooks. Listen to an excerpt from Chapter 1, “Emancipation as War Crime,” which explores the fear and horror of Texans towards abolitionism, and sets up the background for the violence and venom that came later at Milliken’s Bend.

Outrages and Murders, Louisiana, 1868

Outrages and Murders

Freedom for the slaves was short-lived. Hundreds of whites in Louisiana would see to that. Just as assertively, former slaves continued to fight for justice and secure their hard-won rights, often losing their lives in the struggle. Racial violence was so omnipresent in 1868, just three years after the end of the Civil War, that the Freedman’s Bureau assistant commissioner for the state of Louisiana filled an entire ledger book in a mere six months.

A few examples from a single page, representing just three parishes, hints at the conditions:

Freedmen running for their livesIn Madison Parish, where Milliken’s Bend was located, freedmen fled from neighboring parishes, running for their lives. Whites were angry that blacks had the vote at all – and if blacks voted for Radical Republicans, the party who had supported freedom, they put their lives at risk. Even the white Freedmen’s Bureau agent was being threatened.

Off to the west, in the vicinity of Shreveport, conditions were even worse. So much violence took place there during Reconstruction it became known as “Bloody Caddo.”

Freedmen murdered near their homesLikewise, much of the violence appeared to revolve around politics. White violence was forcing freedmen to vote for Democrats (the party of unreconstructed Southern whites), and murders were commonplace. The local law officials ignored the deaths and violence. They, too, were part of the white power structure, and were likely in sympathy with those who did the killings.

Reconstruction is a time period often forgotten today. Both blacks and whites prefer to remember other times. But this country can never reckon with race  until we reckon with what happened – and what was promised but didn’t happen – during the turmoil of Reconstruction. And although the Civil War gets all of the attention, what we fail to realize is that the war did not end. Not in the South. It continued for a decade more, and many men continued to lose their lives over the very issues for which they had fought, wheather wearing the blue or the gray.

Sources:

Register of Murders and Outrages, May-Dec. 1868; Records Relating to Murders and Outrages; Records of the Assistant Commissioner for the State of Louisiana, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1865-1869; NARA Microfilm M1027 Roll 34. Online at familysearch.org

Gilles Vandal, “Bloody Caddo: White Violence against Blacks in a Louisiana Parish, 1865-1876,” Journal of Social History 25, no. 2 (Winter 1991): 373-388. [online access requires Oxford Academic account $$]

John Andrew Prime, “Lynching’s Bloody Terror Toll Studied,” Shreveport Times, Feb. 15, 2015.