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:
In 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.”
Likewise, 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.
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.
The massive records of the Freedmen’s Bureau (more formally, the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands) are now available online. FamilySearch, the National Archives, and the mobilization of thousands of volunteers made this effort possible. Among these records are the “Pre-Bureau” Records of Mississippi, which are some of the earliest Freedmen’s Bureau records available.
This particular subset of records documents the efforts of John Eaton as he sought to impose order upon the chaos of freedom that was taking place in the Mississippi Valley. His job was to supervise the massive effort of the Federal government to support newly-freed slaves in the region, from his headquarters at Memphis.
Three documents can serve as representative samples.
Adjutant General Thomas Seeks Soldiers
In this document, Eaton quotes from a rousing speech delivered in May by Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas, who was there to tell the freedmen: “that the President had sent him out here so far to tell them they were free & to tell all the [white] soldiers they must receive them, treat them kindly, provide work for them and pay them, feed them if hungry, clothe them if naked and to make soldiers of the strong & healthy men so that they might fight for the liberty of their wives & children and against the rebellion.”
Eaton Needs Doctors in Vicksburg
By early fall, Eaton was in Vicksburg, and found the task overwhelming. Most concerning was the poor medical care, and the inadequate staffing of the hospitals.
Physicians are consequently greatly needed. Should there be those disposed to attend to these people their Services could be compensated as contract surgeons.
Indeed this is the opportunity for all manner of benevolent labor among them.”
Hospital Registers – Vicksburg & Young’s Point
One of the hospitals for freedpeople was in Vicksburg; another was at Young’s Point. The hospitals treated men, women, and children, and these hospital registers, some dated as early as August 1863, provide their full name (most slaves had only a forename, not a surname, until freedom came), age, “color” and their ailment, as well as their date of discharge from the hospital or their date of death.
Source: (Each image above links to the individual document.) Records of the Mississippi Freedmen’s Department (“pre-bureau records”), Office of the Assistant Commissioner, Bureau of Refugees, Freedman, and Abandoned Lands, 1863-1865, National Archives and Records Administration microfilm publication M1914.
I’ve recently received several questions asking where Confederates from the battle of Milliken’s Bend were buried. Unfortunately, I don’t have a firm answer.
Before the Confederates left Milliken’s Bend, they stayed nearby for a couple of hours before withdrawing to Richmond, Louisiana — which is now Tallulah. It seems likely to me that any of the men that died on the field were possibly buried nearby, while the troops were resting, waiting for reinforcements, and deciding what to do. On the other hand, they may not have had time to do that, as it was unclear if they were going to continue the attack or if the Yankees were going to attack them, so they may not have let their guard down long enough to perform any burials.
Also, it’s quite likely that a number of the killed in action died within Yankee lines, and unless the Rebels made special efforts to remove the bodies, the Yankees probably would have been the ones to perform the burials.In fact, two Confederates were reinterred, accidentally, in the National Cemetery at Vicksburg. Perhaps others were, as well, listed now as “unknown.”
I don’t know, but it does not seem to me very likely that Confederates from Milliken’s Bend would have been reinterred at the Confederate Cemetery in Vicksburg. While the US dead were removed from Milliken’s Bend and other sites and reinterred in the National Cemetery at Vicksburg, that process was managed by the Federal government. There was no such systematic reburial of the Confederate dead after the war.
For soldiers who were wounded in action, removed from the battlefield, and then died of their wounds, their burial location could be just about anywhere in the region. More seriously wounded men may have died at field hospitals, located in homes not far from the battlefield or in Richmond (now Tallulah). Others may have died near Delhi, where the railhead was located. Most of the wounded were sent westward to the hospital at Monroe, Louisiana, about 70 miles from Milliken’s Bend.
The resources below from Find-a-Grave and other websites might be helpful.
Madison Parish cemeteries
(Milliken’s Bend was located in Madison Parish)
Millikens Bend Cemetery lists a number of burials from the time of the battle, and many are identified as men of the 17th Texas Infantry. However, the Find-A-Grave entry for this cemetery does not provide a geographic location, and therefore I wonder if perhaps this listing is simply a “virtual cemetery” that does not exist in the actual landscape. It may be that someone created this cemetery on Find-a-grave in order to memorialize the Confederate dead from this battle.
East Carroll Parish cemeteries
(Milliken’s Bend was located on the southern border of this parish)
Millikin Cemetery – most burials appear to be modern era, though one Milliken’s Bend casualty has an entry. Isham Boren of the 16th Texas Cavalry is listed, though the entry itself confesses that his actual burial site is unknown.
Ouachita Parish cemeteries
(Monroe, about 70 miles west of Milliken’s Bend, was a supply and organization base, and had a formal Confederate hospital. Many of the wounded were sent here.)
Old Monroe Confederate Hospital (buried in mass grave)
Most of the Confederate wounded were removed from the Milliken’s Bend area and treated at the Monroe Hospital. In fact, there were so many casualties, the town was overwhelmed, and wounded soldiers were being treated at hotels, schools, churches and mercantile establishments. More information about burials from the Monroe Confederate Hospital is available here.
Ouachita Parish GenWeb site also has cemetery transcriptions, which can be easily skimmed for appropriate dates of death.
— (A portion of this post is repeated from a previous comment I made on “Casualties at Milliken’s Bend.“)
The poster above is featured in the online portal for the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). The broadside was issued on July 6, and prominently mentions both Port Hudson and Milliken’s Bend as examples of black bravery on the battlefield. It is directed to a literate, well-informed, free black population in the North.
Frederick Douglass is attributed as the author of the broadside, and his words, as usual, are powerful. Though the bold headlines grab our attention, the fine print is worth reading:
This is the soil of our birth…If we value liberty, if we wish to be free in this land…we must rise up in the dignity of our manhood and show by our own right of arms that we are worthy to be freemen. Our enemies have made the country believe that we are craven cowards, without soul, without manhood, without the spirit of soldiers. Shall we die with this stigma resting upon our graves?…Let us rather die freemen than live to be slaves. What is life without liberty?…If we would be regarded men…let us rise now and fly to arms!
The poster proudly declares the “Valor and Heroism” of the soldiers at Port Hudson and Milliken’s Bend, and taunts its readers with this declaration and challenge:
Though they are just from the galling, poisoning grasp of slavery, they have startled the World by the most exalted heroism. If they have proved themselves heroes, can we not prove ourselves men? ARE FREEMEN LESS BRAVE THAN SLAVES?
Douglass made it clear that failing to enlist in the Union cause was not just shirking one’s duty, but was a failure to claim manhood. Repeatedly throughout the text of the broadside, Douglass invokes the notion not just of freedom, but of manhood. For too long, blacks had been viewed in the nation, legally and culturally, as “property” – “without soul, without manhood” as Douglass states.”For generations we have suffered under the horrors of slavery, outrage, and wrong. Our manhood has been denied, our citizenship blotted out,… our souls seared and burned.” Now was the time black men could claim and prove before the nation on the public stage of the battlefield, beyond any question, that they were men, brave soldiers, and worthy citizens. It was time to rally; it was time to “prove themselves men.”
Life, war, and survival during this era was extremely brutal and cruel.
The film Free State of Jones is not for the squeamish. One of the first things that strikes you about this film is its intense brutality. And that’s as it should be. The film opens by showing, at times in gory detail, the aftermath of a Civil War battle. And while these scenes churn the stomach in some of their details, it seems a fitting opening for a movie that takes on the subjects of slavery, war, and survival, and the brutality that accompanies them all.
Suffering is so omnipresent and dramatically portrayed, that it almost becomes a character in this film. I was especially impressed by the way in which women and families left behind were portrayed in this movie. It shows in a very real way how difficult and uncertain their lives were in these conditions. Even bands of Confederates preyed upon these families. The women’s loyalty was to no one, except to each other and their own children. They were forced to take extreme measures to protect what little food and shelter they had. Though not on the battlefield per se, these women had their own war to fight, and fight they did.
The sufferings of those held in bondage are also dramatically portrayed. Some continue to suffer and be tormented, even after they have left the plantation for good. The runaway Moses exemplifies this. He suffers, even in his strength. And though hiding out in the swamp, he still quite literally carries the burden of his experiences with him. (Details omitted to maintain dramatic integrity for those who have not yet seen the film.)
Racial identity is absurd and fluid
A telling line of dialogue occurs when Newt Knight (portrayed by Matthew McConaughey) first arrives at the runaway slaves’ hideout in the swamp. The joke is, “Who’s the —— now?” since Newt has been pursued and bitten by hounds and has sought shelter among runaways. He flees the Confederate authorities just like the runaway slaves. Further questions of race arise when the film fast forwards to the 1960s to a courtroom scene that seeks to prove that a man – who appears to be white – is actually, under Mississippi law, black – and therefore guilty of miscegenation (race mixing) by marrying his white wife. Although the courtroom scenes serve as an interesting counterpoint to the main part of the film set during the Civil War and Reconstruction – it points out how complicated, convoluted, and insidious America’s obsession with racial identity has remained, well into the twentieth century – and as recent events have shown, into our own time.
What behavior, actions, and feelings identify someone as “American”?
When Newt declares the “Free State of Jones” [County], I thought – how quintessentially American. He declares that they are only loyal to each other and to the land they live on and till, with their own hands – and no one else. No planters, and no government, North or South, will tell Newt and his cohorts what to do. Newt leads a rebellion within a rebellion. And despite some later flag-waving, its hard to say that Newt and the others of Jones County are loyal to the Union. Instead, it seems, they are loyal only to themselves.
This leads to another observation. A frequent refrain throughout the film is: “You’re kin. Of course we’ll take care of you.” This exemplifies the Southern tradition of deep and extensive kinship networks. No matter the circumstances, kinship comes first. This theme is manifested in multiple ways throughout the movie, and is not always spoken. The black runaways in the swamp quickly become a type of “kin” to Newt – even before he and the former slave Rachel become a couple. Newt shows his commitment to this expansive definition of kinship when he and others (predominantly black) of the post-war Union League go to vote. Other examples of kinship include frequent burials in the churchyard, and the common suffering they all endured during the war. Besides the familial blood-ties, it is clear that in Newt Knight’s world, kinship also comes from a common place, common suffering, common socioeconomic class, and common interests. Just like race, kinship is a social construct, not limited by biology.
All in all I found Free State of Jones to be an interesting and gripping film. It is thought-provoking and tells a long-hidden part of our history. It echoes into the present day, in the areas of race relations, class and economic strata. It complicates our understanding of the Civil War and its legacy. I’m so grateful to author Victoria Bynum for bringing this story to light, and to the film industry for bringing it to the big screen.