In anticipation of my upcoming appearance at Chuck Beard’s ever-popular East Side Storytellin‘ event on Tues. June 7 – the 153rd anniversary of the battle – I thought I’d take this moment to provide a quick run-down on some of the major points that make Milliken’s Bend a story worth remembering, and telling.
Early Use of Black Troops
Black men were not formally accepted for military service in the Union army until a provision in the final Emancipation Proclamation, issued on January 1, 1863, made it possible. The men who fought at Milliken’s Bend were literally fresh off the plantation, and none had been in the service for more than a month when the battle occurred. Some had just entered the service days before, and had not even been issued weapons. A significant factor in the battle was the lack of training of Union troops. Even the white officers were learning their new duties. Even without the pressure of a Confederate attack, the Union forces were undermanned and in disarray.
The fact that these men managed to fight at all is something of a small miracle. That they fought well, with minimal training and poor weaponry – and in fact, earned praise from the Confederate commander – makes their attempt to stand at Milliken’s Bend significant.
Southern Fear of Slave Insurrection
One of the more important components of the Millliken’s Bend story – but one that often gets omitted at many of my formal talks, due to limited time – is the Southern fear of slave insurrections. Understanding the depth and breadth of this fear is critical to understanding the Confederate reaction to the notion of enlisting black men into the Union army. It is clear from reading Confederate correspondence that many Southern civilians and army officers saw the enlistment of blacks as a formal, organized effort to lead slaves to rise up against, and kill, their masters. With many white men away from their homes in the Confederate army, such a fear was transformed into a deeply felt and personal concern for their families, women and children, still at home. Would their wives be raped, their children slaughtered? These were the images conjured by the press and politicians that made many Confederate soldiers feel that extreme measures must be taken to discourage the use of black troops by the North. Perhaps a sufficient deterrent might be to declare “no quarter” on the battlefield.
Prisoners of War
The Confederate government had declared early in 1863 that they would take no prisoners if they encountered black men as Union soldiers. White Federal officers would likewise be shot down without mercy. At Milliken’s Bend, higher officers like Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith were disappointed to find out that Confederate Henry McCulloch’s forces had taken more than 100 men as prisoners at Milliken’s Bend, most of them, black. A few white officers had also been captured.
Though the details are still a bit murky, it is apparent that at least two of the white officers were executed not long after the battle. Most black men appear to have either been re-enslaved, or sent west to Texas where they were treated in some manner as prisoners of war. The deaths of the two white officers turned out to have significant implications on the war as a whole. In late 1863 a report was forwarded all the way to the U.S. Secretary of War and to a Congressional investigating committee. This report was taken as evidence of “atrocities” perpetrated by the Confederates against Union POWs, particularly those from U.S. Colored Troop organizations. In part, this report provided the Federal government the evidence they needed to declare an end to all prisoner exchanges between the two powers. Such a measure meant POW camps, both North and South, grew exponentially, and horrifically. The end of prisoner exchanges had a major impact on the progress and conclusion of the war.
The 9th Louisiana Infantry, African Descent (later renamed the 5th U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery) sustained the greatest losses of any unit on the battlefield. Indeed, their losses at Milliken’s Bend garnered them several sad distinctions:
- 66 men killed – the greatest number of KIA of any Union unit in a single engagement during the entire Vicksburg Campaign.
- 68% of its starting force were casualties (killed, wounded, or missing) – the highest percentage loss of any African American unit during the entire war
- 23% of its men were killed – making it the greatest percentage KIA of any regiment during the war; even greater than the 19% loss of the 1st Minnesota at Gettysburg
These are only a few reasons that Milliken’s Bend should be remembered. Although a small engagement, it has significance far beyond its numbers.