At the upcoming National Council on Public History annual meeting in Nashville, I’ll be chairing a panel entitled: “Traces: Making the Invisible Past Visible,” and I’ll be speaking briefly about my research journey in uncovering the story of Milliken’s Bend.
I consider the story of Milliken’s Bend to be “invisible history” because for so long, very little was written about it. It was overlooked entirely, dismissed, or regarded as unimportant. Why was this so?
Partly, it was because of a much larger omission: the story of black troops during the Civil War was a story seldom told. For decades, the number of books about the subject could be counted on a single hand. Moreover, the story of Milliken’s Bend, in particular, challenged stereotypes that many Southern whites treasured well into the twentieth century. It is a story of black heroism – armed black men, former slaves, no-less, taking an active part in claiming their own freedom, and sealing it with their blood and lives. It belied the myth of the “happy slave,” which whites pacified themselves with for decades. It was a story better left untold. And after a generation passed, an untold story soon became a forgotten one.
Another reason Milliken’s Bend is “invisible” is because it literally does not exist on the landscape anymore. The site of the battle, and the nearby town (pop. 200) was on the bank of the Mississippi River; both were washed away early in the twentieth century. Without an actual site to mark and commemorate, any type of memorial activity, no matter how small, was made more difficult.
Besides, all of the commemoration and memorial-making was being done across the river at Vicksburg, about 15-20 miles south of Milliken’s Bend. Vicksburg is one of the most-marked battlefields in the entire National Park system. Veterans north and south – but predominantly white – poured in state appropriations and GAR and UCV funds to ensure that Vicksburg became a shrine to (white) martial valor.
Vicksburg overshadowed the scrap at Milliken’s Bend anyway. Milliken’s Bend was just a month before Vicksburg surrendered. Once it fell – and Lee was repulsed at Gettysburg – the momentum of the war changed. Both of these key events grabbed the headlines as they unfolded and concluded. A tiny little clash across the river, with just 1500 men on each side, was hardly worth noticing, no matter their race or casualties. And it had zero influence on the fate of Vicksburg. Why should it matter?
All of these reasons, along with others, conspired to ensure that the story of Milliken’s Bend would lay dormant for years. So “invisible” in fact, that it was almost as if it had never happened. The story of Milliken’s Bend – like the site itself – had vanished almost without a trace.
Almost – but not quite. The traces were there. Hard to see, obscure, covered with overgrowth or changed through time – but there, nonetheless. And those dim traces pointed to a story that was worth telling. One that needed telling. One that, it turns out, has wider implications for the entire war – and even us today.