Fought on June 7, 1863, during the Vicksburg Campaign, Brigadier General Henry McCulloch’s Texas Brigade attacked a federal supply depot at Milliken’s Bend, Louisiana, garrisoned, mostly, by a brigade of newly recruited black soldiers. After withstanding the initial Confederate surge, the Federals contained the Rebel assault until artillery fire from the Union gunboat USS Choctaw forced the Confederates to retreat. The bravery demonstrated by the black soldiers during some of the fiercest hand-to-hand combat of the Civil War at the Battle of Milliken’s Bend helped change perceptions about the use of African American soldiers in the Union Army.
Siege of Vicksburg
On April 30, 1863, roughly 23,000 Union soldiers clambered aboard barges at Disharoon’s plantation in northern Louisiana and crossed the Mississippi River. Going ashore at Bruinsburg, Mississippi, they completed the largest amphibious offensive in American history prior to the invasion of Normandy, France, during World War II. As the Yankees stepped upon Mississippi soil, they secured a beachhead and then solidified their position by defeating Confederate forces at the Battle of Port Gibson the next day.
In the aftermath of the successful invasion, Major General Ulysses S. Grant marched his army east and drove General Joseph E. Johnston‘s forces away from the state capital at Jackson, Mississippi, on May 14, 1863. Grant then turned his attention to the City of Vicksburg, the last remaining Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River.
All that remained between Grant and Vicksburg were the 30,000 Rebel soldiers of Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton‘s Army of Vicksburg. Resounding Federal victories at the Battle of Champion Hill (May 16) and the Battle of Big Black River Bridge (May 17) forced Pemberton’s army to seek refuge within Vicksburg’s limits. Following two unsuccessful attempts to take the city by force (which cost the Union nearly 4,000 casualties), Grant settled into a siege of Vicksburg that lasted over six weeks.
Union Outpost at Milliken’s Bend, Louisiana
As Grant prepared for his invasion of Mississippi, he used several outposts as depots to supply the Army of the Tennessee as it inched its way south on the Louisiana side of the Mississippi River. Among those was Milliken’s Bend, about fifteen miles upriver from Vicksburg as the crow flies, or roughly twenty-five miles by water. By the time Grant’s soldiers invaded Mississippi, Milliken’s Bend was transitioning from a staging area for the invasion to a recruiting hub for former slaves joining the Union Army.
In late May 1863, the Union garrison at Milliken’s Bend comprised about 1,410 men. Roughly 1,250 of them were members of the African Brigade—the 9th, 11th, and 13th Louisiana Infantry Regiments, and the 1st Mississippi Infantry Regiment. Most of the soldiers were ex-slaves who had been members of the volunteer army for only weeks or days.
Preparing to Assault Milliken’s Bend
After the siege of Vicksburg began, Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith (commander of the Confederacy’s Trans-Mississippi Department) met with Major General Richard Taylor (commander of the District of Western Louisiana) to discuss ideas to loosen Grant’s grip on the city. The two generals devised plans to disrupt Grant’s supply lines on the western side of the river, and possibly draw Federal troops away from the city.
In early June, Taylor ordered Major General John G. Walker’s Texas Division to prepare for an assault on Milliken’s Bend, in coordination with strikes against other Union outposts in Louisiana. Walker’s Division comprised the 16th and 19th Texas Infantry Regiments, plus the 16th Texas Cavalry (dismounted).
Federals Prepare for Attack
At roughly 10 a.m. on June 6, 1863, Walker’s soldiers marched into Richmond, Louisiana, roughly ten miles southwest of Milliken’s Bend. As the Texans rested to prepare for their assault early the next morning, Colonel Hermann Lieb, commander of Union forces at Milliken’s Bend, was making a reconnaissance toward Richmond. Upon discovering Walker’s presence, Lieb returned to Milliken’s Bend following a brief skirmish. Concerned with the possibility of a Confederate assault, Lieb ordered his men to construct several lines of improvised breastworks made of cotton bales. He also contacted his commanding officer, Brigadier General Elias S. Dennis, at Young’s Point, requesting reinforcements.
Rebels on the March
At 6 p.m. that evening, the Texans marched east out of Richmond, intent on striking the outposts at Milliken’s Bend and Young’s Point before dawn. Upon reaching a fork in the road at Oak Grove Plantation, Walker dispatched Brigadier General Henry McCulloch’s brigade north toward Milliken’s Bend and he sent Brigadier General James M. Hawes’ brigade east to Young’s Point. Walker remained at Oak Grove with Colonel Horace Randal’s brigade in reserve.
Conflict at Milliken’s Bend: June 7, 1863
Early Morning Skirmishing
Between 2:30 and 3 a.m. on June 7, Union pickets began firing on McCulloch’s 1,500 soldiers as they advanced up the Main Richmond Road toward Milliken’s Bend. As the Federal pickets fell back, Lieb deployed his men (now reinforced by about half of the all-white 23rd Iowa Infantry) along the first line of cotton bales.
The Rebels pushed forward, but a series of hedgerows hampered their advance. After passing through the barriers, McCulloch reformed his lines and charged the levee shielding Lieb’s troops. The Yankees greeted their assailants with a blistering volley that momentarily staggered the Rebels. The Texans quickly recovered however because many of the newly recruited black soldiers struggled to reload their muskets because of a lack of training. When the Confederates poured over the cotton bales, the black soldiers showed them the bayonet and resorted to using their muskets as clubs in some of the fiercest hand-to-hand combat of the Civil War.
As the struggle continued, the Rebels flanked the Federal left, enabling them to pour a devastating enfilading fire into the Union line. The reeling Yankees fell back through their camp as they sought refuge along the river bank. Subject to being quickly overrun, the Federals were rescued when the ironclad Choctaw appeared on the river and turned its big guns on the pursuing Confederates.
Stopped in their tracks, the Texans fell back. At about 9 a.m., a second gunboat, Lexington, came upriver and joined in the firing. Realizing he was outgunned, McCulloch requested reinforcements from Walker. By the time Randal’s brigade arrived around noon, McCulloch’s men were exhausted. Anticipating more Union reinforcements, McCulloch ordered his men to round up their wounded and prisoners and rejoin Walker at Fair Oaks Plantation. Walker’s Division withdrew to Richmond that evening.
The Union victory at the Battle of Milliken’s Bend was small by comparison to many Civil War engagements. Each side fielded about 1,500 soldiers. The Confederacy suffered 185 casualties (44 killed, 131 wounded, and 10 missing), compared to Union losses of 652 (101 killed, 285 wounded, and 266 missing). Reportedly, the Confederacy returned many of the captured blacks to bondage. Rumors emerged after the war that unidentified suspects removed two of the white Union officers who were incarcerated as POWs from their cells and summarily executed them.
Despite its relatively small size, the Battle of Milliken’s Bend was significant because it was one of the earliest battles that pitted former slaves against Confederate troops. The bravery these raw recruits displayed, despite their limited training, did much to change perceptions about the use of African American soldiers during the war.
Three days after the battle, Charles Dana, special commissioner of the United States War Department, reported to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, that General Dennis noted “It is impossible for men to show greater gallantry than the negro troops in this fight.” Later, in his book, Recollections of the Civil War, Dana observed, “The bravery of the Blacks at Milliken’s Bend completely revolutionized the sentiment of the army with regard to the employment of Negro troops.”
Stanton apparently endorsed Dana’s sentiments. In a letter to President Abraham Lincoln in December of 1863, the Secretary of War wrote:
Many persons believed, or pretended to believe, and confidentially asserted, that freed slaves would not make good soldiers; they would lack courage, and could not be subjected to military discipline. Facts have shown how groundless were these apprehensions. The slave has proved his manhood, and his capacity as an infantry soldier, at Milliken’s Bend, at the assault upon Port Hudson, and the storming of Fort Wagner.
At a time when casualties and desertions were depleting Southern armies, the recognition of the competence of African American soldiers triggered an influx of new black recruits, swelling the size of the volunteer army, and further tipping the scales in favor of a Union victory in the Civil War.