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‘A Clear Loss to their Owners’ – The Fate of Captured Black Troops at the Battle of Milliken’s Bend

Along with Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, first made public in September of 1862, came a surge in black Americans joining the United States Army. The very thought of “armed negroes” sent terror through much of the South, shaking even the government in Richmond to the core.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis ordered that “all Negro slaves captured in arms be at once delivered over to the executive authorities of the respective States to which they belong, to be dealt with according to the laws of said States.” Davis was allowing the states to decide for themselves how to handle captured black soldiers. In most Southern states, this would likely be seen as a servile insurrection, and the soldiers either sold into slavery or simply executed. 1As was described here.

Though there had been a several cases where Confederate troops had run into black United States soldiers in the Eastern Theater, few had been seen in the West. This was about to change.

The Military Situation

Kirby Smith
Kirby Smith

By June of 1863, United States General Ulysses S. Grant had surrounded two large Confederate forces along the Mississippi River – Port Hudson and Vicksburg. Though not participating in the main fighting, Grant was employing regiments from the African Brigade to guard his rear – the western shore of the Mississippi, including Milliken’s Bend, where 1,000 mostly-black troops were encamped.

So far reaching was this development that it inadvertently distracted the Rebels in Arkansas and Western Louisiana. Confederate General Kirby Smith, commander of the Trans-Mississippi Department to the west, had been ordered by President Jefferson Davis to break up Grant’s supply line, believed to be on the western bank of the Mississippi. For months this had been true – Grant used the small depot of Milliken’s Bend to supply his entire Army of the Tennessee. This was, unknown to the Confederates, no longer the case.

Kirby Smith then decided to hit Grant’s supposed supply line, figuring that anything to help in the defeat of Grant was most important. Placing General Richard Taylor at its head, Smith let loose the small force of perhaps 4,500 Rebels. By June 2, they had arrived at New Carthage – once a major point in Grant’s build up before his overland campaign through Mississippi.

Richard Taylor
Richard Taylor

While Smith was elated, Richard Taylor was furious. He had always doubted that Grant still maintained anything of importance on the western bank, and only followed orders because they were orders. After trudging 200 miles from Alexandria, Louisiana, his arrival opposite Vicksburg was, he felt, an ill omen. He demanded that Smith come personally to take command. He was finished.

But Smith refused, and ordered Taylor to proceed to Milliken’s Bend. Smith had been assured by a loyal Southerner that the area was only “guarded by some convalescents and some negro troops.” Neither, he was assured, would cause him much trouble.

General Taylor set the date for June 7th. It was then that three columns would strike at once upon three separate points: Milliken’s Bend, Young’s Point and Lake Providence. The idea had been to somehow disrupt Grant’s supply line and give aid to General John Pemberton’s forces trapped in Vicksburg.

The Battle of Milliken’s Bend

And so, on the morning of this date, Confederate forces attacked both Milliken’s Bend and Young’s Point. The column marching towards Lake Providence, farther north, had been delayed by two whole days. The two Rebel brigades were discovered on the 6th, however, and both Milliken’s Bend and Young’s Point were reinforced.

Map of the Vicksburg area, showing in red the two battles.
Map of the Vicksburg area, showing in red the two battles.

Before dawn, over 1,500 Rebels sprung upon the Federal African Brigade, which had been lying in wait at Milliken’s Bend. At first, the Confederates pushed the untested United States troops back upon a levee, flanking them and causing quite a few casualties. The fighting devolved into a vicious hand-to-hand combat before the Yankees were driven from the levee and pushed back towards the river.

But just as victory seemed close at hand for Richard Taylor’s Rebels, two Union gunboats appeared on the water. Though the Confederates held their ground, and even seemed to be cornering the Federal infantry, the black troops would not budge. Unable to dislodge them or drown them in the Mississippi, the Southern troops began to withdraw as the naval artillery and the now pursuing Union troops hurried them on.

To the south, at Young’s Point, the Rebel luck was no better. After pushing in some Yankee pickets, the Confederates formed line of battle and advanced towards the enemy camp. They had been told by a guide that they could easily surprise the Union troops by leaping from the woods near the camp. Unfortunately, when they exited the woods, they found themselves well over a mile away from the enemy’s camp with nothing but flat open ground before them. There would be no surprise. Making matters worse, three Federal gunboats were there to defend the camp. Figuring that it would end in failure anyway, the Rebels decided to call it a day.

Both retreating Rebel brigades later united, but nothing more came of Taylor’s foray opposite Vicksburg. All he could do now was wait to hear how things went at Lake Providence (hint: not any better).

Battle of Milliken’s Bend. Harper's Weekly.
Battle of Milliken’s Bend. Harper’s Weekly.

The Aftermath: What to Do with Black Prisoners?

While the skirmish at Young’s Point resulted in few, if any casualties, the same could not be said for Milliken’s Bend. General Henry McCulloch, commanding the attacking brigade, reported 44 killed, 130 wounded and 10 missing. The Federals suffered much more with 101 killed, 285 wounded, and 266 captured or missing. While their commander, General Elias Dennis conceded, “nearly all the missing blacks will probably return, they were badly scattered,” he was somewhat mistaken. Not all of them could return.

Union Admiral David Dixon Porter, commanding the gunboats at Milliken’s Bend reported that the Rebels “commenced driving the negro regiments, and killed all they captured.” This barbaric scene, described Porter, “infuriated the negroes, who turned on the rebels and slaughtered them like sheep, and captured 200 prisoners.”

Porter, who was not upon the land, was mistaken about the number of prisoners taken. Also, his accusations that the Confederates, at least initially, killed any black soldier they captured, was not completely true.

While neither Union General Dennis or Confederate General McCulloch mentioned this in their reports, McCulloch addressed the uncertainty over what to do with black prisoners.

“These [captured] negroes had doubtless been in the possession of the enemy, and would have been a clear loss to their owners but for Captain Marold,” wrote McCulloch of a fellow officer, “and should they be forfeited to the Confederate States or returned to their owners, I would regard it nothing but fair to give to Captain Marold one or two of the best of them.”

So clearly, at least some of the captured black soldiers were not killed, since General McCulloch was delighted to return them to their owners or give them as gifts to his friends.

Still, McCulloch boasted that though he couldn’t give a certain figure for the enemy’s casualties, “from the dead and wounded that I saw scattered over the field in the rear of the levee, and those upon and immediately behind it, it must have been over a thousand.”

General Taylor was also in a quandary, lamenting the fact that any of the black troops were captured at all. “A very large number of the negroes were killed and wounded,” he reported, “and, unfortunately, some 50 with 2 of their white officers, captured. I respectfully ask instructions as to the disposition of these prisoners.”

Being once again property, the black troops were soon put to work as slaves for the Confederacy. And Grant’s occupation of Vicksburg wore on. 2Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 24, Part 2, p448-449, 453, 459, 468; Vol. 26, Part 2, p15, 471-472; Kirby Smith’s Confederacy by Robert L. Kerby; Richard Taylor: Soldier Prince of Dixie, Volume 1 by T. Michael Parrish; Destruction and Reconstruction: Personal Experiences of the Late War by Richard Taylor; Vicksburg by Michael Ballard. This originally appeared in The Civil War Daily Gazette here.

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Eric
Eric has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, he wrote the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, he decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.
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