History notes that by the end of the Civil War in 1865, about 179,000 Black men, that is 10% of the Union Army, served as soldiers in the U.S. Army while another 19,000 served in the Navy. In fact, almost 40,000 Black soldiers died during the war. Black soldiers served in artillery and infantry and were involved in all noncombat support functions.
But due to prejudice against these Blacks, black units were not used in combat as heavily as they should have been. Still, these Black soldiers fought courageously in several battles including the battle of Milliken’s Bend, Louisiana, on June 7, 1863. A forgotten Civil War battle, the Milliken’s Bend was “one of the hardest fought encounters in the annals of American military history,” according to Black historian Benjamin Quarles. It was also an early test of the Union Army’s new regiments composed of men of African descent”, as stated by Historynet.
Where is Milliken’s Bend?
Milliken’s Bend is no more as it was washed away in a flood in the early 20th century. Before that, it was a small community in Louisiana on the west bank of the Mississippi River, about 15 miles above Vicksburg. Located near the border of Madison and Carroll Parishes, between 75% and 90% of the population were African Americans. The region also had hundreds of enslaved men and women working on plantations, with corn and cotton being the primary crops, according to BlackPast.
The battle of Milliken’s Bend
This was one of the earliest battles in the Civil War where African-American troops fought. Confederate cavalry on June 7, 1863, attacked a Union encampment along the Mississippi River at Milliken’s Bend under the command of Colonel Hermann Lieb. They came up against an infantry brigade of African-American troops, consisting of the 9th, 11th, and 13th Louisiana and the 1st Mississippi regiments and the 23rd Iowa Infantry. Most of them were former slaves who were not well trained before being thrown into battle but they fought gallantly against the Confederate veterans.
Owing to the faulty construction of many of their weapons, some of the Black troops found it difficult reloading but bravely fought against their former bosses and oppressors. Quarles even noted that “one Negro took his former master a prisoner and brought him into camp with great gusto.”
Author and archivist Linda Barnickel spoke more about the battle in an interview with Historynet. She said, “some of the defenders only got off one shot, but a lot of the fighting was hand-to-hand. Even the Confederates praised the courage of the African Brigade.”
She continued: “The casualties were minor compared with those of larger battles, but when you consider the size of the forces involved—about 1,500 or less on each side—the percentage is extraordinary. Estimates of Union losses vary wildly, but most likely they suffered about 100 killed, another 250 wounded, and around 500 missing or captured. The 9th Louisiana lost 68%, the highest total of any of the “colored” regiments during the Civil War; 23% of the regiment was killed—66 men, the highest number killed in action in a single day of any regiment during the entire Vicksburg campaign…On both sides some companies reported losses of 50%”
All in all, the percentage of casualties on both sides was among the war’s highest, as pointed out by Historynet. The battle also brought an end to prisoner exchanges between the two armies. And in spite of the many casualties, the courage of the African-American soldiers debunked the notion that Black men could not fight as well as the white soldiers. These Black soldiers indeed helped ensure Vicksburg victory for the Union and Major General Ulysses S. Grant even commended them for their valor and endurance.
But the fearlessness of the African-American troops at Milliken’s Bend put fear into slaveholders that more slaves would try to rebel. So some slaveowners left Milliken’s Bend to the interior of Louisiana. Others also went all the way to eastern Texas.
At the end of the day, the boldness of the African-American soldiers at Milliken’s Bend made the Union enlist thousands of African Americans into regiments that had just been formed. In 1865 when the Civil War ended, thousands of African-American men had served as soldiers in the U.S. Army.