Milliken’s Bend: A Civil War Battle in History and Memory
Linda Barnickel, LSU Press
The battlefield at Milliken’s Bend, La., no longer exists. There are no markers commemorating the uncommon valor of three U.S. Colored Troop regiments that fought there on June 7, 1863, during the Vicksburg Campaign. The ever-shifting channel of the Mississippi River, on whose banks those USCT soldiers nobly fought and died, has obliterated this hallowed ground beneath tons of silt and years of turgid water.
Fortunately, the legacy of the battle and the men on both sides come alive again in Linda Barnickel’s stellar new monograph. Her book, more than 20 years in the making, is much more than a mere battle narrative. “The significance of the small but sharp fight at Milliken’s Bend,” Barnickel argues, “far exceeds its present status as an obscure footnote in Civil War history.” Thanks to her assiduous research, incisive analysis and clear, concise writing, she more than proves her argument.
The particulars of the fighting at Milliken’s Bend are simple enough. In an attempt to disrupt Union supply lines on the west bank of the Mississippi during Ulysses S. Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign, a force of approximately 1,100 veteran Confederate cavalry and infantry, mostly Texans, attacked an equal-size number of African-American troops from Louisiana—poorly trained and armed former slaves, only recently freed—as well as a smattering of white soldiers from Iowa. The left of the Union line collapsed under intense Confederate pressure, but the men holding the right stood firm. Much of the fighting occurred on the river’s levee and frequently broke down into hand-to-hand combat.
After seven exhausting hours—and the timely arrival of two Union gunboats, Choctaw and Lexington—the Rebels finally abandoned the field. Both sides were quick to claim victory and, not surprisingly, vastly exaggerated the number of casualties that had been inflicted. Historians generally consider the battle a Union victory. The Federals had roughly 650 casualties, the Confederates about 185.
Only after the battle did the real story of Milliken’s Bend emerge. Charges of “black flag” no-quarter fighting by the Confederates filled the pages of Northern newspapers and Congressional investigating committees. Barnickel painstakingly investigates the many charges and countercharges and confirms unequivocally that only two deaths could be ascribed as “murder.” She admirably demonstrates how the facts of the engagement have varied over the years and how emotionally charged events shrouded in the fog of war and the rhetoric of ideology have defined and redefined the fight’s significance.
The legacy of the Battle of Milliken’s Bend continues to emerge. This account should go a long way to to give it the recognition it deserves.
Originally published in the December 2013 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.