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NPS History E-LibraryScene in Antietam National Cemetery in Sharpsburg, Maryland

Civil War Series

The Civil War's Black Soldiers



Barely ten days after the fight at Port Hudson, black troops were again thrust into battle. The fight took place along the Mississippi River, this time at a place called Milliken's Bend. Five thousand troops were sent to crush the new black regiments that were forming there and disrupt Union efforts to capture Vicksburg and Port Hudson.

To counteract the Rebel advance, the commanding officer at Milliken's Bend, Colonel Herman Lieb had a gun boat, four understrength black regiments with only a few days of training and antiquated Belgian muskets, and two understrength companies from the 23rd Iowa Infantry, some thousand men in all. The gunboat provided the artillery support.


Fortunately for Lieb, the terrain provided some compensation for his command's inadequate size and lack of experience. Because the water level on the Mississippi River was low, the riverbank was serviceable as natural earthworks for the Federals. A flat, open area, some 150 yards in length and one-quarter of a mile in width, extended beyond that. Black soldiers had established their camp there. At the western border of this area was a six-foot-high levee. Because of his manpower shortage, Lieb's left flank was open, but another cross levee and the hedges channeled attackers into an open field where the defenders had a clear shot at them.

On June 6, Lieb skirmished with some Confederates and fell back to camp. Immediately, he doubled the pickets and placed some mounted soldiers well outside the line for early warning. He directed the remaining troops to take positions behind the levee. On the extreme left was the 9th Louisiana Infantry (5th U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery), and next to it was the 1st Mississippi Infantry (51st U.S. Colored Infantry). In the center Lieb placed the 13th Louisiana Infantry (63rd U.S. Colored Infantry) and the 23rd Iowa, and on the far right he positioned the 11th Louisiana Infantry (49th U.S. Colored Infantry).

A brigade of Confederates, 1,500 strong under Brigadier General Henry F. McCulloch, pursued the retreating Federals vigorously and began driving in the pickets before 4 A.M. McCulloch quickly deployed his column some three-quarters of a mile from the Federal line and struck with a vengeance. "No quarters for white officers," shouted Rebel troops, "kill the damned Abolitionists, but spare the niggers." During the course of the battle they executed at least two white officers.


Resisting the impulse to shoot too soon, the defenders held fire until the Confederates were two hundred yards away. Despite their inadequate training with firearms, rounds crashed through the Rebel ranks. For a moment, the volley stunned the attackers, but the Confederate troops regained their momentum. Onward they pressed.

For the next few minutes soldiers battled hand-to-hand. Men clubbed, slugged, wrestled, and jabbed at their enemy with muskets and bayonets.

Courage could not compensate for inexperience among the black Federals. Under the enormous stress of the assault, untrained black soldiers were unable to reload rapidly enough. Through gaps in the hedges screaming Rebels poured, assailing the Union troops behind the levee. Since most Confederates had not fired their weapons, they discharged as they came over the top. For the next few minutes soldiers battled hand-to-hand. Men clubbed, slugged, wrestled, and jabbed at their enemy with muskets and bayonets. "It was a horrible fight," insisted a white captain of black soldiers, "the worst I was ever engaged in, not even excepting Shiloh." He personally suffered two bayonet wounds, and his men "met death coolly, bravely; not rashly did they expose themselves, but all were steady and obedient to orders."

Lieb had withheld two understrength companies in reserve. Now they joined the melee. Their commander knew that these were green troops, and they would most likely shoot high in the excitement. He ordered his men to fire only if the muzzle touched a Confederate. For these untrained men, the bayonet would serve as their primary weapon. Once Lieb unleashed them, they struck with a fury, reviving their embattled comrades.

For a few moments it seemed that the Federals might hold. Then just as suddenly the tide shifted when the Confederates seized a position on the extreme left portion of the levee and poured a murderous enfilading fire down the line. This stampeded the two companies of Iowans from the field. As Confederate General McCulloch described it, "the white or true Yankee portion ran like whipped curs almost as soon as the charge was ordered," while the black soldiers resisted with "considerable obstinacy." Nonetheless, the black soldiers buckled under the weight of the Confederate onslaught. Outflanked, nearly all the Federals abandoned the levee for the riverbank. Only the men on the extreme right behind the old cross levee and cotton bales managed to repel the assaults.

Several times the Confederate officers hurled their men forward, hoping to drive the black troops into the river. But they never gained a toehold on the river bank. After a long march, an early morning advance, and several hours of vicious fighting, exhaustion set in. For the remainder of the day, they were unable to mount an effective charge. "Those negro bayonets," crowed a Union officer, "had got on to their nerves."

When the attack lost its momentum, McCulloch requested reinforcements to continue the fight, but they never arrived. Stung by unanticipated Federal resistance, and unable to advance in force after several hours of work, the Confederate commander decided to withdraw. The Battle of Milliken's Bend, one of the most desperate in the entire war, had ended.


Casualties in the fight were staggering. McCulloch's force suffered 44 killed and 131 wounded. For the Federals, losses were horrendous. When Acting Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter arrived on the scene a few hours after the battle had ended, he could not help noticing that "the dead negroes lined the ditch inside of the parapet, or levee, and most were shot on the top of the head." Among the black troops, 35 percent of those in the fight were killed or wounded. Well over two hundred more were missing, although Lieb believed that many of those troops wandered off sometime after the battle and were not present at roll call. In the 9th Louisiana Infantry, nearly 45 per cent of its men were killed or mortally wounded. That was the highest proportion of killed and mortally wounded in a single battle throughout the entire war, nearly 17 percent higher than that of the next nearest regiment, the 1st Minnesota Infantry at Gettysburg.

Troops from only one black regiment acted badly, and that was because their commander and several other officers removed themselves from the view of their men. When the troops saw no officers, they felt deserted and some abandoned their posts. Otherwise, these black troops exhibited extraordinary valor, refusing to leave their comrades. "Many of the severely wounded voluntarily returned to the ranks after washing their wounds," noted the commander of the 1st Mississippi Infantry.

The performance of the black troops impressed everyone who witnessed the battle or examined its aftermath.

The performance of the black troops impressed everyone who witnessed the battle or examined its aftermath. "I never more wish to hear the expression, 'The niggers wont fight,'" insisted a captain in the engagement. Another captain of white troops who observed the black soldiers in action that day announced to Major General Ulysses S. Grant, "The capacity of the negro to defend his liberty, and his susceptibility to appreciate the power of motives in the place of the last, have been put to the test under our observation as to be beyond further doubt." And Charles A. Dana, a noted journalist and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton's emissary and investigator, gleefully pronounced the experiment of black soldiers a success. "The sentiment in regard to the employment of negro troops has been revolutionized by the bravery of the blacks in the recent battle of Milliken's Bend," Dana reported to Stanton. "Prominent officers, who used in private to sneer at the idea, are now heartily in favor of it."

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