Although Congress sanctioned black enlistment in the latter half of 1862, it was the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 that opened the floodgates of recruitment by encouraging the enlistment of runaway slaves and free men of color.
The first black regiments were formed in the spring of 1863 following the creation of the Bureau of Colored Troops. Soon after, African American volunteers were organized into infantry, artillery, and cavalry regiments that eventually became known as the United States Colored Troops (USCT). Nearly 175 regiments of over 178,000 free men and former slaves served during the last two years of the war.
Thousands of additional blacks served in the United States Navy, which adopted the policy of recruiting former slaves in September of 1861. The four black sailors aboard the U.S.S. Cairo held the rank of Seaman and brought previous sailing or boatsmen experience with them.
Will They Fight?
Following months of training and physical labor, black troops were finally allowed to prove themselves in a major battle. By the spring of 1863, Port Hudson, Louisiana and Vicksburg, Mississippi, were the only remaining Confederate strongholds on the Mississippi River, On May 27, 1863 the 1st and 3rd Louisiana Native Guards were ordered to take a section of the imposing Rebel earthworks at Port Hudson. They charged across six hundred yards of open ground, only to be cut down by a maelstrom of canister and musketry. Despite their valiant attempts, the assault failed. Nearly 200 black troops were killed or wounded.
Eleven days after the bloody assault at Port Hudson, black troops once again proved their bravery in battle. At Milliken’s Bend, Louisiana, three recently organized regiments of black troops were tasked with guarding a supply depot and nearby military hospital. On June 7, approximately 1,500 Confederate troops attacked the isolated post with hopes of distracting Union forces besieging Vicksburg. As the Rebels attacked, the hastily trained and ill-equipped black troops resorted to fighting with bayonets and clubs in vicious hand-to-hand combat. Finally, after the arrival of Union gunboats and reinforcements, the outnumbered Confederates retreated, leaving the depot and hospital in Union hands.
The carnage that day was extreme even by Civil War standards. The 9th suffered 45% killed or mortally wounded, the highest proportion of any unit in one fight during the entire war. The sacrifices at Port Hudson and Milliken’s Bend laid to rest any doubts that black troops could or would fight.
“ I never more wish to hear the expression ‘the negro won’t fight.’ come with me 100 yards from where I sit and I can show you the wounds that cover the bodies of 16 brave, loyal, and patriotic soldiers as ever drew a bead on a rebel.”
Capt. Miller Co. I, 9th Louisiana Regiment of African Decent
Occupation of Vicksburg
During the occupation of Vicksburg, after the battle, the USCT performed many duties that included drill, police duty, pickett line duty outside of the city, mandatory school attendance, and service details around the town.
The officers thought that the USCT required more supervision and detailed instruction than other troops. The USCT were also held to a much higher standard than their white counterparts and punished more frequently if they failed at their various tasks. The punishment did not include whippings because of its association with slavery but depending on the offense, could include execution.
Throughout their time here in Vicksburg, the USCT protected the city and even changed some people’s minds about what they were capable of doing.
Final troops were withdrawn in 1877, yet many former USCT would remain in Vicksburg and were ultimately buried in Vicksburg National Cemetery.
Art of Commemoration
The Mississippi African-American Monument is a 3,000 pound, 9-foot tall, bronze sculpture resting on a pedestal of African black granite, which depicts two black Union soldiers, and a common field hand. The field hand and one soldier support between them the second soldier, who is wounded and represents the sacrifice in blood made by black soldiers on the field of battle during the Civil War. The field hand looks behind at a past of slavery, while the first soldier gazes toward a future of freedom secured by force of arms on the field of battle.
The monument commemorates the service of the 1st and 3rd Mississippi Infantry Regiments, African Descent and all Mississippians of African descent who participated in the Vicksburg Campaign.
The monument was dedicated on February 14, 2004 and can be seen along Grant Avenue on the tour road.