During the beginning of the siege of Vicksburg in the spring of 1863, Confederate General Richard Taylor desired to use Major General John G. Walker's Texas Division to threaten New Orleans. Taylor, however, was overruled and directed him to strike at the Federals in Madison Parish, Louisania in an attempt to alleviate the siege of Vicksburg. General Taylor later wrote:
"Remonstrances were to no avail. I was informed that all the Confederate authorities in the east were urgent for some effort on our part in behalf of Vicksburg, and that public opinion would condemn us if we did not try to do something." Taylor insisted, "that to go two hundred miles and more away from the proper theatre of action in search of an indefinite something is hard; but orders are orders."
Taylor reluctantly directed the Texans to Richmond, LA. Taylor himself went on ahead of the Texans and reached Richmond at dusk on June 5. He immediately set about gathering information about Federal troop strengths at Milliken's Bend and Young's Point. Much of the data gained by Taylor was provided by the 15th Louisiana Cavalry Battalion. Some of it was correct and some was not. Harrison, for example, underestimated enemy troop strength at both points; faulty intelligence played a key role in the Confederate plan of action.
The Texans arrived in Richmond at 10:00 a.m. on June 6, where they cooked rations and rested for several hours. Walker was informed of the enemy's locations and briefed on the plan of action. Taylor's plan called for Walker's Division to launch simultaneous assaults on the enemy at Milliken's Bend and Young's Point, while a combat patrol led by the 13th Louisiana Cavalry Battalion attacked the Federal troops at Lake Providence.
On June 6, as the Confederates planned for action, the Federals at Milliken's Bend made a reconnaissance in the direction of Richmond. The Federals had been monitoring the increased Confederate activity and feared an attack on Milliken's Bend was imminent. Consequently, Brigadier General Elias S. Dennis, commander of the District of Northeast Louisiana, ordered Col. Hermann Lieb to make a reconnaissance toward Richmond.
Lieb was a feisty soldier. Born in Switzerland, he emigrated to the United States and settled in Illinois. At the outbreak of the war, he enlisted for ninety days as a private in the 8th Illinois Infantry. Upon reorganization of the regiment as a three-year unit in July of 1861, Lieb was elected captain, and the following year was promoted to major. He saw action at Fort Donelson and at Shiloh, and during the Louisiana operations, he was colonel of the 9th Louisiana Infantry (African Descent), commanding the post at Milliken's Bend.
At 2:00 a.m., on June 6, Lieb moved out with his own regiment and several companies of the 10th Illinois Cavalry. His force pushed to within three miles of Richmond when they made contact with Confederate forces. After driving in the pickets, Lieb became apprehensive and decided to return to Milliken's Bend. Half-way back to the post, Lieb's men were surprised to see the Illinois troopers dashing up in their rear, hotly pursued by Confederate cavalry. Reacting quickly, Colonel Lieb deployed his regiment into line. A single volley sufficed to drive off the Southerners.
Convinced that his post was in danger, Lieb requested reinforcements. In response to the colonel's urgent request, the 23d Iowa (a white regiment) was hurried from Young's Point to Milliken's Bend, and the ironclad Choctaw was sent by Admiral Porter to provide additional support. That night, the Federals fortified their camp by constructing abatis and barricades of cotton bales. His confidence bolstered by these preparations, Lieb had his men under arms at 3:00 a.m. on June 7.
The Confederate plan of action called for a night march. The Texans left Richmond at 6:00 p.m. on June 6, in hopes of arriving at the enemy camps at sunrise. One Texan recorded the march with these words:
At Oak Grove Plantation the road forked, the left leading to Milliken's Bend, the right to Young's Point. Walker sent McCulloch's Brigade toward Milliken's Bend and Hawes' Brigade toward Young's Point, while he remained at Oak Grove with Col. Horace Randal's Brigade.
McCulloch's Brigade, 1,500 strong, arrived within 1.5 miles of Milliken's Bend at 2:30 a.m., when it was fired upon by enemy pickets. McCulloch quickly deployed his brigade into line of battle with the 19th Texas Infantry on the right, 17th Texas Infantry in the center, and the dismounted 16th Texas Cavalry on the left, while the 16th Texas Infantry was held in reserve.
The Confederate cavalry scouts in front fell back when fired upon. In the darkness and confusion, the cavalrymen were then shot at by fellow Confederate skirmishers. Fortunately, no men were injured.
As the Federal pickets began falling back, Lieb placed his men on the levee behind cotton bales. His units consisted of the 8th, 9th, 11th, and 13th Louisiana Infantry Regiments (African Descent), 1st Mississippi Infantry (African Descent), and the 23d Iowa Infantry, totaling 1,061 men. The Black troops were recently recruited, poorly trained, and poorly armed. In many cases, they were also poorly led. But, they had the advantage of position, and were supported by the guns of the powerful ironclad Choctaw.
McCulloch placed his Texans into line of battle astride the Richmond Road and drove the Federals from hedgerow to hedgerow. One Texans wrote, "It was impossible for our troops to keep in line of battle, owing to the many hedges we had to encounter, which it was impossible to pass, except through a few gaps that had been used as gates or passageways." Once passed the hedgerows, McCulloch reformed his brigade within twenty-five paces of the main Federal line. Shouting, "No quarter for the officers, kill the damned abolitionists," the Texans scaled the levee and closed on the enemy. A withering volley stunned the Southerners, but the poorly trained blacks were unable to reload their cumbersome weapons before the Texans were upon them. McCulloch reported:
Clubbed muskets and bayonets were freely used as the Texans surged over the cotton bale barricades atop the levee. Joseph P. Blessington of the 16th Texas recalled, "The enemy gave away and stampeded pell-mell over the levee, in great terror and confusion. Our troops followed after them, bayoneting them by hundreds." Sweeping through the Federal encampment, McCulloch's men raced toward the second levee next to the river. Their efforts, however, were driven back repeatedly by the rapid fire of Choctaw's big guns.
Unable to cross the levee, McCulloch's men mopped-up isolated pockets of resistance and plundered the Federal camp. The brigadier sent an urgent request to Walker for reinforcements, but before help arrived, McCulloch spotted a second gunboat, the Lexington, coming upriver. Realizing that his troops were no match for gunboats, and without waiting for Walker's arrival, McCulloch ordered a withdrawal to Oak Grove Plantation.
In the engagement at Milliken's Bend, McCulloch's Brigade suffered losses of 44 killed, 131 wounded, and 10 missing. The Texans, however, inflicted 652 casualties on the Federals of which number 101 were killed, 285 wounded, and 266 captured or missing.
The Federal victory at Milliken's Bend and other engagements across the south started to change perceptions on the use of African American troops. In a letter to President Abraham Lincoln in December of 1863, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton said:
"Many persons believed, or pretended to believe, and confidentially asserted, that freed slaves would not make good soldiers; they would lack courage, and could not be subjected to military discipline. Facts have shown how groundless were these apprehensions. The slave has proved his manhood, and his capacity as an infantry soldier, at Milliken's Bend, at the assault opon Port Hudson, and the storming of Fort Wagner."
Soon afterwards, the Union would push to enlist thousands of African Americans into newly formed regiments. This huge influx of new troops came at a time when Confederate troop strength was rapidly decreasing due to casualties, and helped to ensure total Federal victory in the Civil War.
Due to the rerouting of the Mississippi River since the Civil War, the site of the Battle of Milliken's Bend now lies beneath the Mississippi River. Interpretive exhibits and information is available at the Visitor Center, as well as an interpretive panel at Grant's Canal in Louisiana.
Last updated: April 7, 2017