June 7, 1863 – Confederates tried lifting the siege of Vicksburg by preparing to attack the Federal outpost at Milliken’s Bend, on the west bank of the Mississippi River.
General Joseph E. Johnston commanded the Confederate Western Department, which only extended to the east bank of the Mississippi. The territory west of the river belonged to Lieutenant General Edmund Kirby Smith’s Trans-Mississippi Department. Johnston had repeatedly asked Smith to try doing something in the west to help relieve the Federal pressure on Vicksburg and Port Hudson.
On the 7th, Smith ordered Major General Richard Taylor, commanding the Confederate District of West Louisiana, to attack Milliken’s Bend, just above Vicksburg. Smith was unaware that such an attack would do little to stop the siege of Vicksburg because Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s Federals no longer relied on Milliken’s Bend for their supplies.
Taylor doubted that Grant had anything of value still on the west bank, but he obeyed Smith’s orders. He led 4,500 Confederates in three brigades:
- Brigadier General Henry E. McCulloch’s Texans advanced on Milliken’s Bend
- A second brigade approached Young’s Point to the south
- A third brigade attacked Lake Providence to the north
One of Smith’s locals assured Taylor that he should have no trouble taking Milliken’s Bend because it was “guarded by some convalescents and some negro troops.”
Troopers of the 10th Illinois Cavalry learned of the Federal threat and notified Colonel Hermann Lieb, the Federal commander at Milliken’s Bend. Lieb prepared defenses with the one white regiment and three black regiments he had at the outpost. The black troops had been used mostly for manual labor and were not combat tested. Many were armed with antiquated muskets.
McCulloch’s 1,500 Confederates attacked before dawn on the 8th, and the Federals quickly panicked. They fled east over the levee, where they put up a desperate fight until the Federal gunboats U.S.S. Lexington and Choctaw came up and “opened on the rebels with shell, grape, and canister.” Rear Admiral David D. Porter, commanding the Federal Mississippi River Squadron, reported that the Confederates:
“… fled in wild confusion, not knowing the gunboats were there or expecting such a reception. They retreated rapidly to the woods and soon disappeared. Eighty dead rebels were left on the ground, and our trenches were packed with the dead bodies of the blacks, who stood at their post like men.”
The Federals sustained 652 casualties (101 killed, 285 wounded, and 266 missing or captured), including 566 black troops. The white Federals noted the blacks’ courage under fire, and Grant later reported that the black troops “behaved well.” Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana, an observer with Grant’s Army of the Tennessee, wrote:
“The bravery of the blacks completely revolutionized the sentiment of the army with regard to the employment of negro troops. I heard prominent officers who formerly in private had sneered at the idea of negroes fighting express themselves after that as heartily in favor of it.”
Dana added that “the feeling was very different” among the Confederate attackers, claiming that the sight of armed blacks enraged them to the point that they yelled, “No quarter!” and murdered several prisoners. Many other captives were sent back into slavery.
Porter reported that he watched as the Confederates “commenced driving the negro regiments, and killed all they captured,” which “infuriated the negroes, who turned on the rebels and slaughtered them like sheep, and captured 200 prisoners.” However, this figure was exaggerated, and the Confederates did not kill all the black troops they captured as Porter claimed. According to McCulloch:
“These negroes had doubtless been in the possession of the enemy, and would have been a clear loss to their owners but for (fellow officer) Captain Marold, and should they be forfeited to the Confederate States or returned to their owners, I would regard it nothing but fair to give to Captain Marold one or two of the best of them.”
Still, in keeping with Confederate policy regarding armed slaves, McCulloch considered “it an unfortunate circumstance that any negroes were captured.” Taylor reported, “A very large number of the negroes were killed and wounded, and, unfortunately, some 50 with two of their white officers, captured. I respectfully ask instructions as to the disposition of these prisoners.”
The Confederates lost 185 men and did no real damage to Grant’s supply lines. They fared no better at Young’s Point or Lake Providence. This ended Taylor’s efforts to disrupt Grant’s operations from west of the Mississippi; he instead turned his attention to Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s Army of the Gulf at Port Hudson.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 292; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 406; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 305-06; Korn, Jerry, War on the Mississippi: Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 146-47; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 363; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 633-34; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 167