General Joseph E. Johnston commanded the Confederate Western Department, which only extended to the east bank of the Mississippi River. The territory west of the river was part of the Trans-Mississippi Department under Lieutenant-General Edmund Kirby Smith. Johnston had repeatedly asked Smith to do something in the west to help relieve the Federal pressure on Vicksburg and Port Hudson.
Smith ordered Major-General Richard Taylor, commanding the Confederate District of West Louisiana, to attack the Federal supply depot at Milliken’s Bend. The objective was to cut this supply line to Major-General Ulysses S. Grant’s Federal Army of the Tennessee laying siege to Vicksburg. Smith was unaware that Milliken’s Bend was no longer Grant’s principal supply source and therefore no longer had any major significance.
Taylor doubted that Grant had anything of value still on the west bank, but he complied with Smith’s orders. He directed the 4,500 Confederates of Major-General John G. Walker’s division, nicknamed Walker’s Greyhounds, to advance in three columns:
- Brigadier-General Henry E. McCulloch’s Texans advanced on Milliken’s Bend
- A brigade led by Brigadier-General James M. Hawes approached Young’s Point to the south
- A brigade led by Colonel Frank Bartlett 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.” It was actually held by the 10th Illinois Cavalry and three infantry regiments consisting of recently freed slaves. These new black troops were mainly used for manual labor and were not combat tested. Most were armed with antiquated muskets.
Cavalry troopers learned of the Confederate threat and notified Colonel Hermann Lieb, commanding at Milliken’s Bend. Lieb prepared a defense line composed of cotton bales atop a levee. McCulloch’s 1,500 Confederates attacked before dawn on June 7, 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.” An officer wrote, “I understand they fought like devils.” Another soldier wrote, “So let them fight. The army begins to like the idea.” Another Federal officer had a more dubious reason for employing black troops in combat, stating that “every colored soldier that stops a rebel bullet saves a white man’s life.”
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. Hawes told Taylor he “was satisfied he could carry the position (at Young’s Point), but did not think it would pay.” His effort showed, as Taylor reported, “Hawes formed his line of battle, advanced in the open field to within half a mile of the enemy and then retired.” Taylor bitterly added:
“Nothing was wanted but vigorous action in the execution of the plans which had been carefully laid out for it to ensure such successes as the condition of affairs would admit. It is true the heat was intense, the thermometer marking 95° in the shade; but, had common vigor and judgment been displayed, the work would all have been completed by 8:00 A.M.”
Federals at Lake Providence stopped the enemy approach by destroying the bridge over Bayou Tensas. Regarding the overall Confederate effort, Taylor reported to Smith, “I regret exceedingly that I am unable to report results commensurate with the force employed on this expedition. Much greater loss ought to have been inflicted upon the enemy, and the stores which he burned ought to have been captured for our use.”
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.
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- Cutrer, Thomas W., Theater of a Separate War: The Civil War West of the Mississippi River. The University of North Carolina Press, (Kindle Edition), 2017.
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian. New York: Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group (Kindle Edition), 2011.
- Grant, Ulysses S., Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant. New York: Da Capo Press, 1982 (original 1885, republication of 1952 edition).
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