Friday, March 6, 2015

Just Finished Reading - Milliken's Bend

All of the snow and cold weather we have been experiencing here in Kentucky has really cut down on my walking regimen, but conversely it has increased my reading time.

In an attempt to knock out some of my own books on my "to be read shelf" I had not been to my local public library in quite a while. A couple of weeks ago I decided to take a few minutes to browse through their online catalog and I saw a couple of selections that they had recently added that piqued my interest.

One of those books was Milliken's Bend: A Civil War Battle in History and Memory, by Linda Barnickel (LSU Press, 2012). I had had this book on my "wish list" since it came out, so I was happy to get to check it out for free.

Barnickel provides a full treatment on this Louisiana battle which was part of the Vicksburg Campaign. In the engagement a recently recruited Union force made up primarily of former slaves was attacked by Texas Confederates under the command of Gen. Henry McCulloch on June 7, 1863.

This was one of the first battles in which black troops engaged in combat. Milliken's Bend along with the previously fought Port Hudson, also in Louisiana, and Battery Wagner in South Carolina, were used by the northern press to help convince those that were skeptical that former slaves would indeed prove effective in combat.

After the black troops had participated in a brief reconnaissance toward Richmond, Louisiana, on June 6, they returned to their Milliken's Bend camp. In the battle the Texans surprised the black troops by attacking and drove them back to the edge of the Mississippi River. The fighting turned desperate and resulted in terrific losses for the black troops who had just joined the Union army only a few weeks before. The African Americans and part of the white 23rd Iowa finally held with the help of levee defenses constructed partly of cotton bales,and the aid of Union gunboats on the river. The battle featured deadly hand-to-hand combat where muskets battered skulls and bayonets were wielded freely on both sides.

Due largely to the Union gunboats' assistance, the southerners retreated, taking a number of captured black troops and their white officers. Rumors of the murder of black troops and some of the white officers made headlines in the press. Although it is difficult to determine the veracity of these reports it does appear that some the African American solders were executed after surrender (as happened in several other engagements in the war) and that at least two of the white officers were later killed for leading the black troops at Milliken's Bend.

Barnickel shows the importance of reconsidering this largely forgotten battle and how it influenced northern opinion on the use of former slaves as soldiers. In the battle's aftermath, the rumors of mistreatment of the black soldiers helped lead to a breakdown in prisoner exchanges, and the example of the Milliken's Bend soldiers steeled other black recruits and units to join in and continue their fight for freedom.

Of particular interest to me was book's first chapter "The Dark Pall of Barbarism: Emancipation as a War Crime." This chapter examined the prewar perceptions of slaves by whites in the northern Louisiana, eastern Texas region. It really fit in well with much of what Woodward had explained in my previous read, Marching Masters. The Texans especially saw blacks as somewhat similar to the Native Americans they had to contend with on what was still then the frontier border. Slaves were viewed as merely tempered savages that had been tamed under by the influence of the institution and the guidance of their owners. The Texans and Louisianans, like most other southerner, believed that if their slaves were emancipated ruin would come to the white agricultural world, their way of life would be gone forever, and eventually they would be forced to relocated or exterminate the blacks as they had the Indians.

On a scale of one to five, I give Milliken's Bend a 4.75. It is a well researched and written work that helps shed new light on a largely forgotten but yet important engagement.

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