According to history, approximately 179,000 Black men served as soldiers in the Union Army by the end of the Civil War in 1865, accounting for 10% of the Union Army, while another 19,000 served in the Navy. During the war, nearly 40,000 black soldiers died. All non-combat support functions were performed by black soldiers in artillery and infantry.
However, due to prejudice against African-Americans, black units were not used as heavily in combat as they should have been. Nonetheless, these African-American soldiers fought valiantly in several battles, including the Battle of Milliken’s Bend on June 7, 1863, in Louisiana. According to Black historian Benjamin Quarles, the Milliken’s Bend battle was “one of the hardest fought encounters in the annals of American military history.” According to Historynet, “it was also an early test of the Union Army’s new regiments composed of men of African descent.”
Milliken’s Bend is no longer there, having been swept away by a flood in the early twentieth century. It was previously a small community in Louisiana on the Mississippi River’s west bank, about 15 miles above Vicksburg. Between 75 and 90 percent of the population was African American, and it was located near the border of Madison and Carroll Parishes. According to BlackPast, the region also had hundreds of enslaved men and women working on plantations, with corn and cotton being the primary crops.
The Battle of Milliken’s Bend
This was one of the first Civil War battles in which African-American troops fought. On June 7, 1863, Confederate cavalry attacked a Union encampment along the Mississippi River at Milliken’s Bend, led by Colonel Hermann Lieb. They came up against an African-American infantry brigade made up of the 9th, 11th, and 13th Louisiana regiments, as well as the 1st Mississippi regiment and the 23rd Iowa Infantry. Most of them were former slaves who were not well trained before being thrown into battle but they fought gallantly against the Confederate veterans.
Owing to the faulty construction of many of their weapons, some of the Black troops found it difficult reloading but bravely fought against their former bosses and oppressors. Quarles even noted that “one Negro took his former master a prisoner and hauled him into camp with much gusto.”
Author and archivist Linda Barnickel discussed the conflict in an interview with Historynet. She revealed, “some of the defenders only got off one shot, but a lot of the combat was hand-to-hand. Even the Confederates lauded the courage of the African Brigade.”
She continued: “The casualties were low compared with those of larger fights, but when you consider the size of the forces involved—about 1,500 or less on each side—the percentage is astonishing. Estimates of Union losses vary considerably, but most likely they suffered approximately 100 killed, another 250 wounded, and around 500 missing or taken. The 9th Louisiana lost 68 percent, the greatest percentage of any of the “colored” regiments during the Civil War; 23 percent of the regiment was killed—66 men, the highest number killed in combat in a single day of any regiment during the entire Vicksburg campaign… On both sides, several companies reported losses of 50 percent.”
All in all, the ratio of losses on both sides was among the war’s greatest, as pointed out by Historynet. The fight also brought an end to prisoner exchanges between the two armies. And in spite of the many deaths, the courage of the African-American soldiers dispelled the stereotype that Black men could not fight as well as the white soldiers. These Black soldiers certainly helped assure Vicksburg victory for the Union and Major General Ulysses S. Grant even lauded them for their heroism and fortitude.
But the fearlessness of the African-American troops at Milliken’s Bend injected dread into slaveholders that additional slaves might try to rebel. As a result, some slaveowners relocated to the interior of Louisiana from Milliken’s Bend. Others traveled as far as eastern Texas.
At the end of the day, the Union enlisted thousands more African Americans into newly formed regiments because of the bravery of the African-American soldiers at Milliken’s Bend. Thousands of African-American males had served as soldiers in the United States Army by the time the Civil War concluded in 1865.