The Battle of Milliken’s Bend was just about the only Confederate attempt to raise the siege of Vicksburg (American Civil War). U. S. Grant had crossed the Mississippi, inflicted a series of defeats on the Confederate forces east of the river, and on 19 May invested the city. The Confederate commander east of the river, Joseph Johnston, spent his time raising an army, but despite his best efforts was unable to create a force capable of offering a serious challenge to Grant’s ever increasing army around Vicksburg.
On the west bank, the Confederate commanders had even fewer troops to spare, but General Richard Taylor, the commander in Louisiana, managed to raise a force of three brigades, which he dispatched towards the Mississippi.
At least on the west bank there were some targets that such a small force could attack with some confidence of success. One such target was the Union supply base at Milliken’s Bend. The Union garrison here was small and untested. Most of the garrison was provided by two regiments of inexperienced black troops. At this point in the war, opinion in the Union army was divided on the usefulness of black soldiers. The newly raised black regiments had had very little chance to prove themselves in battle. Milliken’s Bend saw this begin to change.
On 6 June, the Union commander at Milliken’s Bend, Colonel Hermann Lieb, had taken his men out on a reconnaissance, where they had encountered the advance guard of Brigadier General Henry E. McCullock’s Confederate army. This gave Lieb the chance to call for reinforcements. One more regiment (the 23rd Iowa) arrived before the battle started, while two gunboats (Choctaw and Lexington), were to arrive at a crucial moment during the battle.
On 7 June, the Confederate force, some 3,000 strong, attacked the three regiments at Milliken’s Bend. Given their chance, the black troops fought will great determination, suffering very heavy casualties. However, superior Confederate numbers eventually told, and the Union forces were forced out of their defences and back towards the river.
It was at this point that the two Union gunboats appeared. Their firepower was too much for the Confederates, and in combination with the garrison, the attack was repulsed. This defeat ended any attempt from west of the Mississippi to interfere with Grant’s supply lines. The only hope for the defenders of Vicksburg was that Johnston would attack from the east.
The Battle of Milliken’s Bend had significance far beyond Vicksburg. The black soldiers had fought far better than many had expected. One visitor to Grant’s army at this time was Assistant Secretary of War Dana, who reported that the engagement at Milliken’s Bend “completely revolutionized the sentiment of the army with regard to the employment of Negro troops”. In the south the response was rather different. There is good evidence that some black soldiers were killed after they had surrendered. Taylor’s report included the appalling line that “a very large number of negroes were killed and wounded, and, unfortunately, some 50, with 2 of their white officers, captured”. Some of those captured men were sold into slavery. Milliken’s Bend was one of a series of such events that mar the southern record during the war.