Milliken’s Bend was a small community in Louisiana located on the west bank of the Mississippi River, about 15 miles above Vicksburg. It was near the border of Madison and Carroll Parishes (now East Carroll Parish). Cotton and corn were the primary crops, and hundreds of slaves toiled on numerous plantations in the area. Indeed, African Americans composed between 75% and 90% of the population in this region of Louisiana.
On June 7, 1863, Confederate cavalry attacked a Union encampment along the Mississippi River at Milliken’s Bend under the command of Colonel Hermann Lieb. They encountered an infantry brigade of African American troops, consisting of the 9th, 11th, and 13th Louisiana and the 1st Mississippi regiments and the 23rd Iowa Infantry. It was one of the earliest battles in the Civil War where African American troops fought. More significantly, the majority of the Union forces were composed of black troops, many of them formerly enslaved. Scarcely trained and in some instances just weeks removed from the cotton fields, these men fought with courage and tenacity. Their example would be invoked by Union recruiters to encourage other African Americans, both free and former slaves, to join the U.S. Army and encourage abolitionist-minded white veterans to serve as their officers.
The success of the African American troops had the opposite effect on white Southerners. The rumored executions of both black and white Union prisoners in Confederate hands after the battle played an instrumental role in halting prisoner exchanges between the two armies. Even before the battle, white plantation owners in Louisiana, especially along the banks of the Mississippi River, had become concerned over the behaviors of their slaves, growing more fearful of slave uprisings. Whites’ fears were heightened further as many of these slaves began to leave the plantations in large numbers, escaping to the safety of Union lines and the promise of freedom.
The success of the African American troops at Milliken’s Bend meant that even more of the enslaved would attempt to break free and it also meant that black troops might enact vengeance upon their former masters. Some slaveholders lost all hope and moved from the area, retreating to the interior of Louisiana, or in some cases, as far away as eastern Texas.
Despite the numerous casualties, the bravery and tenacity of the African American soldiers showed the nation that black men could fight as well as the best white soldiers. They made the great Vicksburg victory possible for the Union, and they earned the official praise of Major General Ulysses S. Grant. Afterwards, the Union pushed to enlist thousands of African Americans into newly-formed regiments. When the Civil War ended in 1865, nearly 180,000 African American men had served as soldiers in the U.S. Army. Close to 10,000 of them died in battle. Another 30,000 African American men died as a result from illness or infection.