Fabio Paolo Barbieri

The season of freedom – introduction: the men of Milliken’s Bend

Milliken's Bend

 

 

A guest post by commenter Fabio Paolo Barbieri on the battle of Milliken’s Bend during the campaign to take Vicksburg:

Many of us have seen an excellent movie called GLORY, telling the story of the doomed but heroic assault by the black troops of the 53rd Massachusetts against the formidable coastal confederate Fort Wagner. With due respect for those brave men, that movie had the wrong subject. If they wanted to tell the story of black victims of oppression and dehumanization, taking up arms and proving themselves men on the battlefield, there is an episode that does it much better than even the fight for Fort Wagner; I mean the battle of Milliken’s Bend (June 7, 1863).

As the situation of Vicksburg was growing dire, and Grant’s wide-ranging operations had driven any hope of support far away (taking of Jackson and battles of Champion Hill and of Big Black River Bridge, mid-May), the Confederates pinned their last hopes on attempts to break Grant’s inevitably long supply lines. A union depot was known to exist at Milliken’s Bend, upriver from Vicksburg, and an elite unit, General John Walker’s Texas cavalry division, was dispatched to destroy it.

The Texans attacked late in the night of June 6-7. The garrison at Milliken’s Bend had had some advance warning of their arrival, and were reinforced by the experienced white troops of the 23rd Iowa; but the bulk of the local garrison was made up of two nominal regiments, the Louisiana Ninth and Eleventh: black volunteers, most of them escaped slaves, who had been enlisted for only a few weeks, with as much training as could have been expected for that period, officered by white soldiers promoted directly from private for the purpose, frequently illiterate, and often armed with out-of-date, broken-down Austrian rifles. Numerically, the defenders and the attackers were about equal, but given the different levels of skill and training of the Texans, the outcome would have seemed to be inevitable. The Texans broke the Union line, screaming “No quarter! No quarter!”, and the Iowans and the Louisianans became separated from each other, each understandably convinced that the other had left.

And then the unlikely thing happened. Driven from their positions, pushed back till they had their backs to the river, the Ninth and Eleventh Louisiana did not break or even waver, but met the Texans man to man. Twice they retook the battlements from which they had first been forced. Massed and pushing in a tiny space, literally face to face and eye to eye, fighting with the bayonet more than with the gun, the superior skill of the Texans ceased to matter; and the resolution of the former slaves not to be driven back, at whatever cost, became the deciding factor. The savage melee went on from dawn till midday, when the two gunboats “Choctaw” and “Lexington”, warned of the attack, finally reached the battlefield, and a few rounds of naval artillery convinced the Texans to seek friendlier climates.

There was, indeed, “glory” at Fort Wagner; but Milliken’s Bend, I think, means more. First, the troops of the 53rd Massachusetts were well trained and armed and meant from the start to be a front-line unit; while the 9th and 11th Louisiana were the lowest grade of troop, meant only for “garrison duty”, doing the jobs that better and more expensively trained units would be wasted on; and few people would have blamed them if, faced with such a unit as the Texas cavalry, they had abandoned the field. Second, however you look at it, Fort WAgner was a defeat; Milliken’s Bend was a victory. And in spite of its small scale, it was a victory of some significance. The Confederate attack had been altogether misguided: Grant’s supply line no longer ran through Milliken’s Bend, and even if the Texans had won they would have achieved precisely nothing. But the waste of Texans at Milliken’s Bend also means that this elite unit was not sent, as its overall commander, General Taylor, had pleaded, to attack a vulnerable New Orleans; and if they had been, Grant’s whole strategy might have been in trouble. Continue reading

The Pre-history of the Declaration of Independence

A guest post from Almost Chosen People commenter Fabio Paolo Barbieri.

To be honest, this post ought to be made on July 4; but if I waited that long, I would probably have forgotten all about it by then. I have repeatedly said that I regard the Declaration of Independence as just one step below the Sacred Scriptures, and its central statement – “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain [and] inalienable rights; that among these rights are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness…” – as words to live and die by.
However, while these words last for ever, there is a danger that the rest of the sentiments of the Declaration – a work very much of its time, after all, intended to bring about action and change then and there – can be misunderstood when not only the circumstances, not even the laws, but the very meaning of words have changed. The danger, in particular, is that our ignorance of the meaning of facts, laws and terms of language in the eighteenth century should give King George more credit than he deserves, and make the Founders, in spite of the nobility of their ideals, sound rather more sophistical in their political arguments than they actually were. In point of fact, once things are understood in their own contemporary colours, it will be seen that the case of Jefferson and Congress was literally unanswerable, because it was based on established law.
First and foremost, the meaning of the word colony has changed in the last two hundred years. To us, a colony is a distant territory ruled and administered from a distance, for whose governance it is the mother country – or colonial overlord – that is responsible. But that is by no means what a colony was in Jefferson’s time. In effect, imperial oversight and direct rule only became the norm after the shock of the great Indian war of 1858. The British government concluded, rightly or wrongly, that it had been caused by the maladministration of the East India Company, the private body that ruled India; and decided, even more arguably, that the answer was to dispossess the Company altogether and make the governance of India its own direct responsibility. This is in general the default reaction of the London government down the century to any crisis – take control from Westminster. But that the enormous Indian colony, much larger than the Thirteen Colonies had ever been, could have been administered until 1858 by a private corporation ought to show that direct control from the central government was, to say the least, not the universal rule of colonial governance.
In actual fact, the law and legal precedent under which the American colonies organized themselves has a surprisingly long prehistory. It begins with the huge legal difficulties experienced through the middle ages by the merchants who came from the Christian West to trade with the Muslim powers of Mediterranean Asia and Africa. To trade was indispensable to both parties, but neither would allow its citizens to be under the power of the other. A practice evolved – independently, to the best of my knowledge, from the temporary formation of crusader kingdoms that imported Western feudal law to Palestine, Syria and Anatolia – whereby Western merchants, mostly Italian, would settle closely together in single areas of Eastern harbour and trading cities, often a single street separated from the rest. These quarters were legally treated like independent Italian city states – their chief magistrates being called Consuls – even when they only amounted to a few families living in a Muslim and Eastern Christian sea of people. They were responsible for their own administration and justice, in so far as it didn’t clash with the larger government. At the same time they were regarded as colonies of the European mother countries from which the merchants came. I am not quite clear how this link worked in practice, but an offence made against a colony in Aleppo or Gaza would be felt as an act of war against the mother country. The largest number of these merchant settlements were Italian, but there were also quite a few from France, Aragon, and so on, and the principles on which they were based were universally understood in Europe. Continue reading

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