Fabio Paolo Barbieri
A guest post by commenter Fabio Paolo Barbieri on the battle of Milliken’s Bend during the campaign to take Vicksburg:
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officered by white soldiers promoted directly from private for the purpose, frequently illiterate, and often armed with out-of-date, broken-down Austrian rifles.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
A guest post from Almost Chosen People commenter Fabio Paolo Barbieri.