June 7, 1863 (Sunday)
The Union investment of Port Hudson, Louisiana and Vicksburg, Mississippi by Generals Banks and Grant not only surrounded two Confederate forces, it inadvertently distracted the Rebels in Arkansas and Western Louisiana. Commanded by Kirby Smith, the Trans-Mississippi Department’s eastern border was the Mississippi River. At this point, both Union forces were on the other side of that river and out of Smith’s domain. But that didn’t mean he was free to take it easy.
Confederate President Jefferson Davis had ordered him to break up Grant’s supply line, which was believed to be on the western bank. And originally, it was. Grant, whose entire Army of the Tennessee had once been encamped at Milliken’s Bend, slightly upriver and opposite of Vicksburg, had continued to use it as a depot. Davis and Smith both believed that if that depot was smashed and the supply lines destroyed, Grant would have to break off the siege of Vicksburg.
Smith liked the idea well enough, but decided upon a slightly different course of action. Rather than throwing everything he had at Vicksburg (or joining with Joe Johnston’s 23,000 men now at Yazoo City, northeast of Vicksburg), Smith selected three widely spread out targets against which he would throw three separate columns.
The force was headed by General Richard Taylor, who had spent much of the spring trying to entice everyone from Jefferson Davis to Kirby Smith that he should be allowed to attack New Orleans to wrest it from Federal hands. Nobody thought it a great idea. Then, with Port Hudson invested, he wanted to take a strong force and recapture much of the territory across the Mississippi, hoping to cut Banks’ supply line with New Orleans. Nobody cared much for that, either.
Kirby Smith then decided to hit Grant’s supposed supply line, figuring that anything to help in the defeat of Grant was most important. Placing Taylor at its head, Smith let loose the small force of perhaps 4,500 Rebels. By June 2, they had arrived at New Carthage – once a major point in Grant’s build up before his overland campaign through Mississippi.
Smith was ecstatic, believing that it completely cut off Grant’s line of retreat, should Grant be forced to retreat, that is. Of course, Grant had abandoned his supply line and had lived off the land until re-establishing the line upon the eastern bank. Smith, however, knew none of this.
While Smith was elated, Richard Taylor was furious. He had always doubted that Grant still maintained anything of importance on the western bank, and only followed orders because they were orders. After trudging 200 miles from Alexandria, Louisiana, his arrival opposite Vicksburg was, he felt, an ill omen. He demanded that Smith come personally to take command. He was finished.
But Smith refused. He had too many administrative things to do at this headquarters in Shreveport. In an even bigger fit of rage, Taylor send one of his divisions to the lower Red River, hoping that it could do something in the direction of Port Hudson and New Orleans. Smith, however, countermanded the order, reminding Taylor that Vicksburg was indeed the key. The area he wished him to conquer was, according to a local trusted by Smith, “guarded by some convalescents and some negro troops.” Neither, he assured Taylor, would cause him much trouble.
Taylor set the date for June 7th. It was then that three columns would strike at once upon three separate points: Milliken’s Bend, Young’s Point and Lake Providence. The idea had been to somehow disrupt Grant’s supply line and give aid to General John Pemberton’s forces trapped in Vicksburg.
And so, on the morning of this date, Confederate forces attacked both Milliken’s Bend and Young’s Point. The column marching towards Lake Providence, farther north, had been delayed by two whole days. The two Rebel brigades were discovered on the 6th, however, and both Milliken’s Bend and Young’s Point were reinforced.
Before dawn, the Rebels sprung upon the Federal African Brigade, which had been lying in wait at Milliken’s Bend. At first, the Rebels pushed the Union troops back upon a levee, flanking them and causing quite a few casualties. The fighting devolved into a vicious hand-to-hand combat before the Yankees were driven from the levee and pushed back towards the river.
But just as victory seemed close at hand for Richard Taylor’s Rebels, two Union gunboats appeared on the water. Though the Confederates held their ground, and even seemed to be cornering the Federal infantry, the black troops would not budge. Unable to dislodge them or drown them in the Mississippi, the Southern troops began to withdraw as the naval artillery and the now pursuing Union troops hurried them on.
To the south, at Young’s Point, the Rebel luck was no better. After pushing in some Yankee pickets, the Confederates formed line of battle and advanced towards the enemy camp. They had been told by a guide that they could easily surprise the Union troops by leaping from the woods near the camp. Unfortunately, when they exited the woods, they found themselves well over a mile away from the enemy’s camp with nothing but flat open ground before them. There would be no surprise. Making matters worse, three Federal gunboats were there to defend the camp. Figuring that it would end in failure anyway, the Rebels decided to call it a day.
Both retreating Rebel brigades later united, but nothing more came of Taylor’s foray opposite Vicksburg. All he could do now was wait to hear how things went at Lake Providence (hint: not any better).
While the skirmish at Young’s Point resulted in few, if any casualties, the same could not be said for Milliken’s Bend. General Henry McCulloch, commanding the attacking brigade, reported 44 killed, 130 wounded and 10 missing. The Federals suffered much more with 101 killed, 285 wounded, and 266 captured or missing. While their commander, General Elias Dennis conceded, “nearly all the missing blacks will probably return, they were badly scattered,” he was somewhat mistaken. Not all of them could return.
Union Admiral David Dixon Porter, commanding the gunboats at Milliken’s Bend reported that the Rebels “commenced driving the negro regiments, and killed all they captured.” This barbaric scene, described Porter, “infuriated the negroes, who turned on the rebels and slaughtered them like sheep, and captured 200 prisoners.”
While Porter, who was not upon the land, was mistaken about the number of prisoners taken. Also, his accusations that the Confederates, at least initially, killed any black soldier they captured, was not completely true.
While neither Union General Dennis or Confederate General McCulloch mentioned this in their reports, McCulloch addressed the uncertainty over what to do with black prisoners.
“These [captured] negroes had doubtless been in the possession of the enemy, and would have been a clear loss to their owners but for Captain Marold,” wrote McCulloch of a fellow officer, “and should they be forfeited to the Confederate States or returned to their owners, I would regard it nothing but fair to give to Captain Marold one or two of the best of them.”
So clearly, at least some of the captured black soldiers were not killed, since General McCulloch was delighted to return them to their owners or give them as gifts to his friends.
Still, McCulloch boasted that though he couldn’t give a certain figure for the enemy’s casualties, “from the dead and wounded that I saw scattered over the field in the rear of the levee, and those upon and immediately behind it, it must have been over a thousand.”
General Taylor was also in a quandary, lamenting the fact that any of the black troops were captured at all. “A very large number of the negroes were killed and wounded,” he reported, “and, unfortunately, some 50 with 2 of their white officers, captured. I respectfully ask instructions as to the disposition of these prisoners.”
Being once again property, the black troops were soon put to work as slaves for the Confederacy. And Grant’s occupation of Vicksburg wore on.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 24, Part 2, p448-449, 453, 459, 468; Vol. 26, Part 2, p15, 471-472; Kirby Smith’s Confederacy by Robert L. Kerby; Richard Taylor: Soldier Prince of Dixie, Volume 1 by T. Michael Parrish; Destruction and Reconstruction: Personal Experiences of the Late War by Richard Taylor; Vicksburg by Michael Ballard. [↩]