Monday, May 13, 2013

Barnickel: "MILLIKEN'S BEND: A Civil War Battle in History and Memory"

[ Milliken's Bend: A Civil War Battle in History and Memory by Linda Barnickel (Louisiana State University Press, 2013). Hardcover, maps, photos, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:203/308. ISBN:9780807149928 $39.95]

The military side of the Battle of Milliken's Bend has been well documented in book chapters and articles written by Civil War in the Mississippi Valley experts Ed Bearss, Warren Grabau, Terrence Winschel, and Richard Lowe. However, Linda Barnickel's Milliken's Bend: A Civil War Battle in History and Memory is the first study to examine in depth the clash's political and cultural background and meaning. It is also the first book length treatment.  Several 1863 battles involving biracial Union armies were fought around the same time, Port Hudson (May 27), Milliken's Bend (June 7, 1863), and Fort Wagner (July 18), but the U.S. command at Milliken's Bend was the only one composed almost entirely of black troops* [a detachment of 120 men from the 23rd Iowa were the only white soldiers present, excepting the officers leading the other regiments].

Well researched and presented background material in several areas provides useful context for what follows.  Initially, the Union army's recruitment of black soldiers was poorly organized.  De facto conscription by aggressive recruiters disrupted the labor pool of the government's contract plantation system in NE Louisiana. Even with these unscrupulous operators, considering the available manpower, too many new regiments were authorized at the same time, with the result that all were understrength [the three Louisiana regiments and the 1st Mississippi at Milliken's Bend together numbered just over 1,000 men].  Predictably, these efforts did not sit well with Confederate soldiers and civilians.  Fears of violent slave revolt ran deep in areas like NE Louisiana, where whites were greatly outnumbered.  Here, Barnickel mines the writings of Milliken's Bend resident Kate Stone as a representative example of the views and experiences of slaveholding civilians living under a Union occupation that instantly raised the local threat level and permanently altered relations between the races. Thoughts and concerns surrounding servile insurrection also occupied the minds of soldiers. As the Confederate troops that fought at Milliken's Bend were from Texas (McCulloch's brigade of Walker's Texas Division), it is not unreasonable to assume the previous year's incendiary outbreak (blamed at the time on abolitionist agitators but later thought be caused by defective "prairie matches") was fresh in their minds.  Equating the Union army's deployment of black troops with inciting a race war at home, Confederates did not consider the enemy soldiers at Milliken's Bend to be legitimate combatants. The Texans thus had many reasons to be highly motivated on June 7.   Dueling U.S. and Confederate official policies dealing with the legal standing of black soldiers and their treatment, as well as that of their white officers, after capture are also explored.

In many modern academic studies of this type, coverage of the battle itself is a very secondary concern, but Barnickel's account, though brief, is acceptable. Others have written more detailed treatments, but this book covers the key points and basic flow of events. Both sides were roughly equal in strength, but, even though the Union brigade under Colonel Lieb was situated in a strong defensive position with flank protection and a pair of levies in front strengthened by cotton bales, the trained but combat inexperienced Texans rapidly drove the raw black recruits and the Iowa veterans back to the riverbank, where timely naval gunboat support discouraged any further assaults. Union casualties were heavy (119 killed, 241 wounded, and 132 captured out of 1,148 present), with Confederate losses estimated at less than 200. The author suggests that animosity felt between the absent white cavalry companies and the officers and men of the brigade to which they were attached as scouts might have been detrimental to Union preparations for the attack. Command level officer turnover in the African Brigade just prior to the Battle of Milliken's Bend could also have contributed to battlefield confusion and high casualties.

With longstanding accusations of atrocities associated with the battle, it is no surprise that much attention in the book is paid to the aftermath of Milliken's Bend.  The author acknowledges the impossibility of determining the fate of all the soldiers captured at the Bend, but there's no indication a massacre occurred and many of the prisoners were apparently returned to slavery and shipped to Texas [several actually returned to their old regiments with the end of the war in 1865]. It was a different matter with the three white officers captured during the battle. While one eventually was released, circumstantial evidence points to the other two being killed in some extralegal manner. By whom and under whose orders remains unknown, but the author suggests that Confederate cavalry may have been responsible, either the 15th Louisiana Cavalry battalion or Parsons's Texas brigade (the latter accused on several occasions of killing black prisoners and civilians).

Remembrance of Milliken's Bend comprises the book's final section. Barnickel posits that the post-war writings that continued to claim that a massacre occurred were often the result of geographical and temporal confusion. The author notes that several battles and skirmishes were fought at Mississippi river posts garrisoned by black soldiers around the same time period, and writers, newspaper reporters, and aged memoirists seem to have merged events or mistaken one for another. Citing Milliken's Bend veterans, the author also joins a growing number of historians challenging historian David Blight's influential thesis that black soldiers were essentially abandoned by their white comrades in the post-war reconciliation period. This section also discusses more recent efforts to memorialize the battle at Vicksburg National Military Park and other places (the site itself has been washed away). At least in terms of getting Milliken's Bend recognized at the heavily visited Vicksburg park, the effort appears to have been successful, although perhaps too much so if Tim Kavanaugh's claim that, as of 2011, the battle "has more interpretive space at the Vicksburg visitor's center than Port Gibson, Raymond, Jackson, Champion Hill, and Big Black River combined." (pg. 179) is accurate.

Linda Barnickel's Milliken's Bend finally gives the battle and the men that fought it their proper due. It truly was a small battle with significant consequences, among them an inspiring effect on black recruitment in the North, a compelling reason for white Union soldiers and civilians to reevaluate their racial prejudices, and a prominent role in the breakdown of the prisoner exchange system. This study is an exhaustively researched gem and a model for future combined battle and memory studies.

* - I don't mean to slight the significance of Island Mound, fought by the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry, but the numbers engaged in the much earlier October 29, 1862 encounter in Missouri pale in comparison to the battles mentioned above.


More CWBA reviews of LSUP titles:
* Battle of Stones River: The Forgotten Conflict Between the Confederate Army of Tennessee and the Union Army of the Cumberland
* Granbury's Texas Brigade: Diehard Western Confederates
* The Last Battle of the Civil War: United States Versus Lee, 1861-1883
* Confederate Guerrilla: Champ Ferguson and the Civil War in Appalachia
* Lincoln and Citizens' Rights in Civil War Missouri: Balancing Freedom and Security
* War No More: The Antiwar Impulse in American Literature, 1861-1914
* Isham G. Harris of Tennessee: Confederate Governor and United States Senator
* Executing Daniel Bright: Race, Loyalty, and Guerrilla Violence in a Coastal Carolina Community 1861-1865
* Mosquito Soldiers: Malaria, Yellow Fever, and the Course of the American Civil War
* Homegrown Yankees: Tennessee's Union Cavalry in the Civil War
* John Bankhead Magruder: A Military Reappraisal
* A Wisconsin Yankee in the Confederate Bayou Country: The Civil War Reminiscences of a Union General
* Bleeding Borders: Race, Gender, and Violence in Pre-Civil War Kansas
* Jefferson Davis and the Civil War Era
* Where Men Only Dare to Go Or the Story of a Boy Company, C.S.A.
* Encyclopedia of Civil War Shipwrecks
* Walker’s Texas Division, C.S.A.: Greyhounds of the Trans-Mississippi
* The Confederate Cherokees: John Drew's Regiment of Mounted Rifles
* A Crisis In Confederate Command: Edmund Kirby Smith, Richard Taylor, And The Army Of The Trans-Mississippi
* The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock

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