Earlier this year, as my father, oldest sister, nephew, and I toured the new Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson, we conversed about the participation of my father’s great-grandfather, John “Jack” Bass of Warren County (Vicksburg), Mississippi, in the Civil War. I had recently confirmed that he served with the 49th Regiment, formerly the 11th Louisiana Infantry, of the United States Colored Troops (USCT). According to his service record, he enlisted on 16 May 1863, at Milliken’s Bend, Louisiana. He was promoted from Private to Corporal on 1 February 1865, by order of Lieutenant Colonel Cyrus Sears.
Just three weeks after his enlistment, Grandpa Jack Bass, who was born into slavery in 1844 in Northampton County, North Carolina, and who maternally descended from the Igbo people of present-day Nigeria, fought in a significant battle, the Battle of Milliken’s Bend, on 7 June 1863. Colonel Hermann Lieb situated his men into a battle line at Milliken’s Bend on the Mississippi River, the opposite side to Vicksburg, and prepared them to meet the pursuing Confederate troops. His units comprised of the 8th, 9th, 11th, and 13th Louisiana Infantry Regiments (African Descent), 1st Mississippi Infantry (African Descent), and the 23rd Iowa Infantry that totaled 1,061 men. The Battle of Milliken’s Bend became one of the first Civil War battles to involve African American Union Army troops.
With two gunboats docked in the river to assist, Lieb strategically positioned his recently-recruited and poorly-trained men on the levee behind bales of cotton. When the Confederates troops arrived, hand-to-hand combat ensued. The Confederates pushed over the cotton bale barricades with their clubbed muskets and bayonets. Adrenalin undoubtedly kicked in, and Grandpa Jack and his USCT comrades bravely fought for their freedom. One soldier, Joseph Blessington, reported in his 1875 memoir, “The enemy gave away and stampeded pell-mell over the levee, in great terror and confusion. Our troops followed after them, bayoneting them by the hundreds.” (Source)
Grandpa Jack’s service record described him as being a short 5 ft. 3 inches in height. I don’t have to wonder why my late great-aunt Pearlie Spicer, his granddaughter, was very short. In my mind, I envision a short, brave man, probably resembling the comedian Kevin Hart, in fierce battle alongside his many USCT comrades who were being brutally slayed around him. They successfully scared away the attacking Confederates. Although Grandpa Jack luckily survived the ferocious battle, the casualties at Milliken’s Bend were severe on both sides.
According to Linda Barnickel, author of Milliken’s Bend: A Civil War Battle in History and Memory, the 9th Louisiana lost a whopping 68% of their men, which was the highest total of any of the Black regiments during the Civil War. Sixty-six (66) of their men died, and it was the highest loss in a single engagement by any Union unit during the entire Vicksburg campaign. The 23rd Iowa Infantry lost 54% of their unit, which had comprised of only 120 men. Numerous officers on both sides reported that their companies sustained nearly 50% casualties.
Despite the numerous casualties, the bravery and tenacity of the African American soldiers showed the nation that African American men could fight as well as the best white soldiers. Being regarded as outsiders, they made the great Vicksburg victory possible for the Union, and they earned the official praise of Major General Ulysses S. Grant. Also, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton wrote the following in a letter to President Abraham Lincoln on Dec. 5, 1863:
“Many persons believed, or pretended to believe, and confidentially asserted, that freed slaves would not make good soldiers; they would lack courage and could not be subjected to military discipline. Facts have shown how groundless were these apprehensions. The slave has proved his manhood, and his capacity as an infantry soldier, at Milliken’s Bend, at the assault upon Port Hudson, and the storming of Fort Wagner.” (Source: The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union. Washington, D.C.: United States Department of War. 1899. p. 1,132.)
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. They are not forgotten.