Black Mississippi troops in the Civil War
By Earnest McBride
Second Regiment, Louisiana Native Guards (Corps d'Afrique) was the first group of black troops to fight in the Civil War in Mississippi at Ship Island in April 1863. The First Mississippi Regiment (African Descent) was the first unit of black Mississippians to win a victory at Milliken's Bend near Vicksburg on June 7, 1863. More than 18,000 African Americans joined Union Army and Navy regiments based in Mississippi.
©2006. Earnest McBride, Jackson, Mississippi.
The Civil War in the United States (1861-1865) officially began April 12, 1861, when former U.S. Troops under the command of Gen. Pierre G. T. Beauregard opened fire on the United States Garrison at Fort Sumter, South Carolina. This was the beginning of the Confederate Army, the patchwork quilt of seven states (South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas), four of whom had declared that they had seceded in order to protect their slave economy from the threat of abolition.
Realization came fairly early that black troops would make a critical difference if added to the Union's faltering efforts in 1861 and 1862. Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the commander of the famous 54 Massachusetts Regiment featured in the movie Glory, pointed this out in his report to his superiors on February 1, 1863.
"No officer in this regiment now doubts that the key to the successful prosecution of this war lies in the unlimited employment of black troops," Higginson wrote. "Their superiority lies simply in the fact that they know the country, while white troops do not, and, moreover, that they have peculiarities of temperament, position, and motive which belong to them alone."
"Instead of leaving their homes and families to fight," the proud commander of the valiant black troops continued, "they are fighting for their homes and families, and they show the resolution and sagacity which a personal purpose gives. It would have been madness to attempt, with the bravest white troops what I have successfully accomplished with the black ones. Everything, even to the piloting of the vessels and the selection of the proper points for cannonading, was done by my own soldiers."
Beginning at about the same time as Higginson was reporting on his troops in South Carolina, black fighting men from Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana and Tennessee were volunteering in the thousands to do battle against their former masters and field bosses. In Mississippi alone, 18,000 black men were mustered into the Union Army and Navy. So great was the black enthusiasm for the war that during the final stages in mid-1865, there were more black men in the uniforms of the United States armed forces than there were white men in the entire Confederate Army.
Black Support for War Against Slavery
It was not the Southern whites who had been the most vocal advocates of Civil War. It was rather the black activists and early American war veterans, along with their white radical abolitionist supporters who called for a break with the past and the subjugation of the slave states. Four of the most influential black voices advocating an open war against slavery were David Walker (1796-1830), Charles Lenox Remond (1810-1882), Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) and Harriet Tubman (1820-1913).
David Walker issued an Appeal in September 1829 calling for a general war against slave masters "They want us for their slaves, and think nothing of murdering us," Walker wrote in his famous treatise. "It is no more harm for you to kill a man who is trying to kill you, than it is for you to take a drink of water when thirsty."
Charles Lenox Remond, an African-American abolitionist from Salem, Massachusetts. Traveled abroad with white abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison and attended the World's Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1840. He later recruited black soldiers in Massachusetts for the Union Army during the Civil War.
Frederick Douglass published "Douglass Monthly" in which he issued the well-known challenge of "Men of Color To Arms." Douglass recruited over one hundred free blacks from upstate New York for the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts. Among the recruits arriving at boot camp were two of his own, sons Lewis and Charles.
Harriet Tubman, called "Black Moses" for her work on the Underground Railroad for 10 years before the Civil War, became a nurse and soldier in the war itself.
All four except Walker, who died in 1830, supported John Brown's raids on pro-slavery sites in Kansas and Harper's Ferry. One of Douglass' sons rode with John Brown, although Frederick Douglass himself had slipped out of the country before the 1859 raid on Harper's Ferry.
In the early stages of the Civil War, the United States lost battle after battle to the Confederates. Even a victory at Antietam (Maryland) in September 1862 decimated U.S. forces more than some of its earlier losses had. But it was this battle that gave President Abraham Lincoln the leverage he needed to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, ostensibly the grant of freedom to the enslaved African Americans below the Mason-Dixon line. The Proclamation, however, was scheduled to go into effect in January 1863 -- and then only in the Deep-South states in open rebellion against the U.S.
Although black soldiers and sailors had enrolled in the Union military from the earliest days (Frederick Douglass was given a major's rank) and were fighting along with white troops in select battles, their numbers were negligible and only a dozen or so records of black troops can be found for the earliest stages of the War.
By January 1863, however, the picture had changed for the better for the United States. General U.S. Grant, having gained the most glorious Union victory until then at Fort Donelson, Tennessee, on February 16, 1862, continued to gain victory after victory in Tennessee and Northern Mississippi. When Lincoln called on his generals in the west to go after the key to the Confederacy at Vicksburg, Grant shifted his base of operations to Milliken's Bend, 15 miles northwest of Vicksburg and developed one of the most brilliant battle strategies in military history, with Vicksburg eventually falling on July 4, 1863, and the entire Confederacy collapsing by May 10, 1865. In gratitude for Grant's winning bulldog persistence, Lincoln made him commanding general of all U.S. forces in March 1864.
Grant's greatest advantage over his Southern opponents was the vast pool of recruits available to him after Army Adjutant General Lorenzo H. Thomas finally convinced Lincoln to organize a number of black regiments under white commanders.
The first 10 black regiments authorized by Lincoln and Thomas were established in Kentucky, Tennessee, Louisiana and Mississippi and were given the name "The African Brigade." Most of the regiments -- The Louisiana 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th, the Mississippi 1st, 3rd, 9th and 11th, and three regiments from Arkansas were all under the command of Grant and his subalterns. Their identification labels were usually listed as "First Mississippi (African Descent)" or "Second Louisiana (Corps d'Afrique)."
One of the most amazing facts in the history of black fighting men in the United States, and especially in Mississippi and Louisiana, concerns the Louisiana Native Guards. This was originally a militia group organized by free black men in Louisiana in about 1745, nearly a half--century before the establishment of the United States Army and Navy. These militia companies remained intact, under black officers, and volunteered to serve in the Confederacy at the beginning of the Civil War, but were rejected. It was these black Louisiana Native Guardsmen who were organized into the First, Second and Third Louisiana Native Guard regiments by Gen. Benjamin F. Butler in August and September 1862, after New Orleans had been captured by Union Naval Admiral David Farragut.
In March 1863, the Bureau of Colored Troops was established. The soon to be many regiments were officially transformed by the War Department into the United States Colored Troops (USCT). Even though white Mississippi Civil War chroniclers and National Park historians have denied that black troops fought in the most significant battle of Civil War, that is, the Siege of Vicksburg, more than 40 percent of the troops buried in the National Military Cemetery at Vicksburg are black men who fought within a 60-mile radius of the burial field. More than 7200 dead black soldiers who were invested in the battles before, during and after the Siege of Vicksburg are graphic witnesses whose headstones are all marked with the legend USCT (United States Colored Troops).
The first battle fought by black troops in Mississippi was the battle of Ship Island near Pascagoula in April 1863. The troops, however, were members of the 2nd Louisiana (Corps d'Afrique), consisting wholly of Louisiana Native Guardsmen, who had been absorbed into the Union's armed forces.
"Today Milliken's Bend lies largely forgotten," Martha M. Bigelow, the late Mississippi College History Professor, wrote in a 1960 article in the Journal of Negro History. She highlighted the date June 7, 1863 as one charged with electricity. Grant had already settled in for his siege on the south and east sides of Vicksburg. And thinking himself as being aided by the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers on the west and north, he gave little thought to his earlier outposts on the Louisiana side of the Mississippi.
"The little garrison at Milliken's Bend, fifteen miles above Vicksburg," Professor Bigelow said, "was composed of raw recruits. There was little to distinguish them except the fact that most of them were Black -- ex-slaves inducted into the Union Army, primarily for garrison duty. This day, June 7, 1863, they were to perform a service for their race and to write the name of Milliken's Bend into history."
Black historian Benjamin Quarles was one of the first writers to chronicle the actual battlefield achievements of black troops in the Civil War. He called Milliken's the black man's "proving ground."
"In the late spring of 1863," Quarles wrote in 1961, "Milliken's Bend had been left with a detachment of 1410, of whom 160 were whites, the 23rd Iowa, and the remainder were ex-slaves from Louisiana and Mississippi, organized into three incomplete regiments, the Ninth Louisiana, the Eleventh Louisiana and the First Mississippi.
"These 1250 contrabands had been mustered in at Milliken's Bend on May 22, 1863, according to Lieutenant Colonel Cyrus Sears, one of their officers. The Black volunteers were destined to go into battle exactly sixteen days later."
Milliken's Bend, in Quarles' estimate, "was one of the hardest fought encounters in the annals of American military history." Nor was Its lesson lost on the Union high brass: "The bravery of the Blacks at Milliken's Bend," observed Assistant Secretary of War Charles A. Dana, "completely revolutionized the sentiment of the army with regard to the employment of Negro troops." The reward given to those Black troops and their posterity is a cowardly silence on the part of the National Park Service and the United States military establishment.
Black Regiments and Battles in Mississippi
Only in the past four years has the National Park Service even deigned to acknowledge the contributions of any of the 208,000 black soldiers who fought in the Civil War. A memorial to the black troops at Milliken's Bend, the first such statue in any of the nation's parks, was commissioned and dedicated in Vicksburg in February 2004.
The National Park Services lists 10 black Union regiments organized in Mississippi. These are the First Regiment Cavalry; the First Regiment Mounted Rifles; the First, and Second heavy Artillery; the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th Regiment Infantry, all officially designated "African Descent."
Lest We Forget Website master Bennie McRae expands that list to 16 regiments under the official designation "United States Colored Troops." The First Mississippi Cavalry (African Descent), for example, became the 3rd U.S. Colored Cavalry Regiment after the change to the USCT system. Ten infantry regiments, rather than the six listed above, were established at Vicksburg and Natchez. Two additional heavy artillery regiments and one of light artillery were established under Grant's command by January 1864.
The most noteworthy battles fought by Mississippi black troops to liberate themselves, their families and the entire nation are the Battle of Milliken's Bend, June 7, 1863, as part of the Vicksburg Campaign; two battles in or near Yazoo City, February and March, 1864; Big Black and Concord Church, Nov. 23-Dec. 4, 1864; Brownsville, MS, April, 1864; Brice's Crossroads, June 1-13, 1864; Tupelo, July 5-1864
A Note on Black Troops in the Confederacy
Only one documented case of a Mississippi black man firing a weapon against Northern troops is that of the expert rifleman Holt Collier. According to records found the state archives, Collier disobeyed his master, Confederate Colonel Howell Hinds of Greenville, and sought to join a Confederate unit. No official records exist of his regimental assignments or battles that he actually fought in, however. Author Minor Ferris Buchanan has written that Collier was given a pension for his service to the Confederate war efforts, but only as a servant to Hinds, not as an actual soldier.
In March 1864, Jefferson Davis and his Secretary of War commanded all their generals and support officers to cease discussion of recruiting any black fighting men for the Southern forces. But only weeks before the end of the War, in March 1865, Jefferson Davis relented and gave permission to recruit blacks for Confederate ranks, where feasible. But this effort amounted to next to nothing. Lest We Forget Website manager McRae points out that only 32 or 35 black men can be identified as part of a "Negro Brigade" organized in Richmond in March or April 1865, only days before the Lee surrendered on April 10 at Appomattox.
A Confederate officer, who rode upon this situation as it was transpiring, recalled: "Several engineer officers were superintending the construction of a line of rude breastworks...Ten or twelve negroes were engaged in the task of pulling down a rail fence; as many more occupied in carrying the rails, one at a time, and several were busy throwing up the dirt...The [Blacks] thus employed all wore good gray uniforms and I was informed that they belonged to the only company of colored troops in the Confederate service, having been enlisted by Major Turner in Richmond. Their muskets were stacked, and it was evident that they regarded their present employment in no very favorable light."
The same observer noted on April 10, 1865, "as Confederate prisoners were being marched from Sailor's Creek and elsewhere to City Point (present day Hopewell) and eventually off to Northern prison camps, a Union chaplain observed the column. This incident, along the retreat to Painesville, seems to be the only documented episode of "official" Black troops serving the Confederacy in Virginia as a unit under fire.
"African-Americans also accompanied the Confederate army on the retreat with the First Regiment Engineer Troops and provided yeoman service. One member of this unit remembered that they mounded roads, repaired bridges and cut new parallel roads to old ones when they became impassable. When this was not possible, an engineer officer would post a group near the trouble spot to extricate wagons and artillery pieces.
"When Lee surrendered his army at Appomattox, thirty-six African-Americans were listed on the Confederate paroles. Most were either servants, free blacks, musicians, cooks, teamsters or blacksmiths."
This hardly noteworthy last-minute gathering of black men in Confederate uniforms pales alongside the 208,000 black soldiers and sailors who served in 175 black regiments that served the Union from a majority of the states, and especially from the South. W. E. B. DuBois duly noted that the South lost the war because black people brought on a "general strike," withholding their labor from the farmlands and volunteering in waves to pick up arms against their former enslavers.