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Milliken’s Bend: A Civil War Battle in History and Memory by Linda Barnickel (review)
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Linda Barnickel’s Milliken’s Bend: A Civil War Battle in History and Memory is an earnest examination of the second of three early battles in the American Civil War involving black Union troops. While the Battle of Milliken’s Bend in June 1863 was a minor engagement in the Civil War, a footnote in Ulysses S. Grant’s campaign against Vicksburg, along with the assaults on Port Hudson in May 1863 and Fort Wagner in July 1863, it went a long way toward proving to skeptics that black men made good soldiers, bolstering the cause of African American enlistment in the Union army during this conflict.

Barnickel begins by placing Milliken’s Bend and black military service in the Civil War into historical context. She focuses particularly on the Confederate reaction to the Emancipation Proclamation and the beginning of the recruitment of African Americans by the Union, explaining that white Southerners saw these initiatives as the unleashing upon them by the Lincoln administration a barbaric slave revolt akin to what occurred during the Haitian Revolution in the 1790s. Hence, the Confederates who fought at Milliken’s Bend did not believe they faced a legitimate enemy force, but an instance of servile insurrection instigated and led by John Brown–like white officers.

According to the author, equating black Union soldiers with rebellious slaves created considerable trouble when they and their white officers fell into Confederate hands. The Confederate Congress had passed legislation authorizing death for captured white officers of black troops and mandating that black Union soldiers be disposed of under relevant state slave codes. Confederate commanders in the area of the battle tried to simplify matters by providing ruthless instructions for black soldiers and their officers simply to not be taken alive. This guidance proved hard to implement, especially when the officers and soldiers from black units in essence threw themselves on the mercy of the Rebels when overwhelmed. So, the actual treatment of black Union soldiers and their officers proved inconsistent in practice, although in some instances lethal to Federal POWs, white and black.

Barnickel provides a clear and workable summary of the Battle of Milliken’s Bend itself, which was not easy given the inconsistent accounts of the engagement. She does an admirable job sorting through the conflicting evidence, weighing and analyzing it, and providing plausible explanations of what probably happened where accounts do not agree. The end result of the battle was clear enough, though. On June 7, 1863, inexperienced black units raised among Mississippi Valley slaves, fighting in Madison Parish, Louisiana, with the white Twenty-third Iowa Infantry, were mostly driven back from their initial positions by Confederate troops from Texas to the shore of the Mississippi River, where they held their ground with the fire support of the Union gunboat Choctaw, forcing the rebels ultimately to retreat.

The actual battle takes up only one chapter of this full-length book, coming about midway through. Having spent most of the first half of Milliken’s Bend describing the background and context of this engagement, Barnickel devotes the second half of her book to looking at how the battle was largely forgotten after the Civil War and how it has made its way back into historical memory only incompletely in recent decades as historians and enthusiasts have rediscovered black military participation in the conflict. Barnickel writes in a generally capable, if occasionally stilted, fashion. Yet she manages to provide historical justice for a battle which, while it played a negligible role in the outcome of the American Civil War, was significant in justifying the use of African Americans as Union soldiers, revolutionizing the conflict and helping to transform the United States by ending the scourge of slavery. This makes it superior to many Civil War battle studies that, while they explain in excruciating detail the fighting itself, do little to describe the social context and significance which provide the underlying meaning to these engagements.

Donald R. Shaffer  

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans (2004) and a coauthor of Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files...



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