Broken Bayonets and Blood: An Officer’s Account of Milliken’s Bend

 

“A new recruit I had issued a gun the day before the fight was dead with a firm grasp on his gun, the bayonet of which was broken in three pieces. So, they fought and died, defending the cause that we revere.” ~ Second Lieutenant Matthew M. Miller, Co. I, 9th Louisiana Infantry (African Descent)

 

Matthew M. Miller was finishing his final year at Yale when the Civil War began in 1861. The Galena, Illinois native returned home where he enlisted in the 45th Illinois Infantry, taking his place among the high privates of Co. C in early 1862.  He first saw action at Fort Donelson and two months later at Shiloh. A year and a half later, now Corporal Miller was given a chance to partake in an army experiment; he would be placed on temporary assignment as a lieutenant in command of a company of black troops.

The genesis of the 9th Louisiana Infantry (African Descent) goes back to the Emancipation Proclamation which took effect throughout the states considered in a state of rebellion on January 1, 1863. Louisiana and Mississippi were most decidedly in a state of rebellion at that time. As General U.S. Grant planned and worked towards reducing the river bastion of Vicksburg, thousands of slaves left their cotton plantations and flocked to the army. By April 1863, Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas arrived at Grant’s encampment at Milliken’s Bend, Louisiana with orders to enlist these former slaves into new infantry regiments which would be led by white officers.

General Thomas expounded on why the government was taking this step. “General Thomas told us the President and his Cabinet, after much earnest thought and discussion, had adopted the policy of arming the Negroes and it was only after the fullest consideration of the subject that the policy avowed was adopted,” wrote First Lieutenant John M. Lemmon of the 72nd Ohio. “He said the true point with all who are earnestly in favor of suppressing the rebellion was to weaken the enemy so far as lay in our power and strengthen ourselves. But, what are we to do with the Negroes after having brought them within our lines? They could not be sent North for there exists in the North a strong and immovable prejudice against such a course. Government could not now devote means and money to transport them to a foreign country. Nor would it be right or humane to leave them alone to their own resources, for they are ignorant and inexperienced. Therefore, it was concluded that we must care for them, control, and use them. And the best manner for using them was to arm them and make them useful in fighting our enemies and holding the rebellious districts as they are regained. ‘For every Negro regiment thus raised,’ said the general, ‘will release a regiment of whites from garrison and fatigue duty and thus make our columns stronger.’ The adjutant general declared it a right and duty to deal thus with this unfortunate people and told us it was the President’s positive order that they should, whenever they came to our lines or are met by our expeditions, be treated kindly, and all who are fit shall be immediately clothed, armed, and put into military organizations,” Lemmon wrote.

“There are to be 20 of these regiments organized in this department. They are to be officered by selecting proportionately from the white regiments. Applicants for field commissions are to be recommended by regimental commandants, and then be examined by a board of officers. For company officers, each commandant of a regiment is to recommend two suitable candidates for captains, two for first lieutenants, and two for second lieutenants.  As soon as applicants are passed by the board or recommended by the colonel, they are commissioned by General Thomas and enter upon the work of organizing their commands,” Lemmon concluded.

The hand-to-hand fight at Milliken's Bend, Louisiana on June 7, 1863 as depicted by Harper's Weekly.

Corporal Miller was among the men selected and was assigned as a second lieutenant to Co. I of the 9th Louisiana Infantry. Work commenced in late April with recruiting, equipping, and drilling the men. In the meantime, General Grant’s drive against Vicksburg kicked into gear and the camp at Milliken’s Bend became a rear area supply depot. Little did Lieutenant Miller know that soon it would became the scene of a desperately fought battle in which his new recruits would start to prove to the country that black men would fight, and fight gallantly.

          By early June 1863, Grant’s army sustained by Admiral David Porter’s flotilla had the Vicksburg garrison surrounded and the Confederate authorities feared that Vicksburg would soon fall, and the new nation severed into two. General Richard Taylor, commanding the Confederate forces in Louisiana, was directed to try and break Grant’s siege by staging on attack on the western side of the Mississippi River. Dispatching a force of four dismounted Texas cavalry regiments under the command of General Henry E. McCulloch, the Confederates arrived in the vicinity of Milliken’s Bend on June 5th. A Federal patrol on the 6th discovered Taylor’s force and Colonel Hermann Lieb, commanding the 9th Louisiana, was convinced that his post was in danger and called for reinforcements.

          Lieutenant Miller will tell the rest of the story of the Battle of Milliken's Bend in this letter he wrote to his aunt in Wisconsin three days after the engagement. It originally saw publication in the July 7, 1863, edition of the Grant County Herald published in Lancaster, Wisconsin.

 

Milliken's Bend was one of those rare Civil War engagements in which much of the combat was fought hand-to-hand with horrifying results. "I have six broken bayonets to show how bravely my men fought," Lieutenant Miller wrote. "I never felt more grieved and sick at heart when I saw how my brave soldiers had been slaughtered- one with six wounds, all the rest with two or three, none less than two." Miller reported that 31 of the 33 men of his company were either killed or wounded in the engagement.

Milliken’s Bend, Louisiana

June 10, 1863

Dear aunt,

          We were attacked here June 7th about 3 o’clock in the morning by a brigade of Texas troops, about 2,500 in number. We had 600 men to withstand them, 500 of them Negroes. I commanded Co. I of the 9th Louisiana and went into the fight with 33 men. I had 16 killed, 11 badly wounded, and 4 slightly wounded. I was wounded slightly on the head near the right eye with a bayonet and had a bayonet run through my right hand near the forefinger that will account for this miserable style of penmanship.

          Our regiment had about 300 men in the fight. Our colonel was wounded, as were four captains, two first and two second lieutenants, and three white orderlies killed and one wounded in the hand with two fingers taken off. The list of killed and wounded officers comprise nearly all the officers present with the regiment- the majority of the rest being absent recruiting.

          We had about 50 men killed in the regiment and 80 wounded, so you can judge of what part of the fight my company sustained. I never felt more grieved and sick at heart than when I saw how my brave soldiers had been slaughtered- one with six wounds, all the rest with two or three, none with less than two wounds. Two of my colored sergeants were killed, both noble men, always prompt, vigilant, and ready for the fray. I never more wish to hear the expression, “The nigger won’t fight.” Come with me 100 yards from where I sit and I can show you the wounds the cover the bodes of 16 as brave, loyal, and patriotic soldiers as ever drew a bead on a Rebel.

Captain Matthew M. Miller
5th U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery
Died November 29, 1918 in Topeka, Kansas

          The enemy charged on us so close that we fought with our bayonets, hand to hand. I have six broken bayonets to show how bravely my men fought. The 23rd Iowa joined my company on the right and I can declare truthfully that they had all fled before our regiment fell back as we were all compelled to do. Under the command of Colonel Charles L. Page, I led the 9th and 11th Louisiana when the rifle pits were taken and held by our troops, our two regiments doing the work.

I narrowly escaped death once. A Rebel took deliberate aim at me with both barrels of his gun and the bullet passed so close to me that the powder that remained on them burned my cheek. Three of my men saw him aim and fire and thought that he wounded me with each fire. One of them was killed by my side and he fell on me, covering my clothes with his blood, and before the Rebel could fire again, I blew his brains out with my gun.

It was a horrible fight, the worst I ever engaged in not even excepting Shiloh. The enemy cried ‘No quarter,’ some of them were very glad to take it when made prisoners. Colonel Allen of the 17th Texas was killed in front of our regiment and Brigadier General Walker was wounded. We killed about 180 of the enemy and the gunboat Choctaw did good service shelling them. I stood on the breastworks after we retook them and gave the elevations and directions for the gunboat by pointing my sword and they sent a shell right into their midst which sent the Rebels in all directions. Three shells fell there and 62 Rebels lay there when the fight was over.



My wound is not serious, but troublesome. What few men I have left seem to think much of me because I stood up with them in the fight. I can say for them that I never saw a braver company of men in my life. Not one of them offered to leave his place until ordered to fall back, and in fact, very few ever did fall back. I went down to the hospital three miles today to see the wounded. Nine of them were there, two having died of their wounds. A boy I had cooking for me came and begged a gun when the Rebels were advancing and took his place with the company, and when we retook the breastworks, I found him badly wounded with one gunshot and two bayonet wounds.

A new recruit I had issued a gun the day before the fight was dead with a firm grasp on his gun, the bayonet of which was broken in three pieces. So, they fought and died, defending the cause that we revere. The met death coolly, bravely; not rashly did they expose themselves, but all were steady and obedient to orders.

So God has spared me again through many dangers; I cannot tell how it was I escaped.

 

Your affectionate nephew,

M.M. Miller

 

Sources:

Letter from First Lieutenant John M. Lemmon, Co. I, 72nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Fremont Journal (Ohio), May 8, 1863, pg. 3

Letter from Second Lieutenant Matthew M. Miller, Co. I, 9th Louisiana Infantry (African Descent), Grant County Herald (Wisconsin), July 7, 1863, pg. 1

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