NORMAL — This Friday marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Milliken’s Bend, La., the first significant engagement of the Civil War involving African-American troops.
It was there that former slaves held their own in vicious hand-to-hand combat, and in doing so helped put to rest racist assumptions that blacks somehow lacked the necessary discipline and courage for the battlefield. By war’s end, the tide of nearly 180,000 African-American soldiers in Union blue had played no small role in the defeat of the Confederacy.
There’s a local angle to Milliken’s Bend as well, for the Union dead included Normal University student Charles M. Clark, a white officer in the black 9th Louisiana Infantry.
Clark served in Col. Hermann Lieb’s “African Brigade,” a Union force consisting of four newly organized “African Descent” infantry regiments — the 9th, 11th and 13th Louisiana, and the 1st Mississippi. At the time of the battle, according to Lieb’s official report, many of these freed and escaped slaves had less than two weeks of training and some were armed with outmoded, broken-down Austrian rifles.
With Vicksburg surrounded by Ulysses S. Grant’s 70,000-plus Army of the Tennessee, Confederates thought the time right to strike Milliken’s Bend, a supply depot turned staging ground on the banks of the Mississippi River, some 10 miles northwest of the besieged city. On June 7, 1863, Lieb’s men were met by a larger brigade of Confederates from Gen. John George Walker’s Texas Division.
The Texans made a push for Milliken’s Bend, but first had to fight their way across several levees. “Here ensued a most desperate hand-to-hand conflict with bayonet and club musket,” recounted Lieb, “the blacks exhibiting unprecedented bravery and standing the charge nobly.” The Confederates, though, soon overwhelmed the green troops, and eventually breached the Union left flank, with withering enfilade fire cutting down many of the African Brigade’s officers and enlisted men.
Fortunately, two U.S. Navy gunboats, the Choctaw and Lexington, were drawn into the battle, and their combined firepower succeeded in pushing back the Texans. Union losses totaled some 100 killed and 250 wounded, while Confederate casualties numbered 200 killed, wounded and missing. Milliken’s Bend, declared Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana, “completely revolutionized the sentiment of the army with regard to the employment of Negro troops.”
In late October 1863, a campus literary society at “the Normal” held a memorial service for its own fallen hero of Milliken’s Bend, Charles M. Clark. The eulogy was read by Capt. John H. Burnham, who said the Irish-born Clark came to Normal from Mercer County, Ill., and if not for the war would’ve graduated in 1862.
Clark first joined Company K of the 8th Illinois Infantry Regiment, which participated in some of the bloodiest clashes of the Western Theater, including Fort Donelson and Shiloh. In April 1863, during the early stages of the Vicksburg campaign (the city would surrender July 4), Clark was detached from the 8th and promoted to regimental quartermaster/first lieutenant of the black 9th Louisiana.
Much of what we know about Clark’s actions at Milliken’s Bend comes from a letter by 9th Louisiana 2nd Lt. Col. Matthew M. Miller, read aloud by Burnham at the Normal eulogy. The letter stated that Clark “was among the first to spring to arms and take a position on the levee where our regiment was posted, and there he stood and fought hand to hand with the enemy, and none seemed or acted braver than he.” Shot through the right lung, he somehow made it back to the Union line.
Clark then fell unconscious, but once revived his first words were directed at Miller. “Lieutenant, I shot each load at a rebel,” he supposedly said as he lifted his revolver for emphasis. “One of them wanted my sword, and shot me, but I had a load left for him.” Clark died on the Choctaw later that day. Carpenters aboard the gunboat constructed a coffin and he was buried ashore.
Miller hailed Clark as an “ardent patriot,” and “unflinching champion of human rights,” the latter a likely nod to his service in the black 9th Louisiana.
On July 1, The Pantagraph published a letter by Col. Ira Bloomfield of the 26th Illinois Infantry calling the Battle of Milliken’s Bend “an important event in the annals of western warfare.” For Bloomfield, a Bloomington resident writing from the siege of Vicksburg, Milliken’s Bend demonstrated “the fighting qualities of the African.” The evidence was in and it was bad news for the Confederacy. “The Negro will fight,” wrote Bloomfield. “We are all satisfied of that fact.”