July 4, 1863: Role of Black troops in the fall of Vicksburg and beyond

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Monument in Vicksburg National Military Park depicts ordeal of Black troops and a civilian in time of Civil War near Vicksburg. (Photo: National Park Service)

At the midpoint of the Civil War, President Lincoln and his advisors were torn between two major battles – Vicksburg in the deep South and Gettysburg in the North. 

Union General Ulysses Grant had imposed a 47-day siege against Vicksburg, the Confederate stronghold that Lincoln called the “key” to ultimate victory in the Civil War. But Robert E. Lee and his Confederate army threatened to take over vital areas of the North, including Washington, D.C., if they had captured Gettysburg. 

Deciding to march south to encircle Vicksburg, Grant had entrusted the defense of his headquarters at Milliken’s Bend, a few miles northwest of Vicksburg on the Louisiana side of the Mississippi, to three Black regiments that belonged to the newly formed African Brigade and one white Iowa regiment, the 23rd Iowa.

The four Union regiments were taking devastating losses after a surprise Confederate attack in the early morning of June 7, 1863. Thanks to the shells lobbed from the Union boats on the river, the Confederate forces were repelled and the news of the Union victory at Milliken’s Bend was regaled in the New York Times and other media. 

The regiments at Milliken’s Bend continued to safeguard the west bank of the Mississippi until Vicksburg surrendered after the 47 days of siege. Grant was promoted to commanding general of the Armies of the United States, the highest military rank, and was called to Washington. Vicksburg became the new Union headquarters for the Mississippi Valley and would be the garrison for thousands of Union troops for the rest of the war.

Gettysburg, which had seemed on the verge of being captured by Lee before July 3, was also returned to Union control.

It is one of those strange quirks of history that the fall of Vicksburg and the Union victory at Gettysburg both fell on July 4, 1863.

The great majority of Black people of that era, with nearly four million still in slavery, did not look upon July 4 as a day worthy of celebration. In 1852, Frederick Douglass had titled one of his long orations “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” 

 “I do not hesitate to declare, with all my soul,” Douglass said in that speech, “that the character and conduct of the nation never looked blacker to me than on this Fourth of July!”

As the war grew beyond the early expectations and the military opened its ranks to Black recruits and volunteers, Douglass reversed his attitude. Using the familiar public speaker’s platform and the front page of his newspaper The North Star as outlets, he offered a new message on March 2, 1863: “Men of Color, to Arms…. Action, Action, not criticism is the plain duty of this hour. Words are now useful only as they stimulate to blows.”

While there were persistent questions of whether the Civil War was in the interest of Black people, Douglass dispelled those doubts and urged every Black man “to get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket.” 

“Who would be free themselves must strike the first blow,” he said. “They tell you this is the ‘white man’s war.’ Believe them not; cowards themselves, they do not wish to have their cowardice shamed by your brave example.”


The critical role of Black troops in the Siege of Vicksburg and the ultimate victory of the Civil War needs to be told in all aspects of the sacrifice and courage they devoted to it, says noted African American Civil War researcher Bennie McRae, the master of the Lest We Forget website that had thousands of contributors and followers for nearly 20 years. 

The Black troops of the 1st Mississippi, the 9th and the 11th Louisiana regiments assigned to Vicksburg were rarely mentioned in the writings of past Vicksburg National Park historians like the late Edwin Bearss, who served in Vicksburg from 1955 through 1966, and his now-retired successor Terrence Winschel.

The full story is still waiting to be told, nevertheless, McRae said in a telephone interview last Sunday from his home in Trotwood, Ohio.

“The story hasn’t been told,” he said. “And it needs to be.” 

Before Vicksburg fell on July 4, 1863, the Union had recruited 10 Black regiments in the Mississippi Valley. Some of these regiments played a crucial role in winning the war there.

“They gave them the name the African Brigade,” said McRae. “And they were a part of the West Tennessee Militia. This West Tennessee command was all part of the Vicksburg occupation.

“The 10 Black regiments were organized under Gen. Lorenzo Thomas, the adjutant general, when he came to the Mississippi Valley in April 1863. The first regiment he organized was the First Arkansas Volunteer Infantry. Then he went on to organize other units and he gave them a Mississippi or Louisiana state designation. And, of course, their participation at Port Hudson, under the name of the 1st and 3rd Louisiana Native Guard, they were all a part of the siege of Vicksburg. 

On May 22, 1863, the Bureau of Colored Troops was officially established, and the Black regiments were identified with a number and put under the authority of the United States Colored Troop (USCT). 

The best source of information on these Black regiments and their engagements in the Civil War, McRae says, is “The Official Records of the War of the Rebellion” compiled and published between 1880 and 1890.

“The reports themselves were written at the time of the action in the Civil War. They were battlefield reports. There’s a lot of good information in those volumes that can back up everything, and it comes from the official record. The people who keep denying all these facts can deny all they want to. But it’s a fact.” 


Adjutant General Thomas made it clear to all the Army units that the Black refugees, sometimes called contrabands, from the plantations and the men who were being recruited from among them for the Union Army were to be treated humanely and given food and other accommodations.

“Do not turn them away, but receive them kindly and cordially,” Thomas told the encampment in Helena, Arkansas, on April 6. 1863.

“They are to be encouraged to come to us. They are to be received with open arms. They are to be fed and clothed. They are to be armed. This is the policy which has been fully determined upon. I am here to say that I am authorized to raise as many regiments of Blacks as I can.”

The adjutant general also informed white non-commissioned officers of the opportunities for promotions in the Black regiments. In some cases, even white privates and corporals were granted promotions to lieutenant and captain. 

“I am authorized to give commissions, from the highest to the lowest,” Thomas said. “And I desire those persons who are earnest in this work to take hold of it. I desire only those whose hearts are in the work, and to those only will I give commissions. I don’t care who they are, or what their present rank may be, I do not hesitate to say that all proper persons will receive commissions.”

Still, some of the white soldiers were openly hostile to having the Black units serving alongside them, McRae says.

“They knew they needed those Black soldiers. But what they needed most…were the Blacks that served as spies and scouts. In the South, if it hadn’t been for them, the Union Army never would’ve won that war because the Blacks who were ex-slaves served as scouts and spies. They provided a lot of intelligence reports for the Union army. They knew where the plantations were. They knew where the trails and the rivers were. And they knew the outlay of the land, and they gave reports to the Union commanders. 

McRae points out that Army Major General C. C. Washburn had high praises for the Black regiments under his command in Memphis as they staged many successful raids into northern Mississippi. 

“The Colored troops made for themselves on this occasion a brilliant record,” Washburn wrote. “Their gallant and soldierly bearing, and the zeal and persistence with which they fought, elicited the warmest encomiums from all officers of the command. Their claims to be considered as among the very best soldiers of our army can no longer, in my opinion, be seriously questioned.”

Retired career Air Force veteran Ike Edwards frequently lectures on the Louisiana Native Guards, Black regiments that were established under French law long before the U. S. bought Louisiana. During the Civil War they were assigned to the Bureau of Colored Troops and played a vital role at Milliken’s Bend and at Port Hudson. The Native Guards were a part of the Vicksburg Campaign, Edwards said.

To defeat and maintain possession of Vicksburg, Edwards said, the Union forces had to capture Port Hudson also. Port Hudson was the final point after Vicksburg impeding Union control of the Mississippi. And like Vicksburg, it sits on a very high and secure embankment overlooking the river.

Port Hudson had been attacked before, but the Union was unable to capture it. 

“The 1st and 3rd Native Guard Regiments were sent to capture Port Hudson,” Edwards said. “However, they were unsuccessful in trying to capture it, but the deal is they lost a lot of men during that time.”

The siege of Port Hudson lasted from May 22 – July 9, 1863. And it fell to the Union forces only five days after the surrender of Vicksburg on July 4. Five days after that – July 9 – Port Hudson capitulated. 

With the fall of Port Hudson, Lincoln is quoted as saying, “The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea.”


The late historian Benjamin Quarles of Dillard and Morgan State University saw something of great substance in the Black presence in Civil War and gave the Battle of Milliken’s Bend his highest praise. His pioneer work, “The Negro in the Civil War” remains one of the most reliable books on the subject. The following text is excerpted from a previous article by this writer.

“Rushing upon and over the entrenchments and flanking the fort,” Quarles wrote in his description of the battle, “the Rebels closed in on the defenders of Milliken’s Bend. Thereupon ensued a bloody hand-to-hand fight which ranked as one of the most bitter knock-down-and-drag-out struggles during the course of a war famous for its hard-fought actions. It was a contest between enraged men fighting with bayonets and musket butts.

“Both sides freely used the bayonet – a rare occurrence in warfare, as General Lorenzo Thomas observed in commenting on the battle, since usually ‘one of the parties gives up before coming in contact with steel.’ In one instance, two men lay side by side, each having the other’s bayonet in his body. . . .A teenage cook, who had begged for a gun when the enemy was seen approaching, was badly wounded with one gunshot and two bayonet wounds. In one Negro company there were six broken bayonets.

“The scathing ordeal continued all during the morning, each man on his own hook. Until the hour of high noon the rival infantrymen contested the field in the longest bayonet-charge engagement of the war. Broken limbs and mangled bodies were strewn in profusion along the breastworks. Confederate General McCulloch reported that of the wounds received by his men, ‘more are severe and fewer slight than I have ever witnessed among the same number in my former military experience.’”

At about noon of the second day of battle, Admiral David Porter sent the Union ship Choctaw into battle. Some of the Union forces were sacrificed under the raging assault of the gunboat, but it took only a half-dozen shells and the 95-degree heat to persuade the Rebels to beat a hasty retreat.

“As the Texas regiment retreated,” wrote Quarles, “the Union soldiers, encouraged by the turn of events, followed after them across the open field. The pursuit ceased as the Rebels crossed the outer confines of the fort. Before the retreat had been completed, one Negro took his former master a prisoner and brought him into camp with great gusto.”

Because of this tenacity in defending their post, the Black troops at Milliken’s Bend proved that even raw Black recruits could hold their own against the best that the white South could throw at them. Two commemorative plaques located at the obscure Grant’s Canal on the Louisiana side of the Mississippi lists the battles of the African Brigade, including Milliken’s Bend, their regimental identities, and their commanders. A monument dedicated to the Black troops in general was erected in the Vicksburg National Park in 2004. 

“Milliken’s Bend,” said Quarles, “was thus one of the hardest fought encounters in the annals of American military history.”

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July 4, 1863: Role of Black troops in the fall of Vicksburg and beyond

By Earnest McBride
July 3, 2023