Ross Landing Massacre of Feb. 14, 1864, was just part of a much larger role of Black troops in Civil War

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Thelma Sims Dukes, left, Sims’ family historian, hosts Feb. 17 ‘Say Their Names’ Ross Landing Commemoration at Vicksburg National Park. With her are Brendon Wilson, National Park chief of interpretation, and Dr. Beth Kruse, Andrew Mellon Scholar for Vicksburg National Park. (Photo: Earnest McBride)

The loss of a dozen soldiers in a surprise attack in 1864 may seem insignificant given the broader context of the Civil War, but this incident was part of a much larger groundswell of the war than it might first appear to be. 

The devastating Feb. 14, 1864, Confederate assault on the 20 troops of Company G of the First Mississippi Infantry (African Descent) unit foraging for supplies in Chicot County, Arkansas, was the second of such deadly surprise attacks the unit had suffered in less than a year.

A large force of Confederate guerillas ambushed the 18 enlisted Black soldiers and the two white men leading them, a first lieutenant and a first sergeant. Seven were killed on the first launch of the attack. Four others were wounded, leaving 7 men to survive and return to their base with the wounded. After founding of the Vicksburg National Cemetery in 1866, the deceased troops from Ross Landing were reburied at Vicksburg as “unknown.”

The Feb. 17 “Say Their Names” ceremony hosted by the William “Bill” Sims Foundation at the Vicksburg National Military Park commemorated the massacre and the ultimate recovery of the Union soldiers’ bodies and individual identities from that 160-year-old military action. Otherwise, 13 of the Black troops might have remained buried as “unknown” forever.

JSU Associate Professor of History Dr. Albert Dorsey Jr., performed the libation ritual, calling by name each of the 20 soldiers caught up in the Ross Landing Massacre.


The first attack on the 1st Mississippi had come early in the morning of June 7, 1863, a mile and a half south of Milliken’s Bend, LA, and was the first real test of the fighting ability of the newly recruited African Brigade that was to be deployed at critical points in the Mississippi Valley. Despite their massive losses from the rifles and bayonets of the more experienced and more numerous Confederates, the 1st Mississippi had fought on to victory at Milliken’s Bend. The 1st Mississippi regiment was redesignated as the 51st regiment of the United States Colored Troops (USCT) on March 11, 1864, less than a month after the engagement at Ross Landing in Arkansas.

Three other Union regiments fought at the side of the 1st Mississippi at Milliken’s Bend: The 9th Louisiana (Corps d’Afrique), the 11th Louisiana (Corps d’Afrique), and one white regiment (the 23rd Iowa). 

The four regiments were taking devastating losses after a surprise Confederate attack and close-quarter pursuit 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. 


Until recently, National Park historians and Vicksburg’s official “raconteurs” of the Civil War nearly all demeaned or dismissed the Black troops at Milliken’s Bend and elsewhere as mere supply guards – “if they existed at all,” as the late curator of Vicksburg’s Old Courthouse Museum once said. These four regiments were a vital contingency in defending Commanding General Ulysses S. Grant’s headquarters, which was at Milliken’s Bend before he began moving south to execute his plan of encircling Vicksburg. The evidence is found in Grant’s own writings, especially in his two-volume “Personal Memoirs.”

Grant clearly established his headquarters at Milliken’s Bend and nearby Young’s Point, La.

“The campaign against Vicksburg commenced on the 2d of November (1862),” he writes in his memoirs.

“On the 29th of January (1863) I arrived at Young’s Point and assumed command the following day.”

On April 20 (1863), Grant noted: “I returned to Milliken’s Bend on the 18th or 19th, and on the 20th issued the following final order for the movement of troops: Headquarters Department Of The Tennessee, Milliken’s Bend, Louisiana.”

The standard military records show that the Union Army and Navy enlisted a combined total of 208,000 Black men in the two services. Of those, 179,000 served in 175 Army regiments, all but one of which was divided along racial lines. The Navy enlisted 29,000 Black seamen, including Marines. The state of Mississippi supplied the fourth highest number of Black Civil War servicemen – 17,869; Tennessee was third with 20,133; Kentucky, second with 23,703; and Louisiana first, with 24,502. 

The number of Black regiments that were garrisoned at Vicksburg at any time after its fall on July 4, 1863, is usually given as 15 total. Vicksburg National Cemetery holds the largest number of Civil War dead, both Black and white. Older miliary records show that 7,240 Black soldiers from the Civil War are interred there.


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.

Note that Grant, who was on the east side of Vicksburg engaging the Siege, gave his own assessment of the Black troops at Milliken’s Bend in a positive light. 

“On the 7th of June,” he wrote, “our little force of (1410) colored and white troops across the Mississippi, at Milliken’s Bend, were attacked by about 3,000 men from Richard Taylor’s trans-Mississippi command. With the aid of the gunboats, they were speedily repelled. I sent Mower’s brigade over with instructions to drive the enemy beyond the Tensas Bayou; and we had no further trouble in that quarter during the siege. This was the first important engagement of the war in which colored troops were under fire. These men were very raw, having all been enlisted since the beginning of the siege, but they behaved well.”


On Feb. 14, 1864, Company G of the 1st Mississippi was assigned to forage for food and livestock in the areas north of Milliken’s Bend, a quest that led them across the state line into Arkansas.

Grant had set the forage standards in an earlier order:

“By my orders,” Grant wrote, “and in accordance with previous instructions from Washington, all the forage within reach was collected under the supervision of the chief quartermaster and the provisions under the chief commissary.”

As at Milliken’s Bend, the Confederates were under orders to kill the white officers, and to re-enslave Black troops.

“The Rebels came madly on with cries of ‘No quarters for white officers, kill the d— abolitionists, but spare the n—–’” – wrote U.S.A Col. Hermann Lieb, commander of the African Brigade at Milliken’s Bend.

This rebel attitude remained in force all the way through the Civil War, including during the Ross Landing Massacre.

Hosting the Feb. 17 ceremony was Thelma Sims Dukes, whose great-great-grandfather, William “Bill” Sims, served in the 3rd Regiment of the U.S. Colored Cavalry (USCC). This regiment is more familiarly known as the 3rd USCC. The regiment was originally formed in October 1863 as the 1st Mississippi Cavalry Regiment (African Descent) at Vicksburg. It was renamed the 3rd U.S. Colored Cavalry in March 1864. The 3rd USCC, however, was not engaged in the massacre at Ross Landing.

The Sims (Dukes) family still owns 10 acres of the 100 acres Bill Sims and his wife bought in 1896.

“We are honoring and commemorating these African Civil War soldiers of the 1st Mississippi Infantry and their two white officers, who were massacred at Ross Landing, Chicot County, Arkansas, on Feb. 14, 1864. Remembering and saying their names is a powerful way to ensure their legacy lives on,” Sims-Dukes said.  “We honor their ultimate sacrifices by saying their names today after 160 years. They are never again to be buried as unknown.”

“Not only were they soldiers, they were freedom fighters, former slaves who had seen the worst of the worst. They were fighting in a position of resentment, hatred, racism, lower pay, lower fatigue duty, used as shock troops, (issued) inadequate weapons, and sometimes given no quarters. 


Dr. Beth Kruse, the Andrew Mellon Scholar affiliated with the National Park, did the research on the massacre and reported her work in an article, “Massacre at Ross Landing, (Available at:” Her article is accredited with restoring the soldiers’ names, residences, and deaths, and most of their gravesites. 

“To be sure,” said Kruse, “the USCT held no misconceptions about the cruelty of the Southern men, and they were completely aware of the (return to) slavery…if captured on the battlefield. Approximately 100,000 African American men enlisted in the United States Colored Troops in the secession states even though they faced the threat of execution.

“Contrary to the narrative provided in past scholarship and that is followed on this card, the Black man was not groveling for inclusion,” Kruse continued. “The activism of both free Blacks in the North and the enslaved people in the South forced Lincoln to respond to their demands with his proclamations. Free Black men argued and petitioned for their right to join in the fight for freedom. The enslaved people who could not petition the government took the extreme risk of manumitting themselves by running away to Union lines.”


Vicksburg Mayor George Flaggs presented the gathering with a surprise announcement of a $10 million package to launch a new interpretation center to be located near the current park entrance.

“The MS legislature gave us $10 million to acquire some land to come build an interpretative center right here in Vicksburg,” he said. “So, we can tell the full story, not the whole story, but the full story about what happened.”

Flaggs said that he anticipates an investment of about $100 million in new developments for the National Park at Vicksburg.

“Today is the beginning of history that’s never been told like this before,” said Flaggs. “In the next year, 2025, we’re going to celebrate Vicksburg’s birthday. And we want to celebrate it in a way that it’s never been celebrated before. We want the whole story, the full story to be told right here.”


National Park Archaeologist John Schweikart emphasized the spiritual aspect of the historic moment – a divine contract – drawn up between the current population and the men who sacrificed it all at Ross Landing.

“What I mean by that is everyone in this room, all of these individuals buried in our National Cemetery, were given this divine contract,” Schweikart said. “We were given this gift of life…to cherish our loved ones, to enjoy the sunset, to have a wonderful meal with friends. 

“These individuals from Ross Landing lives were cut short. Very short, but they still were given that gift of life, in that contract for their own use, the same reason every one of us is held to. And that is to make a difference. You were brought to this ceremony for a reason. To keep this story going there has to be flame keepers and people who hold that flame and are committed to passing it on to the next generation. And that is all of you in this room. You were brought to this ceremony for a reason.”

Kruse recalled the words, the motto, that guided the Black troops of both the 1st Mississippi Infantry and the 3rd Mississippi Cavalry: “Rather die free men than to live to be slaves.” 

“Now, 160 years later,” she said. “we can acknowledge the victims of Ross Landing. And as President Lincoln remarked over the Gettysburg dead, we, too, can recognize the men who lay in the hallowed ground of Vicksburg National Cemetery and never forget what they did for freedom.” 

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Ross Landing Massacre of Feb. 14, 1864, was just part of a much larger role of Black troops in Civil War

By Earnest McBride
March 3, 2024