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|Would black men fight? They answered at Milliken's Bend|
(19th in a series)
On Sunday, June 7, 1863, a small Civil War battle in northeastern Louisiana at Milliken's Bend introduced new, hard fighting soldiers for the North -- men of African descent. Almost all were recently freed slaves.
The battle came during the North's campaigns to capture Vicksburg and Port Hudson and take control of the Mississippi River. General U.S. Grant had made Milliken's Bend a staging area for the Vicksburg Campaign, but his main army had departed the location a month prior with about 1,000 men left behind, mostly newly-recruited black troops who had received only two weeks of training.
In April, from headquarters for the Army of the Tennessee at Millken's Bend, Grant had issued Special Orders No. 110, which included the establishment of general hospitals to care for sick and disabled soldiers at Milliken's Bend who were to be treated until they were able to return to duty. The black troops there were charged with keeping the wounded and sick safe and protecting the supply depot.
Early in the war, the pleas of freed slaves to fight for the North were rejected. Those coming into the camps of Union armies were given refuge, provided food and engaged in various tasks, ranging from wood-cutting to similar labor. John Roy Lynch, a freed 15-year-old slave and future congressman living in Natchez, was hired as a pantryman on the Union transport The Altamount docked under-the-hill.
Many freed black men, however, wanted a spot on the battlefield, a chance to fight for their own freedom. Abolitionist Wendell Phillips centered on that very fact when he said: "Will the 'slave' fight? If any man asks you tell him No. But if anyone asks you will a 'Negro' fight, tell him Yes!"
Following the Battle of Antietam in 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation which provided that those slaves in the states rebelling against the United States beginning on Jan. 1, 1863 "shall be then, henceforward and forever free." Efforts later began to recruit men of African descent into the Union army.
Although Union men fought for the freedom of the slaves, racist attitudes were prevalent in the North, too, and some leaders felt blacks incapable of serving in battle. Some Union officers in Natchez in the summer of 1863 felt the freed slaves would be better off remaining on the plantations while the war was conducted. Some didn't personally support General Lorenzo Thomas' governmental task to enlist black men into the army upon his arrival in Natchez.
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