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The Civil War in MississippiMajor Campaigns and Battles$

Michael B. Ballard

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9781604738421

Published to University Press of Mississippi: March 2014

DOI: 10.14325/mississippi/9781604738421.001.0001

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(p.273) Appendix The Forgotten

(p.273) Appendix The Forgotten

Source:
The Civil War in Mississippi
Publisher:
University Press of Mississippi

Ethnic and racial groups in Civil War Mississippi have been largely ignored by historians. Their stories could have been integrated into the preceding chapters, but I prefer shining a spotlight on them. To have immersed them in chapters would have diminished their stories, and that is not my purpose for including them. They need to be recognized to flesh out the history of Mississippi’s Civil War era. Hopefully, they will receive more attention in the future.

Mississippi Choctaw Indians did not play a major role in the Civil War, but many participated on the Confederate side, and sometimes they saw action, albeit unorthodox in nature. For example, in the summer of 1863, during the Vicksburg campaign, reinforcements came by rail from the east to help John Pemberton’s besieged army. In June a trainload of these soldiers were en route to Jackson, where they would join Joseph Johnston’s force, but heavy rains in the Meridian area had submerged the railroad bridge across the Chunky River. The train stayed on the water-covered track until the last car came loose and tumbled into the “raging waters with nearly one hundred soldiers” on board.

Choctaw soldiers happened to be nearby, perhaps acting as scouts, and unhesitatingly jumped into the rapidly flowing stream and pulled most of the soldiers out of the water, though many were already dead. Some “twenty-two were resuscitated and returned to their commands.” The rest were buried near the railroad, though families later came and disinterred some bodies to take them home. For the Choctaws, this incident of bravery was the highlight of their service in Mississippi, yet they never received recognition.

(p.274) An outfit called the First Mississippi Choctaw Battalion participated in the Confederate army and trained at Camp Moore in Louisiana, but many became prisoners when a Union detachment captured the camp. Most white officers escaped, and what happened to the captives is uncertain; it has been presumed they were sent to Oklahoma Territory, where other Choctaws had been deported prior to the war. Whatever the case, the role of the Mississippi Choctaws in their state’s Civil War needs further exploration.

Another Confederate Choctaw unit, the First Choctaw Battalion Cavalry, was organized in the state capital of Jackson in the summer of 1862. Most of the members were Choctaws from southern Mississippi, and the battalion served in the Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana, in the Fourth Military District commanded by General John Adams. As far as can be determined, the battalion stayed within the boundaries of Mississippi and did not see any major action. During the siege of Vicksburg, the battalion disbanded on June 9, 1863, and apparently was reorganized as the Third Regiment, Choctaw Cavalry. These troops may have left Mississippi to campaign in Indian Territory, but whatever military action they participated in after leaving the state is unclear. Even if they saw no major action, they, too, should be remembered. The numbers of Mississippi Indians who participated in the war is not known and may be impossible to calculate.1

Soldiers who have not been ignored, but on the other hand have not received a proper amount of attention, are Mississippi African American soldiers who served in the Union army. There is a seemingly never-ending debate, started by lost causers who defend or dismiss slavery as the cause of the war, over whether and/or how many blacks fought for the Confederacy. Yet until near the end of the war, the Confederate government forbade the use of slaves as soldiers. There has long been a story that black soldiers fought for the Confederacy at the battle of Chickasaw Bayou, north of Vicksburg, in December 1862, because some Union soldiers insisted they saw them. None of the Confederate accounts, whether official or in letters and diaries, reveals anything of the kind. Most historians have concluded that the Federal soldiers saw Louisiana soldiers, some of whom had dark complexions due to their French-Cajun heritage, their faces made even darker by powder and smoke from the firing of guns. Many reject that argument, but until evidence is found to prove that black Confederate soldiers participated in that fight, the complexion explanation is the only one that makes sense.

Did some slaves pick up guns and fire at Union troops during the war? There is some indication in scattered sources that at times they did, but if (p.275) so, they certainly did not fight in numbers large enough to change the outcome of any battle, or the war. There are those who insist some regimental records indicate black soldiers served in Confederate units, but they could not have done so in any official capacity that would have been recognized by the Confederate government. Even if they received pensions after the war, and some did, they were not, due to government policy, official soldiers in the Confederate army. Only in the last few weeks of the war did the Jefferson Davis government and the Confederate Congress give in and permit slaves to be organized as military units. Some few marched around the streets of Richmond, but most who saw them dismissed the whole project as ludicrous. It is certain that the change in policy came much too late to benefit the Confederate military in any way.

In the following discussion, black participation is limited to those who fought in U.S. Colored Troop units. A student of this topic estimates that former slaves in Mississippi who fought for the Union numbered between 16,000 and 18,000. Coming up with an exact count is impossible, but the totals are based on the best research materials available. If black Confederate units existed, there is no known documentation to support their existence. Such outfits would have drawn the ire of Jefferson Davis, the Confederate Congress, Confederate state governments, and most of the Southern white population in general.2

A cavalry unit, originally designated the First Mississippi Cavalry (African Descent) was authorized at Vicksburg by Brigadier General Lorenzo Thomas, following a “suggestion” by General Ulysses S. Grant. Formally organized and accepted in U.S. service in October 1863, the unit eventually became known as the Third U.S. Colored Cavalry. One of their initial duties, which they must have thoroughly enjoyed, was escorting Confederate prisoners captured north of Vicksburg into the town in December 1863. The outfit operated in various capacities in the Vicksburg region, especially in Louisiana and Arkansas, before occupying Yazoo City in 1864, and was commanded by white officer Embury D. Osband, who loved paperwork, and made possible the Third being the only black cavalry unit to have a regimental history. Written by Edwin M. Main, who doubtless drew heavily from Osband’s records, it is entitled The Story of Marches, Battles, and Incidents of the Third United States Colored Cavalry: A Fighting Regiment in the War of the Rebellion, 1861–5.3

The First Mississippi Volunteers of African Descent, organized at Milliken’s Bend, Louisiana, and Vicksburg in May 1863, played a dramatic role in the battle of Milliken’s Bend, June 7, 1863, on the west side of the Mississippi River northwest of Vicksburg. They received Belgian rifles, which (p.276) were not considered very good weapons, the day before the battle. They obviously did not have time for proper training, yet they fought well beside black Louisiana troops and “held off a larger force of Confederates in heated hand-to-hand combat.” Yet the Union troops were driven back to the edge of the Mississippi where a Union gunboat, the Choctaw, provided cover fire, and the attacking Confederate Texas troops had to retreat. The black troops proved they were not afraid to fight, for “the vicious hand-to-hand struggle on the levee near Milliken’s Bend created new respect for African American fighting men.” The unit remained in Vicksburg until 1864 and was eventually designated the Fifty- first U.S. Colored Troops.

Other Mississippi African American units included the Second Mississippi Regiment of Infantry, African Descent, which also served in the Vicksburg area and was designated in 1864 as the Fifty-second U.S. Colored Troops. The Third Regiment of Black Infantry, African Descent, likewise was in the Vicksburg region and became the Fifty-third U.S. Colored Troops. The Fourth Regiment was also organized at Vicksburg and served there, becoming the Sixty-sixth U.S. Colored Troops. The Fifth Regiment never completed its organization and did not officially serve in the war. The Sixth Infantry, African Descent, served at Natchez and Vicksburg and was designated the Fifty-eighth U.S. Colored Troops. Other predominantly Mississippi troops included the Second Regiment of Heavy Artillery, before having its name changed to the Fifth and then the Sixth U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery, assigned to the Vicksburg district. The First Regiment of Heavy Artillery became the Fourth and then the Fifth U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery, likewise serving at Vicksburg. Another African American unit, the First Regiment Mounted Rifles, was mostly Mississippian, though organized at Memphis, where it served in the defense of that city and later participated in Grierson’s 1864–65 raid on the Mobile & Ohio Railroad.4

A group that has received practically no attention is the number of Mississippians who fought in the Union army. According to records of the U.S. Adjutant’s office, published by the National Archives on microfilm, slightly over 900 Mississippi men fought for the preservation of the Union. Other sources give a lower number, in the 500 range. Whatever the truth, they all fought in an outfit called the First Battalion, Mississippi Mounted Rifles. Other pro-Union Mississippians did not wear uniforms. Some, like Levi Naron, scouted for Union armies, while others quietly worked as spies for the Union cause or aided and supplied escaped Federal prisoners. Because they operated in secrecy, and few let their true feelings be known after the war, their story will probably never be told with any degree of certainty. Ironically, many of these Unionists were and are forgotten because they wanted to be.

Notes:

(1) . S. G. Spann, ‘Choctaw Indians as Confederate Soldiers,’ http://www.choctaw.org/history/confederate.htm; ‘The Civil War in Mississippi, http://www.researchonline.net/mscw/unit20.htm; ‘Confederate Troops,’ 2, http://rebelcherokee.labdiva.com/cwit/rebeltroops.html; Charles E. Hooker, Confederate Military History, vol. 9, ed. Clement A. Evans (Wilmington, N.C., 1987), 130.

(2) . I am indebted to James Hollandsworth of Jackson, Mississippi, for sharing information regarding the number of Mississippi black troops.

(3) . Noah Andre Trudeau, ‘Proven Themselves in Every Respect to Be Men: Black Cavalry in the Civil War,’ in Black Soldiers in Blue: African American Troops in the Civil War Era, ed. John David Smith (Chapel Hill, N.C., 2002), 279, 284, 291, 301n8; Frederick H. Dyer, A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion, 3 vols. (New York, 1959), 3:1343; Edwin M. Main, The Story of Marches, Battles, and Incidents of the Third United States Colored Cavalry: A Fighting Regiment in the War of the Rebellion, 1861–5 (Lexington, Ky., 1908).

(4) . John David Smith, ‘Let Us All Be Grateful That We Have Colored Troops That Will Fight,’ in Smith, Black Soldiers, 55; Richard Lowe, ‘Battle on the Levee: The Fight at Milliken’s Bend,’ in Smith, Black Soldiers, 110, 117–18, 126; Dyer, Compendium, 3:1343–44; see also David Slay, ‘Abraham Lincoln and the United States Colored Troops of Mississippi,’ Journal of Mississippi History (Spring 2008): 67–86.