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The contributions of freed slaves-turned-soldiers for the Union Army during the American Civil War were numerous, with many Black fighters awarded with medals and other accolades. Despite the racism they faced from Confederate leaders in the South and Union leaders in the North, the soldiers showed a prowess for fighting and triumphing against incredible odds. On this day in 1863, the Battle of Milliken’s Bend took place in Vicksburg, Miss., as part of an important campaign won because of the efforts of African-American soldiers.

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Maj. Gen. (and future President) Ulysses S. Grant held a supply and hospital area in Milliken’s Bend up the Mississippi River that was manned mostly by Black soldiers. Confederate forces attacked the area in an attempt to cut Grant’s supplies and weaken his troops. The men of the United States Colored Infantry who guarded Milliken’s Bend did not have the advanced weapons and training of the Confederates.

Although reinforcements were coming from the North by way of Union Colonel Hermann Lieb and the African Brigade, the Confederates had a sizeable advantage.

Attacking in the early morning hours, the brief but violent clash was reduced to close hand-to-hand combat, and the Black soldiers managed to beat back rebel forces, although Lieb and the Brigade suffered heavy casualties. Having retreated to the river bank, two Union gunships began firing on the advancing Confederate forces and seized back the critical Vicksburg staging area.

The soldiers, who bravely stood their ground, were even praised for their bravery by the enemy.

Brigadier General Henry McCullough said of the Black troops that his forces were “resisted by the Negro portion of the enemy’s force with considerable obstinacy, while the White or true Yankee position ran like whipped curs almost as soon as the charge was ordered.”

Grant smugly applauded the actions of the Black soldiers, saying they “behaved well” despite doing more damage in close combat than any of the White soldiers did with better weaponry. Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana wrote:

The bravery of the Blacks completely revolutionized the sentiment of the army with regard to the employment of Negro troop.

This would lead to the Union Army finally deciding to arm the Black troops better.

Thousands of Black soldiers died in combat during the bloody war, while thousands more succumbed to disease along with poor medical treatment.

Despite the fact that they were still considered outsiders, the Black Union troops displayed bravery and fought fiercely for a country that barely regarded them as people.

Would the fate of the Union Army been rendered differently if African-American fighters did not take up arms? It certainly appears so.

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