Milliken’s Bend: A Civil War Battle in History and Memory
by Linda Barnickel
Hardcover, 320 pages
Linda Barnickel is described as “an archivist and freelance writer with master’s degrees from the University of Wisconsin–Madison and The Ohio State University.” Though not possessing a PhD, Barnickel is truly a historian and proves as much with her fine book, Milliken’s Bend: A Civil War Battle in History and Memory. Her work has received high praise as well, as it was the Winner of the 2013 Jules and Frances Landry Award, for the “most outstanding achievement in the field of southern studies.” For more about the book and its author see her website.
The story of Milliken’s Bend is something I have been familiar with ever since I researched my book on the 11th Wisconsin as they traveled through Trans-Mississippi region and spoke of the fighting that took place there involving black Union soldiers. I knew the fighting was vicious and that many whites in the Union army were surprised at the ferocity of the Negro troops. Indeed, the bravery displayed by the U.S.C.T. soldiers at Milliken’s Bend began to challenge a lot of whites perceptions of blacks.
However, the scope of Barnickel’s book goes well beyond the battle. First she does a wonderful job setting up the whole nature of Negro soldiers and how they were viewed by Union soldiers and officers and of course, Southerners. Her work studies race relations and places the context of the event within a larger historical framework. The evolution of Southern fears concerning slave revolts and how violently they dealt with such incidents. The venomous reaction by Southerners (men and women) to the Unions decision to arm blacks. The nature of Northern racism and their treatment of the newly formed black regiments is also keenly handled. For example, I was not aware that the Union military placed former slaves on abandoned plantations to labor for the Union army. I had only known them to be used as laborers at camp. And for those not aware of the brutal treatment some received at the hands of Union officers and soldiers, Barnickel’s handling of the subject will be eye-opening.
The battle was fought and immediately there were controversy over the “black flag” and “no quarter” policy that the Southern military had established with regard to Negro soldiers. They were to be treated as inciting an insurrection and put to death; as well as their white officers. There is a lot of controversy and debate about the battle and the aftermath (there were black soldiers and white officers taken prisoner.) All of this Barnickel handles with scholarly detail and balance.
The book also examines the lasting impact of the battle with regard to prisoner exchanges, lynchings, and other atrocities. The fighting at Milliken’s Bend had far reaching and far lasting consequences that are nicely presented and illuminated. This is an excellent scholarly work that I highly recommend for any Civil War reader and especially for any Trans-Mississippi historian!