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U.S. Colored Troops at Battle of Milliken’s Bend: “The colored troops bursted out on the rebel horde like a thunderbolt ...”
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“The colored troops bursted out on the rebel horde like a thunderbolt and in less than 10 minets were the sole possessors of the field, the rebs having left rather sooner and in a different style than they (the rebs) had anticipated. After the fight was over our negro soldiers bayonetted the wounded rebs and then (to use the negroes style of speaking) planted them.”

[AFRICAN AMERICAN SOLDIERS]. Morgan J. Umsted, Autograph Letter Signed, to [cousin?], September 22, 1863, Vicksburg, Mississippi. 16 pp., 5-1/8 x 7-3/4 in.

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Complete Transcript

                                                                        Camp of the 13th Iowa Regmt

                                                                        Vicksburg Miss.

                                                                        Sept 22” 1863.

            In yours of the 17th of August “via” the 7th of September you requested me to write immediately and I will try to comply with your reasonable request. Well I will commence with our correspondence You state in yours of the 17th of August that you wrote me a letter immediately after the battle of Gettysburg and that you received no answer or letters from me until about the latter part of August. I cannot see how it is that letters do not reach their destination as they should. I have written several times to you and you never mention any thing about them so I presume that you do not receive them, in every letter I have received from you you state particularly the date of my letters received so I <2-3> am satisfied that you do not receive all of my letters, allso the same with yours. you speak of letters in your last that I have never received, how such mistakes happen as the miscarrying of so many letters I cannot conceive, however it is no use talking for it will not help the matter any, so I will drop such a disagreeable subject.

There is nothing of any importance transpired for some time and our news are at a stand still (now as a letter cannot be an interesting one without a subject to write about, so you must excuse this if it proves uninteresting) I believe I will give you a faint idea of Vicksburg and the surrounding country. The city is situated on a very high bluff on the east bank of the river, and extends back from the river about ¾ of a mile, and its front extends along the river the distance of 1 mile. Its streets are wide with good pavements and are lined with shade trees making it a very cool and delightfull place to promenade especially on a warm day. The city now is very clean and orderly and every thing in and around the town is in good condition except a number of the buildings which were torn and shattered by our shot and shell, a great many of the largest buildings have great holes through them and a great many of them have the whole front part of the buildings torn or blown out, some entirely destroyed and some with just a small hole through them.

Starting at the west side or next to the river you ascend the bluff untill you reach the rear of town where the country then breaks off in an innumerable number of ravines and ridges so steep that it is really dangerous to attempt to pass over them. <4> The country is very mountainous untill you reach the Big Black River where it breaks off and is level as far as Jackson. at Jackson the country is mountainous and it is said to continue so untill you reach the Alabama line where the great swamps of the south lay.

You spoke about being present at a raising of the national colors and that there were a great many negroes present and they of so many shades. If you were in the south I think you would soon get tired of the airs & graces of the negroes, and I think that they can be found of quite a number of different shades than those that inhabit the north. The color or shade of the negroes here are generally the same as the principles of their owners or masters. for Instance, the slaves formerally owned by old General Zack Taylor are as black as <5> the ace of spades (as the common expression is when speaking of anything very black) while Jeff Davis’s are a very light copper colored looking set or “Bogus” negroes. You ask if I have seen those colored Regiments of Port Hudson notriety. I have not, but I have seen quite a number of Lake Providence and Vicksburg colored Regiments.

We have plenty of the flowers of the south at this place, and we have plenty of labor for them as the military authorities here are fortifying this city as they expect to make a general depot here for stores and troops. You seem to think it is fully time that our government is bringing some of its idle resources into action by the raising of colored troops for the field instead of so many white troops. I think it is an excellent idea, but to tell the truth I do not want anything to do with them for <6-7> they do not fight as well as is reported, unless they get cornered up and have to fight and then they go in with the determination of doing something but if they have clear ground in their rear and nothing to stop them from runing, they would run every time they would be brought up before the enemy. For instance, examine the details of the battle that was fought by the United States forces (of African descent) at Milikens Bend on the Mississippi River. there was quite a number of (parts or detachments of) colored regiments at that point when the commandant of the post received intelligence of a body of Rebels about 3 miles from that place who were preparing to attack him, so he thinks to take the advantage of them, he moves his forces out about 1½ or 2 miles from the river and displayes them in battle array. then he throws forward his skirmishers about ¼ of a mile front of the line of battle, and then lays on his oars awaiting a forward movement of the enemy.

After awaiting a short time, the rebs were seen coming up directly in his front, and as they neared his line of skirmishers they (the skirmishers) were ordered to engage the rebs. Well, according to instructions they all arose from the ground and fired (“Yes” where did they fire, some of them up towards the heavens, some down into the earth, and to tell the truth, a person would not tell where some of them did fire for not a reb fell) and then the line of skirmishers broke and ran back when they reached the line of battle they were ordered to halt and <8> form in their respective places in the regiments. Well the rebs came on moving by the front and after they came up within long rifle range they halted and fixed bayonets and exchanged their Bonnie Blue Flag (as they style it) for the black flag then they moved forward and before they fired a shot the negroes had gone  they (the negro troops) had retreated back to the Levee along the river and substituted it for rifle pits and there they awaited the coming of rebels horde  The rebs came up on double quick shouting and cheering and no doubt they expected an easy victory but in that they were foiled for the negro troops had retreated as far as they posibly could and it was death to a great many of them more which way they would, the Mississippi River in the rear of them and the rebs on each flank and in front, so the <9> officers got them excited and they lay there as still as death untill the rebs came up so close that the flash of a gun would allmost singe their eyebrows when they all arose as if by some sudden impulse and fired a voley in the rebels ranks which made secesh soldiers waver, then the officers shouted charge bayonets forward double quick “march” then the colored troops bursted out on the rebel horde like a thunderbolt and in less than 10 minets were the sole possessors of the field, the rebs having left rather sooner and in a different style than they (the rebs) had anticipated.

After the fight was over our negro soldiers bayonetted the wounded rebs and then (to use the negroes style of speaking) planted them. <10-11>

At Port Hudson the negro’s reserve were old veterans, men that had been tried in battle and was never know only to do their duty as good soldiers should do, and they were the ones that General Banks wished to shield from the hardest part of the fighting. If they had not have been in the rear of the negroes, they (the negroes) would not have done what they did, (at least I have been told so by an Officer that was in command of a company of the negro troops) when they are cornered up they fight with the bravery of old veterans. Enough of the negro questions, as I have little to say of them and less to do with them.

I am sorry to hear of Isaacs Sloanaker’s death,[1] it will be a hard stroke on his wife, to loose her best friend “ah” her bosom friend and protector, it is hard, very hard, to loose such protection  I have experienced the grief that arises from the loss of a parent and friend.[2] All things ordained by the high-power of god are for the best. Trust ye in the lord and you shall be saved!

You speak of Lucy’s visiting Newark N.J. and having a very delightfull visit. I am glad to hear of young people enjoying themselves, allthough such privileges are not granted to me at the present time but I presume I will have a chance to enjoy myself before long. I hope so at least. You seem to think that I will make a southerner if I stay down here in the south much longer <12> and you ask how I would like it  I tell you I could never be a southerner for I could not agree with the ways and fashions of the people and I cannot sport the same principles as the southern democracy demands of the people. I could not live in a country that has raised up the battle axe to strike down its national colors and substitute the blue flag with the single star and bar instead of the stripes and stars, the stripes and stars of the best government must and shall be held aloft, and shall float to the breeze, above all other National emblems. Our starry ensign now floats at the mast head of all English vessels laying in our ports and its position is above all others and I will fight to maintain its position. When England lowers our Starry Ensign I will enlist for 10 years more, for I am not tired yet fighting to maintain our flag, country, and rights. <13>

When you spoke of closing yours of the 17th of August via Sept. 7th you said it was nearly dinner time and you would have to close your letter and get dinner. You said you wished that I was there to dine with you and that you would give me something better than Hard Tack.

Well now I must inform you that I have not seen any hard tack for quite a long time, for our Regmt has a portable bakery and we draw nothing but flour (that is in the bread line). I presume you would like to know what else we have to eat besides bread. We draw Beans, Pork, Rice, Coffee, Sugar, Tea, Beef & Sauer-craut allso Soap. We get a great deal more than we can use of such things as is mentioned above. All we draw from Government is the best that can possibly be had. I forgot to mention <14-15> that we occasionally get Ham and Shoulder meat, and occasionally get a little Sanitary goods, but all the good our Sanitary committee of Iowa does us is mighty little as we have a set of mighty sweet mouthed officers who gets the sanitary goods in large quantities. We never get any sanitary goods unless the Iowa State Sanitary agent comes to our camp, and then she looks into the regimental hospital and sees how our soldiers are treated. after looking into the hospitals Miss Annie comes around through the camp and sometimes sits down and has a chat with the “privates” and then we know as well what is coming as well as we know when meal times come. I think she is a Lady, we all think she is a lady and as such we respect her, her name is Miss Annie Whitenmier a resident of Iowa City.[3]

Davis was sick from the 10th of August until the 12th of this month when he received a sick furlough and started home.[4] I have not heard from him since he left, but I am waiting anxiously to hear from him. I received a letter from Mother yesterday[5] she was not well when she wrote, scarcely able to sit up. I do not know what the matter is as she did not state it in the letter. she was getting a little better when she wrote. It is useless for me to say anything about my health, as it is the same old thing, never enjoyed better health in my life. I think I will bring my scratching to a close as I have not told you any-thing yet interesting, and I presume <16> I could not if I was to scratch away all night.

Please remember me to all the members of the family and accepting my good wishes for your kind and interesting letter of the 17th via 7th which I received to day.

            With kind wishes for your future happiness I remain

                                                                        Your Cus

                                                                        M J Umsted

{P.S.} I will send my address on a small slip of paper.


Historical Background


Port Hudson

While General Ulysses S. Grant operated against Vicksburg 110 miles up the Mississippi River, General Nathaniel Banks was to capture the other Confederate stronghold on the river at Port Hudson, Louisiana. By May 22, 1863, Banks’s forces had surrounded the Port Hudson entrenchments and begun a siege. Banks hoped to overrun the works quickly and scheduled an assault for May 27. Two African American regiments, the 1st and 3rd Louisiana Native Guards, had been building pontoon bridges to cross a creek near the river side of the Port Hudson defenses.


After the uncoordinated assaults of Banks’s subordinates stalled, Brigadier General William Dwight ordered the 1st and 3rd Louisiana Native Guards into the attack at 10 am. They advanced over the pontoon bridge and a road with the Confederates on a fortified ridge to their left. Despite the heavy artillery and rifle fire, the regiments advanced with determination until their commander Captain Andre Cailloux, a free black citizen of New Orleans, was killed by artillery fire. They were forced to retreat to avoid annihilation but their performance quelled doubts about the reliability of African American troops under fire.


After the failure of the assault, the Union forces settled into a siege, though they again tried an uncoordinated assault on June 14, which produced hundreds of casualties and no gains. After the Confederate commanding officer learned of the surrender of Vicksburg, he negotiated a surrender on July 9, 1863, ending the longest siege in American military history at 48 days of continuous fighting.


Milliken’s Bend

As commander of the District of Northeast Louisiana during the Vicksburg Campaign, Brigadier General Elias S. Dennis led a detached brigade of five Illinois regiments and an African Brigade of six regiments of Louisiana and Mississippi African American soldiers led by white officers.


Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith, commanding the Trans-Mississippi Department, ordered General Richard Taylor to attack Union General Ulysses S. Grant’s supply lines to relieve pressure on Vicksburg and the Confederate army besieged there.  On the morning of June 6, 1863, Dennis’ African Brigade and two companies of the 10th Illinois Cavalry made a reconnaissance toward Richmond, Louisiana, about twenty miles west of Vicksburg. They encountered Confederate troops and drove them back, then retired to Milliken’s Bend, about fifteen miles upriver from Vicksburg, to report.


Early in the morning of June 7, Confederates attacked the Union forces at Milliken’s Bend, primarily the African Brigade and the 23rd Iowa Infantry. In fierce hand-to-hand fighting, the Union forces retreated to the river where two Union gunboats fired on the Confederates, halting their advance. Union casualties numbered more than 650, but Grant observed that “This was the first important engagement of the war in which colored troops were under fire,” and despite their inexperience, they “behaved well.” Their performance helped convince doubters that African Americans could fight, and their stand foiled the Confederate attempt to lift the siege of Vicksburg.


Morgan John Umsted (1842-1913) was born in Pennsylvania and moved to Iowa with his family in 1856. He enlisted from Mount Vernon into Company A of the 13th Iowa on September 18, 1861. He was mustered into service one month later. He was wounded “slightly” in the back on April 6, 1862, at the Battle of Shiloh. He was promoted to fifth sergeant on November 9, 1863, but later reduced to the ranks. He was discharged at Vicksburg on December 31, 1863. He re-enlisted as a veteran on January 1 and re-mustered on June 1, 1864. He went missing in action at the Battle of Atlanta on July 22, 1864, and served nine months and eighteen days in Andersonville and other Confederate prisons. He was released at Baldwin Junction, Florida, on April 1, 1865, and returned to his regiment on May 26. He was promoted to fifth corporal on July 1, 1865, and mustered out on July 21 at Clinton, Iowa. When he returned home, he married Allie J. Dixon (1847-1939) in June 1866, and they had eleven children. They moved to Webster County, Iowa, in 1880, and moved to Dayton in that county in 1884. He filed for an invalid pension in 1879.


Condition: Fine, with one stain on the last page.

[1] Isaac Morgan Sloanaker (1816-1863) was born in Chester County, Pennsylvania and became a merchant in Philadelphia. In 1851, he married Mary Trego Hartman (1823-1915). He died on September 3, 1863, in York County, Pennsylvania.

[2] Umsted’s father Isaac Morgan Umsted (1812-1857) had died a few years earlier.

[3] Annie Turner Wittenmyer (1827-1900) was born in Ohio and moved to Keokuk, Iowa, with her husband in 1850. Three of her four children died before becoming adults, and her husband died in 1860. In 1861, she organized ladies’ aid societies for Iowa soldiers and the following year was appointed state sanitary agent. In 1863, she became involved in a political battle because state legislators did not trust a woman with government money and supplies. In 1864, she opened a home for Civil War orphans in Davenport. From 1874 to 1879, she served as the national president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. She wrote a memoir entitled Under the Guns (1895) about her wartime relief work.

[4] This reference is likely to Umsted’s brother Samuel Davis Umsted (1840-1864), who had also enlisted in Company A of the 13th Iowa Volunteer Infantry. Davis Umsted enlisted ten months after his younger brother, in August 1862. He was mustered in on December 1, 1862. Wounded in the head on July 3, 1864, at Kennesaw Mountain, Georgia, Davis Umsted died of his wounds on July 30.

[5] Umsted’s mother Sarah Treichler Umsted Tyson (1816-1894) had remarried in 1858, after Umsted’s father died in May 1857.