Grant and the Forgotten Court of Inquiry
During the siege of Vicksburg, General U. S. Grant had to deal with racial problems, but those problems were always a lower priority than his main goal—the capture of Vicksburg. The most notable racially-tinged event occurred at Milliken’s Bend on the Louisiana side of the Mississippi north of Vicksburg. Union campaigning in the Mississippi Delta resulted in the assemblage of a large number of freed slaves at Milliken’s Bend.
Racial problems immediately surfaced. White Union soldiers, notably Illinois cavalry, did not like the proximity of these black men, women, and children, especially those black men who joined the Union army. Soon, the freedmen found themselves targets of physical attacks and suffered atrocities that for a time went unpunished. Women and daughters were often raped, and men threatened and often beaten.
The commanding officer at Milliken’s Bend was Colonel Isaac Shepard, a New England native who had long been an abolitionist. His attempts to protect blacks stirred a backlash by his superiors. General Jeremiah Sullivan, commanding at Milliken’s Bend at the time (he was later replaced by Elias Dennis), reacted strongly to a particular event involving Shepard and accused Shepard of lying about his rank and allowing a white soldier to be punished by blacks. The first charge was a canard, but the second had merit. The events leading to the whipping of a white Illinois cavalryman by a black Union soldier illustrated the deep racist attitudes of many in Grant’s army toward blacks.
A private in the 10th Illinois Cavalry had gone on a drunken spree, along with a fellow soldier, and the two had wandered into the camp of the 1st Mississippi Colored regiment. They attacked two black women; one of the men wielded a hatchet, which fortunately was used as a threat rather than a weapon. The two soldiers then tied a black Union soldier to a tree and kicked him repeatedly. When the cavalrymen saw a young black boy nearby who had witnessed what was going on, one used the hatchet as a threat, but the other suggested a good kicking would be sufficient. So the two kicked the youngster in the head, and one used his boot heel to stomp directly on the boy’s face, destroying one of the terrified victim’s eyes.
When Shepard heard about the assault, he had Private John O’Brien, the main perpetrator, arrested. He then ordered a small group of black soldiers to whip O’Brien, who was bound, with small limbs of berry bushes. The whipping amounted to very little; Shepard saw to it that things did not get out of hand. He did not want to cause a backlash among other white soldiers, something that could have very easily happened. Once word spread about the events, Shepard was the subject of a Court of Inquiry, but was ultimately acquitted of all charges.1
Grant was aware of what had happened, and he ordered the transcript of the inquiry not to be published. Grant understood that the nature of what had transpired would cause Abraham Lincoln political problems and cause an uproar in the North, especially Grant’s home region, the Midwest. Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas did find out about what had happened, and he came to the Vicksburg area to investigate. Grant eventually sent a transcript of the proceedings of the inquiry to Thomas. Thomas knew that word of what happened at Milliken’s Bend had reached Washington, and Shepard’s reputation suffered accordingly. His promotion to brigadier general was slowed to the point that it never happened. Certainly his brave response to the savage treatment of blacks more than warranted a promotion. He not only had taken a strong stand against rampant racism in Grant’s army, but he had set a precedent when blacks were allowed testify at the Court of Inquiry. The transcript was never made public, but Grant did take actions to rein in racial intolerance. His immediate solution was to order black and white troops to be segregated. After the surrender of Vicksburg, Grant worked with Thomas to recruit more blacks in the Union army.2
The Milliken’s Bend atrocities were not the only racial issues Grant faced during the Vicksburg siege, but certainly they were the most prominent. Grant kept the lid on what had happened as best he could, as forcing the surrender of Vicksburg was foremost in his mind.
1 The information on the Court of Inquiry if from the Isaac F. Shepard Papers, Department of Special Collections, Davidson Library, University of California at Santa Barbara. The full text of the court’s proceedings are in Shepard’s papers. Dr. David Slay, Vicksburg National Military Park, found the transcript during a research trip, and the author is most grateful to Dr. Slay for sharing a copy of the transcript.
2 Court of Inquiry transcript, Part 2; also General Orders No. 107, June 14, 1863 and General Orders No. 108, June 17, 1863, Record Group 393, Department of the Tennessee, National Archives; Lorenzo Thomas to Edwin Stanton, October 5, 1863, Grant endorsement of Thomas letter to Stanton, October 9, 1863, John Y. Simon, ed., The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 33 volumes, 9: 26-27.
The full story of the Milliken’s Bend affair and other racial problems are in chapter 4 of Ballard’s book, Grant at Vicksburg: The General and the Siege, released in April, 2013, by Southern Illinois University Press.
Illustration courtesy of the Library of Congress (loc.gov).