Slay: Black troops defended Yazoo City

Published 11:30 am Monday, February 17, 2014

Men who just a year before had been held in slavery played a prominent role in defending the Union occupied Yazoo City fortification in 1864 from a Confederate force set on slaughtering them.

Soldiers from the 1st Mississippi Cavalry of African Descent, which was recruited in the Vicksburg area, and the 8th Louisiana Infantry of African Decent, which was recruited in the Lake Providence, La., area, and a portion of the 11th Illinois Infantry held off an attack in February 1864 from Confederate forces at Yazoo City, park ranger Dr. David Slay told a group gathered at Vicksburg National Military Park Saturday.

“It’s not a large action,” Slay said. “It’s not very meaningful in the overall scope of the war, but it is meaningful socially.”

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Confederate Brig. Gen. Lawrence Sullivan “Sul” Ross, having surrounded the city, asked the white Union to surrender but said he would give no quarter to African American troops, Slay said.

At first, the Union had been reluctant to allow black troops to enlist, but brave fighting by black troops at Milliken’s Bend in June 1863 began to change attitudes among military commanders.

Thoughts among pro-Union civilians were also divided and an example of a Union newspaper established after Yazoo City was initially captured in June 1863 shows an attitude that was lukewarm at best.

 “What is to be done with the Negroes when they have gained their actual freedom as provided in the President’s proclamation? This question is propounded as a poser, by all rebels at the South and all tories at the North. It is the easiest thing in the world. Let them alone,” The Yazoo Daily Yankee wrote on July 20, 1863, more than a month after the fight at Milliken’s Bend.The same attitude is evident in the work given to Members of the 1st Mississippi and 8th Louisiana after their enlistments.

The black soldiers were initially given menial tasks rebuilding fortifications at Vicksburg. For these troops, morale was incredibly low, Slay said.

“They enlisted to fight, not do what they had been doing all their lives — working for next to nothing,” Slay said.