The battle of Milliken’s Bend took place on June 7, 1863. Fought in Louisiana near the small town of Milliken’s Bend on the west bank of the Mississippi River, the battle was notable for several reasons. Firstly, it was only the second battle of the Civil War in which black Union troops participated. Secondly, unlike most Civil War battles where artillery and minie balls caused the majority of casualties, the battle of Milliken’s Bend was for the most part a vicious, close-quarters fight in which bayonets and the buts of guns were used freely. On the Confederate side, the Third Brigade of Walker’s Texas Division under Henry McCulloch – some 1, 500 men – were charged with cutting General Ulysses Grant’s supply line at Milliken’s Bend. The 16th Texas Cavalry, attached to McCulloch’s Brigade, took position on the Confederate left. The Federal garrison, consisting of roughly the same amount of men, had fortified a levee close to a fierce hedge of thorny bois d’arc. In order for McCulloch’s Brigade to pass the hedge, the company captains were obliged to first hack an opening in the hedge for their men to pass through, mostly single-file. The regiments then reformed in line of battle on the far side before resuming their charge at the levee. A good many men fell at the hedge while attempting to scramble back into formation.
The 16th Texas Cavalry suffered some 96 casualties, according to the report by General McCulloch. According to Private Joseph Blessington of the 16th Texas Infantry, a number of trenches had been prepared before the battle to receive the bodies of the dead. No coffins were provided. The fallen were wrapped in the blankets they carried. A number of nearby empty slave cabins became the de facto hospital, where doctors such as the 16th Cavalry’s William Head busied themselves severing ruined limbs and treating various wounds. Men had lost comrades and brothers, adding to the physical misery. But the pain of Milliken’s Bend would last far beyond the battlefield, the field hospital, and the war itself. Private Alexander Boren of Company I lost his brother, Isham there.
Alexander had been released from service due to being under age. The loss of Isham Boren was a traumatic event in the Boren family, and in the post-war Lee-Peacock feud, would cause no little amount of bitter feeling. The Boren family lost several family members in the course of the feud, and Alexander himself lost a leg courtesy of the killer of his uncle, Henry. Henry Boren had taken the Union side of the feud, and was supposed to have betrayed the leader of the opposing side, Captain Bob Lee. That action cost him his life, and Alexander his leg. The picture at left shows Alexander later in life, walking with a cane. The joint of an artificial limb is clearly visible on his left knee.
The Borens were hardly the only family to feel the loss. In Company G, Lieutenant Thomas H. Batsell fell atop the levee with a
mortal head wound. Nearby was his brother, Sergeant Charles W. Batsell. It is probable, though not documented that Sergeant Batsell carried his stricken brother to the rear. Charles Batsell would serve faithfully until the close of the war, but when the regiment was disbanded at Camp Groce in 1865, he did not stay to be discharged. Applying for a Confederate pension from the State of Texas in 1914, Batsell had a defiant answer when asked about his discharge. “[I] was never either discharged or surrendered. I am still a Confederate soldier so far as formal discharge, (sic) parol, or surrender are concerned.” Batsell’s own legacy saw fruition in his grandson, Charles Batsell Winstead, who as an agent of the FBI was credited with the killing shot for Chicago gangster John Dillinger. In World War II, Winstead was for a time the head of security for the Los Alamos base where the atomic bomb research, code named “Project Manhattan,” was carried out.
In Company B, Corporals Thomas J. Reagan and David B. Davis both received shoulder wounds. Reagan’s wound would prove fatal. He left behind a wife and four small children. The eldest two children died before the decade was out, and Reagan’s widow, Letitia Coffey, remarried. She herself was the niece of the Company Captain, Reubens Coffey, who would be killed in August 1865 in a dispute over a horse in near Dallas, Texas. Letitia’s second marriage took place in 1865, and lasted less than three years, for she died in 1868, effectively leaving her remaining two children, Letitia and Mary Catherine, orphaned. The two sisters were awarded to the custody of their mother’s sister, Polly Ann, who had married Lieutenant John Meyers McKinney, also of Company B. Corporal Davis was far more fortunate. He not only survived, but was captured the following year on April 9, at the battle of Pleasant Hill, Louisiana. Returning to Texas after the war, he soon found his own family life in turmoil following the subsequent death of his wife. When he chose to remarry, he did so to Thomas Reagan’s younger sister, Mandanah.
In Company D, Captain John Haywood Tolbert received a gunshot wound that passed through his body. The wound caused him to receive a leave of absence while he recovered. Tolbert would return to his regiment, and fight again at Mansfield and Pleasant Hill. His service at Pleasant Hill was short-lived, as he found himself shot in the hip, and obliged to go to the rear. This second wound caused him to retire in 1865. His service and injuries won him respect in the years following the war from both constituents and colleagues, as he entered the Texas Legislature. He would serve for Grayson County in the 21st, 22nd, 23rd, and 26th Legislatures. During this time, he would serve on various committees, including one for a Constitutional Amendment. When Tolbert died in February, 1907, the Texas House of Representatives placed a memorial page for him in its journal, noting his service and wounds received.
In Company E, Lieutenant Dudly M. Waddill received a severe, though not fatal gunshot wound. He was shot from above, most likely as the regiment was
ascending the levee. The bullet entered the top of his buttock, and traveled down the back of his leg, finally lodging behind his knee. The wound caused him to be discharged for disability the following year. It was Lieutenant Waddill’s second wound, having received a head wound at Cotton Plant, Arkansas exactly eleven months prior. After the war, Waddill left Collin County and moved to El Paso, where for most of the rest of his life he owned and ran a grocery store. He and his store were frequently mentioned in the local newspapers, but none mentioned his service.
In Company I, Corporal Robert Bolin Savage suffered a broken thigh. It is not known how this wound was received, but as it was not listed as a gunshot, and there is no record of his leg being amputated, it was most likely broken by the butt of a Federal rifle. Savage left Confederate service, and moved to Parker County, Texas, on the outskirts of Weatherford. He joined a local defense unit, and served through the end of the war. On March 2, 1866, Robert and his brother James, who had also relocated to Weatherford, were attacked by a raiding party of Comanches. Both brothers were killed in the surprise attacks, and had some of their children taken captive. Robert’s own son, Samuel was among them. Samuel was a captive from March until November, by which time he had become proficient in both the Comanche tongue and the use of a bow and arrow. He lived until the age of 90, and loved to recall his time with the Comanche.
Two Lieutenants of Company E, Ira Kilgore and James K. P. Russell, were ordered to be arrested following the battle by theirBrigade Commander, Henry McCulloch, for deserting their posts. Their supposed desertion was not mentioned in McCulloch’s report of the battle, but the two remained in a state of arrest until April 7, 1864. After some months, Kilgore and Russell wrote a letter to their superiors protesting their imprisonment and lack of trial. They requested that they either be tried for desertion, or released so that they could enter service elsewhere. Both were permitted to resign the day before the regiment’s next engagement, perhaps out of concern over their supposed actions at Milliken’s Bend. Both men returned to Texas after the war. Lieutenant Russell raised a large family, and died at Pilot Point, Texas in 1909. Ira Kilgore remained in Texas until at least 1870, and then quietly disappeared from history.
Aside from the events that occurred following the deaths and injuries at Milliken’s Bend, something happened at Milliken’s Bend which affected the whole regiment. It was at this battle, their first with Walker’s Texas Division, that the regiment earned the grisly nickname of “The Bloody Sixteenth.” It was a title by which Joseph Blessington would refer to the regiment in his account of the battle of Milliken’s Bend, and it was used later by Colonel Edward Gregg, who had been wounded at Milliken’s Bend, when calling for regimental reunions. It was a way to recall the suffering and brotherhood that he and his men had shared. Directly and indirectly, the battle of Milliken’s Bend affected the lives of the veterans of the 16th Texas Cavalry, and made an impression that would last the rest of their lives. In some cases, it affected their families and descendants, as well. The legacy of Milliken’s Bend, then, is mixed with blessing and sorrow, honor and disgrace. It forever touched and changed the lives of the men on both sides who lived through it, and today, 153 years later, we honor them.