ELIAS S. DENNIS - A YANKEE GENERAL IN KING COTTON'S COURT
Including Several Versions of the Battle of Milliken's Bend
By Richard P. Sevier ([email protected]gmail.com)
Carolyn Dennis Kress of Sterling, Nebraska graciously supplied much of the material used herein.
By the end of the Civil War Madison parish was in shambles (see Civil war in Madison Parish). The parish seat, Richmond, had been burned to the ground in 1863, never to rebuild, and only two houses in the entire parish escaped the Yankee's torch. The old plantation homes had been burned or torn down, and the plantations themselves were in a state of disrepair, having been abused and stripped bare by the Union troops, former slaves and the carpetbaggers and scalawags who leased them from the Government during the War. The slaves were free, but most of the plantation owners had borrowed money to buy them and were deep in debt with no collateral to show for it.
Paradoxically, during this period many former Union soldiers returned to live on the land they conquered, including at least three of Grant's Generals. Among these was Brigadier General Elias Smith Dennis of Illinois, former Commanding General of the District of Northeast Louisiana and Commandant of the Union Troops during the Battle of Milliken's Bend - an extremely bloody, hand-to-hand conflict that was the first important Civil War battle involving Negro troops.
Although he must have been hated at first, General Dennis proved to the Madison Parish populace that he was not a carpetbagger and gained their confidence when he was elected Parish Judge in 1874 and Sheriff in 1880. Before the War Dennis had served in the Illinois House of Representatives and later as an Illinois State Senator, so he was not unfamiliar with politics. He ultimately became one of the most prominent of Madison Parish's Reconstruction politicians. Dennis also married a Madison Parish widow who owned a plantation.
Elias S. Dennis was born in Newburgh, New York on December 4, 1812 and grew up on Long Island. About 1836 he migrated to Carlysle, Illinois, and on February 24,1838 married Mary D. Slade, widow of Charles Slade, founder of Carlyle and US Congressman at time of his death. One of Dennis' stepsons was the legendary Jack Slade, a notorious western gunslinger and self-appointed vigilante whose exploits were described by several authors including Mark Twain in his book Roughing It. In 1840 his only surviving son, Elias S. Dennis, Jr. was born.
From 1842 to 1844 Dennis served in Illinois House of Representatives. He also served as Circuit Clerk until 1844 when his stepson, Charles Richard Slade, replaced him. During 1846 to1848 he served as State Senator in Illinois. In 1848 he was reappointed Circuit Clerk to replace his stepson who was killed in the Mexican War. In 1857 he was appointed by President Buchanan to serve as US Marshal of Kansas during the period when violent disputes over the slavery question earned the state the title of "Bloody Kansas." He and his family lived in Leavenworth for about 3 years during this assignment.
It is unclear exactly when Dennis returned to Illinois, but on August 28, 1861 he was mustered into the service and named Lieutenant Colonel in the 30th Illinois Infantry. In February 1862 he participated in the capture of Fort Donelson, Tennessee. He was later promoted to Colonel on May 1, 1862 and to Brigadier General on November 29, 1862. In April 1863 he fought in the Battle of Port Gibson, Mississippi and in May 1863, the Battle of Raymond, Mississippi. Later in May 1863 he was placed in command of the District of Northeast Louisiana when guerillas were causing problems on the leased plantations there. Ironically, it appears that Grant's first choice for this post was J. P. Hawkins instead of Dennis. However Hawkins was sick at the time and thus was unable to accept the command.
Although there were many Civil War skirmishes in Madison Parish, there were only two conflicts that can be classified as battles. These were the Battle of Milliken's Bend on June 7, 1863 and the Battle of Richmond on June 15, 1863. Neither of these battles ever received their share of publicity from historians (or were even located properly by some) although they were very important to Madison Parish history. Recently the well known Civil War author Shelby Foote (The Civil War: A Narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian-1986) located Milliken's Bend in Mississippi, and Horace Greely (The American Conflict-1866) located it in Arkansas.
The Battle of Milliken's Bend (for more detail click here)
Today Milliken's Bend is no more, (See Curtains for the Bend) having succumbed in the early 1900's to the declining steamboat trade and the westward migratory erosion of the Mississippi River. However, prior to the Civil War, Milliken's Bend had been a fairly important steamboat port on the River. It was located about twenty miles upstream from Vicksburg and about six miles northeast of the current parish seat of Tallulah, which was only a railroad station in 1863. Many large cotton plantations were located near Milliken's Bend, and most of the Madison Parish cotton was shipped to market from there. During the Civil War Milliken's Bend was used as a staging area prior to the Battle of Vicksburg, and at one time Generals Grant and Sherman had over 30,000 troops there, including their own headquarters.
There are several versions of the Battle of Milliken's Bend. Most of these disagree on the number of troops and casualties on each side; the bravery or cowardice of both Negro and white troops and even the winner of the battle, if there was one. However, everyone agrees that this was a most fierce and bloody fight. General Dennis' official version was reported as follows:
HEADQUARTERS NORTHEAST DISTRICT OF LOUISIANA,
Young's Point, La., June 12, 1863
"COLONEL: I have the honor to report that, in accordance with instructions received from me, Colonel Lieb, commanding the Ninth Louisiana, African descent, made a reconnaissance in the direction of Richmond on June 6, starting from Milliken's Bend at 2 a. m."
"He was preceded by two companies of the Tenth Illinois Cavalry, commanded by Captain Anderson, whom he overtook 3 miles from the Bend. It was agreed between them that the captain should take the left side of Walnut Bayou and pursue it as far as Mrs. Ames' (Amis?) plantation, while Colonel Lieb proceeded along the main Richmond road to the railroad depot 3 miles from Richmond, where he encountered the enemy's pickets and advance, which he drove in with but little opposition, but, anticipating the enemy in strong force, retired slowly toward the Bend. When about half-way back, a squad of our cavalry came dashing up in his rear, hotly pursued by the enemy, Colonel Lieb immediately formed his regiment across an open field, and with one volley dispersed the approaching enemy."
"Expecting the enemy would contest the passage of the bridge over Walnut Bayou, Colonel Lieb fell back over the bridge, and from thence to Milliken's Bend, from whence he sent a messenger informing me of the success of the expedition, and reported the enemy to be advancing. I immediately started the Twenty-third Iowa Volunteer Infantry to their assistance, and Admiral Porter ordered the gunboat Choctaw to that point."
"At 3 o'clock the following morning, the enemy made their appearance in strong force on the main Richmond road, driving the pickets before them. The enemy advanced upon the left of our line, throwing out no skirmishers, marching in close column by division, with a strong cavalry force on his right flank. Our forces, consisting of the Twenty-third Iowa Volunteer infantry and the African Brigade (in all, 1,061 men), opened upon the enemy when within musket-shot range, which made them waiver and recoil, a number running in confusion to the rear; the balance pushing on with intrepidity, soon reached the levee, when they were ordered to charge, with cries of "no quarter!"
"The African regiments being inexperienced in the use of arms, some of them having been drilled but a few days, and the guns being very inferior, the enemy succeeded in getting upon our works before more than one or two volleys were fired at them. Here ensued a most terrible hand-to-hand conflict of several minutes' duration, our men using the bayonet freely and clubbing their guns with fierce obstinacy, contesting every inch of ground, until the enemy succeeded in flanking them, and poured a murderous enfilading fire along our lines, directing their fire chiefly to the officers, who fell in numbers. Not till they were overpowered and forced by superior numbers did our men fall back behind the bank of the river, it the same time pouring volley after volley into the ranks of the advancing enemy."
"The gunboat now got into position and fired a broadside into the enemy, who immediately disappeared behind the levee, but all the time keeping up a fire upon our men."
"The enemy it this time appeared to be extending his line to the extreme right, but was held in check by two companies of the Eleventh Louisiana Infantry, African descent, which had been posted behind cotton bales and part of the old levee. In this position the fight continued until near noon, when the enemy suddenly withdrew. Our men, seeing this movement, advanced upon the retreating column, firing volley after volley at them while they remained within gunshot. The gunboat Lexington then paid her compliments to the fleeing foe in several well directed shots, scattering them in all directions."
"I here desire to express my thanks to the officers and men of the gunboats Choctaw and Lexington for their efficient services in the time of need. Their names will be long remembered by the officers and men or the African Brigade for their valuable assistance on that dark and bloody field."
"The officers and men deserve the highest praise for their gallant conduct and especially Colonel Glasgow, of the Twenty-third Iowa, and his brave men, and also Colonel Lieb, of the Ninth Louisiana, African descent, who, by his gallantry and daring, inspired his men to deeds of valor until he fell, seriously though not dangerously wounded. I regret to state that Colonel Chamberlain, of the Eleventh Louisiana, African descent, conducted himself in a very unsoldierlike manner."
"The enemy consisted of one brigade, numbering about 2,500, in command of General [H. E.] McCulloch, and 200 cavalry. The enemy's loss is estimated at about 150 killed and 300 wounded. It is impossible to get anything near the loss of the enemy, as they carried the killed and wounded off in ambulances. Among their killed is Colonel [R. T. P.] Allen, Sixteenth [Seventeenth) Texas."
"Enclosed please find tabular statement of killed, wounded, and missing; in all, 652 (11 officers and men killed, 17 officers and 268 men wounded, and 2 officers and 264 men captured or missing.) Nearly all the missing blacks will probably return, as they were badly scattered."
"The enemy, under General [J. M.] Hawes, advanced upon Young's Point while the battle was going on at Milliken's Bend; but several well-directed shots from the gunboats compelled them to retire."
"Submitting the foregoing, I remain, yours, respectfully,
ELIAS S. DENNIS
Brigadier-General, Comdg. District Northeast Louisiana."
John D. Winters in his book The Civil war in Louisiana (1963 pp. 199-201) states:
"General Dennis' defending forces consisted of the Twenty-third Iowa and the African Brigade, numbering in all 1,061 men. McCulloch went into action with 1,500 men. Many of the Negro troops were inexperienced in the use of a gun, and some had had only a few days of drill. As the Confederates charged up the first levee most of the white troops and some of the Negroes in this line fled back to the second line of defense, leaving the Negro troops to defend the position. Hand-to-hand fighting with bayonet and clubbed rifle broke out between the Negroes and the Confederates. Many colored troops cowered below their cotton works and were shot in the head."
"In this controversial encounter, charges and countercharges were later made against both sides. General Dick Taylor had ordered General Walker to take Milliken's Bend and drive the Federal forces into the river before they had a chance to escape to their transports and before the gunboats could go into action. Walker had chosen to remain behind with the reserves and had sent McCulloch, who displayed dash and bravery but, according to Taylor, had "no capacity for handling masses." The Confederates moved too slowly and were seized with great fear of the gunboats, a fear which kept them frozen behind the protection of the first levee to which they had retreated."
"McCulloch sent back some five miles to ask for reinforcements. Walker came forward just after noon with Randal's brigade but found that McCulloch had already withdrawn his troops. Walker ordered a general retreat back toward Richmond, instead of moving down to Duckport and Young's Point to aid General Hawes, as Taylor had instructed."
"The Confederates captured 50 Negro soldiers and 2 of their white officers and brought back a number of horses and mules, small arms, and commissary stores. McCulloch's losses were light; 44 were killed, 130 wounded, and 10 were missing. General Dennis reported his total losses numbered more than 650. Of this number, about 100 were killed and the rest were wounded and missing. Some of those reported missing straggled back into camp later on. Exact tabulations of losses on both sides are impossible."
"Negro historians and those with a special interest in the success of the Negro as a soldier tend to exaggerate the bravery displayed by the colored troops at Milliken's Bend. The long-drawn-out hand-to-hand combat that is described by some of the partisan reports actually lasted only a few minutes. The Negroes did not all stand and fight. Many of them fled to the river bank when the first Confederate assault took place. Later, others quickly disappeared and hid out in the hedges. Some of the white officers who commanded Negro units absented themselves during the thick of the battle, then overpraised the performance of their black recruits in order to vindicate themselves. McCulloch's report concerning the Negro and the ferocity of the entire encounter must be weighed carefully. He failed in his mission, and he was trying to give excuses for his failure."
"Whatever the truth may be, many of the Negroes did fight, and their service to the Union as outpost guards helped to free many thousands of white troops for the more important task of laying siege to Vicksburg."
In another account, well-known author Horace Greeley, in his massive two-volume history The American Conflict a History of the Great Rebellion in the United States of America 1860-65 (1866 Vol. II pp. 318-319) states the following:
"While the siege of Vicksburg was in progress, Gen. Grant, compelled to present a bold front at once to Pemberton and to Johnston, had necessarily drawn to himself nearly all the forces in his department, stripping his forts on the river above him so far as was consistent with their safety. Milliken's Bend had thus been left in charge of Brig. Gen. E. S. Dennis, with barely 1061 effectives, (Greely reports that Mr. G. G. Edwards, who was there, claimed that Dennis had 1,410) whereof the 23d Iowa, Col. Glasgow, numbered 160; the residue were Negroes, very recently enlisted, and organized as the 9th and 11th Louisiana and 1st Mississippi. Against this post, a Rebel force from the interior of Louisiana, said to consist of six regiments under Gen. Henry McCulloch, numbering 2,000 to 3,000, advanced from Richmond, La., driving in the 9th Louisiana and two companies of cavalry who had been out on a reconnaissance, and pursuing them nearly up to our earthworks at the Bend, where they were stopped by nightfall, and lay on their arms, not doubting that they would go in with a rush next morning."
"But, just at dark, a steamboat passed, enabling Dennis to send to Admiral Porter for aid; when the boats Choctaw and Lexington were sent down from Helena; the former arriving just as the Rebels, at 3 a.m., advanced to the assault, with cries of "No quarter!" to Negroes and officers of Negro troops, rushing upon and over our intrenchments, before the green, awkward Blacks had been able to fire more than one or two rounds. A hand-to-hand fight of several minutes, with bayonets and clubbed muskets, ensued; wherein combatants were mutually transfixed and fell dead: the struggle resulting favorably to the Rebels, who had flanked our works and poured in a deadly enfilading fire, which compelled our men to give ground and retire, still fighting, behind the levee. And now the Choctaw opened on the exulting foe with such effect as to compel them also to shrink behind their side of the levee, keeping up a fire, while attempting to outflank our right. Thus the fight was maintained with little loss till noon; when the Rebels, having the worst of it, drew off, under a heavy fire from our troops and gunboats, but without being pursued. Some of the newspaper correspondents state, what Dennis's report conceals, that our Blacks, impelled to charge the Rebels in their flight, were led directly under the fire of our gunboats, by which they were far worse cut up than by the Rebels. Hence, our heavy loss of 127 killed, 287 wounded, beside some 300 missing at the close of the action; most of whom probably turned up afterward. As Dennis estimates the Rebel loss at about 150 killed and 300 wounded, it is probable that the fire of the gunboats, while it frightened only the Rebels, killed more of our men than of theirs."
"A Rebel demonstration against Young's Point was made simultaneously with that against Milliken's Bend; but had no result, and was probably intended only to distract attention from the latter. A few shots from gunboats were sufficient to compel a retreat."
Thus, the controversial Battle of Milliken's Bend, bloody as it was, ended on June 7, 1863, the same day it started. It bears mentioning here that on June 15, 1863, Union General Joseph A. Mower, with a contingent of 8,000 men, burned the town of Richmond, the seat of Madison Parish's government, to the ground. Had it been Mower rather than Dennis who returned to Madison Parish after the war, he would probably have been lynched.
Vicksburg surrendered on July 4, 1863, and July 4 was not to be celebrated in the area for almost another 100 years.
General Dennis’ command was not without scandal – although apparently unfounded. In an article on April 20,1864, a correspondent of the St. Louis Missouri Republican accused Dennis of selling a large amount of provisions under his command to the enemy while his soldiers were on half-rations. Although Dennis himself requested an investigation of the charges, his commanding officer, Major General Slocum, felt they were unfounded and not worthy of an investigation. In Dennis’ letter to request the investigation he quotes the article in the Missouri Republican as saying:
“Genl Dennis, recently commanding the forces at the Big Black, was threatened with violence by the soldiers of his brigade, his guard discovered and he himself compelled to come out and make an apologetic speech to save himself. It appears from the statements of the soldiers, that, at one evening alone, not less than two hundred barrels of flour were passed out of the lines, besides thousands of dollars worth of other goods, while the soldiers were on half rations! The report got credit that the officers were selling their rations to the rebels. The indignation was tremendous & a very mutinous spirit prevailed. They made a raid across the river and found at the house of one widow not less than seven barrels of salt – a kind of depot for the articles.”
Dennis’ subordinates rose to his defense and wrote letters certifying his innocence. Among these letters were: a letter from the Picket Officer at Big Black Station, Capt. A. F. Crane:
“…I know that there was not exceeding twenty-five barrels of flour sold at that point during the whole period. I also certify that nothing passed beyond the lines without a proper permit from the Commanding Officer at Vicksburg. Very frequently Genl Dennis prevented supplies from passing there that were permitted at Vicksburg. … I have not met a more faithful, vigilant and watchful Officer than Genl Elias S. Dennis …”.
A letter from the Provost Marshall at Big Black Station, Lieut. C. Lockwood:
“The correspondence contained in the Missouri Republican of the 20th inst. in regard to the passing of contraband goods and enormous quantities of provisions is untrue. …My instructions from Genl Dennis were to permit as little as possible, that under no circumstances to permit more than ten days supply of flour to a family (not including the negroes), other supplies were similarly regulated. Four fifths of all the goods crossed at Big Black were permitted at Vicksburg, over which Genl Dennis had no control.”
A letter from Local Special Agent of the Treasury Department, C. W. Niurander:
“…every allegation (in the Missouri Republican) contained therein is false. I know Genl Dennis issued an order which was executed by the Provost Marshall limiting the supply of flour to 100 lbs for each family, no goods could have passed without my knowledge and I state unhesitatingly that nothing passed which was contraband of war…”
And finally, a letter to the Missouri Republican signed by eleven of his Captains and Lieutenants denouncing the correspondent and the paper as follows:
“Apr. 23, 1864,
Editor Missouri Republican
“In your issue of the 20th
inst. we find a communication written by your Vicksburg correspondent charging
Brig General Dennis Commanding at the Big Black, with permitting almost
fabulous amounts of supplies to Rebels alleging the same to be a most
disgraceful affair. Your correspondent in his vivid imagination leads your
readers to suppose that the General occupies not only a hostile attitude
towards his men, but that his own life was jeopardized by his
mal-administration. Whether true or false it could have been ascertained by
your special (correspondent) before any public exhibition of his righteous
indignation provided the facts were found to be correct; the common
courtesy ordinarily due a Genl Officer, would demand such an inquiry by an
impartial or gentlemanly reporter. The boldness or brazen effrontery of the
charge alluded to can only be regarded as emanating from a vulgar mind or
“’The entire statement as published is a deliberate premeditated lie, concocted for wicked purposes by a dangerous and designing man.’”
“The whole article indicates most clearly the low breeding of its irresponsible author.”
“To relieve Genl Dennis from the slightest suspicions of disloyalty is an unnecessary duty from us. His record is before the people and Country both for inspection and criticism.”
“The undersigned members of the Staff of Genl Dennis publicly brand the loose statements of your correspondent as libelous in every particular. We claim it as a right to call for an explanation of this wanton unprovoked and cowardly assault upon the character of a brave soldier whose fame belongs to the state of Illinois which he so faithfully represents in the field.”
“In our judgment no punishment severe enough could be inflicted by us upon the individual who would sacrifice truth either for personal ill-will or to carry out the behests of political gamblers.”
“Your correspondent is unworthy to represent the Missouri Republican and we assure him that he will not be allowed to slander with impunity an Officer whose Military record is beyond reproach. We offer him this gratuitous advice. If scribbling be his vocation, he should learn and profit by his knowledge that the public press should be a medium of truth and not a weapon of calumny to be wielded by those who for partisan purposes practice a fraud upon the credulity of the people.”
NOTE: Many thanks go to Carolyn Dennis Kress of Peosta, Iowa, who obtained the above-quoted letters from the “Southern Historical Collection” in the University of North Carolina Library.
It is not exactly certain in which battles or campaigns General Dennis was involved after Vicksburg (General Dennis' statue can be found in the Vicksburg National Military Park.), although for the remainder of the Civil War he assumed command of several different Divisions.
Immediately before being mustered out, Dennis served for a short time as Military Governor of Shreveport. He was mustered out on August 24, 1865 after being given the honorary rank of Brevet Major General on April 13, 1865 for his "gallant and meritorious services in the capture of Mobile, Alabama."
Apparently shortly after his discharge from the Union Army, Dennis moved back to Madison Parish where he had been a conqueror. This time he became a cotton farmer and politician. At first Dennis was not trusted, but the populace soon realized that he was not a carpetbagger and his sympathies lay with the Democratic Party. Some prominent whites realized Dennis' value in being able to win the black vote and treat whites fairly once in office. They supported Dennis in his election in 1874 as Parish Judge and in 1880, as Sheriff. During his tenure as Parish Judge from 1874-1880 Dennis performed more than 100 marriages among other duties. Throughout his administration Dennis acted with fairness, wisdom and moderation in mediating between his black and white constituents.
At some point Dennis became much admired by one of Madison Parish's plantation-owning widows, thought to have been Mrs. Celia Groves, who ultimately willed her plantation to him. Unfortunately, the will proved to be defective and Dennis received nothing from it when she died. The 1870 Census lists Dennis as a “farm laborer” living in the same household as Mrs. Groves. Mary Kain Slade Dennis, Elias' first wife who apparently never lived in Madison Parish, died in Carlysle, Illinois on January 16, 1873. In her obituary in the January 23, 1873 Carlisle Union Banner, the following statement was noted:
"After remaining four years a widow, Mrs. Slade was married the second time, on the 24th of February 1838, to Mr. Elias S. Dennis, with whom she lived until his ignominious desertion a few years ago."
On June 7, 1875 Elias married Mrs. Mary A, McFarland, another Madison Parish land-owning widow. Madison Parish Tax Rolls for 1879, 1881, and 1885 show that Mrs. Mary A. Dennis owned 757 acres located in T15N R13E. In 1879 and 1881 the property was described as "McFarland Place", but in 1885 it was called "Oak Ridge" Plantation. The property, which was located along Roundaway Bayou about 7 miles southeast of Tallulah, was not listed in 1890.
Dennis was elected Sheriff of Madison Parish in 1880 and served well in that position for several years.
In late1886 Elias's son Elias S. Dennis, Jr. visited his father in Madison Parish, and the following appeared in the January 6, 1887 edition of the Carlisle, Illinois Constitution and Union:
" Elias Dennis, who has been down into Louisiana to visit his father, General Dennis, reports everything lovely in that region. The farmers were plowing and the trees were green. He says the colored people are happy and contented and vote the Democratic ticket. The Republicans swindled them out of their earnings after the war and left the country, hence the colored man's dislike of the Yankee. General Dennis resided in this city before the war. He was a general in the union army and made a good record. After the war was over he married the daughter of the sunny South, and has resided there ever since."
Elias Dennis moved back to Carlyle, Illinois in March 1887 and lived on a small farm with his son. Apparently his wife, Mary, stayed in Madison Parish rather than move to the North. However, she did visit him from time to time as mentioned in the Carlyle, Illinois Constitution and Union on February 28, 1889:
" Personal Mention. - Mrs. General Dennis of Louisiana came here on a visit on Tuesday."
Brigadier General Elias Smith Dennis died of pneumonia almost in anonymity in Carlyle, Illinois at 10 a.m. on December 17, 1894 and was buried in the city cemetery. From Brigadier General Elias S. Dennis is Carlyle's Forgotten Hero of Civil War by Helen Sharp Wickliffe:
"Probably no other officer of his ranks, accomplishments and distinction has had his career so completely overlooked by the contemporary newspapers upon the occasion of his death. No obituary appeared in the Chicago Tribune, nor any other Illinois newspaper. Two days later the New York Tribune carried 16 lines, apparently having been alerted by its Southern Illinois correspondent."
Although Elias S. Dennis was certainly "A Yankee General in King Cotton's Court", he was well respected in a community that could have hated him. He will be remembered in Madison Parish not so much that he was the Union Commanding Officer during the Battle of Milliken's Bend, but that he was a fair and impartial man, even if he was a Yankee, and was a friend of both the blacks and whites alike. At his death he probably had many more friends in Madison Parish, Louisiana, the home of his former enemies, than he did in his hometown of Carlyle, Clinton County, Illinois.
© 2000 Richard P. Sevier ([email protected]gmail.com)