In August of 1861, at the age of 28, Corydon Heath joined Battery G, 2nd Illinois Light Artillery as a sergeant. At the time of muster, Heath is described as 5’8″, with black eyes and hair, and a dark complexion.
Heath was with Battery G throughout their campaigns in Tennessee and the Mississippi Valley. In November of 1862 he was hospitalized near Trenton, Tennessee, and remained there as General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s troopers rode into town. Heath is reported as being taken prisoner, while in the hospital, on December 20, 1862, but was paroled only a few days afterwards. He returned to Illinois for a short period of time, and was back with his comrades in Battery G by March of 1863.
That same month, Adj. Gen. Lorenzo Thomas began recruiting volunteers to serve as officers in some newly created black troops. These units were to be composed of black men from abandoned plantations and “contrabands” who had come into Union camps. The officers, however, would be white. Men of any rank could apply for officer’s positions, and were screened and promoted according to their abilities, leadership, and knowledge.
On April 14, 1863, Heath received an appointment to the rank of Captain in the 9th Louisiana Infantry, African Descent. He was not, however, officially commissioned. Records show him on “detached service” from Battery G. At that time, the new white officers were entirely responsible for doing their own recruiting. They would receive their commissions only when enough men had been enlisted to form the proper unit – companies for captains, regiments for colonels, and so on. By the end of May 1863, Heath’s Company B had approximately 44 enlisted men, less than half of the usual number to form a company.
The 9th Louisiana was stationed near Vicksburg, Mississippi at Milliken’s Bend, Louisiana, along with two other new black units and a portion of the combat-tested all-white 23rd Iowa Infantry.
The still organizing black troops received their rifles and began to drill and take target practice. Very few had even held a gun before, let alone shot one, and Heath’s lieutenant, David Cornwell, was discouraged with the men’s performance.
Because Negro units were a new phenomenon in the Union army, many people – including some of their own officers – felt that the men would run in terror at the first crack of a gun. Trampled down by slavery, and met with racism even from Northerners, black troops everywhere felt they had something to prove. The men at Milliken’s Bend would soon be given their test of valor.
On June 7, 1863, Texans under the command of General Henry McCulloch attacked the garrison at Milliken’s Bend around 4:00 a.m. With cries of “no quarter” for the blacks and their officers, the Confederates drove the Federals from one levee, and after facing stubborn resistance at a second levee, forced the Union men to the banks of the Mississippi. Two gunboats, the Lexington and the Choctaw were there to greet the Rebels, and the Southerners retreated from the field around noon.
A view of the field after the battle testified to the nature of the fighting. One officer told of seeing a Negro with six bayonet wounds. Such wounds were unusual, since one side would usually retire before the lines closed in hand-to-hand combat. Armed with inferior rifles, and with little training, the troops had little alternative but to flee or resist with bayonets and clubbed muskets.
With an attitude typical of many whites, a convalescing Union soldier wrote just prior to the battle, with apparent sarcasm, “Did I ever tell you there is a Negro brigade a couple of miles up the bend, valiant soldiers? It would amuse you to see them drill.” Two days after the battle, he was more enthusiastic: “All are astonished at their fighting qualities. They have proved themselves worthy of the name of soldiers.”
The 9th Louisiana Infantry, African Descent were indeed worthy of the title “valiant soldiers.” At Milliken’s Bend, the 9th Louisiana sustained the highest casualties in a single battle of any black unit during the entire war. Of approximately 300 men, a total of 206 were reported as killed, wounded or missing, a loss of 65%. In Company B, Lt. Cornwell reported that only 14 of the 44 enlisted men were present for duty shortly after the battle. The rest had either been “killed, too severely wounded to return to duty again, or having died of disease. A number of these fourteen had been wounded and recovered.”
Captain Heath’s whereabouts after the battle were uncertain. Cornwell last saw Heath standing in line, urging his troops to stand firm. Suddenly, from his left, the rebels swept in, cutting him off, along with a number of his men. Heath was taken with the rebels in their retreat, and was apparently never heard from again.
A month later, a captured Confederate prisoner reported being an eyewitness at the hanging of a white captain, a white sergeant, and several black enlisted men shortly after the battle at Milliken’s Bend. All evidence indicates that this captain was Heath.
One of the first to volunteer for the controversial and particularly dangerous task of serving with a black regiment, Heath was also one of the first white officers to be executed for his service with black troops.
SOURCES: Battery G Muster Roll, Illinois State Archives, Springfield, IL; compiled service record, Corydon Heath, Battery G, 2nd Illinois Light Artillery and 51st U.S. Colored Troops (9th Louisiana Infantry, African Descent), National Archives, Washington, DC; David Cornwell Memoir, U.S. Army Military History Institute, Carlisle Barracks, PA.