A Forgotten Hero of the Skirmish Line

by Fred Ray on July 4, 2006 · 0 comments

Thanks to Joe Bilby for a nice review in Civil War News, who thinks that Shock Troops “allows us to get down into the trenches and prowl the skirmish line with the men of the Confederate sharpshooter battalions. … I, for one, am kind of bored by the seemingly endless stream of books on Union and Confederate generals and their ego problems and personality disorders. To me it is time the soldiers and the way they actually lived and fought get some detailed attention.”

I agree, so as part of the continuing campaign to rescue these soldiers from obscurity, today’s entry is about a forgotten hero of the skirmish line, Colonel Charles Milliken of the 43rd New York. Milliken was one of the Army of the Potomac’s premier light infantrymen, who served with distinction at Petersburg and in the Shenandoah. I’ve mentioned before that in the last two years of the war the Confederates tended to dominate the skirmish line with their sharpshooter battalions, in spite of the best efforts of men like Milliken. The Army of the Potomac certainly did have outstanding light infantry leaders, but it lacked both an institutional means of promoting them to the leadership positions they deserved and a coherent tactical and organizational doctrine for them to use.

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Charles Austin Milliken was born in Maine in 1836 and at the outbreak of the war was an assistant foreman in a newspaper office. He signed up as a private with Co. C, 43rd New York in September, 1861. His rise in the regiment was rapid – two days later he was sergeant major and within a month he was a lieutenant. Wounded at the regiment’s first engagement Lee’s Mills in April 1862, he served as regimental adjutant and was wounded again at Spotsylvania on May 12, 1864. The 43rd NY was dispatched with the rest of Sixth Corps to Washington to meet Jubal Early’s advancing army in early July, and when a bullet found the regiment’s commander, Lieutenant Colonel James Visscher, at Fort Stevens on July 11, 1864, Milliken took over. He got a promotion to major two days later, and led the depleted regiment into the Shenandoah, where on September 21 it was consolidated into a battalion of five companies. Milliken was promoted to lieutenant colonel and given official command. He was wounded again at Cedar Creek on October 19, and as a reward for his distinguished service there he was breveted to colonel. Milliken suffered another slight wound in the face at Petersburg during the picket fighting on March 25, 1865 and figured prominently in the Sixth Corps’s breakthrough on April 2, 1865. He was mustered out in June, 1865 as a colonel of the volunteers. Milliken moved to Galveston after the war and died there of Yellow Fever in 1867.

The 43rd NY often acted the part of a light regiment, beginning in the spring of 1863 when it was assigned to the short-lived “Light Division” of the Sixth Corps (actually 5 regiments) and received extra training in skirmish drill. The only combat the Light Division saw, ironically, was a frontal assault on Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg on May 3, where the 43rd NY lost 65 men. Nevertheless the “light” role seems to have stuck, with the 43rd often fighting in open order at places like Fort Stevens. Colonel Milliken, in particular, seems to have had an intuitive feel for light infantry combat and his superiors often put him and his battalion, which numbered around 200 men late in the war, on the skirmish line. Still, other than their training, there was nothing special about the 43rd, which carried Austrian Lorenz muskets until it rearmed itself with Springfields after Cedar Creek. Nevertheless, it became in effect the Union equivalent of a Confederate sharpshooter battalion.

Milliken and his men received praise for their exploits at Fisher’s Hill and Cedar Creek, and it was Milliken who commanded the Second division’s skirmish line during the Sixth Corps’s breakthrough on April 2, 1865. In short, Charles Milliken and his battalion showed what might have been done had the Army of the Potomac adopted similar organizations on a larger scale.

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