Robert P. Miller

The African American Civil War Memorial in Washington, D.C., which includes the name of Robert P. Miller, who was promoted to Full Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Colored Troops, 50th Infantry after serving with the Minnesota 4th. (Image: Trip Advisor)

Duluth creeks and rivers named for people bear the names of the Zenith City’s earliest settlers—all frontiersmen who happened to settle themselves in claim shanties alongside moving water. Miller Creek is one of these, named for Robert P. Miller, who built his cabin and little farm on the land between it and Coffee Creek.

Miller was counted in Duluth’s first official census in 1860. He was 42 years old, lived alone, and reported his property as worth $1,000 (about $26,000 in today’s money). On December 6, 1861, he enlisted in Company K of the Minnesota Fourth Infantry Regiment. The following April the regiment was sent to St. Louis to serve in the Army of the Mississippi. According to Fourth Regiment historian Alonzo Brown, “the people lined the bluffs, the ladies waved their handkerchiefs and the men cheered as the boat swung down the river, the band playing ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me.’”

Whether Miller left a girl behind him is unknown—all we know for certain is that he was from Pennsylvania and that he experienced the hellish summer heat of Mississippi until the Fourth’s first battle in September, a victory at Iuka, where three of their number were killed and 44 wounded. A few weeks later they battled at Corinth, where temperatures hovered at 94 degrees.

The regiment’s most notable contribution was during General Ulysses S. Grant’s siege and subsequent battle of Vicksburg. The Fourth lost heavily in a futile attack early on in the operation, but claimed to be the first unit to march into Vicksburg on July 4. (An accomplishment also claimed by the 45th Illinois.) They then became part of the ongoing occupation force, guarding prisoners, digging canals in the “goo” of the Yazoo River, and fending off deadly illnesses.

Brown wrote this assessment of Company K:

They were well organized, well drilled, and as well disposed and brave a company as, I believe, existed in the regiment. Their relations to their officers and to each other were of the most friendly nature, and the feeling has, I believe, been strengthened as it has been cherished by each member. Brave in battle, all they needed was plenty of cartridges and hardtack, and they would wade through whatever was before them.

In August 1863, Miller was mustered out of his regiment and promoted to Full Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Colored Troops, 50th Infantry—but that doesn’t necessarily mean he was African-American. Duluth’s early settlers who mention him don’t mention his race, and though his name appears on the African American Civil War Memorial, historical lists of black officers don’t include him. In these newly formed “colored” infantry regiments, officers put in charge of training were generally white; the few black officers were surgeons or chaplains. (Other regiments had more black officers later in the war, but the occupation and defense of Vicksburg and the surrounding area was the first time the Union used black soldiers on a large scale, and there was still some doubt about their value aside from drudge labor.)

Thomas Perry Wilson, who served in the Fourth Minnesota Regiment and became a first lieutenant and regimental quartermaster of the 49th U.S. Colored Infantry, wrote in a letter to his father about his experience as a white officer of a black infantry and the victory at Milliken’s Bend, near Vicksburg, just before Miller took his promotion:

It is a barren victory for us. Our regiment alone lost 395 men…in killed and wounded, our loss is 150. The remainder are prisoners and missing… And as to the prisoners, the rebels will never parole negroes or negro officers… There is no longer any doubt about the negroes fighting. They fight just as well as any soldiers, and the time will come when this will be acknowledged by the whole country… These men have all been raised in the last month. The most of them were not armed or clothed until three days before the fight, and nine-tenths of them never fired a gun until that morning… Our men, during the past month, have been detailed to load and unload Quartermaster and commissary boats, instead of being left in camp to drill… We all rather be killed than taken, for we expect no mercy. They have threatened to hang all the officers of the negro regiments.

Miller spent one year training and supervising black soldiers at the Vicksburg garrison. The 50th had battles in its future, but Miller was not to march with them. Instead, he died from “chronic diarrhea” in Vicksburg on June 21, 1864. A month later, the St. Paul Pioneer published a plea to any living relatives to send their address to the Adjutant General’s office in St. Paul, so they could receive his personal effects. There is no record of whether anyone did so.

Story by Heidi Bakk-Hansen. Originally published on Zenith City Online (2012–2017). Click here for more stories by Heidi Bakk-Hansen.