October 19, 2012, 6:04 PM By TERRY L. JONES
As in all things, 19th-century New Orleans was a world apart from much of the rest of the South. When the Civil War began, it had a large population of so-called free men of color, citizens descended from French and Spanish men, on the one side, and slave women on the other.
Colonial-era slave codes granted them complete equality; the “hommes de couleur libre” could own land, businesses and even slaves; they could be educated and serve in the military. They created a niche for themselves in the Crescent City’s multicultural society and became important to Louisiana’s defense, maintaining their own militia units that served in various Indian wars and against the British during the Revolutionary War.
After the United States acquired Louisiana in 1803, the status of the free men of color changed significantly. Louisiana’s Constitution of 1812 specifically restricted the right to vote to white men who owned property. The free men of color could still own property and serve in the militia, but they were left out of politics, and their status began to decline. Nonetheless, they once again volunteered to defend their homes during the War of 1812 and bravely fought for Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans.
A week after civil war erupted in April 1861, some of New Orleans’ free men of color offered to form military companies to protect the state against the Union. In an announcement published in the Daily Picayune, the men declared that they were prepared to defend their homes “against any enemy who may come and disturb its tranquility. ” The Daily Crescent newspaper declared: “Our free colored men … are certainly as much attached to the land of their birth as their white brethren here in Louisiana. … [They] will fight the Black Republican with as much determination and gallantry as any body of white men in the service of the Confederate States.”
Soon afterward, hundreds of free men of color gathered in the street to show their support for the Confederacy. A regiment known as the Native Guards was soon formed and mustered into the state militia, but the Confederate government refused to accept them into the national army. All of the regiment’s line officers were of African descent, although Gov. Thomas O. Moore appointed a white officer to command it.
Popular history clams that many of the Native Guards were wealthy slave owners who were members of New Orleans’ upper class, but that is not true. While a few might have been well-to-do and owned slaves, and some certainly were related to prominent citizens, the 1860 census shows that a vast majority were clerks, artisans and skilled laborers — lower middle class at the time.
The black militia disbanded when Union forces occupied New Orleans in the spring of 1862. After the Battle of Baton Rouge in August, Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, the Union’s military governor of Louisiana, requested reinforcements to defend New Orleans, but none were forthcoming. In desperation, Butler informed Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton that he planned to raise a regiment of free blacks. On Sept. 27, 1862, Butler mustered the First Regiment of Louisiana Native Guards into Union service, making it the first sanctioned regiment of African-American troops in the United States Army.
It has generally been assumed that the African-Americans who joined Butler’s Native Guards were the same ones who had served earlier in the state militia regiment by the same name. Butler, in fact, claimed that was the case. As a result, historians have questioned the sincerity of the black militiamen who volunteered for Confederate service in 1861. Their supposed change in loyalty seems to indicate that their offer to fight for the South was made only to protect their economic and social status within the community; to not volunteer would make white neighbors suspicious and possibly lead to retaliation. Some Native Guards said as much to Butler and others.
Military service records, however, call this assumption into question. Despite Butler’s claim to the contrary, a vast majority of his Native Guards were not free men of color but slaves who had made their way into Union lines. James G. Hollandsworth Jr., a professor at the University of Southern Mississippi who wrote the definitive study of the Native Guards, found that only 108 of the 1,035 members of the Louisiana militia regiment, or about 10 percent, went on to serve in the Union’s Native Guards. This would seem to indicate that a large number of the black militiamen were indeed sincere in their desire to fight for the South and defend their homes against invasion.
(That’s very different, of course, from saying that a large number of African-Americans voluntarily served in the rebel army, a claim made by some. The men of the first Native Guard had unique circumstances and motives that should be understood in their specific context, and not extrapolated to the entire black free and enslaved population. One extensive study of Louisiana’s 65,000 Confederate soldiers identified only 15 who were known to be of African descent.)
While most of Butler’s Louisiana Native Guards were runaway slaves, some were free men with connections to prominent white families. During an inspection, the Native Guards’ white colonel told another officer: “Sir, the best blood of Louisiana is in that regiment! Do you see that tall, slim fellow, third file from the right of the second company? One of the ex-governors of the state is his father. That orderly sergeant in the next company is the son of a man who has been six years in the United States Senate. Just beyond him is the grandson of Judge_______ … ; and all through the ranks you will find the same state of facts. … Their fathers are disloyal; [but] these black Ishmaels will more than compensate for their treason by fighting it in the field.”
Later, the Second and Third Regiments of Native Guards, likewise made up overwhelmingly of former slaves, were mustered into service. In July 1863, the three regiments were brigaded together in what became known as the Corps D’Afrique. All three regiments had white colonels, but the line officers in the First and Second Regiments were black, while the Third Regiment had both black and white officers.
These Louisianians were the only black officers in the Union Army, but their racist superiors eventually purged most of them. To weed out incompetence, all officers in the Army had to pass an oral examination given by a board of experienced officers; those who failed either resigned or were stripped of their commissions. Army examiners routinely failed black officers or harassed them to make them resign their commissions. By war’s end only two African-American officers remained on duty in the entire army, and both were with the Louisiana Native Guards.
Like all African-American soldiers who served in the Civil War, the Native Guards suffered from blatant discrimination. Not only were they paid less than white soldiers, they were also issued inferior arms and rations, and white soldiers often insulted and harassed them.
Despite their poor treatment, the men served well, and they became the first black soldiers to see combat in a major battle when the First and Third Regiments attacked the Confederate defenses at Port Hudson, La., on May 27, 1863. Most of the men fought bravely in their baptism of fire, and the Native Guards suffered 169 casualties in the attack. Afterward, the bodies of the dead were left to rot between the lines.
Why that happened is a matter of dispute. In her book This Republic of Suffering, the Harvard historian Drew Gilpin Faust claims that Confederate sharpshooters prevented Union soldiers from retrieving the Native Guards’ dead during a truce that was arranged for that purpose the next day. On the other hand, the historian Lawrence Lee Hewitt, from Southeastern Louisiana University, and the late Arthur W. Bergeron Jr., the former manager and curator of Port Hudson State Commemorative Area, wrote in their book “Louisianians in the Civil War” that the Union soldiers “inexplicably” failed to collect their dead on that part of the field. The stench of decaying bodies became so great that the Confederates finally requested permission from Union Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks to bury the dead Native Guards themselves. According to Hewitt and Bergeron, “Banks refused, claiming that he had no dead in that area.”
Northern newspapers and magazines wrote extensively about the black soldiers’ bravery at Port Hudson, although they greatly exaggerated their success. A Harper’s Weekly illustration showed the Native Guards mounting the rebel breastworks and engaging in hand-to-hand combat. But in fact, none of the black soldiers got anywhere near the Confederate position, and their entire attack may have lasted only 15 minutes. In contrast to the Native Guards’ heavy casualties, the Confederates who turned back their assault did not lose a single soldier.
Rather, the most significant contribution the Native Guards made at Port Hudson was demonstrating to their white comrades and superiors that African-Americans would fight as well as white soldiers. In the days following the doomed attack, many officers and men made note of the Native Guards’ bravery and heavy losses. General Banks told his wife, “They fought splendidly!” Col. Benjamin H. Grierson wrote, “There can be no question about the good fighting quality of negroes, hereafter, that question was settled beyond a doubt yesterday.” Largely because of the Native Guards’ service at Port Hudson, Union officers began recruiting African-Americans for combat roles.
The three Native Guards regiments went on to further glory in the war. After serving in the 1864 Red River Campaign, they were re-designated the 73rd, 74th and 75th United States Colored Infantry. When the Union Army attacked and captured Fort Blakely, Ala., in April 1865, it was the Native Guards who led the charge. Afterward, one Union general wrote, “To the Seventy-third U.S. Colored Infantry belongs the honor of first planting their colors on the enemy parapet.” Capt. Louis A. Snaer, a free man of color, led his men in the successful assault on Fort Blakely. Commending his courage, Snaer’s commanding officer wrote, “Captain Snaer fell with a severe wound at my feet as I reached the line. He refused to sheathe his sword or to be carried off the field. … No braver officer has honored any flag.”
The Louisiana Native Guards were mustered out of service soon after the last Confederate surrender, and many of its veterans became active in Reconstruction politics. One, P. B. S. Pinchback, became America’s first black governor when, in 1872, he filled out the remaining term of the impeached Louisiana governor Henry Clay Warmoth.