Monday, May 21, 2007

The Native Guards

Thanks largely to the movie Glory, the story of blacks fighting in the Civil War, for the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment of the Union Army, is widely known. Lesser known is the story of an earlier black unit, the 1st Louisiana Native Guard, that actually fought first on the side of the Confederacy.

The Native Guards were a group of about 1,000 free blacks and mulattoes, living in and around New Orleans, that enrolled in the Louisiana militia in 1861 and eagerly served alongside other Confederate units. However, rather than using them in battle, the South largely paraded them to counter northern propaganda. In fact, despite their service, it is believed that they were never officially mustered into the Confederate Army.

In April of 1862, New Orleans fell to the Union Army. At least 100 of the Native Guards then volunteered for the new 1st Louisiana, considered one of the first, if not the first, official Union black unit. They were joined by runaway slaves in such great numbers that the unit split into three regiments.

For almost a year, the Native Guards were used by the Union for manual labor, like chopping wood, gathering supplies, digging ditches, and guard duty. Eventually, the regiments did see combat during the siege of Port Hudson in May and June of 1863. Yet the men got little respect. Black officers were replaced with whites. Many soldiers resigned or deserted. The regiments were dissolved and folded into other units.

Still, these brave men left a unique legacy, having been part of the only unit to serve both the North and the South during the Civil War.

The Port Hudson State Historic Site near Jackson, Louisiana preserves the site of the Native Guards' first battle.

No comments: