Early in the Civil War, Louisiana’s Confederate government sanctioned a militia unit of black troops, the Louisiana Native Guards. Intended as a response to demands from members of New Orleans’ substantial free black population that they be permitted to participate in the defense of their state, the unit was used by Confederate authorities for public display and propaganda purposes but was not allowed to fight.
After the fall of New Orleans, General Benjamin F. Butler brought the Native Guards into Federal military service and increased their numbers with runaway slaves. He intended to use the troops for guard duty and heavy labor. His successor, Nathaniel P. Banks, did not trust the black Native Guard officers, and as he replaced them with white commanders, the mistreatment and misuse of the black troops steadily increased.
The first large-scale deployment of the Native Guards occurred in May, 1863, during the Union siege of Port Hudson, Louisiana, when two of their regiments were ordered to storm an impregnable hilltop position. Though the soldiers fought valiantly, the charge was driven back with extensive losses. The white officers and the northern press praised their tenacity and fighting ability, but the Native Guards were still not accepted on the same terms as their white counterparts.
The Louisiana Native Guards is the first account to consider the struggle for civil rights (in particular, voting rights) taken up by the black soldiers for Louisiana’s black population after the war. Hollandsworth documents the endeavors of the Native Guard veterans through Reconstruction, thereby placing their military service in the broader context of a civil rights movement that predates more recent efforts by a hundred years.
This remarkable work presents a vivid picture of men eager to prove their courage and ability to a world determined to exploit and demean them. As one of the Native Guard officers wrote his mother from Port Hudson in April, 1864, “Nobody really desires our success[,] and it’s uphill work.”
James G. Hollandsworth, Jr., was the author of The Louisiana Native Guards: The Black Military Experience during the Civil War and Pretense of Glory: The Life of Nathaniel P. Banks.
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