Louisiana’s First Black Regiments Didn’t Fight For The Confederates

Before the famous 54th Infantry of Massachusetts (central to the movie Glory), another all-black unit marched on Confederate forces. They were the Corps d’Afrique, the reorganized troops of the Louisiana Native Guard. They were instrumental in helping the Union take control of the Mississippi river.

The contribution of blacks in the Civil War was a necessary step in the United States’ progression towards equality. The expression about the enemy of my enemy captures it best. When we fight together against a common obstacle, our biases fade.

The Corps d’Afrique may have started out as confederate troops, but they joined the Union Army becoming some the most important badasses to change U.S. History.

The 1st Louisiana Native Guard

Port Hudson Battle | janetgustt.wordpress.com

The soldiers of the Native Guard were not the first black soldiers to fight in America. During the Revolutionary War, black soldiers fought alongside white soldiers in limited numbers against the British. That was a matter of pragmatism; better the devil you know…

It wasn’t until the Civil War that the U.S. Army would organize black-only units of soldiers, something that they called the United States Colored Troops (USCT). We’ll come back to them in  a minute.

The 1st Native Guard, however, were not Union soldiers. They were also not Confederates, but they worked for them. They didn’t even have proper uniforms or equipment.

They were men of mixed heritage, creoles, men with a vested interest in protecting their lifestyles in Louisiana. They were property owners, many of them. Some of them even had slaves.

The first regiments of the Native Guard worked as laborers. Their jobs consisted of the work white soldiers preferred not to do, chopping wood or standing guard. Their leaders were white officers, as would remain the standard during the civil war on both sides.

The Corps d’Afrique

After the Union took New Orleans in April of 1862, they organized the remaining guardsmen who wanted to fight in a new Native Guard, one that fought for the Union.

The first time they saw real battle was the initial attack on the Confederate soldiers guarding Port Hudson.

The 1st and 3rd regiments joined Union soldiers charging the port. They were unsuccessful the first time, but only lost 37 soldiers of 1,080 men. Their second charge was a success.

Just before the final victory, in of June 1863, the Army reassigned the regiments of the Native Guard, calling the regiment the Corps d’Afrique. They would be nine brigades of two regiments each, representing all existing arms, a total of 18 regiments.

This move set in motion the eventual creation of all-black units elsewhere in the Union, the soldiers of the USCT.

The End?

Ending the story there ignores the hard truth about life for the Corps d’Afrique.

Despite their sacrifices at Port Hudson, treatment of black soldiers and officers was poor. Even white soldiers who favored emancipation suffered their own racist perceptions.

The United States still had a much longer path to walk through history. Not only the treatment but the conditions for black soldiers were tough. Many black officers quit, soldiers, deserted.

By April 1864 they dissolved the Corps d’Afrique, but the precedent created policy. Regiments of black soldiers fought for the Union, in the USCT. The 54th Infantry was one of them.

After the Union dissolved the Corps, they reassigned the remnants of them into existing USCT regiments.

One must wonder what might have been the outcome if blacks did not join the fight. Would the Union have won?

The fact that they fought alongside men who looked like their former captors, astounds this writer. Whether it’s a matter of enemy of my enemy or the devil you know, it seems we must all decide what scares us most every day, then pick the less frightening option.

If you want, you can read more in an article from the New York Times, published May 1, 1863.