Guards' fight well for Union
When the Lincoln administration authorized the enlistment of African Americans into the Union army in 1862, the 1st Regiment of Louisiana Native Guards was the first unit to be organized. The army, however, did not believe African Americans would be dependable in combat so it restricted the new recruits to performing menial tasks as a way to free up white soldiers to do the fighting. This policy infuriated the Native Guards because they wanted to face the Rebels in battle. They understood that fighting was the only way to prove their worth as soldiers and to bolster their claim for equal rights when the war was over.
The Native Guards got their chance in May 1863 when General Nathaniel P. Banks surrounded the Confederate garrison defending Port Hudson, Louisiana. Port Hudson and Vicksburg, Mississippi, were the last two Rebel strongholds on the Mississippi River, and President Lincoln was eager to reduce them in order to split the Confederacy in two and reopen the river to Northern trade.
Among Banks' 30,000 men were the 1st and 3rd Louisiana Native Guards. The general needed every man he could muster for an attack on May 27 so he decided to give the Native Guards a chance to prove themselves in combat. William Dwight, Jr., a thirty-one-year-old Massachusetts general, commanded the portion of the battlefield that included the Native Guards. Dwight wrote that he believed Banks had decided to use the black soldiers in order "to test the negro question. . . . The negro will have the fate of his race on his conduct. I shall compromise nothing in making this attack for I regard it as an experiment."
Incredibly, Dwight's "experiment" did not include scouting out the position the Native Guards were to attack or even studying maps of the area. As it turned out, Louisiana's black Union soldiers were being sent into a tangled maze of felled trees, thick brush, and irregular ground which was, perhaps, the strongest part of the Confederate defenses. General Dwight remained in the rear drinking throughout the entire fight.
At about 10:00 a.m., the Native Guards moved forward across the six hundred yards of ground that separated them from the enemy. A third of the way across, Confederate artillery opened up with what was described as "shot and shells, and pieces of railroad iron twelve to eighteen inches long." One shell took off the head of the 1st Regiment's color bearer and scattered his brains on the men near him. Despite the horror, two soldiers stepped forward and vied for the honor to carry the flag. Captain André Cailloux, one of the few black officers in the Union army, had his left arm shattered above the elbow, but he continued to lead his company forward until another bullet killed him instantly. When Cailloux's men saw him go down, they fired one volley and retreated in confusion. The Confederates kept up a steady fire, and one later wrote, "We moad them down, and made them disperse, leaving there dead and wounded on the field to stink."
Out of the approximately 1,000 Native Guards who participated in the attack, 36 were killed and 133 were wounded. The 60 Confederate defenders facing them did not lose a single man. For the entire day, Banks lost about 2,000 men to the Confederates' 500 casualties.
Northern newspapers and magazines wrote extensively about the black soldiers' bravery at Port Hudson, although they greatly exaggerated their accomplishments. A Harper's Weekly illustration showed the Native Guards mounting the Rebel breastworks and engaging in hand-to-hand combat. In fact, the main attack lasted about fifteen minutes and none of the black soldiers got anywhere near the Confederate position. The most significant contribution the Native Guards made at Port Hudson was proving that African Americans could 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!" and an enlisted man proclaimed, "All agree that none fought more boldly than the 'native guards'."
The Louisiana Native Guards were the first African American soldiers to see combat in a significant Civil War battle. Largely because of their service at Port Hudson, Union officers began recruiting more and more African Americans into the army and sending them into combat. By war's end 180,000 blacks served the Union, with Louisiana providing more soldiers than any other state.
Dr. Terry L. Jones is a professor of history at the University of Louisiana at Monroe and has published six books on the American Civil War.