'Free Men of Color' had proud military tradition

By Dr. Terry L. Jones
Special to The Journal

• Louisiana black militia during the Battle of New Orleans (U.S. Army Center for Military History).
When the Civil War began, New Orleans had a large population of free men of color who were the descendants of French and Spanish men and slave women.

During the colonial period both French and Spanish law granted complete equality to freed slaves. As a result, the hommes de couleur libre were permitted to own land, businesses, and slaves; be educated; and serve in the military. The free men of color created a niche for themselves in the Crescent City's multi-cultural society and worked as lower middle class clerks, artisans, and skilled laborers. They also had a tradition of proud military service. The hommes de couleur libre had their own militia units that served in various Indian wars and fought against the British during the Revolutionary War.

After the U.S. acquired Louisiana in 1803, the status of the hommes de couleur libre changed significantly. Louisiana's constitution of 1812 specifically restricted the right to vote and run for office 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 social status began to decline. Nonetheless, they once again volunteered to defend their homes during the War of 1812 and fought bravely 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 fight the Yankees. 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." Soon afterward, hundreds of hommes de couleur libre gathered in the street to show their support for the Confederacy, and a regiment known as the Native Guards was soon formed. All of the line officers were of African descent, although Governor Thomas O. Moore appointed a white colonel to command the regiment. The Daily Crescent 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."

The Native Guards were mustered into the Louisiana militia, but officials refused to enlist them into the Confederate army. Other Southern states' views on race were more rigid, and to them it was unthinkable to arm black men. Putting grey uniforms on black men would be recognizing that African Americans were equal to whites and that was something the Confederates refused to do.

When Union forces occupied New Orleans in the spring of 1862, the black militia disbanded. After the Battle of Baton Rouge in August, General 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 Stanton that he planned to raise a regiment of free blacks. On September 27, 1862, Butler mustered the 1st Regiment of Louisiana Native Guards into Union service, making it the first sanctioned regiment of African American troops in U.S. Army history.

It has generally been assumed that the hommes de couleur libre who joined Butler's Native Guards that September were the same ones that 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 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.

Undoubtedly many of the hommes de couleur libre had no love for the Southern cause and simply volunteered for the militia to protect themselves from their white neighbors. However, military service records calls into question whether that was true for the majority of them. Of the 1,035 hommes de couleur libre who served in the 1861 Louisiana militia unit, only 108 (or about 10 percent) went on to serve in the U.S. Army's Native Guards. This would seem to indicate that a large number of the men of color were sincere in their desire to fight for the South and defend their homes against a Yankee invasion.

Dr. Terry L. Jones is a professor of history at the University of Louisiana at Monroe and has published several books on the American Civil War.