Dubious history and preschoolers are a dangerous combination. I found this out as Drummer Boy and I sat next to my parents in a horse-drawn carriage, slowly wending our way through the narrow streets of Charleston, South Carolina. The end of the tour was drawing near, and I was already on the driver’s nerves for correctly answering his trivia question about the familial relationship between George Washington and Robert E. Lee, and had been silently shaking my head over his assertion that Washington D.C. had the country’s largest slave market (though D. C. did have slave markets, that particular “honor” belonged to New Orleans). Then came his words about the fighting out on Morris Island. “You would know that as the location of Fort Wagner. That battle was featured in the movie Glory. That was the first time black troops were in battle in the Civil War.”
Only two rows back from the driver, I muttered, “That’s not true.” Drummer Boy, whose volume tends to range from loud to “screaming banshee” doesn’t know what sotto voce means, and couldn’t approximate it if required. So his response, “What’s not true, Mommy?” was clearly heard by our driver.
I didn’t explain what his error was...he seemed disinclined to hear that he was 2 months and 800 miles off. That isn’t to say that the 54th Massachusetts doesn’t have an important place in American history. But rather than the first, new wave of a movement that would eventually see over 179,000 African Americans in Union blue, it was the final battle during the summer of 1863 that proved that African Americans would fight for their freedom.
The Second Confiscation Act, passed in 1862, first opened the door for African American soldiers when it proclaimed in Section 11: “And be it further enacted, That the President of the United States is authorized to employ as many persons of African descent as he may deem necessary and proper for the suppression of this rebellion, and for this purpose he may organize and use them in such manner as he may judge best for the public welfare.” This language didn’t specifically refer to enlisting African Americans--freeborn or fugitive slaves--in the army. But it did set the groundwork for the use of black men in the war effort.
For reticent Northerners and some in the administration, the idea of using blacks for fatigue duty—chopping wood and digging ditches--wasn’t an abhorrent one. They could appreciate the idea of blacks laboring for the cause of Union, but many still believed manual labor was all that blacks were good for. They doubted that black soldiers would stand up under enemy fire, leaving their white comrades vulnerable in battle.
There were still those voices in the North when Abraham Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. This final version of the Emancipation Proclamation included something that the two previous drafts—the very first draft which Lincoln read to his cabinet on July 22, 1862 and the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation written on September 22, 1862—didn’t. “And I further declare and make known, that such persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations and other places and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.” And with a stroke of a pen, African Americans in areas of rebellion would not only be “then, thenceforth and forever free”, but would also be accepted into the United States Army.
At first, the African American regiments were raised to do the duty specifically laid out in the Emancipation Proclamation. These duties were previously provided by white soldiers, and their replacement by the black units would free up veteran white units to fight on the front line. Even now, however, there were plenty of northern civilians and politicians who believed that black men would not make good soldiers.
In May 1863, Union forces surrounded the final two Confederate strong holds on the Mississippi River. Vicksburg, Mississippi was invested by troops under Ulysses S. Grant. 130 miles further south, Port Hudson, Louisiana was surrounded by troops under Union General Nathaniel P. Banks. Among the troops with General Banks were two regiments on the verge of making history.
The 1st Louisiana Native Guard was originally formed as a response to Louisiana Governor Thomas Moore’s call to form militia companies upon the secession of the state from the Union. 1,500 free black men initially joined the 1st Louisiana Native Guard when its muster roles were opened on April 22, 1861. The governor accepted them into service with the Louisiana state militia. The unit was disbanded when the Confederate government refused to accept the unit into its service (the Confederate States of America would not enlist black men into its army until March 1865).
After the fall of New Orleans to Union forces in April 1862, General Benjamin Butler located his headquarters there and began recruiting efforts. Once the Second Confiscation Act passed on July 17, 1862, he reached out to the city’s large population of freedmen and to the slaves escaping to Union lines, both groups of which could now serve the Union. Ten percent of the enlistees of the former 1st Louisiana Native Guard joined this new Union regiment. The regiment was even allowed black line officers. They were mustered in on September 27, 1862.
The 3rd Louisiana Native Guard was similarly mustered into service in November 24, 1862 (its designation was changed to the Corps d’Afrique on June 6, 1863). After the departure of General Butler for eastern pastures, General Banks arrived in Louisiana. In general, Banks did not support the use of black troops and the presence of black line officers was even more concerning to him. He attempted to remove black line officers and replace them with white commanders, but in the case of the 1st and 3rd Louisiana Native Guard, he largely failed.
The night of May 26, 1863, the night before Banks’ planned attack on the fort at Port Hudson, the men of the 1st and 3rd Louisiana Native Guard took up their position and prepared to commence the attack in the morning. As the sun rose, the difficulties of the attack were revealed. The ground had not been reconnoitered and as the troops surveyed the fort and its surroundings, they saw the Confederates had chosen the location wisely. The Native Guard would have to cross a pontoon bridge and advance on the fort under a high bluff lined with Confederate sharpshooters. Swamps and brush lining the road made it impossible to dislodge the Confederates from the bluff. There was no relief at the end of the road either, as the fort they were advancing toward sat high upon another bluff where more Confederate infantry men waited, along with the big artillery.
There were people up north who thought that if these troops came under fire, they would drop their guns and run, but instead, the regiments advanced three separate times and were repulsed each time. The Native Guards did not break through the Confederate defenses. As they made their final retreat, the two regiments left nearly 200 men behind--dead, wounded or missing—including Captain Andre Cailloux who lost the use of an arm after being hit early in the battle but refused to leave the field. It was a fateful decision. Cailloux was hit by an artillery shell just before the final retreat. The injury was fatal.
Though their attack was not a success in the military sense, the tenacity of the Native Guard did serve a greater purpose. The men of the 1st and 3rd Louisiana Native Guard defied expectations by standing and fighting as well as their white comrades and in doing so, they began to roll back the tide of public opinion that saw them as no more than paid labor. After the attack, General Banks wrote his superior, General Henry Halleck, "The severe test to which they were subjected and the determined manner in which they encountered the enemy, leaves upon my mind no doubt of their ultimate success."
Only ten days later, more black regiments would get to prove their mettle at a small supply base in Louisiana called Millikens Bend.
Toni is a wife, mom and history buff who loves bringing the Civil War to life for family members of all ages.