Truth, Lies, and a Black Confederate Soldiers Hoax; and the True Story of the Louisiana Native Guards


This is a lie:

Fake-Black-Confederates-Picture

This picture purports to show the 1st Louisiana Native Guards, a group of African American soldiers who served in the Confederate Army during the American Civil War. It’s been used in numerous places, including Youtube videos here and here.

The photograph has been used by pro-Confederate supporters for its propaganda value: the “fact” that blacks fought in the Confederate armed forces is viewed as proof that the South was not fighting the Civil War to defend slavery, but rather, for their freedom or “states rights”… or something.

THE HOAX

The problem with the photo is, it’s a fake. It’s a retouched version of this picture, which features a white Union officer:
Real-Black-Confederate-picture

The photo was taken in Philadelphia, around 1864. It was eventually used to make an illustration for a Union recruitment poster that was targeted at blacks. The fascinating story of how this piece of history was made into a hoax is detailed by the essay Retouching History: The Modern Falsification of a Civil War Photograph. The essay states,

“In the past decade,” the Yale historian David Blight has recently written, “the neo-Confederate fringe of Civil War enthusiasm . . . has contended that thousands of African Americans, slave and free, willingly joined the Confederate war effort as soldiers and fought for their ‘homeland’ … Slaves’ fidelity to their masters’ cause – – a falsehood constructed to support claims that the war was not about slavery – – has long formed one of the staple arguments in Lost Cause ideology.”

In this paper we discuss a graphic example of Blight’s contention by examining a Civil War-era posed studio photograph of black Union soldiers with a white officer. We maintain that this photograph has been deliberately falsified in recent years by an unknown person/s sympathetic to the Confederacy. This falsified or fabricated photo, purporting to be of the 1st Louisiana Native Guards (Confederate), has been taken to promote Neo-Confederate views, to accuse Union propagandists of duplicity, and to show that black soldiers were involved in the armed defense of the Confederacy.

The actual 1st Louisiana Native Guards, consisting of Afro-Creoles, was formed of about 1,500 men in April 1861 and was formally accepted as part of the Louisiana militia in May 1862. The Native Guards unit (one of three all-black companies) never saw combat while in Confederate service, and was largely kept at arm’s length by city and state officials; in fact, it often lacked proper uniforms and equipment.

“The Confederate authorities,” James Hollandsworth has written, “never intended to use black troops for any mission of real importance. If the Native Guards were good for anything, it was for public display; free blacks fighting for Southern rights made good copy for the newspapers.” The unit apparently was never committed to the Confederate cause, and appears to have disobeyed orders to evacuate New Orleans with other Confederate forces; instead it surrendered to Union troops in April 1862.

The photographs of the Louisiana Native Guards… show how a legitimate photograph can be altered and used to advance and support a particular contemporary political or ideological perspective in the present-day United States.

THE TRUE STORY

The group that was the focus of this hoax — the Louisiana Native Guards – makes for an interesting story in and of itself. The guard, which was part of the Louisiana state militia, consisted of so-called “black Creole” soldiers. On November 23, 1861 – after the start of the Civil War – the 33 black officers and 731 black enlisted men of the Guards marched along the banks of the Mississippi River next to their white counterparts in the Louisiana militia.

Louisiana Native Guard Photo 2
2nd Regiment Louisiana Native Guards, while stationed at Ship Island, MS (?), circa 1863
Image Source: Louisiana Native Guard.com

Civil War historian James Hollandsworth wrote a book about these men titled The Louisiana Native Guards: The Black Experience during the Civil War. He noted:

More than 80 percent of the free black population in New Orleans in 1860 had European blood in their veins… In contrast… fewer than 10 percent of slaves in Louisiana gave evidence of white ancestry. Because skin color and free status were highly correlated, many free blacks identified more closely with Southern whites than with African blacks.

Free blacks joined the Louisiana militia for varied and complex reasons… Some free blacks thought they would lose their property… (these) were men of property and intelligence, representatives of a free black community in New Orleans that was both prosperous and well-educated. There were even slave owners among its ranks. Furthermore, the ‘hommes de couleur libre,’ as they were called in New Orleans, enjoyed privileges not afforded blacks elsewhere in the South, allowing them by 1860 to accumulate more than $2 million worth of property. It was not surprising, therefore, that free blacks were eager to defend their holdings.

Although these men might have been enthusiastic about the Confederacy, the feeling wasn’t mutual. An article in the Mobile Register noted that members of the Guards…

…soon realized that Confederate authorities did not intend to provide the Native Guards with either the status or support they afforded the white soldiers.

In September 1861, when the first Union prisoners captured at Manassas were to arrive in New Orleans, white militia men, instead of the Native Guards, were selected to escort them.

Then, when New Orleans fell to Union forces in April 1862, the Native Guards were sent in as last-minute substitutes to defend the French Quarter. The white Confederate troops headed to their training ground some 80 miles north of the city.

The Native Guards did not engage in any fighting with Union troops. As noted by Hollandsworth, after Confederate forces fled the city in advance of Union forces, “Lewis (General John L. Lewis of the Louisiana militia) ordered the Native Guards to disband, cautioning them to hide their muskets and dispose of their uniforms.”

The authority for the regiment had actually ended in February 1862, after Louisiana passed a law in January 1862 which legislated that the militia “shall be composed of all the free white males capable of bearing arms.” However, the governor of Louisiana continued to use the Native Guards until the Union capture of New Orleans in April.

The Union troops that occupied New Orleans were under the command of Major General Benjamin Butler. Butler issued an order calling on all members of the Native Guards to enlist in the service of the United States. On September 27, 1862, he organized the Union Army’s 1st Louisiana Native Guard regiment. Only some of the Union regiment had been part of the previous Louisiana Native Guards militia. The regiment’s initial strength was 1,000 men.

At first, this Union version of the Native Guards consisted primarily of free blacks from New Orleans. However, some runaway slaves from nearby plantations joined the regiment, although the Union Army’s official policy discouraged such enrollments at the time. In November 1862, the number of runaway slaves seeking to enlist was so large that a second regiment and then, a month later, a third regiment was added.

The officers of the Native Guards included P. B. S. Pinchback. After the post-war Reconstruction period, Pinchback was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. Andre Cailloux, who was a lieutenant in the original Native Guards militia, was named captain of Company E of the 1st Louisiana Native Guards; his death during the Siege of Port Hudson, Louisiana, resulted in a heavily attended funeral in New Orleans. According to Wikipedia, “accounts of his heroism were widely reported in the press, and became a rallying cry for the recruitment of African Americans into the Union Army.”


Officers of Company C of the 1st Louisiana Native Guard at Fort Macomb, Louisiana, per Harper’s Weekly and James Hollandsworth’s The Louisiana Native Guards: The Black Experience during the Civil War. From left to right: Capt. Charles Sentmanat, Second Lieut. Victor Lavigne, First Lieut. Louis Lanien, Second Lieut. Joseph Montieu, and Capt. Edgar Davis.
Image Source: Harpers Weekly, February 28, 1863, via Wikipedia

The Native Guards’ role in the Battle at Port Hudson, Louisiana has drawn much attention. Port Hudson was a well fortified site that Confederates used to maintain control of the Lower Mississippi River. In May 1863, the First and Third regiments were among the Union forces that attacked Confederate forces there. Their bravery was conspicuous, as they charged repeatedly against heavy artillery and rifle fire. The two black regiments sustained nearly 200 casualties. Union General Nathaniel P. Banks reported that, “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.” Recollect that, this was a time when many whites believed that African Americans lacked the courage and intellectual capacity to be good soldiers.

But despite their actions at Port Hudson and elsewhere, the men of the Native Guards still had trouble getting the full support and confidence of the Union military. This was especially so for African American officers. The hostility of white soldiers, combined with difficult field conditions, led to the resignation of almost all the black officers, and the desertion of some enlisted soldiers. The anger and dismay of black officers regarding their poor treatment at the hands of white Union men are reflected in the following letter, dated February 19, 1863. (The letter is in the book from The Black Military Experience, ed. Ira Berlin, Joseph P. Reidy, and Leslie S. Rowland; part of the series Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861–1867.) In the letter, sixteen black officers from the 3rd Louisiana Native Guards tender their resignation to General Nathaniel P. Banks:

General,   The following circumstances renders It an Imparitive duty to ourselves, to herewith tender our Ressignations, unconditional and Immediate.

At the time we entered the army It was the expectation of ourselves, and men, that we would be treated as soldiers. we did not expect, or demand to be putt on a Perfect equality In a social point of view, with the whites, But we did most certainly expect the Privileges, and respect due to a soldier who had offered his services and his life to his government, ever ready and willing to share the common dangers of the Battle field.

This we have not received, on the contrary, we have met with scorn and contempt, from both military and civilians. If we are forced to ask for Information, from the generality of white Officers, we Invariably receive abrupt and ungentlemanly answers, when in maney instances, It is there legitimate Business to give the information required. To be Spoken to, by a colord Officer, to most of them, seems an Insult. Even our own Regimental commander has abused us, under cover of his authority. Presuming up on our limited Knoledge of military Discipline, all combine to make our Position Insupportable.

General, This treatment has sunk deep Into our hearts. we did not expect It and therefore It is Intolerable. we cannot serve a country in which we have no more rights and Priviledges given to us.

Therefore we most Respectfully beg of you, to accept This Tender. We have the honor, Sir, to be most Respectfully your obedient servants.

{16 signatures: seven captains, three first lieutenants, and six second lieutenants}

In June 1863, the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Louisiana Native Guards regiments were dissolved and folded into the newly formed Corps d’Afrique. In April 1864 the Corps d’Afrique was dissolved and its members joined the newly organized 73rd and 74th Regiments of the United States Colored Troops.

The story of the Louisiana Native Guards is summed up well at this site dedicated to their memory:

The war and its aftermath provided the men of Louisiana’s Native Guards with the opportunity to earn the right to be treated as equals in a free society. However, at every turn their attempt to achieve equality was rebuffed. The Confederate authorities used them to counter northern propaganda, but never intended to let them fight. The Union Army let them fight, but made them dig ditches when their capacity for fighting became evident. During reconstruction, whites accepted them for their labor, but repudiated their quest for equal rights. Pawns of three governments, the men of the Native Guards worked hard and did their duty, but as one of their officers wrote to his mother from Port Hudson in April 1864, “Nobody really desires our success, and it’s uphill work.”

HOW WILL WE REMEMBER THEM… WILL WE REMEMBER THEM?

Louisiana-black-soldiers-gravesite

This is a photo of the Chalmette National Cemetery, near Chalmette, Louisiana. One-hundred and thirteen black soldiers in the Native Guards are known to be buried there. As alluded to earlier, on April 19, 1864, the unit designation for the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Regiments of the Corps d’Afrique, formerly the Louisiana Native Guards, was changed to the 73rd, 74th, and 75th Infantry, United States Colored Troops, respectively. The grave markers at Chalmette bear this latest designation.

In the history of African American soldiery during the Civil War, no state is more significant than Louisiana. Louisiana provided more African American soldiers to the Union than any other state. Three of the first five black Union regiments were formed in the state. And finally, Louisiana produced the most black army line officers of any state, mainly from the ranks of the free black Creoles of the Louisiana Native Guards regiments.

Yet, there is no monument or memorial to black soldiers in the city of New Orleans. Per my research, there is only one monument to black soldiers in the entire state — at Donaldsonville, Louisiana (which is between New Orleans and Baton Rouge).

This situation borders on shameful, in my opinion. I hate to use such strong language. But it is past due that some kind of physical remembrance of these men be installed in a city which has several Confederate monuments, and also has a large African American population whose full history should be displayed in the public space. And even as there is little to no presence of these men on the commemorative landscape of Louisiana and New Orleans, a fake representation of them continues to infiltrate the Internet and our historical memory.

4 thoughts on “Truth, Lies, and a Black Confederate Soldiers Hoax; and the True Story of the Louisiana Native Guards

  1. Pingback: Keeping It Honest: Doctoring History | Crossroads

  2. Loved this piece. Provided most about this units. For the first time the run true about the 1st La. native guard.

    • The native guards fought for the Confederacy but after they were let go 10% joined the union. So I don’t understand why you are denying they fought for the CSA. Also, they were free men of color, not slaves.

      • RE: Also, they were free men of color, not slaves.

        The LNG of the Union consisted of free men and slaves.

        RE: So I don’t understand why you are denying they fought for the CSA

        ? My goal was to describe the service that the original LNG ~ i.e., the LNG that was in the Louisiana militia, not in the Union army ~ provided to the Confederacy, which may or may not have included any actual “fighting.” Read the text again; do you feel I have mischaracterized their actions or service while part of the Louisiana militia? Please quote from the article as you discuss my actual comments.

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