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

This is a lie:


This picture purports to show the 1st Louisiana Native Guard, a group of African American soldiers who supposedly 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 problem with the photo is, it’s a fake. It’s a retouched version of this picture, which features a white Union official:

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 at the site Retouching History: The Modern Falsification of a Civil War Photograph. As described at the site,

“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 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 a militia of the state of Louisiana, consisted of creole (mixed race) soldiers. On Nov. 23, 1861 – after the start of the Civil War – they made their debut, with a show of 33 black officers and 731 black enlisted men along the banks of the Mississippi River next to their white counterparts in the Louisiana militia.

Civil War historian James Hollandsworth wrote a book about these troops 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. The members of the Guard…

…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.

This regiment was formally disbanded on February, 1862 when the state legislature passed a law in January, 1862, that reorganized the militia by conscripting “all the free white males capable of bearing arms… irrespective of nationality”. However, the governor of Louisiana continued to use the Native Guard until the Union capture of New Orleans in April.

The Union troops that occupied New Orleans were under the command of Maj. Gen. 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, Butler organized the Union Army’s 1st Louisiana Native Guard regiment, only some of whose members had also been part of the previous Louisiana Native Guard regiment. The regiment’s initial strength was 1,000 men.

Andre Cailloux, who was a lieutenant in the original Native Guards militia, who was named captain of Company E of the 1st Louisiana Native Guards. At first, this Union version of the Native Guards consisted primarily of New Orleans freemen. However, some runaway slaves from nearby plantations joined the regiment, although the Union Army’s official policy discouraged such enrollments. In November 1862, the number of runaway slaves seeking to enlist became so great that a second regiment and then, a month later, a third regiment were formed.

The officers of the Native Guards included P. B. S. Pinchback. Pinchback would eventually be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate during the Reconstruction.

The Native Guards were part of a major battle, at Port Hudson, Louisiana on May 27, 1863. Port Hudson served as the linchpin of Confederate control over the Lower Mississippi. The First Louisiana and Third Louisiana regiments were among the Union forces that attacked the well-fortified Confederate position. Although they did not inflict a single casualty on the enemy, the units showed conspicuous bravery, charging repeatedly against blistering artillery and rifle fire. All told, the two Louisiana 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.” The efforts of the black soldiers that day helped to establish that black soldiers were indeed worthy of battle.

Despite this and other successes, the Native Guards still had trouble getting the full support and confidence of the Union military. In June 1863, the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Louisiana Native Guards Regiments were dissolved and folded into the newly formed Corps d’Afrique. Perhaps 200 to 300 of the original 1,000 members of the 1st Louisiana Native Guards made this transition.

Poor treatment by white soldiers and difficult field conditions had led to the resignation of many officers and the desertion of enlisted soldiers. 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 of the Union Army.

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.”


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. 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 designation.

2 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.

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