When Louisiana left the Union in January 1861 the governor, Thomas O. Moore, ordered that all able body men should join the state’s militia to protect it from foreign invasion. This order also applied to the state’s “free men of color.” These men were enrolled into a unit called the “Louisiana Native Guards.” This was the first African-American regiment of the Civil War. It was unique in that it was formed in the south, it was composed of free men, not recently freed slaves, and it had black officers. They were part of the Louisiana State Militia and were never part of the Confederate army.
Admiral David G. Farragut’s fleet came up the Mississippi River in late April 1862 and captured New Orleans. The Confederates fled the city but left the state militia units, both white and black, behind because they had no authority over the state troops. The Federals disbanded the militias and sent them home.
After the Battle of Baton Rouge, in August 1862, the Federal commander in New Orleans, General Benjamin Butler, requested reinforcements from the army. The government’s reply was that they had no reinforcements to give. Butler, in his desperation, started to recruit from the local ethnic Irish and German populations that were pro-Union. When this did not fill his needs he requested the free men of color to reform the Native Guards. As time went on not only were free blacks but recently freed slaves were mustered into the army. Eventually there were four Louisiana Native Guards regiments. The 1st was composed of free men of color, with black officers; the 2nd was composed of both free men and freed slaves, with some black and some white officers, and the 3rd and 4th were composed of freed slaves, with white officers.
On Wednesday, May 27, 1863 the 1st and 3rd Louisiana Native Guards participated in the first attack against Port Hudson. On that day over one thousand African-American soldiers assaulted the Confederate defenses. Their attempt failed just like all of the other Federal assaults, but they proved that black soldiers could and would fight. This was the first time in American military history where black soldiers made an assault. Black soldiers had fought in previous wars and battles in America, but before they had fought defensively. This was their first attack.
This battle went a long way in encouraging the recruitment and use of African-American soldiers for the rest of the Civil War.