The Civil War evolved into a proving ground for allowing African-Americans to serve in the United States military. Black soldiers had fought in earlier wars including the Revolution of 1776 and the War of 1812. Even in the 19th century, it was common to have minority sailors aboard U.S. Naval vessels, but on land fading memories and public prejudice dimmed acceptance for allowing African-Americans to serve in the U.S. Army.
2nd Regiment Louisiana Native Guards on Ship Island circa 1863
In time, troop shortages, conduct of the war and public debate opened opportunities for freemen of color and former slaves to join northern militia regiments. Whether as an enlisted man in the 1st South Carolina, Kansas Colored Infantry, the Louisiana Native Guards, United States Colored Troops or the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, each soldier learned similar military skills, used similar equipment, and experienced similar hardships in the field.
These freemen and former slaves could have avoided the danger, the fear, and the discomfort of being a soldier. With great disdain, detractors stated that black soldiers could not grasp the military discipline needed to win in battle. White northern troops were sure African-Americans would not stand in a fight leaving their own flanks exposed to enemy fire.
1862 Chart of Admiral Farragut's Western Gulf Blockade Zone
Despite discouragement, thousands of black men did enlist in the Union army, including what would become Ship Island’s Second Regiment of Louisiana Native Guards. Like all soldiers, these men fought not just the dangers of the battlefield, but also the dangers of disease and confinement in camp. Few people today are probably aware that more soldiers on both sides died in camp from disease than from bullets on the battlefield.
It may be interesting to mention that the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, celebrated for its valiant charge at Fort Wagoner, South Carolina was not the first African American unit to fight in the Union Army. While the 54th was organized in 1863, other units of African-American soldiers were formed in Kansas, South Carolina and Louisiana as early as 1862.
Inferior equipment and pay were common experiences. Black officers faced discrimination by white officers. Rather than trust untested regiments, white generals often sent African-American troops not into battle, but to dig earthworks or garrison remote outposts such as Ship Island, Mississippi.
The charge by the 1st and 3rd Regiments of Louisiana Native Guards at Port Hudson, Louisiana helped open the eyes of white critics to the value and valor of black soldiers. The 1,000 men engaged at Port Hudson in May of 1863 may have been the first black troops to experience a battle of any size.
Brick Lighthouse and federal military installation on Ship Island circa 1863. Union naval dock shown in foreground near Fort Massachusetts.
There were earlier skirmishes where black troops performed well, but news was slow to reach the public. Even the reports from Port Hudson reached newspapers long after the fact and were often inaccurately based on accounts by persons not at the actual charge.
Despite loss of men and officers under horrific cannon and rifle fire, the Native Guards made a determined charge against fixed and well-armed Confederate positions. The commanding general, Nathaniel P. Banks, no enthusiast for African-American troops, stated their conduct was..."in many respects...heroic."1
The charge at Port Hudson was unsuccessful, but it was a beginning. Further skirmishes and battles improved confidence in black troops by the northern public and Union officers. Ship Island’s 2nd Regiment of Louisiana Native Guards had earlier attracted attention concerning the quality of black soldiers.
On April 9th, 1863, the 2nd Regiment of Louisiana Native Guards successfully performed a raid sailing from Ship Island to Pascagoula, Mississippi. The unit’s fight against Confederate infantry and Calvary followed by an organized withdrawal under fire sparked attention in New Orleans and in the North. It seemed African-American soldiers could accept military discipline and fight for a cause.