In early 1863 Gen. Nathaniel Banks commanded occupied New Orleans and had to deal with problems between his New England troops and colored soldiers of the former Louisiana Native Guards – reconstituted as “Gen. Butler’s Native Guards.” The original Louisiana Native Guards of the city, officers and men, were all free, and in May 1861 were mustered into State service. They became the first black unit in the Civil War, serving a Confederate State. After conquering New Orleans Butler worked to change this during his tenure with most free blacks leaving the unit and replaced by contrabands.
Butler’s replacement, Gen. Banks, was a Waltham, Massachusetts native who shared the deep prejudices of his fellow New Englanders.
Colorphobia at New Orleans
“British-born Colonel Leonard Currie of the 133rd New York Infantry told his men “to continue in the performance of their duty until such time as the regiment is brought in contact with [black soldiers] by guard duty, drills or otherwise.” If that happened, he promised to march them back to their camp so as not to cause “their self-confidence or manliness to be lowered by contact with an inferior race.” The colonel’s prejudices were shared by the post commander, Brigadier General Cuvier Grover, who refuse to recognize Butler’s Native Guards 3rd Regiment as part of the Union army and would not allow it to draw clothing, blankets, or pay.
The volatile situation exploded within days of the 3rd Regiment’s arrival when a black captain reported for duty as officer of the day. The guard was composed of white soldiers from the 13th Maine Regiment of Colonel George Foster Shepley, a Saco, Maine native and Harvard graduate. When the black captain arrived to inspect the guard, the soldiers refused to recognize his authority. The white soldiers were willing to “obey every order consistent with their manhood,” a news correspondent reported, “but as to acknowledging a [black man] their superior, by any virtue of the shoulder straps he might wear, they would not.” The situation quickly turned ugly. The black officer pressed his authority; the white soldiers grounded their rifles in protest and threatened to kill him should he attempt to coerce their obedience.” (National Anti-Slavery Standard, February 28, 1863).
Gen. Nathaniel Banks of Massachusetts, the new department commander at New Orleans, soon heard of the episode but did not punish the mutinous white soldiers from the 13th Maine. Banks called the black officers for an interview, listened to their grievances, then instructed them that it was not the government’s policy to commission blacks as officers in the US Army. Banks then recommended they all resign to avoid the embarrassment of being kicked out. Uncertain of their future, the black officers agreed and all sixteen resigned and to their surprise soon found that their white replacements had already been named to take their place.”
(Louisiana Native Guards, James G. Hollandsworth, LSU Press, 1995, pp. 44-45)