Yesterday New York Times Op-Ed writer, Charles Blow, posted a short video about the First Louisiana Native Guard on his twitter page. His interest in the subject appears to be connected to a current book project. Unfortunately, Blow offers a rather misleading interpretation of the men who volunteered and briefly served in the unit.
BETRAYAL: Free black people who wanted to fight FOR the Confederacy during the Civil War. pic.twitter.com/ATyRubi9yJ
— Charles M. Blow (@CharlesMBlow) April 6, 2019
First, Blow begins by framing his little discussion around free blacks that “either fought for or wanted to fight” for the Confederacy. This is problematic given that the Confederacy refused to accept the First Louisiana Native Guard into regular service. I have no idea what other free or possibly enslaved blacks he might be referencing as having “fought” in the Confederate army.
Of course, it is possible that a few of these men passed and were able to serve in a Confederate regiment, but many of these men also ended up serving in Union regiments following the capture of New Orleans in April 1862.
More problematic, however, is Blow’s characterization of these free blacks or creoles as having ‘betrayed’ their race. Blow is certainly entitled to assess these men as he sees fit, but there appears to be little understanding of the historical context surrounding their willingness to serve in or claims of loyalty to the Confederacy.
Many creoles in and around New Orleans did not consider themselves to be black in a city that bought and sold the highest number of black bodies in the antebellum period.
The relatively small number of free blacks in New Orleans and other locations in the new Confederacy lived precarious lives in 1861. In some cities such as Petersburg, Virginia free blacks accumulated property. Certainly these people worried about losing what little they had gained under a new government whose sole purpose was the preservation and expansion of slavery and white supremacy.
Just prior to secession, South Carolinians discussed re-opening the slave trade and in Georgia there was talk of re-enslaving free blacks. One can only imagine the sense of uncertainty and fear that free blacks felt. Their progress and the freedoms that free African Americans enjoyed in the South appeared to be closing in fast. None of this comes through in Blow’s account.
The problem with reducing the decision of free blacks (creoles) in New Orleans as ‘acts of betrayal’ is that it completely ignores this historical context and reinforces the neo-Confederate conviction that blacks were loyal to the Confederacy. I certainly don’t believe that Blow wants to do that.
I don’t discuss this history in any great detail in my forthcoming book, but I do reference the many distortions of this story by neo-Confederates and even Henry Louis Gates. Blow would do well to read James G. Hollandsworth’s book The Louisiana Native Guard: The Black Military Experience During the Civil War (LSU Press), which offers a rich interpretation of these men and New Orleans in the Civil War era.
Blow has written powerfully about Donald Trump’s manipulation of American history over the past few years, but he also has an obligation not to use history to reinforce his own agenda. More importantly, he has a duty to get this often misunderstood story right for his many readers and fans.