Charles Blow, the Louisiana Native Guard, and the “Betrayal” of a Race

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.

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.

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“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

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12 comments… add one
  • Mike Furlan Apr 9, 2019 @ 9:25

    “The relatively small number of free blacks in New Orleans…” I remember a figure of 1,500 total for New Orleans, maybe somebody can correct that.

    Also, considering that some of the men were the grandchildren of free men of color who had been on the losing side of the slave revolt in Haiti, and had fled to New Orleans.

    Given the world they grew up in, where there was no binary racial distinction, they, like their forefathers identified with the dominant white people and thought that fighting for them would help preserve their advantages over the black slave majority.

  • Joshism Apr 7, 2019 @ 18:05

    The whole idea of racial loyalty seems problematic to me, something that perpetuates racial divisions.

    If people should be loyal to their race does that mean Japanese-Americans during World War II should have sided with Japan?

    • fundrums Apr 8, 2019 @ 4:30

      On a side note: There are accounts of German Americans returning to their motherland to fight against the American forces on behalf of their native country. I assume the same could have been true for Japanese-Americans.

      Michael Aubrecht

  • lloyd1927 Apr 7, 2019 @ 13:12

    “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.”

    THAT is the real issue for Charles Blow. He cannot stand the idea that anyone with the dreaded “black blood” refused to identify as “black.” He savaged the excellent film AND book “The Free State of Jones” because the fact that some of the descendants of Newt Knight and ex-slave Rachel Knight identified as white made him so damned angry.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 7, 2019 @ 14:53

      I am not so interested in this part of the story. Like I said in the post, Blow is free to characterize these individuals in any way he chooses. I am concerned with his understanding of the relevant historical context, which appears to be entirely lacking in this case.

  • Terry M. Klima Apr 7, 2019 @ 8:39

    Interesting topic that requires so much more discussion. It should be noted that the Louisiana Native Guard was a State sanctioned militia initiative and while it is true that the Confederacy was not accepting Blacks into its military, neither was the United States government. Blacks were prohibited from military service in the United States Army until the passage of the The Militia Act of 1862, 12 Stat. 597, enacted July 17, 1862 by the 37th United States Congress. It stated in part “SEC. 12. And be it further enacted, That the President be, and he is hereby, authorized to receive into the service of the United States, for the purpose of constructing intrenchments, or performing camp service or any other labor, or any military or naval service for which they may be found competent, persons of African descent, and such persons shall be enrolled and organized under such regulations, not inconsistent with the Constitution and laws, as the President may prescribe.”The Act was not without controversy in that Blacks were paid substantially less than the monthly wage paid to White troops. It is suggested by some that the substantive inequality in pay presumed the Blacks would be utilized in non-combatant/laborer/support roles rather than actual combatants. It was not until May 22, 1863 that the War Department established the Bureau of Colored Troops with the issuance of General Order # 143 and the designation of Black Regiments as United States Colored Troops. Will the upcoming book compare and contrast the utilization of Blacks employed in the service of the United States vs Confederate States as it relates to respective pay scales,assignments etc?

    • Kevin Levin Apr 7, 2019 @ 11:40

      You are absolutely right that both the Confederacy and United States refused the service of African Americans at the beginning of the war. The United States obviously embraced their service earlier though it certainly was not without controversy. The Confederacy only crossed that rubicon only in the final days of the war.

  • Jerry McKenzie Apr 7, 2019 @ 6:03

    The Louisiana Guard story lends itself to misunderstandings, but also sensational headlines and (mIs)interpretations, much like New Orleans itself which was an enigma with a history unlike the rest of Louisiana and the South.

  • Diane Jacqueline Hyra Apr 7, 2019 @ 5:17

    I wonder, Kevin, if you feel you should contact Blow directly and share your this post, or something similar, with him. I’m just asking if that is something appropriate for you, as an historian and author on a related topic, to do. Thanks.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 7, 2019 @ 9:30

      I reached out via twitter.

      • lloyd1927 Apr 7, 2019 @ 13:22

        Twitter? Did Blow block you? I know of several people he blocked for daring to send him ONE critical tweet about his savage and unfair attack on “The Free State of Jones.”

        • Kevin Levin Apr 7, 2019 @ 14:53

          I have not been blocked.

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