History Restored: The Untold Story of Black Civil War Soldiers

History PhD candidate and Marine veteran A.J. Cade was inspired by a forgotten Civil War regiment of all-Black soldiers and officers. Now, he’s bringing their legacy to life.
April 12, 2023
History doctoral candidate and U.S. Marine veteran A.J. Cade. (Photo William Atkins)

History doctoral candidate and U.S. Marine veteran A.J. Cade. (Photo William Atkins)

Long before Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation abolished slavery in the Confederacy, a band of Black soldiers was already making its mark—winning victories on Civil War battlefields and freeing enslaved people as they marched through the south.

They were called the Louisiana Native Guards, and their ranks included free men of color and escaped slaves. They were the first Black men to fight Confederate troops and the only Union regiment with Black soldiers led by Black officers. In his final speech, Lincoln lauded their example as proof that Black people deserved the right to vote.

But today, they are almost completely forgotten.

That’s an omission A.J. Cade plans to rectify. A history doctoral candidate and U.S. Marine veteran who served two tours of duty in Afghanistan, Cade has spent years unearthing the story of the Native Guard in an attempt to bring their overlooked legacy to the forefront of military history.

During his research journey, Cade, who earned a master’s degree in history from the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences in 2021, has uncovered thousands of Guard-related documents in English, French, Spanish and Russian. He’s followed their story from the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and historical societies along the Gulf Coast to military records in Massachusetts and Texas. And he’s met with the soldiers’ descendants to share pictures and memories.

“The Native Guard’s significance cannot be understated,” Cade said. “Every person of color who has served in the military since the Civil War—including me—owes that heritage to them.”

A Lost Legacy

Cade is an Air Force historian who previously worked with the U.S. Army Center of Military History. He’s frequently spoken to students at Historically Black Colleges and Universities about educational and employment opportunities.

He first discovered the Louisiana Native Guards while researching African-American regiments in the Union Army. He knew about the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, popularized in the movie Glory. But with almost no scholarly material on the Native Guards, even Cade was surprised to learn that they predated the 54th and saw combat months earlier.

“Given what they did on the battlefield, how they solidified the idea that Black people were equal to everyone else, it’s actually quite ridiculous how little their story is known,” he said.

An engraving from an 1863 newspaper show members of the Louisiana Native Guard protecting the New Orleans, Opelousas and Great Western Railroad from attack Confederate forces. (Courtesy Library of Congress)
An engraving from an 1863 newspaper show members of the Louisiana Native Guard protecting the New Orleans, Opelousas and Great Western Railroad. (Courtesy Library of Congress)

The Guard’s lineage begins in May 1861, when the Governor of Louisiana approved a militia consisting of free men of color. Confederate leaders were fervently opposed to an all-Black fighting unit. The soldiers were never issued weapons and their wives sewed their mismatched uniforms.

Not long after New Orleans surrendered to Union troops in April 1862, a 1,000-person regiment composed mostly of former slaves and some New Orleans militia members was constituted into the Union Army. For the first time, Black soldiers would be led into battle by Black officers like Captain Andre Cailloux, a wealthy Creole citizen and esteemed veteran of the New Orleans militia.

From its inception, Lincoln knew forming an all-Black-regiment was risky. In letters to his cabinet, he acknowledged that the Guard’s performance would reflect on all Black men in uniform. “If they faltered in any sort of way, it would have been an excuse to justify never arming another Black man,” Cade said.

But his fears were unfounded. By October 1862—before the Emancipation Proclamation’s terms came effect—the Guard was already in combat, fighting so successfully that one Union general told Lincoln the Louisiana sugar tasted sweeter thanks to their inspiration.

In their most celebrated battle, an undermanned Guard charged on heavily-fortified Port Hudson along the Mississippi River. As white troops refused to advance, the Guard mounted waves of assaults that even impressed their Confederate adversaries, Cade said. They sustained heavy casualties, including Captain Cailloux, but they besieged Port Hudson long enough for General Ulysses S. Grant to win at Vicksburg and spur Port Hudson’s surrender.

Inspiring Example

Throughout the war, the Guard often freed enslaved people as they captured plantations. Cade recalled one private who confronted white officers for abusing Black women—even though it meant being locked in chains and risking possible execution. Their accounts appeared in French and Russian newspapers. And, Cade said, their inspiration paved the way for more than 180,000 Black troops to serve in the Union Army—including 20,000 in Louisiana. On the last day of the war—as Robert E. Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox— the Native Guards were still fighting in Mobile, Alabama.

“AJ has completed incredible research to bring the story of the Louisiana Native Guards to life,” said Associate Professor of History Denver Brunsman, Cade’s dissertation advisor. “As he argues persuasively in his dissertation and related work, our understanding of the complexities of race and citizenship in the Civil War era is not complete without accounting for the Native Guards.”

In addition to tracking down documents, archives and letters from across the country and overseas, Cade said he was most moved by meeting with the soldiers’ descendants. He visited some in their New Orleans homes, talked to others who moved to France and met with another who now works for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in D.C. “It was like talking to living archives—hearing personal stories from people who feel a connection to those men,” he said.

And Cade isn’t done telling their story either. He’s working on a book with Louisiana State University Press that he hopes will introduce them to a wider audience. “I have so much admiration for the men of the Native Guard and all they inspired,” he said. “Now I feel like it’s my job is to keep their legacy alive.”

Cade did not participate in this article in his official capacity as a government historian, and all information presented is expressly his opinion and in no way reflective of the federal government.