The bayonet would have been attached to a Springfield Model 1861 rifle, the only weapon issued to a regiment of black men for defense against Confederate cannon fire.
It wouldn’t have been as rusty as it is now in the glass case in the West Baton Rouge Museum’s Brick Gallery. And, the shooter was probably felled before getting a shot off.
That’s the tragic end to the courageous story of the museum’s exhibit, “Brave Steps: The Louisiana Native Guard,” which runs through Sunday, March 22. The show examines the history and legacy of this select group of free men of color from New Orleans who initially organized to fight for the Confederacy as “Defenders of the Native Land” during the Civil War.
Their efforts were praised, yet they were never accepted into the Confederate Army.
Union Major Gen. Benjamin Butler later recruited them, along with freed slaves, when the Union experienced a troop shortage after the 1862 fall of New Orleans.
The Louisiana Native Guard was the first black unit mustered into the Union Army, not the black 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry in the 1989 Civil War drama “Glory.”
Union Gen. Nathaniel Banks sent the Louisiana Native Guard into battle on May 27, 1863, during the Siege of Port Hudson with only standard Union-issued Springfield Model 1861 rifles in hand.
That one remnant of the rifle, the bayonet in the museum’s exhibit, is flanked by a 6-pound cannon ball and a super-sized Hotchkiss grenade.
“This is what was being fired back at the Native Guard,” museum curator Angelique Bergeron says. “They had to cross Sandy Creek, which was full of water, then Telegraph Road, before charging the cliff at Port Hudson. Their guns were firing Minié balls.”
Examples of the .58-caliber Minié balls also are on display, showing how the odds weren’t in the Native Guard’s favor.
Confederate troops were stationed at the top of the cliff, and simple military strategy dictates that it’s easier to pick off targets from above than from below.
“The troops in the Native Guard didn’t have a chance,” Bergeron says. “It’s really a tragic story.”
The bayonet, along with many of the exhibit’s other artifacts, where discovered by private collectors Buck Tucker, Bernie David and Ronnie McCallum at the place where the regiment fell.
“These are actual artifacts from the Native Guard, pieces from the weapons they used and the belt buckles they wore,” Bergeron says. “We also have pieces on loan from Hill Memorial Library at LSU, the Baton Rouge Civil War Roundtable and Richard Holloway, who oversees Forts Randolph and Buhlow State Historic Sites in Pineville.”
Bergeron assembled this exhibit with guest curator Emmitt Glynn, an adjunct history instructor at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, who also teaches history at Zachary High School.
“We contacted Port Hudson State Historic Site, but they said they unfortunately didn’t have any artifacts from the Native Guard,” Bergeron says. “But they do have a trail and signs showing where the Native Guard fought.”
Bergeron walked the trail to get an idea of how to tell the story at the museum. She compares the park’s terrain today with the battlefield in 1863.
“We have photographs of the cliff the Native Guard had to charge,” Bergeron says, pointing to three black-and-white photos. “They’re from Hill Memorial, and this is how it would have looked to the soldiers in that unit.”
The cliff is high and rugged, a bluff that overlooks a hairpin curve in the Mississippi River.
“Now, imagine having to run toward that as they were shooting at you with cannons,” Bergeron says.
The battle at Port Hudson marked the longest siege of the Civil War, lasting from May 23 through July 9, 1863, marking the Union’s final battle to liberate the Mississippi River.
Port Hudson had a lot of things going for it terrain-wise. Confederate soliders built earthworks to protect the grounds, then chopped down and crisscrossed trees in the field leading up to the stronghold.
Union soldiers zigzagging between the fallen trees on open ground became easy targets.
“The Native Guard had to cross that field, too,” Bergeron says. “You think about the racism, how black people were considered subhuman. But then you have to put it in context with the times. It was a different time.”
The Union wasn’t exemplary in its treatment of black troops.
The regiment had both black and white officers, and in one incident, white soldiers from the 13th Maine refused to acknowledge the authority of a black captain.
“In response to this, Nathaniel Banks, the department commander, ordered the black officers back to New Orleans,” the museum’s label states. “After feigning concern for the issues these men faced as officers, Banks lied to them stating that the United States was not commissioning black officers. He suggested that they simply resign themselves rather than be kicked out the army.”
Sixteen black officers did resign.
Meanwhile on the home front, families of black soldiers were often threatened by local whites who were angry about the situation.
“There was also the assumption of the period that blacks were immune to tropical diseases,” the museum’s label states. “This was the Union’s justification for using them for hard labor in the trenches. Of the 652 colored troops stationed at Port Hudson after the war, 524 became ill.”
“What could they do?” Bergeron asks. “They weren’t accepted by their fellow troops, and they were sent out as targets. If they surrendered, what would the Confederate troops have done to them? So, they fought.”