Free Soldiers of Color

Free Soldiers of Color

The New York Times

Donald R. Shaffer, Lecturer in History
Upper Iowa University
and blogger at Civil War Emancipation

On Feb. 15, 1862, Louisiana dissolved all its militia units as part of a military reorganization law. Among the organizations disbanded was a militia unique in the Confederacy, the 1st Louisiana Native Guards. What made the New Orleans unit special was that it was composed of African-Americans.

It was natural that the only black militia regiment in the Confederacy would be found in Louisiana, and more specifically in New Orleans, which boasted French, Spanish and African roots. The Crescent City was a cosmopolitan metropolis, by far the largest in the antebellum South, with an 1860 population of over 168,000 people (in contrast, the runner-up, Charleston, S.C., had just 40,000).

A distinctive group in the diverse city was the French-speaking gens de couleur libre, or “free people of color.” The progeny of European men and women of African descent, this group carved out a place in Louisiana society somewhere between the white population and the more purely African-descended slaves. Their position largely was as an inheritance of French and Spanish rule in Louisiana, which exhibited greater toleration for mixed-raced persons. Indeed, many gens de couleur libre owned property (some even owned slaves), worked at skilled or professional occupations, and embraced the cultural trappings of respectable society. Yet as hard as they tried to gain acceptance as a third caste, the gens de couleur libre still found many whites hostile on account of their obvious if muted African ancestry. If their position was better than that of most Southern blacks, it was by no means equal to that of Louisiana whites…

Read the entire essay here.

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