The 1st Louisiana Native Guard (later became the 73rd Regiment Infantry U.S. Colored Troops) was one of the first all-black regiments to fight in the Union Army during the American Civil War. It was based in New Orleans, Louisiana, and played a prominent role in the Siege of Port Hudson. Its members included a minority of free men of color from New Orleans; most were African-American men who had escaped from slavery to join the Union cause and gain freedom.
A predecessor regiment by the same name 1st Louisiana Native Guard (CSA) had served in the Confederate Louisiana militia, made up of free men of color who had served in the militia before the war.
After New Orleans fell to Admiral David Farragut in April 1862, Union Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler headquartered his 12,000-man Army of the Gulf in New Orleans. On September 27, 1862, Butler organized the Union Army's 1st Louisiana Native Guard regiment, some of whose members had also been part of the previous Confederate Native Guard regiment. The regiment's initial strength was 1,000 men, composed mostly of African-American men who had escaped from slavery to gain freedom.
Former Confederate Lt. Andre Cailloux, a Creole of color in New Orleans, was named captain of Company E. P. B. S. Pinchback, also a free man of color, captain of Company A. James Lewis, a former steward on the Confederate river-steamer De Soto, was captain of company K. During this period, some slaves who escaped from nearby plantations joined the regiment, but the Union Army's official policy discouraged such enrollments. In November 1862, the number of escaped slaves seeking to enlist became so great that the Union organized a second regiment and, a month later, a third regiment.
The field grade officers of these regiments (colonels, lieutenant colonels, and majors) were white men, with the notable exception of Major Francois (Francis) Ernest Dumas of the 2nd Regiment, a Creole of color. The line officers were mostly free men of color (classified as black), including P. B. S. Pinchback, who was reassigned as Company Commander of the 2nd Regiment. He served in 1872 as the first governor of Louisiana of African-American descent, and was elected to the US House of Representatives and Senate. Spencer Stafford, formerly Butler's military "mayor" of New Orleans, was the original commander of the 1st Louisiana Native Guard.
When General Nathaniel P. Banks later replaced Butler as Commander of the Department of the Gulf, he began a systematic campaign to purge all the black line officers from the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Regiments of the Louisiana Native Guard. He secured the resignations of all the black line officers in the 2nd Regiment in February 1863, but most of the black line officers in the 1st Regiment and 3rd Regiment remained.
From its formation in September 1862 until early May 1863, the 1st Louisiana Native Guard largely performed fatigue duty–chopping wood, gathering supplies, and digging earthworks. From January 1863 to May 1863, the regiment also guarded the railway depots along the rail line between Algiers (now part of New Orleans) to Brashear City (now called Morgan City). By this time, its numbers had diminished to 500. Troops of the Native Guards were assigned guard duty at Fort Macomb, Fort Pike, Fort Massachusetts (Mississippi), Fort St. Philip, and Fort Jackson.
In mid-1863, the 1st Louisiana Native Guard, along with the 3rd Louisiana Native Guard, had its first chance at combat. These units participated in the first assault at the Siege of Port Hudson on May 27, as well as the second assault on June 14. Captain Cailloux died heroically in the first assault. His body, as well as those of the other members of the 1st Louisiana Native Guard who fell with him that day, was left on the field of battle until the surrender of Port Hudson on July 9, 1863. Cailloux received a hero's funeral in New Orleans on July 29.
In June 1863, the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Louisiana Native Guard Regiments were redesignated as the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Corps d'Afrique. Perhaps 200 to 300 of the original 1,000 members of the 1st Louisiana Native Guard made this transition.
Poor treatment by white soldiers and difficult field conditions had by then led to the resignation of many officers and desertion by enlisted soldiers. In April 1864 the Corps d'Afrique was dissolved and its members joined the newly organized 73rd and 74th Regiments of the United States Colored Troops of the Union Army. By the end of the war, about 175,000 African Americans had served in the 170 regiments of the United States Colored Troops. In contrast to the 1st Louisiana Native Guards organization, all field and line officers of the United States Colored Troops were white. At the war's end, approximately 100 of the original 1,000 members of the First Louisiana Native Guard still remained in uniform in either the 73rd or 74th Regiments.
The Confederate Army's Louisiana Native Guard regiment of May 1861 was not reformed in its entirety as the Union Army's 1st Louisiana Native Guard regiment in September 1862. Of the nearly 1,000 enlisted soldiers of the Confederate Native Guards, only 107 were recorded as enlisting in the Union "Native Guard", and only ten of the 36 officers served the Union. The free men of color had varying reasons for volunteering to serve with the Confederacy, in part to preserve their own standing in the society, just as others did.
Some members, such as P.B.S. Pinchback, were free men of color who joined the militia for the first time and distinctly for the Union. Most of the members were African Americans who had escaped from slavery and joined the Union effort. Some historians think the legend of continuity of the regiments was a propaganda ploy by Union General Benjamin F. Butler.