First Black Troop to be Mustered into the Union Army
by Camille Corte
The famed 73rd U. S. C. T. was first organized in the Confederate service by Governor Moore of Louisiana as the 1st Louisiana Native Guards in May of 1861. After the surrender of New Orleans they offered themselves to the Union. General Butler accepted them and mustered the regiment into the service on September 27, 1862. The 73rd became the first Colored regiment to be mustered into the Union Army. It retained its designation as the 1st Louisiana Native Guards until after the siege of Port Hudson where it won great distinction in that desperate assault of May 27, 1863.
In April 1864, the Regiment's name was transferred to the 73rd U.S.C.T. Upon assembling the troops for the completion of the Mobile Campaign in Pensacola, Hawkins' U.S.C.T. Division of three Brigades contained the 73rd. General Frederick Steele's provisional corps consisted of Hawkins' Division, Lucas' Cavalry Brigade, and General C. C. Andrews Second Division of the Thirteenth Corps. Steele's column set out on March 20th traveling due north towards Pollard and turning west towards Blakeley, arriving there on April 1.
At daybreak on the second, Hawkins' Division charged forward driving the enemy into their works, becoming the first to invest Fort Blakeley. Andrews' Division arrived the night of April 2, positioned on the left of Hawkins far right flank. On April 3, General Steele applied to General Canby to retain Veatch's Division, formed on the left of Andrews and Garrard's Division of the Sixteenth Corps which positioned itself to the far left flank.
The Union forces numbered approximately 16,000 while the Confederate garrison held 4,000. Not to be forgotten was the strong support of the Confederate gunboats "Morgan," "Nashville," and "Huntsville" whose guns constantly threatened the nearby Black Division, thereby doubling their losses.
The Confederate garrison consisted of the Veteran Brigades of Mississippi and Missouri, flanking the left, respectively. Both were under the command of General F. M. Cockerel and covered two-thirds of the line. The remainder of the right line was occupied by General Thomas' Alabama Boy Reserves, so named because the Brigade consisted of school boys and other odds and ends.
The 73rd commanded by Col. Henry Merriam and located in Pile's First Brigade received news on the morning of April 9 of the escape of the Confederate garrison from Spanish Fort the previous night. Colonel Merriam reported, "The effect upon us was very depressing . . . To me it appeared that the escape of the garrison in our front also would be simply disgraceful." Merriam asked his Brigade Commander, General Pile, for permission to capture the enemy's advanced line of works at once instead of waiting for cover of darkness and having the Blakeley garrison disappear also.
Pile consented and the 73rd and 86th were the first Regiments to advance the Union lines. So successful were they in attacking the Rebels' outposts that when Merriam requested to attack the main works General Osterhaus refused, saying "I will go and order the White troops up." Merriam appealed to General Pile, "We have already fought the battle, but unless we go over the main works we will not get the credit." Pile answered, "You are right, Colonel. When you see Andrews' Division start to advance, charge the main works with your regiment." Colonel Merriam claimed, "in my official report my regiment was the first to cross the enemy's works. I have not claimed to have been the first over the works because my color sergeant was at my elbow and entitled to at least share the honor. The order awarding me the Congressional Medal of Honor reads for 'voluntarily and successfully leading his regiment over the works in advance of orders, permission having been given at his own request."
Major-General Henry C. Merriam, in a paper read May 3, 1905 to the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of United States, concluded by stating what was unknown to many: