A key moment in the fall of New Orleans was the mutiny at Fort Jackson. The garrison, namely foreigners forced into Confederate service, refused to continue the fight. It would not be the last mutiny. A second occurred in 1863, its origins in the actions of Augustus W. Benedict of the 75th New York. Like many ambitious officers, he joined the Corps d’Afrique. The corps rapidly expanded and officer slots had to be filled. Benedict won for himself promotion to major and was assigned to the 4th Louisiana Native Guards, which were renamed the 4th Corps d’Afrique.
Command of such regiments was often seen as degradation, and many officers who thought they had no chance at regular promotion jumped over to command black regiments. Indeed, several of the commanders of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Native Guards were dismissed in 1863 and 1864 for various failings. Among the most scandalous was when Colonel Nathan W. Daniels of the 2nd Louisiana Native Guards stood by as his adjutant called a naval officer “a damned shit ass” and his wife “a damned whore.”
The 4th Native Guards were mustered in on March 6, 1863. Most were former slaves raised from southeast Louisiana. They were not actively engaged in the opening attack on Port Hudson, being brought over later and mostly being stationed at Baton Rouge. There they took part in a variety of parades and gained Nathaniel Banks’ notice as a well drilled outfit. In July of 1863 they were posted to New Orleans and the following month as the garrison for Fort Jackson and St. Philip. Colonel Charles W. Drew, formerly of the 75th New York, commanded the post.
Drew was an excellent drillmaster, but he failed to curtail abuses by the officers under him, particularly Benedict. Partially it was separation. Drew was at Fort Jackson and Benedict commanded at Fort St. Philip, across the river. Benedict regularly beat his men and even tortured one by having him hung up by his thumbs. In August 1863 he had a man spread out on his back, with limbs outstretched and tied up. The soldier’s face, hands, and feet were then covered in molasses. This torture lasted one full day and was continued for a time the following day.
All Drew knew was that Benedict’s men presented a fine appearance, no doubt keeping up the regiment’s reputation for being well drilled. He also did not listen to complaints, leaving that to his company officers. As such, Drew was out of touch.
On December 8 Drew gave Benedict full command of the regiment and posted him to Fort Jackson with 500 men as the newly organized 300 man 5th Corps d’Afrique were being posted to Fort St. Philip. Benedict’s transfer to Fort Jackson made the men hopeful, only to see those hopes dashed when they too were ordered to Fort Jackson. Some even begged to remain at Fort St. Philip.
On the evening of December 9 Benedict whipped Harry Williams and Munroe Miller, two drummer boys. Benedict yelled “I have had a great deal of trouble with you already, and I am going to stop it.” Their offense was tricking the guard to let them outside of Fort Jackson. The beatings were two to three lashes although one witness reported that Williams received twenty. Following that, at 5:30 p.m. the men went to their quarters, and for a time things were quiet.
Drew decided to reprimand Benedict in private, but before he could act the soldiers ended up threatening the officers and firing off some of their guns around 6:30, yelling “We know what General Grant told us.” It was a reference to the promise made by Brig. Gen. Lorenzo Thomas, who served for a time under Grant, that officers who mistreated the men would be dismissed. William Nye acted fast and left Fort Jackson to control two companies, then posted outside. The men charged towards Fort Jackson yelling “kill the son of a bitch” and tossed Nye aside after ripping his uniform. They also let some of their comrades out of the guardhouse.
Drew was at first in disbelief, but soon found his command was on the verge of collapse. It could not have helped that when some men exclaimed “We want to be treated as soldiers” Benedict replied “Those boys were bad boys, and I treated them as such.” Drew had Benedict confined to quarters. The officers quieted the men, although some thirty had left the fort already, demanding Benedict be turned over.
Drew was lucky. At least half the regiment, and likely more, did not join the riot, in fact implored the men to maintain order. The men also did not hate Drew, who agreed that Benedict had done wrong and he promised that justice would be done. While one soldier did exclaim “kill all the damned Yankess” it appears no one else agreed although one soldier did try to bayonet Captain James Miller.
While order was maintained, in the confusion, some men charged out of Fort Jackson, thinking Benedict was on the steamer Suffolk, which was nearby. Nye tried to stop them, but was threatened with being bayoneted.
The next day Drew ordered Benedict to New Orleans, to report to Edward G. Beckwith, the garrison commander. Drew later made it clear he did not wish Benedict to return. Commodore Henry H. Bell sent gunboats immediately to Fort Jackson. A regiment of troops was moved down during the evening and a battery of artillery in the morning.
Benedict tendered his resignation, but it was not accepted. A military commission, headed by Francis Herron, went to Fort Jackson. From December 12-13 the commission listened to testimony from white officers. None of the enlisted men were called up. The commission blamed Benedict for his harsh measures, but thought the men did not understand how to properly redress grievances.
On December 17-19 and 30, a court-martial was overseen by G. Norman Lieber as judge-advocate and Friend Smith Rutherford of the 97th Illinois. Banks made it clear the Native Guards would be held to account stating “The conduct of the soldiers is inexcusable, and must be punished with such severity as to prevent its recurrence.” Banks tried his best to downplay the incident, writing to Henry Halleck “there is nothing to excite apprehension or to suggest a doubt as to the perfect confidence which the Government may repose in troops of this class.”
Of the thirteen men under trial, only Henry Green, Jacob Kennedy, Volset Verrett, and James Hagan were acquitted. Edward B. Smith was sentenced to hard labor for one year. Lewis Cady was sentenced to two years hard labor, Willis Curtis to three years, and Charles Taylor and Abram Singleton to ten years. Julius Bourdo was given the worst of the prison sentences with twenty years. James H. Moore only got one month, and that was itself commuted. Frank Williams and Abraham Victoria were sentenced to death but those sentences were suspended until further notice, and they were not executed. All were sent to Fort Jefferson in the infamous Dry Tortugas of the Florida Keys.
Banks though did recognize that Benedict had failed and that the rapid expansion of the Corps d’Afrique meant its officers were sometimes, and likely more than Banks cared to admit, unsuited to command. Banks had Benedict stripped of his rank. He had commanded his regiment for at most two days, surely among the war’s shortest tenures for a regiment commander not under fire.
The 4th Corps d’Afrique had a mostly quiet life after December 1863. They were moved to Port Hudson in February 1864 and remained there a year. On April 4, 1864 the 4th Corps d’Afrique was renamed the 76th United States Colored Troops (USCT.) Sent to Florida in 1865, they took part in the Mobile campaign and stormed Fort Blakeley on April 9, 1865, the final battle of the Civil War. At that battle, Drew commanded a brigade of USCT, and Nye led the regiment in the war’s last grand assault.