Confederate troops seized Ship Island as soon as Mississippi seceded but realized that they could not hold it without a strong Confederate naval presence in the Gulf. Consequently, the Confederates evacuated Ship Island in September 1861, and a Federal detachment immediately occupied Fort Massachusetts, an unfinished masonry fortification guarding the anchorage north of the island. The strategic importance of Ship Island was obvious: it could serve as a Union staging area for movements against Mobile, New Orleans, or even the Texas coast. In addition, it provided a safe harbor and refitting facilities for the Union’s blockading fleet in the Gulf.
During the Civil War, Ship Island served all of these functions as work on Fort Massachusetts continued. Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler used Ship Island as a staging area for his expedition against New Orleans in the spring of 1862. Shortly thereafter, the island became a prison camp for Union soldiers guilty of crimes in New Orleans and civilian detainees. Later in the war, the facility was expanded to accommodate Confederate prisoners of war captured in the Union attempt to take Mobile, and more than forty-two hundred Confederate prisoners were held there by the end of the war. Finally, the Union Navy built machine shops to repair and refit ships from the blockading fleet.
Twenty-seven Union infantry regiments, six batteries of light artillery, and a battalion of cavalry saw service on Ship Island during the Civil War. Union troop strength peaked in April 1862, when more than fifteen thousand men assembled for the final assault on New Orleans. After the city fell, the Union garrison on Ship Island was reduced to one regiment of infantry, the 13th Maine. Three months later, eight companies of this regiment were transferred to the forts below New Orleans, leaving two companies to hold the island by themselves until 12 January 1863, when seven companies from a new regiment of African Americans, the 2nd Louisiana Native Guards, arrived for garrison duty.
The mixture of black and white troops created an explosive atmosphere, and a racial dispute between the men from Maine and the black soldiers from Louisiana broke out within a week. The Union commander of the Department of the Gulf, Nathaniel P. Banks, reacted to the tense situation by ordering the withdrawal of the white soldiers, and the 2nd Regiment of the Louisiana Native Guards remained the primary garrison for the sandy outpost until the end of the war.
Not only was camp life for soldiers on Ship Island boring and uncomfortable, it could be deadly as a result of exposure to foul weather and disease. Plaques mounted at the entrance to Fort Massachusetts bear the names of 153 Confederate prisoners of war who died and were buried on the island. In addition, 232 Union soldiers died and were buried on Ship Island during the Civil War. Over the years, most of the dead washed out to sea, although the remains of a few Union soldiers were disinterred and reburied in the Chalmette National Cemetery outside New Orleans in 1867. Gulfport native Natasha Trethewey honors the African American Union soldiers on the island in her poem, “Elegy for the Native Guards” (2006).
- James J. Hollandsworth Jr., The Louisiana Native Guards: The Black Military Experience during the Civil War (1995)
- James G. Hollandsworth Jr., Journal of Mississippi History (Summer 2000)