Remembering the Civil War’s first black hero

A dramatic — but factually inaccurate — contemporary depiction of Captain Cailloux & Company E at the Battle of Port Hudson in 1863 (Credit: FBC)

Even as the Union fought the Civil War to end slavery, most northerners doubted African Americans could cut it on the battlefield. Centuries of suffocating racism had conditioned most whites to question black character, courage and intelligence. People of color had expressed eagerness to enlist since the fighting began, but — bowing to popular prejudice — the US Army had generally refused to accept black soldiers for the first two years of the war.

However, starting in the fall of 1862, a relatively enlightened Union general in occupied New Orleans raised three regiments of local African Americans. The following year, the Louisiana Native Guard saw combat for the first time during the Siege of Port Hudson.

Led by Captain Andre Cailloux, Company E fought bravely and earned national acclaim in the battle. Their remarkable heroism helped wear down public resistance to black enlistment in the US Army and create opportunities for more people of color to join the fight to end slavery.

Steamships at Cotton Wharf in New Orleans, c. 1858 (Credit: Pinterest)

Cailloux — his surname rhymes with “bayou” — spent the first twenty-one years of his life as a slave. Born in 1825, he lived on Joseph Duvernay’s plantation in Plaquemines Parish until the age of five, when his owner died. The widow Duvernay inherited Cailloux and his parents, and moved them with her to New Orleans. There, in the Crescent City, the boy worked as a craft apprentice in a cigar factory. It may have been there that he became literate; it was customary for one worker to entertain the shop floor by reading aloud while his colleagues rolled cigars.

In 1846, his owner supported the young man’s petition for freedom, which the parish government granted. The next year, Cailloux married Félicie Coulon — a fellow Creole and former slave— and adopted her daughter. The couple had four more children together. Cailloux did well enough in the cigar trade to buy a cottage uptown and open a shop of his own.

Widely liked and trusted, Cailloux figured prominently in the Crescent City’s free black community. He won renown for his skills as a boxer and equestrian, and for his good looks and impeccable manners. Many Creoles of mixed race prided themselves on their light skin, but Cailloux liked to boast he was “the blackest man in New Orleans.” (Sadly, no photographs of him survive.) He helped sponsor the Institute Catholique, a parochial school that educated both well-to-do Creole children — like his sons — and orphans of African American ancestry.

Governor Moore (Credit: Wikimedia)

Cailloux served first as a Confederate soldier. At the outset of the Civil War, Thomas Overton Moore — the state’s Rebel Governor — called on the free black community of New Orleans to form the Native Guard, a regiment to assist in defending the city against impending northern attacks. Since French colonial times, free men of color had defended their fragile social standing by serving in the Louisiana militia. Recognizing secession as a grave threat to their status, thousands of Creoles answered Governor Moore’s call.

As a leader of a fraternal organization called the Friends of Order, Cailloux recruited a unit of 100 men called the Order Company. Despite zero financial support from the state, Lieutenant Cailloux diligently trained his men to ensure their readiness for combat. However, even as Union troops neared New Orleans, neither the city nor the state ever called the Native Guard to active service, due probably to reflexive fear of armed black men and understandable insecurity about their real loyalties in a war fought to perpetuate slavery.

Union General Benjamin Franklin Butler (Credit: TAS)

Ultimately, the North benefited militarily from Governor Moore’s odd decision to train black soldiers. After Union forces took control of New Orleans in April 1862, the Native Guard nominally disbanded, but immediately men of color in the Crescent City clamored to join the US Army. Desperately in need of reinforcements, General Benjamin F. Butler wrote repeatedly to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, requesting permission to recruit African Americans to his ranks. After a few months, the general interpreted Stanton’s failure to respond as authorization to proceed.

In September 1862, Butler directed a white northerner — Colonel Spencer H. Stafford — to raise the first regiment of African American troops in the history of our country. Because free blacks from the old state militia units formed the nucleus of these forces, Stafford retained the Native Guard moniker to maintain morale. Regulations required officers to limit recruitment to free men of color, but the Native Guard began covertly accepting runaway slaves, too. Within a few months, the force had grown to 3,000 men — three full regiments, comprising one-fourth of Butler’s total troop strength.

Union soldiers of the Louisiana Native Guards at Port Hudson in 1863 (Credit: Wikimedia)

On November 28, 1862, the New Orleans Delta published a letter from one of the soldiers in Stafford’s First Regiment, describing their patrols in Cajun Country:

We have not, as yet, had the pleasure of exchanging shots with the enemy. But we are still anxious, as we ever have been, to show to the world that the latent courage of the African is aroused, and that, while fighting under the American flag, we can and will be a wall of fire and death to the enemies of this country, our birth-place.

“When we enlisted, we were hooted at in the streets of New Orleans as a rabble of armed plebeians and cowards. I am proud to say, that if any cowardice has been exhibited since we left Camp Strong… it has been exhibited by the rebels. They have retreated from Boutee Station beyond Terrebonne Station, on the line we have marched, burning bridges and destroying culverts, which, no sooner than coming to the knowledge of Col. Thomas, of the 8th Vermont Regiment, have been repaired as quickly as they have been destroyed.

“I am not of a disposition to claim for our regiment more than its share of praise, but I venture the assertion that there is not a regiment in the service more willing to share the hardships of marching and bivouacking, and more desirous of meeting the enemy, than this regiment, led by Colonel S. H. Stafford and Major C. F. Bassett.”

A modern depiction of Cailloux (Credit: Andre Cailloux)

Captain Cailloux led Company E of the First Native Guard Regiment, but a change of senior leadership imperiled his command. In December 1862, Secretary of War Stanton recalled General Butler for corruption, and because the white population of New Orleans had complained about his recruitment of black soldiers.

Butler’s replacement, General Nathaniel Banks, lacked confidence in the Native Guard. He had brought 30,000 fresh Union troops to New Orleans; those reinforcements relieved the need for African American troops.

Union General Nathaniel Banks (Credit: Wikimedia)

However, rather than disband the Native Guard, General Banks ordered the militia’s black leaders — “a source of constant embarrassment and annoyance” — replaced with white Union officers. The Second and Third Regiments generally obeyed this directive, but Colonel Stafford — still in charge of the First Regiment — lobbied the general to reconsider. Citing the great merit of his African American officers, he obtained permission to retain them, including Cailloux.

During an inspection, one white colonel boasted to another northern officer of the pedigrees of some in the First Regiment:

“Sir, the best blood of Louisiana is in that regiment! Do you see that tall, slim fellow, third file from the right of the second company? One of the ex-governors of the state is his father. That orderly sergeant in the next company is the son of a man who has been six years in the United States Senate. Just beyond him is the grandson of Judge_______ … ; and all through the ranks you will find the same state of facts. … Their fathers are disloyal; [but] these black Ishmaels will more than compensate for their treason by fighting it in the field.”

Despite their eagerness to fight, the general relegated the Native Guard to frustrating fatigue duty — menial tasks like chopping wood and digging trenches — to free up white soldiers for combat assignments. In a January 1863 letter, Stafford complained and requested an opportunity to prove the mettle of his troops at “as early an opportunity as possible… The acquaintance I have formed with the characteristics, mental, moral and physical[,] of these men satisfies me… that when tried they will not be found wanting.”

That opportunity finally came in April 1863, when General Banks received orders to take the bulk of his force upstream and seize Port Hudson to help complete Union control of the Mississippi River— the economic aorta of the Confederacy. Banks needed every man he could field to mount an assault on the large and well-fortified Rebel garrison.

Tragically, Banks lacked formal military training. Political experience as a former US Speaker of the House and Governor of Massachusetts made him an effective recruiter, but left him ill-prepared to lead troops into battle.

His inexperience showed in the vague and unimaginative orders he issued for a massive attack on Port Hudson on May 27, 1863.

General William Dwight, Jr., commanded the right wing of the Union forces, which included the Native Guards. Dwight wrote that he believed Banks had decided to use the black soldiers in order “to test the negro question…. The negro will have the fate of his race on his conduct. I shall compromise nothing in making this attack for I regard it as an experiment.”

General Dwight (Credit: Wikimedia)

Historian Terry L. Jones wrote:

“Incredibly, Dwight’s ‘experiment’ did not include scouting out the position the Native Guards were to attack or even studying maps of the area. As it turned out, Louisiana’s black Union soldiers were being sent into a tangled maze of felled trees, thick brush, and irregular ground which was, perhaps, the strongest part of the Confederate defenses. General Dwight remained in the rear drinking throughout the entire fight.”

At about 10:00 a.m., the Native Guards moved forward across the six hundred yards of ground that separated them from the enemy. A third of the way across, Confederate artillery opened up with what was described as ‘shot and shells, and pieces of railroad iron twelve to eighteen inches long.’”

George Washington Williams (1849–91, historian & Civil War veteran (Credit: Wikimedia)

Historian George Washington Williams — himself an African American Civil War veteran — also described the arduous, suicidal charge toward entrenched Confederate sharpshooters and artillery:

“When the order for the assault was given, the men moved forward in quick time, and then changed it into double-quick. The line was almost perfect, and the movement was executed with spirit and dash. The enemy held his fire until the assaulting column was within four hundred yards of the point of attack. Suddenly the earth quaked, and a sheet of fire flashed along the forts; a cloud of smoke rose over the ramparts, and the air was filled with demons of destruction and death — hissing, screaming, howling, and leaping at their black victims with the rapidity of lightning. The slaughter was dreadful, but the shattered, quivering, bleeding columns only wheeled by companies to the rear, reformed at a short distance from the foe, and again gallantly dashed down through the Valley of Death and charged for the guns on the bluff. But the sixty-two pound shot, the shell, canister, and [Minié] ball [i.e., bullets] were more than infantry could contend with in the open field; the pierced and thinned columns recoiled before such terrible odds.

“Lieutenant-colonel Henry Finnegas fearlessly led his columns to the assault over the same crimson path, obstructed by the dead and wounded, ploughed by shell, but lighted forever by fadeless deeds of martial valor. The mill of death was now grinding with rapacious greed. The enemy was serving his guns with rapidity and accuracy; the Union gunboats were hurling monstrous shot and shell into the river side of the enemy’s work; but all eyes, of friend and foe, were turned towards the remorseless hell of conflict, bristling with bayonets and glinting with the red flash of shotted cannon, into which Negro troops were being hurled by the inexorable orders of Brigadier-general William Dwight. It was of no avail that these troops fought like white veterans. A deep bayou ran under the guns on the bluff, and although the troops reached its edge, some fifty yards from the enemy’s guns, they could not cross it. After Colonel Nelson had become convinced that his men could not carry the forts, he despatched an aide to General Dwight to report the difficulties he had to contend with. ‘Tell Colonel Nelson,’ he [Dwight] sternly said, ‘I shall consider that he has accomplished nothing unless he takes those guns!’

“Not a man faltered when the torn and decimated lines were reformed and led over the same field to the same terrible fate. Shell and solid shot severed limbs from trees, tore off tops, and, in falling, these caused the men much annoyance. The colors of the First Louisiana were pierced by bullets and almost severed from the staff. The color-sergeant, Anselmas Planciancois, was gallantly bearing the colors in front of the enemy’s works when a shell cut the flag in two and carried away part of the sergeant’s head. His brains and blood stained the beautiful banner, which fell over him as he embraced it in death. In a struggle for the flag the generous rivalry of two corporals was ended by the shot of a sharp-shooter which felled one of them. He dropped upon the lifeless body of the color sergeant, while his successful rival carried the colors proudly through the conflict.

“Captain Andre Cailloux, of Company E, First Regiment Native Guards, won for himself a proud place among the military heroes of the Negro race for all time. He was… a man of fine presence, a leader by instinct and education. He was possessed of ample means, and yet was not alienated from his race in any interest. He loved to boast of genuine blackness, and his race pride made him an acceptable, successful, and formidable leader. It was the magnetic thrill of his patriotic utterances that rallied a company for the service of his country the previous year. Upon all occasions he had displayed talents as a commander, and gave promise of rare courage when the trying hour should come. It had come at length: not too soon for this eager soldier, if unhappily too early for the cause he loved! During the early part of this action the enemy had trained his guns upon the colors of these Negro troops, and they especially received the closest attention of the sharp-shooters.

“Captain Cailloux commanded the color company. It had suffered severely from the first, but the gallant captain was seen all along the line encouraging his men by brave words and inspiring them by his noble example. His left arm was shattered [struck by a Minié ball above the elbow], but he refused to leave the field. Now in English and then in French, with his voice faint from exhaustion, he urged his men to the fullest measure of duty. In one heroic effort he rushed to the front of his company and exclaimed, “Follow me!” When within about fifty yards of the fort a shell smote him to death, and he fell, like the brave soldier he was, in the advance with his face to the foe. It was a soldier’s death, and just what he would have chosen.”

Rodolfe Desdunes (1849–1928) (Credit: Wikimedia)

Rodolfe Desdunes, another African American historian and Civil War veteran, based his report on the eyewitness account from his younger brother, Aristide, who served under Cailloux:

“The eyes of the world were indeed on this American Spartacus. The hero of ancient Rome displayed no braver heroism than did this officer who ran forward to his death with a smile on his lips and crying, ‘Let us go forward, O comrades!’ Six times he threw himself against the murderous batteries of Port Hudson, and in each assault he repeated his urgent call, ‘Let us go forward, for one more time!’ Finally, falling under the mortal blow, he gave his last order to his attending officer, ‘Bacchus, take charge!’ If anyone should say the knightly Bayard did better or more, according to history, he lies.”

When Cailloux fell, Company E had advanced within two hundred yards of the Confederate trenches, with a deep bayou accounting for most of the intervening distance. Recognizing the futility of their charge, the Native Guard fired one last volley, turned heel and fled desperately, scrambling back through brush and fallen trees, past the fallen corpses of their comrades. Confederate artillery and sharpshooters continued to pour withering fire down upon them until they finally passed out of range.

Having lost 500 men in the assault, General Banks concluded that charging the Rebel trenches was suicide. His troops settled in for a long siege. Under a truce, each side fetched the white dead from the field of battle, but the southerners refused to permit the collection of the corpses of black soldiers, and enforced the prohibition with sharpshooters. Thus, Cailloux and 35 of his comrades rotted where they lay for two months, until Grant’s victory upriver at Vicksburg convinced the Confederates to capitulate. Finally, the Native Guard collected the remains of their captain and brought his body back to New Orleans, where he received a funeral with full military honors.

In August 1863, Harper’s Weekly ran this illustration of Andre Cailloux’s funeral in New Orleans (Photo Credit: Wikimedia)

The valor of Company E persuaded General Banks to revise his prejudices and become a strong advocate for the enlistment of African American troops. “They fought splendidly!” he exulted to his wife. Banks made the following report to his superiors:

“It gives me pleasure to report that they answered every expectation. In many respects their conduct was heroic. No troops could be more determined or more daring. They made during the day three charges upon the batteries of the enemy suffering very heavy losses…. Whatever doubt might have existed heretofore as to the efficiency of organizations of this character, the history of this day proves conclusively… that the Government will find in this class of troops effective supporters and defenders. The severe test to which they were subjected, and the determined manner in which they encountered the enemy, leaves upon my mind no doubt of their ultimate success. They require only good officers… and careful discipline, to make them effective soldiers.”

The northern press celebrated the bravery of the Native Guard and advocated the mass enlistment of men of color. The New York Times wrote that Cailloux “had sealed with his blood the inspiration he received from Mr. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.” According to the newspaper, his sacrifice convinced witnesses that “the struggle must go on until there is not legally a slave under the folds of the American flag.”

History, politics, education, music, culture. Award-winning high school teacher, former principal. College instructor. Seahawks Diehard. Twitter: @brian_mrbmkz

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