The Case for Posthumously Awarding André Cailloux The Congressional Medal of Honor

The Case for Posthumously Awarding André Cailloux The Congressional Medal of Honor

Now that a brigade of Confederate commanders has been hauled down from their pedestals, there’s scant consensus about what should take their place.

In Richmond, Virginia, monumentalizing social justice activists is all the talk.  Kentucky leans toward a rotating cast of deserving figures from across the spectrum.[1]

But in my adopted home of New Orleans, the tide has been running strong in favor of memorializing local worthies in the fields of music and cuisine.  They unite instead rather than divide us. In these toxic times that’s all to the good.  A similar spirit seems at work elsewhere.

But in our haste to retire symbolic tributes to the Lost Cause are we running the risk of silencing the Civil War?  It would be a travesty if such was the case.  The Civil War is the American Iliad, as essential as the Revolution to an understanding of how the country became itself.  It was when the United States experienced a new birth of freedom, when the frontiers of citizenship were expanded, and the country finally made up its mind that it was a unum rather than a pluribus.

Moreover, as David Blight has reminded us, before the subject of slavery and emancipation got sacrificed on the altar of sectional reconciliation in the waning years of the nineteenth century, the Civil War was chiefly remembered as an emancipationist narrative, not a paean to the Lost Cause.  So, we should be leaning into this memory rather than shying from it—now more than ever.[2]

It is not the place of historians to dictate who deserves memorialization in the public square.  That’s a decision best left to the democratic process where communities and elected officials make such determinations.  All we can do is suggest deserving candidates.  They are not hard to locate, not even in the old Confederacy.

But, for my money, André Cailloux, a Black captain of infantry in the U. S. Army, belongs at the head of the class.  He was killed on May 27, 1863, leading a foredoomed assault against impregnable Confederate works at Port Hudson, Louisiana, just upriver from Baton Rouge.

There was a time when Cailloux was nationally hailed and locally canonized.   His New Orleans funeral had the feel of a massive civil rights protest, perhaps the largest the country had ever seen to that point in time, according to his biographer Stephen J. Ochs.  For more than a mile, on a sweltering day in late July 1863, Black New Orleanians thronged Esplanade Avenue under a cloudless sky to witness the funeral cortege carrying Cailloux’s remains to the Bienville Street cemetery.  Over thirty Black mutual aid societies joined the procession.[3]

Outdoor funeral procession
“Funeral of the Late Captain Cailloux, First Louisiana Volunteers (Colored),” Harper’s Weekly, August 29, 1863, 549.

In the words of Ochs, it was a heartfelt tribute to the “first black warrior-hero in the Civil War.”  Cailloux could lay claim to other important firsts:  in September 1862, his commission as one of the first Black officers in the history of the United States Army. But it was his outsize role in the first significant battle in which Black soldiers went on the offensive that truly sets him apart.   It is what makes him not just a Black hero, but an American hero, indeed, a saved-the-country hero and thus worthy of the highest honor accorded members of the armed forces, then and now.

In a year filled with momentous tipping points—a federal victory at Gettysburg; the capture of Vicksburg and Port Hudson and the opening of the Mississippi to Union control—Cailloux’s valor, and that of the Black troops he led in battle, electrified northern opinion and gave federal race policy a strong jolt.

Before Port Hudson, Black soldiers were recruited grudgingly and routinely sidelined digging trenches and latrines.  It was said that they weren’t manly, that they would cut and run when the fighting got hot. It was a lie. On numerous occasions they repelled Confederate surprise attacks. But that was while fighting for their lives on defense, so the libel lived on.  What happened that May morning on one of the Mississippi’s signature hairpin turns vanquished the slander. The mobilization of Black soldiers shifted into a different gear.  They weren’t universally sidelined guarding railroad spurs any longer. Growing numbers saw front line combat.[4]

This turn in federal policy had huge consequences.  Frederick Douglass, a tireless advocate of the recruitment of Black soldiers, saw them more clearly than anyone: “Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letter, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, there is no power on earth that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship.”[5]

In this great drama—which witnessed nothing less than the transformation of a War for Union into a War for Freedom—the significance of Captain André Cailloux’s last full measure would be hard to overstate.

******

He was born enslaved in 1825 in the downriver parish of Plaquemines,  gaining his freedom in Orleans parish in 1846 (probably through self-purchase).  The following year Cailloux married another ex-slave in a German Catholic church, then bought his mother out of slavery the year after that.  Within New Orleans’s tightly knit community of French-speaking free people of color (gens de couleur libres), he quickly made a name for himself.  Most had been born free. Four-fifths were of mixed-racial ancestry and lightly complected.  Cailloux was neither.  He boasted of being “the blackest man in New Orleans.”  He entered one of the three artisan trades in which the city’s free men of color were dominant—cigarmaking. Cailloux was athletic, sat a horse well, could hold his own in the ring.  He had a reputation for boldness and daring.  Before the war his peers elected him an officer in one of New Orleans’s numerous mutual aid and burial societies, the Friends of Order.[6]

Then the Civil War came and we find him in the vanguard of the free black community’s drive to revive a tradition of military service dating as far back as the early years of French colonialism.  In 1861, Black militiamen even became part of the local home guard under the aegis of Louisiana’s Confederate state government.  But it was not until September 27, 1862—five months after a Union flotilla’s arrival at the New Orleans levee, and five days following Abraham Lincoln’s issuance of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation—that a black militia force numbering more than 1,000 men was mustered into the United States Army for a term of three years.  Called the 1st Regiment of the Louisiana Native Guards, it was the earliest officially sanctioned Black unit in the history of United States Army.[7]

Cailloux recruited and organized Company E.  He filled it with neighbors and members of his fraternal order.  Predictably, they elected him lieutenant.  Shortly afterwards, two additional regiments of the Native Guards were mustered into the US military.  All three regiments were singular in that their line officers—the captains and lieutenants who actually led men on the battlefield—were of African descent. The field officers, the majors and colonels who issued commands from the rear, by contrast were mostly White.  The sole exception at this time was the wealthy free Black planter Francis E. Dumas.  When Union forces arrived at New Orleans levee in the spring, he freed his enslaved labor force. When the Native Guards were mustered in, Major Dumas extended them the liberty to enlist.[8]

It’s no secret these early Black regiments were welcomed with less than open arms.  Local Whites slathered them with slurs and spittle. Union soldiers could be just as abusive.  Refusing to salute Black officers they met on the street, they swore they wouldn’t take orders from them, either.  But Cailloux was preternaturally different. One Union officer later recalled seeing him at the headquarters of the commanding general, Benjamin Butler, “in company with at least fifteen of our prominent military officers; and he was a marked personage among them all.” [9]

Still, Black officers were a novelty in the country’s armed forces. When Nathaniel P. Banks, another political general from Massachusetts, replaced Butler in December 1862, one of his first acts was to return them to the ranks or even get rid of them altogether. But because he failed to decommission them outright, several Black officers in the Native Guards regiments ignored his invitation to resign their commissions. Lieutenant Cailloux, soon to be promoted to captain, was among them.[10]

******

In late May 1863, Union forces under Ulysses S. Grant were maneuvering to place Vicksburg, Mississippi, under siege.  In a coordinated effort some 200 nautical miles downriver at Port Hudson, an army under the command of Nathaniel P. Banks was getting into position to assault another Confederate stronghold.  Six weeks would pass before those citadels fell, opening the corridor that had blocked Union passage on Mississippi and hindering the two halves of the Confederacy from coming to each other’s aid.

The 1st and 3rd regiments of the Louisiana Native Guards were on fatigue duty downriver in Baton Rouge when orders arrived to join Banks’s army at Port Hudson.  Two days later, following a twenty-five-mile march, they fetched up against the extreme left of the Confederate line.  Like every other brigade in Bank’s army, their backs were to the river.  Straight ahead loomed a network of artillery batteries and rifle pits dug in along a four-and-a-half-mile semicircle of high bluffs.  The terrain in between was laced with canebrakes and marshes, woods and ravines. Confederates, improving on nature’s obstacles, re-engineered a creek into a moat and planted abatis of sharpened tree branches.  But “by far the strongest part of the rebel works,” according to one Union officer, was the sector where the Native Guards were positioned:  in front of Confederate promontory reaching heights of 80 feet.  Lining the sawtooth crest were emplacements of heavy guns.  Just below the brow stretched a terrace of rifle pits.[11]

At the last minute the Native Guards were assigned a new brigade commander. Brigadier General William Dwight, a thirty-one-year-old scion of an ancient Massachusetts family, was an abolitionist at heart.  He wanted “to test the negro question,” he wrote his mother.  “I have had the negro Regts longest in the service assigned to me, and I am going to storm a detached work with them.  You may look for hard fighting, or a complete runaway.”  That was the good news.

There was bad news.  Dwight was a military incompetent and a spiteful martinet.  Just shy of graduating from West Point, he had been tossed from the academy for drunkenness and other conduct unbecoming an officer. He was also ignorant of the basic principle that commanders should at least reconnoiter their battlefields before going on the offensive.  When two of his colonels asked if he thought a frontal assault was feasible, he insisted, without ever having seen the ground for himself, that it was “the easiest way into Port Hudson.”  On Sunday, May 27, the morning dawned bright and clear. Dwight was in the rear, where he would remain for the duration.  By 7:00 a.m., when White units of Banks’s army launched the first of a series of futile attacks proceeding from the far right of the Confederate breastworks to the far left, General Dwight was already drunk.[12]

Cailloux’s unit, Company E of the 1st Regiment, was the color company, the unit tasked with carrying the regimental standards into battle. Standard bearers, usually sergeants, practically wore targets on their tunics.  They were in the forefront of the assault, and their banners became the point around which broken ranks rallied during the fog of battle.  It was those soldiers who drew the heaviest fire.  But so did the company commander who led the charge.  At Port Hudson that would be Captain Cailloux.  He was the obvious choice to wear this mantle.  The military code of “sublime courage”—the duty of line officers to rally their troops by displaying valor—came naturally to him. Ernest Hemingway called it grace under pressure.  Cailloux seems to have possessed it to an unusual degree.[13]

The morning of the battle, Cailloux inspected the ranks, exchanging pleasantries.  As his men clawed their way through woods choked with wisteria, he yelled words of encouragement.  Cailloux must have been stunned when they reached the clearing.  To the left lay a thick tangle of sharpened branches, to the right a swamp of cottonwoods and willows, and dead ahead those heavily fortified steep bluffs. To make it to the makeshift pontoon bridge thrown across the swollen creek the night before by Union engineers, the 1st and 3rd regiments would have to traverse 400 yards of nearly impassable terrain, then brave another 200 yards merely to reach the bluffs.

What went through Cailloux’s mind at this moment we can only speculate.  It was probably not how to stall for time, weigh his options, consult with immediate superiors over alternative strategies.   By this stage of the war, veteran officers had seen enough to appreciate how improvements in infantry firepower had rendered frontal assaults relics of the eighteenth century.  No less than their men, they were starting to balk at senseless orders to charge headlong into sheets of lead.  Instinctively, they advanced under the cover of the terrain, not in ranked orders.  Cailloux’s immediate superiors, the white colonels who questioned General Dwight about reaching Port Hudson by attacking these bluffs over open ground, were clearly harboring doubts.  Cailloux’s concerns would have met with sympathetic ears.

Cailloux never expressed any reservations.  They surely crossed his mind.  But what was the use of airing them if the result ended up being an I-told-you-so stereotype?  This much seems likely:  Cailloux wished for a long life, evinced scant interest in becoming a martyr for the sake of martyrdom, while wanting nothing so much as to vindicate the honor of Black soldiers. The libel that they were deficient in courage offended him deeply.  Dispelling it was one reason Cailloux joined the Union army.  It was why he and men like him seized the reins of their destiny.

At 10:00 a.m. six companies from the 1st Regiment and nine from the 3rd, formed a long battle line two ranks deep, one regiment behind the other.  They had been promised artillery support.  But two federal howitzers, after lofting a few cannon shots, fled the field upon receiving withering return fire. Company E left the forest in quick time, then doubled the pace.  Two hundred yards across that stubbled plain, they received fire from a smaller bluff on their left flank, followed by blasts of canister and grape shot and lead from the heavy guns and rifles to their front.  The men dove behind trees and into gullies.  Cailloux’s left arm, hit by a shell above the elbow, was left dangling like a broken branch in the wind. A raised sword in his right arm, he barked orders and curses in two languages. “Allons, mes enfants!” “Follow me!”  Many did, including the standard bearer, hollering and screaming.  Nearing the pontoon bridge, they stopped to take aim at the rifle pits and artillery emplacements dead ahead, then released a volley.

That was when “all hell broke loose,” and a sheet of Minie balls and “pieces of railroad iron twelve to eighteen inches long” tore through the ranks with devastating force. The regimental standard bearer, a sergeant named Anselmas Planciancois, fell instantly when a shell took off half his head, tore the flag in two, spattering blood and brain fragments on nearby comrades.  Two enlisted men, one of them an ex-slave who took a bullet in his left hand, caught the standards before they touched the ground, and wrestled for the honor to carry them.  Cailloux was approaching the pontoon bridge when a shell struck him in the head, putting him down for good.  Over killing fields shrouded in smoke and strewn with the dead and wounded, survivors made for a nearby willow grove. It was pandemonium.  “Accounts differ,” writes Stephen Ochs, “as to how many times the men reformed, charged, broke, and reformed again.”  Some say once.  Others put the number between three and six times.  It couldn’t have exceeded three advances. The actual fighting lasted in the neighborhood of an hour, if that. This was no ordinary assault. It was a suicide mission.

But the fighting was not over.  For hours on end, enemy artillery shelled the grove where the 1st regiment had reformed. “Our shots tore the fragile willows into fragments,” wrote one Confederate soldier, “and the splinters were probably as dangerous as our fire.” The brigade’s besotted commander, still cowering in the rear, insisted his regiments continue their attacks.  The colonels who received these insane orders quietly ignored them.

In every sector where Banks’s army stormed Port Hudson’s bluffs, the carnage was the same:  hundreds killed, thousand wounded.  But the place where Cailloux and his men had fallen, the aftereffects were appalling. The next afternoon, under a flag of truce, Union medics hastened to retrieve the wounded and bury the dead.  For some reason, the temporary truce didn’t cover this battlefield.  Confederate sharpshooters took advantage of the oversight to drive away Black soldiers who ventured out to gather their dead and wounded. When the stench became unbearable, the Confederate brass pled for a truce, that the putrefying bodies might be removed.  General Banks insisted there were no Union dead on that ground.  The corpses of the fallen, including Cailloux’s, continued rotting for another month under a scorching sun.[14]

“Statistics alone belied the punishment these men had suffered,” observes the late James G. Hollandsworth, Jr., in his indispensable history of the Native Guards. He quotes a captain in a New Hampshire regiment that had marched past Native Guards’ encampments the evening of the battle.  “They suffered severe losses,” he wrote, “and as we moved back at night to our quarters, we passed a little house on the road where a temporary hospital had been established for them, and at the back door of this house we saw a pile of considerable size of legs and arms which had been amputated from these poor fellows.”[15]

After the Port Hudson campaign petered out into a six-week siege, the 1st and 3rd regiments spent most of that time sheltering behind cotton bales while constructing breastworks. Not until after the fall of Vicksburg on July 4th and Port Hudson’s capitulation five days later were Cailloux’s remains recovered. The only identifying mark was a ring on a skeletal knuckle signifying membership in the “Friends of Order,” the black self-help society of which he had become an officer. His body was carried to New Orleans for a burial befitting a native son and military hero.[16]

As for the sequel, it was as consequential as the battle itself. The first to break the story was The New York Times.  Its reporter couldn’t get over the “skill and nerve” of raw Black troops, and the “hideous carnage” they bore up against.   Very few white solders would have had “nerve enough to encounter [such perils], even if ordered to.”  Above all, he singled out “Captain CAILLOUX of the First Louisiana … [who] died the death of a hero, leading on his men in the thickest of the fight.”[17]

It was an inflection point, one of those moments when history skips a beat.  Radical Republicans turned up the volume of their demands that the Lincoln administration throw more Black soldiers into battle.  As the wires thrummed with reports of Cailloux’s heroism and the battlefield valor of Louisiana’s Native Guards, some of them widely exaggerated, Northern opinion shifted dramatically.  The first time Lincoln and Frederick Douglass met in person at the White House, according to David Blight, the president looked him “in the eye and said, ‘remember that Millikens’s Bend, Port Hudson and Fort Wagner are recent events; and that these were necessary to prepare the way for this very [emancipation] proclamation of mine.’” But of the three, Port Hudson registered the loudest and made the biggest dent on national policy.[18]

One could go on.  Cailloux’s gallantry galvanized the National Negro Convention that convened in Syracuse in October 1864, for example.  Frederick Douglass himself was the presiding officer.  Delegates had gathered there to gin up support for the 13th amendment and for the right of Black men to vote.  When James Ingraham, who had assumed command of Company E, stepped onto the floor carrying the 1st regiment’s tattered colors “stained with the blood of the brave Cailloux,” the hall exploded in loud cheers and applause. This was the convention that begat the enormously important Equal Rights League.  The Fourteenth and Fifteen Amendments have several antecedents.  The formation of this Black pressure group was one of them.[19]

Congress has set an exceedingly high bar for receiving a Medal of Honor, and justifiably so. The standard is conduct beyond the call of duty.  Commanding officers are supposed to take the lead when advancing against enemy fire.  But when they continue advancing in the face of a meteorite belt, in spite of clear evidence a prudent retreat was not just advisable but defensible, the case seems almost cut and dry.  Then there is the consideration that his sacrifice had a hand in altering the war’s trajectory.  Anything less than awarding André Cailloux’s a posthumous Medal of Honor somehow seems inadequate.

The timing couldn’t be better.   In four years of bloody conflict, Confederate forces never got closer than six miles of the US Capitol.  The recent spectacle of flag-waving neo-Confederates turning the Congress into a crime scene should serve as a reminder that bad history too often makes for bad politics.  The country has been saved before.  It wasn’t under the banner of the Stars and Bars, but the regimental standards of Captain André Cailloux and his color bearer.[20]

[1] Madeleine Carlisle, “Confederate Monuments and Other Disputed Memorials Have Come Down in Cities Across America. What Should Take Their Place?” Time, July 28, 2020.  https://time.com/5869866/replace-confederate-statues/.

[2] David Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, MA and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001), 1-6.

[3] Stephen Ochs, “The Rock of New Orleans,” The New York Times, July 31, 2013. https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/07/31/the-rock-of-new-orleans/?searchResultPosition=1

[4] Dudley Taylor Cornish, The Sable Arm: Negro Troops in the Union Army, 1861-1865 (Longman, Green and Co.: New York, London, Toronto, 1956), 132-3.

[5] Quoted in James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 564.

[6] Stephen J. Ochs, A Black Patriot and a White Priest: André Cailloux and Claude Paschal Maistre in Civil War New Orleans (Baton Rouge:  Louisiana State University Press, 2000), 9-66, 80.

[7] James G. Hollandsworth, Jr., The Louisiana Native Guards: The Black Military Experience During the Civil War (Baton Rouge:  Louisiana State University Press, 1998), 1-21.

[8] Ochs, A Black Patriot and a White Priest, 68-72, 81.

[9] Hollandsworth, Jr., The Louisiana Native Guards, 29-32.  The quotation appears in Marcus Christian, “Captain Andre Caillous—the Rock,” in the Marcus B. Christian Collection, Earl K. Long Library, The University of New Orleans (with thanks to Mary N. Mitchell for retrieving this article).

[10] Ochs, A Black Patriot and a White Priest, 122-25.

[11] Ochs, A Black Patriot and a White Priest, 128-39; Hollandsworth, Jr., The Louisiana Native Guards, 48-53.

[12] Hollandsworth, Jr., The Louisiana Native Guards, 52-3 (for the quotations); Ochs, A Black Patriot and a White Priest,140-41.

[13] Ochs, A Black Patriot and a White Priest, 141-44.

[14] The best accounts of the doomed charge are Ochs, A Black Patriot and a White Priest, 144-49; and Hollandsworth, Jr., The Louisiana Native Guards, 53-7.

[15] Quoted in Hollandsworth, Jr., The Louisiana Native Guards, 58.

[16] Ochs, A Black Patriot and a White Priest, 152.

[17] “Important from Louisiana,” The New York Times, June 13, 1863.  See also Ochs, A Black Patriot and a White Priest, 149-50.

[18] Quoted in Blight, Race and Reunion, 17.  See also Cornish, Sable Arm, 142-3.

[19] Stephen Ochs, “The Rock of New Orleans.” Also, Ochs, A Black Patriot and a White Priest, 223-5.

[20] For their advice and counsel, he wishes to thank Jason Berry, Steve Goodell, Steven Hahn, Howard Hunter, Patrick Maney, Stephen Ochs , Rebecca Scott, Randy Sparks, and Michael Wayne.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lawrence N Powell

An emeritus professor of history at Tulane, where he taught for nearly forty years, Lawrence N. Powell has published books and articles on the Civil War and Reconstruction and the Holocaust. His most recent book is The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012).

2 Replies to “The Case for Posthumously Awarding André Cailloux The Congressional Medal of Honor”

  1. I am very familiar with the historic life of Captain Andre Cailloux and would like to participate in seeing he is honored in any way I can help to ensure legacy.

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