In a comment to my Holocaust Day post, commenter/internet buddy absurdbeats wrote “The history matters—the actual history, the actual lives and deaths of millions of human beings. Not the mythification and weaponization of history, but the actuality of it. The actual horror of it.” Truer words have never been spoke.
In something of that spirit, and following in the rather formidable footprints of Ta-Nehisi Coates, I’ve decided to mark Confederate History Month — by learning and blogging about a handful of real Southern heroes about whom I had never heard until TNC mentioned them (so far, we’ve learned about General George Henry Thomas, Elizabeth Van Lew, and Robert Smalls, if you want to catch up!). Today being the last day of CHM, we look at the last hero I took up back when TNC threw their names out: Andre Cailloux.
Born into slavery on a Louisiana plantation in 1825, Andre Cailloux’s owner moved his family to New Orleans when Cailloux was five years old. There he worked in a cigar factory as a teenager, and at 21 was manumitted, “for reasons unknown.”
Cailloux fairly quickly came to establish himself as a respected member of New Orleans’s business community, well-known and well-regarded. Married to a former slave, Felicie Coulon, he adopted her son and together they raised another four children, sending two of them to a Black-run school. He bought property and opened his own shop, was known as a boxer and a horseman, and was apparently bi-lingual, as he is known to have encouraged the men who later served under him in both English and French — and he reportedly liked to refer to himself as “the blackest man in New Orleans” (!). Stephen Ochs, author of A Black Patriot and a White Priest: André Cailloux and Claude Paschal Maistre in Civil War New Orleans, told the New Orleans Times-Picayune that Cailloux “was prosperous compared to other free blacks in the country…. But he was not a wealthy man. He was a hardworking artisan who was one sickness away from losing everything.”
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, the state of Louisiana formed the Louisiana Native Guards, a militia of people of color that was intended for show rather than as an actual fighting unit within the Confederate Army. Apparently many Black men who joined did so for fear of reprisals, but when New Orleans fell to Union forces in September 1862, a reconstituted Native Guards was mustered into the Union Army, with many joining gladly. Cailloux was among their number, and was made a captain. Stephen Ochs writes that he “proved an effective recruiter”:
Like the other black officers, he welcomed both free people of color and runaway slaves into the ranks, both groups apparently sharing a common agenda of freedom and liberation and recognizing that military service would enhance their claims to greater equality. Respected in his community, polished in manners, athletic, and charismatic, the thirty-eight year-old Cailloux exuded confidence and authority and cut a dashing figure that debunked the stereotype of black servility and inferiority.
The efforts of all the Black officers were, unsurprisingly, met by the active resistance of many in New Orleans’s white community and from white soldiers, many of whom refused to obey their Black superior officers.
In May 1863, the Louisiana Native Guards were assigned to the Union troops already engaged in efforts to wrest the Mississippi River’s Port Hudson from Confederate control. The battle was desperate, not least because the rebel forces held the high ground, but Captain Cailloux is reported to have worked his lines methodically, calming his soldiers, before leading them in a screaming, and frankly kamikaze, charge: “En avant, mes enfants! Follow me!”
Quickly shot in his left arm, Cailloux continued to plunge into the fray, his right arm holding his sword aloft as he continued to shout direction and encouragement to those behind him. Another shot hit him in the head, however, and he fell dead on the spot.
Along with many of those who fell alongside him, Cailloux’s body lay in the field in which he died for 41 days before he was brought back to New Orleans for burial — but
[it was a funeral] that put the city on the front page of newspapers across the United States. It was a funeral with all the trimmings—a marching band playing solemn airs, a horse-drawn caisson with drapes and tassels, an eloquent eulogy. Thousands of people lined the downtown streets for a mile, mostly black, many of them wearing crepe rosettes and holding tiny American flags.
The fall of Post Hudson in most people’s minds signaled a major turning point in the war. It showed that blacks were not just docile recipients of these favors of Father Abraham [Lincoln] but they were active participants in their own liberation and the defeat of slave-holders.
To Cailloux biographer Ochs, it only makes sense that Cailloux was at the very forefront of that turning-point:
He presented a formidable figure, a very martial figure…. This was a guy who commanded a lot of physical respect—and social respect, too. He strikes me as a very decent man, brave and honorable…. His behavior on the battlefield was not surprising to me. He had shown leadership and initiative throughout his life.
The South produced many heroes in those horrible years, many men and women who did whatever they could to advance freedom and preserve the Union. I don’t know exactly what was in the minds of those who first proposed a “Confederate History Month” (indeed, I’d rather not think too much about it), but I know the most important piece of that history: The Confederacy failed — and in great part because of the efforts of Southern patriots like General George Henry Smalls, Elizabeth Van Lew, Robert Smalls, and Andre Cailloux. I am grateful to each and every one of them.
May their memories be for a blessing יהי זכרם ברוך