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Andre Cailloux, Hero of Port Hudson

Each week, historian Sean Michael Chick will highlight some of the country's unsung heroes during the Civil War era who could serve as positive replacements following the takedown of New Orleans' Confederate monuments. This week, learn about Andre Cailloux, the New Orleans-born patriot and martyr for the Union Army. 


Andre Cailloux was born a slave in New Orleans in 1825. He was trained to make cigars and in 1846 he bought his freedom, with the blessing of his masters the Duvernay family. The next year he married Félicie Coulon, a former slave who had her freedom purchased by her mother.

Cailloux was a successful businessman, making some of the finest cigars in the city. He learned how to read and write through Marie Couvent’s Institute Catholique, a school in the Faubourg Marigny for African-American children where his wife Félicie intitially served as principal. He became involved in charity work and was seen as a community leader. Cailloux was also a superb boxer.

When the Civil War started in 1861, the Free People of Color were divided. Although they hated the growing bigotry of New Orleans society, they blamed it on the Americans who lived up river. In order to show solidarity with the white Creoles, who embraced the Confederate cause, most pledged their support for the Confederacy. Also, it cannot be forgotten that many Free People of Color owned slaves. Cailloux, given his background, was likely not an admirer of “the peculiar institution.”

Undoubtedly it was also a question of survival. If they had opposed the Confederacy they would have been actively persecuted, and similar communities in Mobile, Memphis, and Petersburg supported the war in various ways. The Free People of Color in Petersburg made handsome profits by making wagons for Robert E. Lee’s army. A company of Free People of Color were part of the garrison at Mobile, despite opposition from Confederate Secretary of War James Seddon.

In New Orleans, nearly 1,000 men formed a large regiment called the Native Guards shortly after the war began. It was in keeping with the traditions of the Free People of Color, who under the Spanish formed a well trained militia and fought in the War of 1812. Cailloux was commissioned a lieutenant and he drilled his men hard. The regiment though received no support from the state government and they had to buy their own uniforms and weapons. The Confederate government opposed the regiment’s existence. On February 15, 1862, the regiment was disbanded, but called back into service to defend the city when the Union army and navy approached. The Native Guards remained on duty and managed to quell riots in the Creole neighborhoods before the Union army occupied New Orleans.

How the Free People of Color should react to Union occupation was contentious. Most tried to play both sides, embracing Benjamin Butler’s more enlightened racial policies while still seeking to mollify white Creole friends, family, and neighbors. Cailloux was not among the fence-sitters. When Butler formed the all black 1st Louisiana Native Guards, he signed on as an officer. The regiment was mostly made up of runaway slaves, but its core was made of junior officers and sergeants from the old native Guards.

Cailloux was a captain in the new regiment, and his Company E was seen as the best in the regiment. However, the Louisiana theater was quiet in 1862 and Cailloux saw little action. Butler was replaced in December with Nathaniel Banks, a Massachusetts politician with dreams of the White House. Banks, in an effort to woo whites to the Union, had most black officers stripped of their rank. Banks was also the most incompetent general to ever lead an army in American history. Under his command morale sank.

At Port Hudson, the 1st and 2nd Louisiana Native Guards were given the honor of being the first all-black units to fight in a Civil War battle; everything before had been small skirmishes. It was a ghastly honor. The Confederate position they had to attack was nearly impregnable. On May 27, 1863 they struck. Cailloux shouted encouragement to his men and led a charge yelling “Advance, my children!” He was struck in the left arm. It now hung useless by his side; if he survived it would be amputated. Still Cailloux went on. He was struck with other bullets, and then a cannonball, killing him instantly. The regiment lost 121 men out of the 540 who went into the battle.

Two days later a truce was called to collect the dead and wounded, but in the 1st Louisiana Native Guards sector, the Rebels would not allow it. Cailloux and his comrades started to decompose. The smell became unbearable. Days later Colonel W. B. Shelby, commander of the 39th Mississippi Infantry, asked for a truce to bury the dead. Banks refused for reasons still hard to fathom. Not until Port Hudson surrendered on July 9 was Cailloux’s body claimed. He was only identified by his ring.

Aristide Desdunes, one of Cailloux’s comrades, later wrote “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…” Cailloux was turned into a hero since he was the first prominent black officer to die in the war. His lavish funeral was a turning point in relations between the Free People of Color, the former slaves, and the Protestant Freemen. Before the war these groups had been divided, but each had a stake in Cailloux. Although he had a French name and had even studied in Paris, Cailloux was not of European decent. He even proudly called himself “the blackest man in New Orleans.” Most of the troops he drilled and led were former slaves. He had friends everywhere.

Cailloux’s death was featured in Harper’s Weekly and his image and story was used to raise black troops. During and after the war he was seen as the ultimate martyr to the cause. The 1st Louisiana Native Guards flag, stained with Cailloux’s blood, hung over the speaker’s platform in the 1864 National Negro Convention. Today his tomb in the St. Louis Cemtery No. 2 has a plaque, dedicated in 1998. The Bayou Treme Center for Arts and Education features paintings of his life. They are evocative if slightly inaccurate. Otherwise, he remains a man still in desperate need of a place of honor in the city of his birth.

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