In general histories of the war, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry is usually presented as being the first African-American regiment in the Union Army to experience the trial of combat. In fact, the 54th Massachusetts’ assault on Battery Wagner took place almost two months after the Louisiana Native Guards had stormed a similar Confederate fortification at Port Hudson, Louisiana. They were the first officially mustered black regiment to fight for the Union, as well as the only unit in the Union Army to have black officers as well as white. Owing to the fact that they were far from the spotlight of media attention, their accomplishments were never fully recognized during the war.
The men of the Native Guards came from the New Orleans region. Most were free men of mixed-race bloodlines whose families had been given their freedom by the Federal government when New Orleans became an American possession through the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.
When the Civil War broke out, a number of the prominent free blacks of New Orleans met to discuss their course of action, and decided that they should support the new Confederate government and volunteer for military service. At first, Confederate authorities lauded their offer, and their patriotism was praised in local newspapers. On March 2, 1861, a month before the firing on Fort Sumter, the Shreveport Daily News ran a story about ‘a very large meeting of the free colored men of New Orleans’ taking measures ‘to form a military organization, and tendering their services to the Governor of Louisiana.’
Praise was one thing; acceptance was quite another. Confederate leaders who had initially welcomed the prospect of black troops changed their stance in light of the growing influence of the abolitionists over the Federal government. In defending the propriety of slavery, Southern officials pointed to their long-standing argument that blacks were inferior to whites. Enrolling black troops on the same level as whites would tend to refute that argument to all the world, and the Confederacy opted to deny the Louisiana Native Guards the privilege of fighting for their new country.
A combined U.S. Army and Navy expedition accepted the surrender of New Orleans on April 26, 1862. But the capture of the city and the sealing off of the mouth of the Mississippi was just the beginning for the Federal army of occupation. The Union force, under the command of Maj. Gen. Benjamin Franklin Butler, needed reinforcements. A Massachussetts politician with abolitionist leanings, Butler knew that the resources of the Federal government were stretched, and forwarded a request to Washington for permission to raise regiments of local black men.
It was not the first time the idea had been proposed. Black troops had been raised by the Union from among freed slaves in the Port Royal, S.C., area after it was occupied by Federal troops, but that experiment had met with less than desirable results. The ex-slaves were badly treated, did not get paid and received little or no military training. Butler’s experiment would be different. Washington did not officially respond to the request, so Butler decided to proceed with the recruitment on his own.
He approached several of the prominent black men of New Orleans to learn their feelings about joining the Union Army. The men were the very same individuals who had offered their services to the Confederacy only a year before, receiving a humiliating snub in the process. They were still willing to fight, and they desired to show the world that they were the equals of any soldiers. The Louisiana Native Guards would indeed enlist in Ben Butler’s army.
On August 22, 1862, General Butler issued a general order authorizing the enrollment of black troops. The blacks of New Orleans responded with enthusiasm. Within two weeks he had enlisted more than 1,000 men and could form his first regiment. Orders stipulated that only free blacks were to be enrolled in the regiment, but the recruiting officers were extremely lax in enforcing this rule, allowing many runaway slaves to be entered on the rolls with no questions asked.
On September 27, 1862, the 1st Regiment, Louisiana Native Guards, officially became the first black regiment in the Union Army. The 1st South Carolina held the distinction of being the first black regiment to be organized, but it had never been officially mustered into the army.
The astounding response to Butler’s call continued. Within a few short months, enough black men from the area had volunteered to form four full regiments, thus augmenting Butler’s force by more than 4,000 men and helping to solve his shortage of manpower.
Many of the prominent black citizens of New Orleans had been appointed officers in the regiments, and they were itching to disprove the slanders that the Confederacy had used to keep them out of the army. One such example was Captain Andr Cailloux, of Company E. Cailloux was an esteemed and wealthy resident of New Orleans who liked to boast that he was ‘the blackest man in America.’ He had been formally educated in France, including instruction in the military arts. The captain was a born leader and presented a striking martial presence while drilling his troops, issuing orders in both English and French.
White officers with Butler’s army were rapidly won over to the idea of serving with blacks. It was generally noted that the blacks took to soldiering more readily than their white counterparts, and that they were easier to train and discipline. One white officer serving with the Native Guards sent a letter home that expressed his admiration: ‘You would be surprised at the progress the blacks make in drill and in all the duties of soldiers. I find them better deposed [sic] to learn, and more orderly and cleanly, both in their persons and quarters, than whites. Their fighting qualities have not yet been tested on a large scale, but I am satisfied that, knowing as they do that they will receive no quarter at the hands of the Rebels, they will fight to the death.’
Though they were proving themselves model soldiers in camp, the members of the Native Guards were denied the chance to prove themselves on the field of battle. Instead, they found themselves relegated to performing manual labor on defensive fortifications or guarding those same fortifications once they were completed. For the moment, whites were still considered the exclusive combat element of Butler’s army, and the Louisiana Native Guards would have to bide their time.
In May 1863, Union forces under Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant were trying to wrest the stronghold of Vicksburg, Miss., from the Confederacy. Major General Nathaniel P. Banks was ordered to coordinate his efforts so as to assist Grant and keep potential reinforcements from being sent to Vicksburg. Banks decided the best way to do that would be to assault Port Hudson, a Confederate stronghold located 30 miles north of Baton Rouge, on the east bank of the Mississippi River. The Louisiana Native Guards were by then under Banks’ command, and he fully intended to use them in his coming offfensive.
Just before the operations against Port Hudson began, the Louisiana Native Guards were presented with their regimental banner. When Colonel Justin Hodge handed the flag to Color Sgt. Anselmas Plancianois, he cautioned him that he was to protect, even die for, the flag but never surrender it. Plancianois responded, ‘Colonel, I will bring these colors to you in honor or report to God the reason why.’ His words were met with wild cheering from the ranks. The men finally had a flag of their own, and they were about to follow it into battle.
Port Hudson was a formidable stronghold. It crowned an 80-foot-high bluff along a bend in the Mississippi and was virtually unassailable from the river. The only possible way to attack it was by land, storming the defenses from the rear, but the Confederates had taken every precaution to guard against that eventuality. A line of abatis, felled trees with the branches sharpened, ran the entire length of the perimeter. Behind this were rifle pits and outworks. Finally, there was the main earthwork fortification, with 20-foot-thick parapets, protected by a water-filled ditch 8 feet wide and 15 feet deep. All the fortifications had been constructed using slave labor. Behind the works, the Confederates had mounted 20 siege guns and 31 pieces of field artillery. Though confirmed totals are not available, it is known that the Confederate garrison numbered more than 6,000 men. Dislodging them from such a strong position would have been a difficult undertaking for seasoned troops. It would seem far too much to ask of untried soldiers, but the Native Guards were eager for the opportunity.
Union artillery shattered the early morning calm on May 27, 1863, as the fort came under a heavy cannonading, intended to soften its defenses before the infantry was sent in. For four hours, Union guns hammered the fort.
The Native Guards, 1,080 strong, had been placed on the extreme right of the Union line. At 10 a.m., a bugle call signaled the attack, and the Guards surged forward with a yell. Between them and the works lay one-half mile of ground broken by gullies and strewn with branches, but the Guards advanced on the run. As they neared the fort, they were met by blasts of canister, fired almost into their faces from the works to their front. Artillery also fired into both flanks, and the carnage was terrific. Yet the Guards still pushed forward, unaware that something had gone wrong in the Union attack plan, and that they alone were taking on the fort’s garrison, a force six times their number.
Captain Cailloux urged Company E to keep pushing forward. As the color company for the regiment, his men drew unusually heavy fire from the Confederates, and a bullet shattered Cailloux’s left arm. He refused to leave the field and continued urging his men onward till they reached the edge of the flooded ditch. ‘Follow me!’ he shouted just before being hit by a shell that took his life.
With their commander dead, the troops of the color company halted momentarily at the ditch, and the Confederate defenders raked them with musket fire at point-blank range. To attempt a moat crossing in the midst of such galling fire seemed suicidal, so the men fell back to re-form for another attack.
Once again they charged the works, reaching a point 50 yards from the enemy guns, but the result was the same. By now, the Guards’ right wing was the only Union force engaging the fort. Unsupported and facing the entire weight of the Confederate defenses, they continued to press forward in a futile assault.
A number of soldiers from E and G companies jumped into the flooded ditch and tried to reach the opposite bank, but they were all shot down by the fort’s defenders. A white Union officer who witnessed the charge said, ‘they made several efforts to swim and cross it (the ditch), preparatory to an assault on the enemy’s works, and this, too, in fair view of the enemy, and at short musket range.’
The courage of the Guards was inspiring. Doctors in the field hospital reported that a number of black soldiers who had been wounded in the first assault left the hospital, with or without treatment, to rejoin their comrades for the second attack. Dr. J.T. Paine recorded that he had’seen all kinds of soldiers, yet I have never seen any who, for courage and unflinching bravery, surpass our colored.’
But courage alone could not overcome the extreme odds the Native Guards were facing. Rebel muskets and artillery were too much for them, and the ever-mounting casualties they were suffering were beginning to take the fight out of the men. Once again, they were forced to fall back, but not before several efforts were made to recover Captain Cailloux’s body, all ending in failure.
Incredibly, the Union high command still seemed to believe that the Native Guards could do the impossible. The Guards re-formed, dressed their lines and started forward at the double quick for the third time. They were met with the same galling fire that had doomed the two previous assaults, but still they rushed onward. Color Sergeant Plancianois had advanced the regiment’s colors to the enemy works when he was struck in the head by a 6-pounder shell. In all, six color-bearers were killed trying to advance the flag before the Guards were ordered to withdraw. With deliberation, they re-formed their ranks and marched off the field, as if on parade.
Of the 1,080 Guards who took part in the battle, 37 were killed, 155 wounded and 116 captured. Their conduct had made converts of most of the doubters in Banks’ army and proved that black troops could play a pivotal role in suppressing the rebellion. Their courage helped to pave the way for the more than 180,000 black troops who would don the blue and fight for the Union Army.
Captain Cailloux’s remains were not recovered until Port Hudson fell on July 8, at which time they were sent home to New Orleans for burial. His funeral was attended by both blacks and whites. Cailloux may have boasted that he was the blackest man in America, but heroism knows no color line.
This article was written by Robert P. Broadwater and originally appeared in the March 2004 issue of America’s Civil War.
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