André Cailloux, an ex-slave and Union soldier, became a hero
book review by Jason Berry
In July of 1863 a massive military funeral moved through New Orleans -a burial pageant like none before. Thousands of black mourners paid tribute to Andre Cailloux, a fallen captain of the Louisiana Native Guards, the black squadron that fought for the Union. Born a slave, freed as a young man, the “charismatic, thirty-eight year old Cailloux,” writes Stephen J. Ochs, “proved a resourceful recruiter and one of the regiment’s most effective officers … Polished in manners, bilingual, athletic, daring, a good horseman and boxer, he was, according to contemporaries, a born leader.”
Cailloux’s burial procession, which Ochs treats in rich detail, was a turning point for slaves and free people of color in New Orleans. The ceremony, as accounted in Och’s book, A Black Patriot and a White Priest: Andre Cailloux and Claude Paschal Maistre in Civil War New Orleans, stands as a catalytic moment in the change toward an Afro-Creole identity.
Cailloux was killed at Port Hudson, Louisiana; his body lay on the field for weeks until Confederate forces retreated. New Orleans was under federal occupation. Many Confederate soldiers had been buried to large crowds. Stretching back from the antebellum era into colonial times, crowds of people had followed funeral corteges of politicians, generals, and prominent citizens. But those were burial processions of white people.
The Cailloux ceremony was the first in the city with a huge turnout of slaves and free people of color, honoring one of their own. Cailloux, as an ex-slave and soldier, rose to mythical status in the mind of a culture.
Ochs, chairman of the history department at Georgetown Preparatory School in a suburb of Washington DC, writes of a community coming together and giving itself new definition in the process:
“Arriving on July 25, the body lay in state in a closed casket for four days in the Urquhart Street hall for the Friends of the Order, a mutual aid society in which Cailloux had played a leading role and whose ring he had worn at the time of his death. Flowers and lit candles, characteristic of Catholic funeral rites, framed the flag-draped coffin; Cailloux’s sword, belt, uniform coat and cap lay on the flag. A guard solemnly paced back and forth near the casket.
“At the appointed time on July 29, the band of the all-white 42nd Massachusetts Regiment made its appearance, and ‘played the customary solemn airs.’ According to a witness reporting for the New York Times, Father [Claude Paschal] Maistre read the Catholic service for the dead …
“The enormous crowd of people of color had, by this time, gathered around the building, rendering impassable the surrounding streets. After a short pause, a sudden silence fell on the throng as the band commenced playing a dirge.”
Ochs runs down a litany of benevolent societies which occupy half a page in the book. Here are a few of their names: Society of Economy and Mutual Advance; the Arts and Mechanics Association; the Free Friends; the Perseverance Society; the God Protect Us Society; the Well-Beloved Sisters’ Society; the Children of Moses. Behind each fascinating name – and many others – lies a piece of the larger story of how people used burial organizations for survival purposes as well.
Consider the Society of the Friends of Order and Mutual Assistance, of which Cailloux was a prominent member. Ochs writes that, despite an 1855 ban by the Louisiana legislature on organizations of free persons of color, “within three days in February 1857, three benevolent societies, including the Friends of Order, incorporated themselves in the city. In addition to providing money for burials and sickness, these mutual aid societies provided fellowship and reflected the associational impulse that Alexis de Tocqueville described as so characteristic of antebellum Americans. The societies also created arenas within which free people of color could exercise autonomy and leadership and develop political skills, opportunities they otherwise would not have had since the traditional avenues in church and government remained closed to them.”
Ochs’ account of Father Maistre, the French-born priest who presided over Cailloux’s funeral, registers the depth of racial hostility even within the church. Maistre defied the French-born archbishop of New Orleans in speaking out against slavery and endorsing civil liberties for all people of color.
Cailloux’s funeral signaled a shift in the tradition of military brass bands that played burial procession in New Orleans. Although some freedmen played in brass bands prior to the Civil War, the tradition was largely the province of whites. Brass bands played for social occasions; however they also represented the military might of an antebellum power structure. Over the next forty years the brass-band tradition would undergo great changes as greater numbers of blacks and Creoles of color joined or formed bands.
Ochs examines the black Creole culture as more than a mere aristocracy of color, wedded to French custom. Historians of this period have puzzled over those gens du couleur who owned slaves. Caryn Cosse Bell took a revisionist line in Revolution, Romanticism, and the Afro-Creole Protest Tradition in Louisiana, assessing burrows of discontent during the “golden age” of a booming antebellum port, when the city was the leading slave market in America.
As far back as the War of 1814, black Creoles fought on the side of Andrew Jackson, defending the city from the British. As the impact of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution filtered into distant colonies, the Creoles of color wanted rights and liberty. Those who owned slaves lived the same inconsistency as Thomas Jefferson, a slaveowner who defined Americans as a free people with inalienable rights.
Certain slave-holding factions of colored Creoles supported the Confederacy; however, the Louisiana Native Guards had a more striking impact on the future of slave and freedman alike. “In his person, Cailloux appears to have reconciled both slave and free, black and mulatto,” writes Ochs. “His experience indicates that the boundary between slaves and free people of color was far more permeable than some historians have suggested and that the cauldron of war further reduced barriers between slave and free and American and Creole blacks. So long as equality with whites did not exist as an option many free people of color found it in their interest to maintain social distance between themselves and slaves in an attempt to protect their unique, if tenuous position in the tripartite racial caste system and to avoid sinking to the level of slaves in the eyes of whites.”
Ochs rightly sees the benevolent societies as a vital bridge between the free and enslaved peoples of color. This book is an important chapter in the evolving story of how these communities functioned within Jefferson’s conundrum
The complexities of Afro-Creole society had a mirror in the conflicts of people like Father Maistre. For affirming the rights of humanity as a Christian premise he clashed with his archbishop, a French-born cleric who, like millions of Catholics in the plantation countries, accepted slavery as the natural order of things.
The bigotry that animated dreams of white sovereignty would curse the city for decades to come. It was black Creoles who launched the legal challenge to segregation that sank with the Supreme Court’s notorious 1 896 decision, Plessy V. Ferguson, a case brought by Homer Plessy, a Creole from New Orleans who wanted freedom to ride any train car he desired. Not until the 1954 Brown V. Board of Education decision would the issues raised by Cailloux, Maistre, and Plessy receive a just hearing.
Stephen J. Ochs has written a moving account of two men whose courage advanced the cause of justice, casting light on values to come.
Jason Berry’s books include Lead Us Not Into Temptation and Up From the Cradle of Jazz.