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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Negro Soldiers at Port Hudson

By George Washington Williams (1849–1891)

[Born in Bedford Springs, Penn., 1849. Died at Blackpool, Lancashire, England, 1891. From History of the Negro Race in America, from 1619 to 1880. By George W. Williams, first Colored Member of the Ohio Legislature, etc. 1883.]

IT was a question of grave doubt among white troops as to the fighting qualities of negro soldiers. There were various doubts expressed by the officers on both sides of the line. The Confederates greeted the news that “niggers” were to meet them in battle with derision, and treated the whole matter as a huge joke. The Federal soldiers were filled with amazement and fear as to the issue.

It was the determination of the commanding officer at Port Hudson to assign this negro regiment to a post of honor and danger. The regiment marched all night before the battle of Port Hudson, and arrived at one Dr. Chambers’s sugar-house on the 27th of May, 1863. It was just 5 A.M. when the regiment stacked arms. Orders were given to rest and breakfast in one hour. The heat was intense and the dust thick, and so thoroughly fatigued were the men that many sank in their tracks and slept soundly.

Arrangements were made for a field-hospital, and the drum-corps instructed where to carry the wounded. Officers’ call was beaten at 5.30, when they received instructions and encouragement. “Fall in” was sounded at 6 o’clock, and soon thereafter the regiment was on the march. The sun was now shining in his full strength upon the field where a great battle was to be fought. The enemy was in his stronghold, and his forts were crowned with angry and destructive guns. The hour to charge had come. It was 7 o’clock. There was a feeling of anxiety among the white troops as they watched the movements of these blacks in blue. The latter were anxious for the fray. At last the command came, “Forward, double-quick, march!” and on they went over the field of death. Not a musket was heard until the command was within four hundred yards of the enemy’s works, when a blistering fire was opened upon the left wing of the regiment. Unfortunately Companies A, B, C, D, and E wheeled suddenly by the left flank. Some confusion followed, but was soon over. A shell—the first that fell on the line—killed and wounded about twelve men. The regiment came to a right about, and fell back for a few hundred yards, wheeled by companies, and faced the enemy again with the coolness and military precision of an old regiment on parade. The enemy was busy at work now. Grape, canister, shell, and musketry made the air hideous with their noise. A masked battery commanded a bluff, and the guns could be depressed sufficiently to sweep the entire field over which the regiment must charge. It must be remembered that this regiment occupied the extreme right of the charging line. The masked battery worked upon the left wing. A three-gun battery was situated in the centre, while a half dozen large pieces shelled the right, and enfiladed the regiment front and rear every time it charged the battery on the bluff. A bayou ran under the bluff, immediately in front of the guns. It was too deep to be forded by men. These brave colored soldiers made six desperate charges with indifferent success, because

  • Cannon to right of them,
  • Cannon to left of them,
  • Cannon in front of them
  • Volleyed and thundered;
  • Stormed at with shot and shell.”
  • The men behaved splendidly. As their ranks were thinned by shot and grape, they closed up into place and kept a good line. But no matter what high soldierly qualities these men were endowed with, no matter how faithfully they obeyed the oft-repeated order to “charge,” it was both a moral and physical impossibility for these men to cross the deep bayou that flowed at their feet—already crimson with patriots’ blood—and capture the battery on the bluff. Colonel Nelson, who commanded this black brigade, despatched an orderly to General Dwight, informing him that it was not in the nature of things for his men to accomplish anything by further charges. “Tell Colonel Nelson,” said General Dwight, “I shall consider that he has accomplished nothing unless he takes those guns.” This last order of General Dwight’s will go into history as a cruel and unnecessary act. He must have known that three regiments of infantry, torn and shattered by about fifteen or twenty heavy guns, with an impassable bayou encircling the bluff, could accomplish nothing by charging. But the men, what could they do?

  • “Theirs not to make reply,
  • Theirs not to reason why,
  • Theirs but to do and die.”
  • Again the order to charge was given, and the men, worked up to a feeling of desperation on account of repeated failures, raised a cry and made another charge. The ground was covered with dead and wounded. Trees were felled by shell and solid shot; and at one time a company was covered with the branches of a falling tree. Captain Callioux was in command of Company E, the color company. He was first wounded in the left arm, the limb being broken above the elbow. He ran to the front of his company, waving his sword and crying “Follow me.” But when within about fifty yards of the enemy he was struck by a shell, and fell dead in front of his company.

    Many Greeks fell defending the pass at Thermopylæ against the Persian army, but history has made peculiarly conspicuous Leonidas and his four hundred Spartans. In a not distant future, when a calm and truthful history of the battle of Port Hudson is written, notwithstanding many men fought and died there, the heroism of the “Black Captain,” the accomplished gentleman and fearless soldier, Andre Callioux, and his faithful followers, will make a most fascinating picture for future generations to look upon and study.

    “Colonel, I will bring back these colors to you in honor, or report to God the reason why.” It was now past 11 A.M., May 27, 1863. The men were struggling in front of the bluff. The brave Callioux was lying lifeless upon the field that was now slippery with gore and crimson with blood. The enemy was directing his shell and shot at the flags of the First Regiment. A shell, about a six-pounder, struck the flag-staff, cut it in two, and carried away part of the head of Planciancois. He fell, and the flag covered him as a canopy of glory, and drank of the crimson tide that flowed from his mutilated head. Corporal Heath caught up the flag, but no sooner had he shouldered the dear old banner than a musket-ball went crashing through his head and scattered his brains upon the flag, and he, still clinging to it, fell dead upon the body of Sergeant Planciancois. Another corporal caught up the banner and bore it through the fight with pride.

    This was the last charge, the seventh; and what was left of this gallant black brigade came back from the hell into which they had plunged with so much daring and forgetfulness seven times.

    They did not capture the battery on the bluff, it’s true, but they convinced the white soldiers on both sides that they were both willing and able to help fight the battles of the Union. And if any person doubts the abilities of the negro as a soldier, let him talk with General Banks, as we have, and hear “his golden eloquence on the black brigade at Port Hudson.”