Sunday, September 27, 2020

Battle of Shok Valley, Afghan: "We should not have lived"

                                                     Absorb the Gallantry and Courage

This is about a combined US-Afghan attack in the Shok Valley, Afghanistan. The mission was to take out or capture high-value targets from the Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin (HIG) enemy group located in that region. The Shok Valley is in Afghanistan’s Nuristan Province in the northeast, in what is known as the Hindu Kush of the western Himalayas. The attacking force expected to experience the same environmental conditions as faced by Alexander the Great.

The Allied attack occurred on April 6, 2006. The operation was named “Commando Wrath.” It lasted over six hours.

The two main military outfits involved were US Special Forces ODA 3336 and the Afghan 1st Company, 201st Kandak Commandos. ODA 3336 translates to Detachment 6, Charlie Company, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne), 3rd SFG (A), US Army (USA). 

ODA 3336 for this mission was an experienced combat unit. Eighty percent of its men were combat veterans. Their main challenge was these men had not been in the Shok Valley before. Up until this battle, no US forces known to the public domain had ever been there. Experts believe even the Soviets stayed out of here.

USAF combat controllers with the 21st Special Tactics Squadron were also on the ground integrated with ODA 3336. Their job was to provide and direct air cover.

ODA 3336 had trained their 201st Kandak compatriots, men they knew very well, men they admired. It was the country’s first commando unit. At the time, it usually fought with US special forces embedded. Their American counterparts bragged that the enemy called these Afghan Commandos, "The Wolves," a marvelous compliment.

There are many renditions of the battle available on the internet. This report drew mainly from two:"Cliffhanger, fierce battle in the Shok Valley tests SF team's mettle," by Janice Burton, associate editor Special Warfare, and "Ten Silver Stars for ODA 3336" by The Mikkelsen Family.

This Google Earth aerial is tough to read, but it shows the area of the Shok Valley in the context of other areas with which you might be more familiar. Kabul is in the lower left quadrant, marked by the red star. The Valley, highlighted by the white arrow, is to the north of Jalalabad and northwest of Wama, Nangalam and Asadabad. It is in the western sector of Mandol District of Nuristan Province. You can see the Pakistan border to the east.

The region is rugged, rugged, rugged.

This is a graphic view of the valley's location in the Mandol District. The Shok Valley sits on a tributary of the Alingar River.  

Six CH-47 Chinook helicopters inserted the men in the objective area in the morning.

Blackfive provided some 3rd SFG (A) raw footage that reflects the ingress of the “Commando Wrath” team. The following presents few video grabs. The attack force departed from an airfield at Jalalabad in the early morning hours of April 6, 2008. The force was brought in by CH-47 Chinook and UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters. 

This is actual video footage of the Shok Valley from an inbound helicopter as the force approached the objective area. Other attack aircraft, fixed wing USAF aircraft and Army helicopters for close air support were tasked for this mission as well. They would play a big role in supporting the ground force.

This is a video grab of the objective for insertion of the force, again taken from a helicopter. You will recall from the earlier graphic of the district that the valley was on a river that flowed westward into the Alingar. There's that tributary.

On the upper right of the video grab, you see a CH-47. His engines were running during the insertion. This CH-47 looks like it was on the ground on a spot on the river bed. To the left and center you can make out soldiers moving away from the insertion helicopter.

These video grabs is from footage shot from the valley stream bed. They give you a look at the terrain, and a part of the lower end of the village. 

These two video grabs show forces on the ground, at the base of the hill in the landing zone area.

So, the battle is about to begin. It would last almost seven hours. What you are about to read is astounding, overwhelming. The mettle, the backbone, the daring and steel of the US forces involved are beyond what most minds can take on board.  The men involved and those who serve like they did may comprehend what will follow in this story. But those outside that realm, well, they may find it very hard to grasp and imagine.

The attack proceeds, Operation “Commando Wrath,” the Shok Valley, Afghanistan.

Capt. Kyle M. Walton, 29, was in command. He said many of the men were carrying 60 lb packs and "they jumped off (the helicopter) into jagged rocks, running water, and 40 degree temperatures at approximately 10,000 ft. elevation.”

Since they were at the base of the valley, their plan was to get to a village perched strategically above the valley on top of a mountain, so right away they had to climb.

The team separated into three groups, six Afghan commandos and an interpreter with each element:

  • Lead Group
  • Command and Control (C2) Group
  • Third Group

The plan was to get to the village up the mountain, enter the village by surprise, take on any insurgents in the village, and then fight their way downhill to the target. Walton has said:


"We didn't want to fight uphill."

While they hoped for the element of surprise, most of them knew that the helicopter insertion force was going to make a lot of noise while weaving its way in through the valleys. At best, however, their hope was that the the enemy would not be fully prepared for the attack and would have to jump through hoops to respond. Any element of surprise obtainable is better than none.

This is an example of a Nuristani village of Waigal in the Waigal Valley. This was the kind of village the team was going to attack. This village is about 31 miles to the east southeast of the village objective of ODA 3336, but in similar terrain. The village targeted by ODA 3336 was like the one shown here, with buildings built one on top the other. 

These two video grabs from an Army AH-64 Apache attack helicopter show the actual village to be attacked.
Some of the assault force did not want to tackle the jagged rock climb. Instead they used "switchbacks," the terraces formed by the irrigation landscaping, to go up the hill, such as shown here.

SSgt John Walding (left) and SSgt David Sanders (right) led the way in with about 10 Afghan commandos.

Sanders also had Senior Airman (SrA) Zachary J. Rhyner (shown here), USAF, with them as a combat air controller, formally known as the Joint Tactical Air Controller (JTAC). Rhyner was pay grade E-4. One JTAC was assigned to each team as they went into the valley and up the cliffs. They are known as “battlefield airmen,” trained to operate with the Army special forces mostly on covert missions in hostile territory. Bruce Rolfsen, reporting for the Air Force Times, has said:

"The 'battlefield airmen' can parachute or infiltrate into enemy territory to set up drop zones, do air-traffic control or call in aircraft to shoot or drop bombs on the enemy. They often work on an Army Special Forces or Navy SEAL team and fight alongside soldiers and sailors while summoning Air Force firepower from overhead. The aircraft often are firing near 'friendly' forces on the ground."

The USAF aircraft under the control of these JTACs are flown by officers. They depend on these young enlisted controllers on the ground to pin-point their targets and keep the choreography in the air such that aircraft are not smashing into each other. SrA Rhyner described the battle area as "busy," so everyone had their hands full.

Rhyner also described the climb up:

“Initial infiltration began ... with snow on the ground, jagged rocks, a fast-moving river and a cliff. There was a 5-foot wall you had to pull yourself up. The ridge-line trail was out of control.”

As they climbed up about 1,000 ft, they could see enemy scurrying about to get into position. It is believed that the sound of the incoming helicopters had alerted them. MSgt. Scott Ford has said from the time they were inserted until the first shots were fired spanned about 30 minutes.

As this lead element approached some of the buildings on the outskirts of the village, SSgt Luis Morales, shown here, spotted an enemy and killed him.

Little did Morales know that there were an estimated 200 enemy waiting for them, positioned for a well-planned defense of the village. This is one of the problems associated with going after high value targets --- they are well protected.

The enemy immediately opened fire with machine guns, sniper rifles and rocket propelled grenades (RPGs). The enemy was shooting down at the Allied force as it came up. The enemy immediately had the attack force surrounded. The enemy was well concealed in thick-walled buildings marked with occasional holes from which to fire.

SSgt Rob Gutierrez, USAF, a JTAC with one of the groups, said this:

“We were caught off guard as 200 enemy fighters approached. Within 10 minutes, we were ambushed with heavy fire from 50 meters. The teams were split by a river 100 to 200 meters apart, north to south.”

Gutierrez was assigned to the 352nd Special Operations Group at RAF Mildenhall, England.

Capt. Walton was behind the lead group with the command and control (C2) element. His group immediately came under heavy fire from multiple enemy positions on the mountain, and for the moment it was pinned down.

Walton said:

"We were completely surrounded on 360 degrees and were taking heavy enemy sniper, machine gun and RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) fire from all around us."

Walton's interpreter, "CK," 23 years old, was killed almost immediately. "CK," an orphan, had hoped to one day come to and live in America. The Americans gave their interpreter a special place on their team. Morales said:

"They are just like a member of the team. One of our interpreters has seen as much combat as any of us. He has six years of combat experience. He's been with six SF teams and been in hundreds of firefights - but he doesn't get the six-month break."

Sanders, in the lead group, said:

"I had approximately 10 commandos with me, and we got into the village before we started receiving fire. We couldn't move any farther forward. Through the radio traffic, we heard some of the team had gotten shot, so we started trying to identify the buildings where the fire was coming from. We hoped to neutralize the threat." 

SSgt Seth E. Howard, shown here, was with a group of 201st Commandos. Once the initial contact was made, his group too was pinned down by heavy sniper, RPG, small arms and machine gun fire.

He directed his Afghan commandos to take the enemy on while he employed his sniper rifle and 84 mm recoilless rifle against enemy positions. This fire enabled Capt. Walton's C2 group to move to covered positions.

Walton and Spc. Michael Carter, a combat cameraman in the C2 group, dove into a cave.

The battle was underway, the Allied force was vastly outnumbered, some were already in the village, others were climbing up a mountain and being attacked from above, all exactly what our guys did not want. Men started getting wounded one after the other. So they now had two huge jobs on their hands. First, return fire and kill as many enemy as they could, wounded or not. Second, provide suppressive fire so those among them could go after their wounded, treat them, and drag them to safety.

SSgt Dillon Behr, center in the photo, the communications sergeant, couldn’t fit in the cave with Walton and Carter, so he stayed outside and commenced firing.

Behr was hit in the leg-hip area that led to nerve damage in the right leg. He was also hit in theright bicep and his his intestine was torn.,  Nonethgeless, he stayed in the fight to enable others to move the wounded. He lost the strength needed to hold his weapon. Morales ran over to shield him and himself was hit.

In here somewhere, perhaps early in the fight, Capt. Walton realized that he's greatly outnumbered, he had no element of surprise, many of his men are fighting uphill, they are surrounded by a well dug-in, well armed, and well trained enemy, and concluded he's going to need air power to lay waste to the enemy so his guys can get their wounded to safety, get better positioned to kill more enemy, protect themselves, and figure out a way to get the hell out of there. All the while, Walton has to defend himself, defend his men, help with the wounded, and kill enemy as well. So here's a young officer with a full plate to be sure.

Spc. Michael Carter, shown here, was one among many to dash out into the open to get to the wounded. He charged some 15 ft. into enemy fire to recover the wounded Behr. Capt. Walton provided suppressive.

It seems like the enemy may have been startled to see this young American soldier charge right at their fire, undaunted by that fire. Not only did he do that, but he recovered the wounded Behr, administered first aid and at the same time maintained fire against an enemy trying to advance on his position. In the mean time, Walton got over to help Morales who had been shielding Behr and was himself wounded. Among them all, they got Behr and themselves to safety.

Once in a safer position, Morales started treating Behr even though he himself had been shot in the thigh. Morales would be hit again in the ankle, but kept treating Behr. Behr was badly wounded.

Carter is quite a story. For starters, he was not a SF soldier, but rather a combat cameraman assigned to the 55th Signal Company (Combat Camera) and attached to ODA 3336 to document the fight with camera and video. Set all that aside. He most certainly conducted himself like a card-carrying special forces soldier. He maintained heavy fire on enemy locations, several times exposing himself to intense fire. On one occasion his suppressive fire enabled Capt. Walton to retrieve his dead interpreter's body, "CK." At another point, Carter popped out again to retrieve a satellite phone. There was one occasion where an enemy force came within 40 ft. of Carter's position, so Carter again jumped out into the open and provided the needed fire to disrupt the advance.

SSgt Howard was with the third element and heard that the C2 and their two wounded ODA 3336 comrades were in danger of being overrun, so he jumped out from his position as well, fought across a 60 ft cliff, and made it to the C2 group. His presence was sorely needed, and he placed himself between the wounded and the enemy and put down some heavy fire against advancing enemy. Like Carter, he would emerge into the open and engage the enemy.

Howard was a trained sniper. He used his skills to pick off enemy one by one. He directed his Afghan commandos to lay down some heavy fire on the enemy so he could get into place to work his sniper and recoilless rifle. He would say the trained enemy snipers had been doing their thing and it was now time for him to do his. He said the enemy was well trained and disciplined, and therefore hard to find and target. Nonetheless, Howard and his team became fully engaged..

Carter's actions enabled Walton to establish communications and call his headquarters to get approval to use his air support. He got the A-OK right away.

Sanders and SrA Rhyner had gotten to a place where they could talk, and Rhyner called in the close air support. He had F-15E "Strike Eagles, A-10 Warthogs, and AH-64 Apaches all in the air and waiting for their instructions. Each of these aircraft were well equipped to support troops on the ground. The F-15s and AH-64s were there as the assault began, and that the A-10s came in about one hour later to augment the force and apply its special design for close air support to the battle.

Rhyner was hit by enemy fire within 15 minutes of the attack, along with three team members. He said:

“I was pulling security when I got shot in the leg. The rounds hit my left thigh and went through my leg and hit another guy in the foot ... There was nowhere to go. I grabbed the wounded guys, but we were trapped by the enemy. I was calling in air strikes and firing, while moving the wounded down (the cliff).”

Capt. Walton treated Rhyner while Rhyner called in the air. Rhyner ended up as the air controller in charge. He was closest to the fight and could see the enemy best of all, better than even the pilots whom he was directing in. Remember, he was an E-4 Senior Airman.

Two USAF F-15 "Eagles" from the 335th Fighter Squadron were orbiting above waiting for such a call, and rolled in on the targets right away. The call was for "danger-close air," which means the pilots were going to strike very close to the friendly force, close enough to potentially cause friendly casualties.

Sanders was worried the attacks were coming in too close, and called over to Walton to see if this was a problem. Walton's response was:

"Bring it in anyway."

Sanders remained concerned the F-15 attacks were too close, and Walton told him:

"Hit them again."

Capt. Prichard Keely, USAF, was a weapons system officer (WSO - "Whiz-oh") aboard one of the Eagles, responsible for firing the weapons. He was the lead WSO, and was responsible for finding and verifying targets and determining which weapons were needed for each situation.

Keely's role is very interesting. He maintained constant communication from his F-15E "back-seat" with the assault force on the ground while the pilot in the front seat flew the aircraft. The ground force moved up the stream bed assessing how best to get up to the village. The F-15E carries high-fidelity targeting pods which enabled Keely to see enemy movements on the ground. Keely said:

"I could see people with weapons moving around on top of the houses ... They asked me to get them the best route of ingress from the riverbed to the village itself ... I chose the terrain that was least exposed to enemy gunfire and the easiest point of ingress, while avoiding the most mountain climbing."

His assistant director for operations at the time, Lt. Col. David Castillo, has said this about Keely's job:

"It was extremely important that Prichard (Keely) stay focused and deliver the weapons with extreme accuracy. He was dropping weapons close enough to where 'friendlies' were within lethal radius. He had to be extremely precise. It is a testament to his skill as a tactical aviator and as a person."

Keely's later comment was:

"It was a great feeling. Those guys were in the heat of it. It was least we could do."

Rhyner initially focused on directing the F-15s which brought in a tremendous amount of fire power and conducted strafing and bombing runs. SSgt Rob Gutierrez seemed to have been focused initially on the Army AH-64 Apache attack helicopters which were armed with cannons, rockets and Hellfire air-to-ground missiles, and USAF A-10 Warthogs, also heavily and similarly armed.

Orchestration with such fast moving and lethal air power is essential. As Rhyner was putting down bombs on specific coordinates, Gutierrez would keep his Apaches and Warthogs out of the way. As the fight went on, the combat air controllers kept working their air assets against the enemy, throughout directing different aircraft types. Somewhere in the mix were UH-60 Blackhawks, two for medevac and others for extraction, as well as CH-47s for extraction.

The air-ground thing is a giant ballet, between the controllers and their special forces colleagues on the ground, the pilots in the air, and the main command and control organization to the rear, the latter of which must worry about whether more aircraft will be needed and help solve issues that arise on the battlefield that the combatants don't have time or authority to resolve. This is not easy work.

One of the F-15’s bombs completely leveled a building, and created huge clouds of smoke, and a great deal of flying debris. The explosions and implosions were substantial enough to get everyone’s attention, friend and foe. This kind of bombing would go on throughout the fight.

Following the initial phases of the battle, the attack aircraft would unleash a torrent of cannon, rocket, and missile fire and conduct numerous bombing and strafing runs. Capt. Walton was very sensitive to how close the "danger air support" attacks would be, but nonetheless his air controller called this kind of air in 70 times. 

All together during the battle, Rhyner is said to have brought in 4,570 rounds of cannon fire, nine Hellfire missiles, 162 rockets, twelve 500-lb. bombs and a 2,000 pounder.

These air attacks enabled the combined Allied team to brave enemy fire and retrieve wounded. Some men were injured by flying debris from the air attacks. Walton said a 2,000 pounder hit perilously close to his position. Walton said this:

“They dropped a 2,000-lb. bomb right on top of our position. Because of the elevation, the bomb blew upward rather than down. It just didn’t seem like we had much of a decision. Our guys were wounded, and we couldn’t go back the way we came.” 

The photo is a video grab if a 2,000 lb bombn dropped by a F-15E on a Taliban target elsewhere in Afghanistan.

While the air was coming and going, the men on the ground remained in intense combat. Most agree that the air was what enabled the men on the ground to regain the initiative and eventually get out. 

Amidst all this, concerns grew that cloud cover was moving in and there was some chance they would have to spend the night. As a result, they had to be careful not to run out of ammunition.

There were all kinds of issues associated with staying the night. Ammo was one. They did not know whether they might get weathered in the next day, deprived of air and stuck in place with a superior sized force. Furthermore, the pilots reported about 200 more enemy coming, about 10 kms away, armed with rockets and missiles.

Everyone on Walton's team was hurt or wounded, four critically. He felt he was in a mass casualty situation. Capt. Walton decided they had to get out of there. His higher command agreed they had to get out right away. However, they could not exit the way they entered. But, they had to get going before the weather and darkness worked against them. Bad weather could leave them there for days, surrounded by overwhelming force. 

There was only one way out, and that was down a steep cliff, not an easy chore given they would receive fire on the way out and they had to move a lot wounded, whom they refused to leave behind. Walton raced through the options for getting his men down the cliff, which included rolling them over the edge, something he dismissed. He would say later:  

"We couldn't leave the casualties. We were prepared to sit there and die with them." 

SSgt Sanders went down the cliff to assess the "doability" of it as an exit. He came back up with SSgt. Matthew Williams and told Walton it would not be easy, but it could be done.

Williams,had spent much of his day not only fighting enemy and climbing cliffs, but going after the wounded under intense enemy fire. 

He fought up a mountain for over an hour to get to several wounded men. His team sergeant was wounded and he ran through a hail of fire to get him, and help him down the hill to safety. Following that is when he went back up the hill with Sanders to help the rest of the men down.

MSgt. Scott Ford, the team sergeant, organized the medevac. He had earlier organized a counter-assault to reinforce his teammates. Now, he organized the medevac where the less seriously injured-wounded would carry the more serious down the cliff to the casualty collection point. As he was getting this set up, he was hit by an enemy sniper in the chest plate. He nonetheless returned fire. Then the sniper got him again, this time in the upper arm, nearly knocking it off. All that notwithstanding, Ford led the group down.

Morales led the way down with wounded while Sanders, Carter and Williams went up to get the badly wounded Behr, then back to rescue the also badly wounded Walding.

Earlier in the battle, MSgt Ford (left) and SSgt John Walding (right) were engaging the enemy. Walding was hit below his right knee as he headed toward the edge of the cliff, hit so hard that Ford described it this way:

"(The bullet) basically amputated his right leg right there on the battlefield."

Capt. Walton dragged him to the cliff's edge. Walding's top priority was to stop or at least slow down his loss of blood. He got a tourniquet and tightened it until the bleeding stopped.

SSgt Walding described how his leg was basically amputated at the knee and how he pulled it up into his groin where he tied it to his thigh. Walding said: 

"I literally grabbed my boot and put it (his leg below the knee) in my crotch, then got the boot laces and tied it to my thigh, so it would not flop around. There was about two inches of meat holding my leg on." 

He also said:  

"(This way) I could scoot on my hands and buttocks down the mountain."  

Having tied himself up with a tourniquet, Walding then attempted to inject himself with morphine, but accidentally stuck himself in the thumb. Legend has it that when he stuck his thumb by mistake, his comrades around him started laughing, laughing out loud. An author said this: 

"But he shot the morphine in his thumb not his thigh and in the midst of one of the deadliest battles of the war, with the glory of Valorous actions all around, the team laughed. The enemy had found themselves in a terrible situation, they had surrounded a Special Forces team in difficult terrain and when the enemy managed to shoot the leg out from under this out gunned, outnumbered team, the team burst out in laughter!" 

During an interview on Fox News with , Walding was asked:

"And SSgt Walding over here, as it all begins, all of a sudden you get injured very badly."

Walding replied:

"It was a little scratch."

While on the subject of laughter during the heat of battle, SSgt Gutierrez has commented that it took him three hours to link up with his fellow JTAC Rhyner. Rhyner commented on the link-up.

“Sergeant Gutierrez and I met on the cliff during the battle briefly. We shared a laugh, but it was a busy, bleak situation.”

During the withdrawal down the cliff, Walding carried his leg with him. Capt. Walton commented about him this way:

"At one point we had ah, ah soldier missing his leg continuing to apply pressure to one of his comrade's wounds, not concerned about himself. During the daring rescue that some of the soldiers conducted to get these guys off the mountain. John Wayne Walding (real full name) carried his own leg down the mountain."

Capt. Walton, Howard and Carter stayed behind to cover the withdrawal. They also spent time retrieving weapons they had left behind, not wanting them to fall into enemy hands. Carter ran out in the open under fire grabbing equipment and throwing it off the cliff while Howard provided him cover, picking off the enemy with his sniper skills. Thankfully, an element of soldiers came up as reinforcement.

Carter described one of several trips he made down the cliff:

"We had to Spiderman down the cliff to find ways. There were 20 foot down straight drops. It was just a bad place to be at ... I took one (of the wounded soldiers) down, the one who was able to walk. He wasn’t as bad off. He was still conscious. I’d climb down first, and there were parts where he couldn’t hold (on to the cliff face), so I’d let him drop on me so I could catch him and continue taking him down.”

Sit for a moment and imagine the intensity of the fighting, the rescuing of wounded by men themselves wounded, and the climb down the 60 ft. cliff by the wounded and badly wounded, all the time with fighting continuing and air attacks occurring all around them.

Now for the extraction.

A medevac helicopter swooped in but his rotors were hit by enemy fire. He could not land, and barely had enough time to enable a medic to jump off to care for the men. The UH-60 medevac then had to fly away. A second medevac followed in and landed in the midst of an icy stream that was moving along at a good pace. MSgt. Ford said:

"It took two to three guys to carry each casualty through the river. It was a mad dash to the medevac."

They made a "mad dash" into the helicopter, hearing bullets ping off the sides of the aircraft, with one hitting the pilot. But out they went. This photo is from the cockpit on the way out.

Meet SSgt. Ronald Schurer, the medic, one each very busy medic. Schurer was a graduate of Washington State University and was working his way toward a master's degree in economics, when the Afghan war began following 911. He felt obliged to serve. He enlisted, completed basic training, then started training with the special forces to be a medic, took language classes and trained to work directly with local Afghans. During his first tour with ODA 3336, he did a lot of training for the Afghans and helped local Afghans and lead local clinics.

Fourteen minutes into this mission he received the call, "Medic," and went to the aid of an Afghan commando hit in the inner thigh. He then moved back to his position in the river bed, and as the teams went up the cliffs, the calls rang out again. One of his colleagues was hit in the neck. Under heavy fire, he went to his aid, treated him, and pulled him to safety.

Then two more calls as the enemy attack became more intense. He ran up and found one of his teammates shot in the pelvis and arm, with another shot twice in the right leg. He carried both to safety even though he himself had been shot in the helmet and the right arm. Two more colleagues were found and carried to safety, one critically wounded in the right leg, the other hit in the arm.

Schurer was the only medic there. Everyone was running low on ammunition, and he was running low on medical supplies. Nonetheless, he treated four soldiers for more than five hours until medevac helicopters arrived to get them out. He is credited with saving the four and treating more than 10 Afghan commandos.

SSgt. Schurer later received the Medal of Honor. President Donald Trump said this:

"Ron, our hearts are filled with gratitude and joy as we prepare to engrave your name alongside the names of America’s greatest heroes. It is my honor and privilege, along with all of these incredible warriors in front of me, to present you with the Congressional Medal of Honor.”

Schurer later joined the Secret Service. 

The President also awarded the Medal of Honor to MSgt. Matthew O. Williams, USA.  Williams learned the lead element had sustained casualties and was in danger of being overrun. He and his Afghan commandos fought their way up the terraced mountainside and provided suppressive fire which held the attackers back. He braved enemy fire to get a casualty to the casualty collection point, fought and climbed his way back up the mountainside to help defend the lead assault element, exposed himself to enemy fire in order to reestablish the team's critical satellite radio communications, and helped move the wounded down the mountainside. He carried and loaded the wounded on to the medevac helicopters under hostile fire. 

SrA Rhyner was awarded the Air Force Cross, the Air Force's second highest medal for valor in combat. The records show eight other Special third-highest personal decoration for valor in combat is the third highest decoration for valor in combat. 

Then there is SSgt. Daniel Plants, shown here. This was his first firefight as a special forces soldier. He called it his "Baptism by fire." Plants has recalled hearing the request go out for a bomb run. He said:

"I was staring at it and saw the building go up. I remember looking up, and then all of this stuff starting coming down. All I could do was roll up tight and hug the cliff wall."

When it was over, the Green Berets and 201s Afghan commandos suffered 15 wounded, with two Afghans killed in action.

How do the men view this? Walding's perspective says it well:

"We should not have lived."

All but two lived, a living testament to the power and training of the combined US-Afghan and air-ground team. The estimate is they killed somewhere in the neighborhood of 150-200 enemy.

Capt. Walton highlighted an even more important point:

“We think we sent a pretty big message to the insurgents. We let them know that we could penetrate their comfort zone. We told them there’s nowhere you are safe that we aren’t willing to come in after you."

He also said:

"This battle to me is about the Brotherhood, the camaraderie. Personally I'm just honored to be in the same room as these guys." 

The video grab above shows a group of the men from ODA3336 who fought this battle in Afghaniostan's Shok Valley walking together, Capt. Walton in the center.

Walding, operating with a prosthetic leg, remained on active duty and hoped to redeploy with his Green Berets. He said:

"Sir, you can take my leg, but you can't take my heart and you can't take my soul. I'm a Green Beret."

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

"Colored troops" in Union Army: a painful evolution to prove valor

This story centers on the Corps d’Afrique, black soldiers who fought for the Union in the American Civil War. But it also highlights attitudes of the day directed at blacks who wanted to be soldiers. The Corps did not develop overnight. Theirs is a complex story, an evolutionary one that began in Louisiana in the Confederacy. The history woven into this evolution is captivating and compelling. There is much here to study in greater detail.

Editor’s notes: I realize there is sensitivity in today’s world over terms used to describe people of color in this country. I will be using terms used in the day and by scholars thereafter.

The Corps d’Afrique had its roots in Louisiana. Thomas Overton Moore was governor of Louisiana from 1860 to 1864. The Ordinance of Secession for Louisiana was enacted on January 26, 1861.
Moore anticipated the Union would attempt to capture New Orleans. The Union strategy was to split the Confederacy in two by running up and down the Mississippi River.  He needed more soldiers to defend Louisiana and New Orleans. So he put out the call on April 21, 1861.

Joelle Jackson has researched this and wrote:

“A committee of ten prominent New Orleans free blacks called a meeting at the city's Catholic Institute on April 22 to pledge their loyalty to the Confederate cause. About 2,000 people attended the meeting including 1,500 free blacks who signed a militia muster roll.”

Governor Moore formed the 1st Louisiana Native Guard, CSA (Confederate States of America) on May 21, 1861. This made it the first official black regiment in the Confederate Army. All of the initial members, some 1,100, were French Speaking Creoles.

If unfamiliar with the term "Creole," it is a most interesting subject to research. Perhaps to excite your corpuscles, read this by Dr. Yaba Blay. She has focused a great deal of attention on skin color and identity in New Orleans. She has argued that there was and is a distinction between Creole and Negro. That is:
“Creoles—people descended from a cultural/racial mixture of African, French, Spanish and/or Native American people—have distinguished themselves racially from ‘regular Negroes.’ In this context, people who are light skinned, with non-kinky hair and the ability to claim a Creole heritage have had access to educational, occupational, social and political opportunities that darker skinned, kinkier-haired, non-Creole folks have been denied. In many ways, among those of us who are not Creole and whose skin is dark brown, the claiming of a Creole identity is read as rejection. And I’m not just talking about history books or critical race theory. I’m talking about on-the-ground, real-life experiences.”

The Laura Plantation, a Creole plantation, describes Creole as follows:

"Creole is the non-Anglo-Saxon culture and lifestyle that flourished in Louisiana before it became a part of the United States in 1803. Louisiana Creole is a blending of influences from three cultural groups: the west European, west African, and includes a significant input from the Native American. The Creole functioned in an elitist structure, based on family ties … Creole Louisiana was a place where class, not race, determined social status … Over the last 200 years, the meaning of Creole has changed, often dictated by many varying Anglo definitions, all based on the concept of race. These imposed meanings varied from: descendants of French and Spanish aristocrats to racially mixed or to anyone of African blood. In the Louisiana Creole mind, such distinctions are not only irrelevant, they contradict and hide the essential nature of this vanishing, alternative culture."

For purposes here, and speaking broadly, Creoles were people of mixed European and black descent, especially in the Caribbean. They were differentiated from Negroes.

The governor appointed three white officers to command the regiments. However, company officers were Creole officers selected from the ranks.

The unit did not last long. Many feared free people of color would collaborate with the Union and abolitionists. Furthermore, the state did not supply the Native Guard well. Its members often had to provide their own weapons, ammunition, and clothing.

Then came the political hammer. In January 1862 the Louisiana State Legislature passed a law that required militia members to be white. On February 16, 1862, the 1st Louisiana Native Guard, CSA disbanded.
Underscoring Governor Moore's fears about an attack against New Orleans, a Union naval force commanded by Admiral David F. Farragut, USN, entered the Mississippi River from the Gulf of Mexico, sailed up to New Orleans, and took it in April 1862. The graphic is of Farragut's flagship, the USS Hartford.

The plan was for the US Navy (USN) to take the city and for General Benjamin Butler, USA, shown here, to move into the city, defend it, and hold it. Butler was a real piece of work. He was appointed military governor, he brought order to the city, but he pilfered goods of the residents. He labeled women who showed contempt for Union soldiers as prostitutes. Furthermore he was anti-semitic, and he sent his forces to rural areas to confiscate cotton from people assumed to be disloyal. He earned the nickname “Beast Butler.” President Lincoln authorized his removal in December 1862.

Perhaps worse yet, Butler became the first to identify slaves who ran into Union lines for safety as “contraband of war.” He confiscated them as contraband. The Union Army adopted the notion and used many as laborers to support Union efforts. This was despite the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 which required the slaves to be returned to their masters.

Butler is a central figure in the evolution of the Corps d’Afrique. He’ll show up in this story later.

The reality at the time was no one on either side of the Civil War knew how to handle slaves during the war. Many blacks sought to enlist in the Union army but were rejected. Even President Abraham Lincoln opposed their use. He did not like the idea of black Union soldiers killing white Confederate soldiers. He further feared putting weapons into the hands of black men.

Major General John C. Fremont, USA oversaw military forces west of the Mississippi River and east of the Rockies. He intended to free all confiscated slaves. He was fired.

Major General David “Black Dave” Hunter, USA, was responsible for all Union forces in Florida, South Carolina and Georgia. He advocated using black men as Union soldiers. He needed reinforcements, so he recruited them. In May 1862 he put those three states under martial law and declared slaves in those three states to be free. Hunter even forced slaves into military service with the Union.

In May 1862, he issued orders from South Carolina to recruit a regiment of Negroes. The Negroes were eager to join and within a few months the First South Carolina Volunteer Regiment was full, armed and in uniform. This was the first regiment of Negroes organized during the Civil War. Congress approved its formation.

President Lincoln did not like Hunter’s action, declared it to be null and void. Lincoln feared slave-holding Unionists would move to support the Confederacy, especially those in the border states. Hunter had to disband his South Carolina unit.

The Confederates captured Colonel Daniel Ullman, USA and imprisoned him in August 1862. They released him in October 1862. While in prison, Ullman developed the idea of including black soldiers in the Regular Union Army as combatants. On release from prison in Richmond, he went to Washington and arranged to visit President Lincoln. Lincoln did not like the idea. However, the president invited him back in January 1863, revisited Ullman's idea, promoted him to brigadier general and sent him to Louisiana.

General Ullman went to Louisiana. He was subordinate to Major General Nathanial Banks, USA. Ullman set up recruiting depots for blacks in multiple cities in the state. He raised five regiments of African-American soldiers.

Senior officers in the Department of the Army objected and set numerous obstacles. Ullman was confident that with the proper support, he could recruit tens of thousands of blacks into the Union Army. He wrote this to the Adjutant General:

“I take pleasure in saying that, whenever the negro has the opportunity, he shows the greatest willingness and alacrity to enlist. I am also exceedingly glad to have it in my power to say that he shows an aptitude and desire to learn the drill, and a cleanliness in his person and his camp, well worthy of imitation by more pretentious soldiers. I have full confidence that he will make a soldier of which commanders may be proud.”

Still, many in the Department of the Army balked. But they were too late. The movement was well underway to bring blacks into the Union Army, and indeed to free them.

Ms. Budge Weidman, writing “Black Soldiers in the Civil War, Preserving the Legacy of the United States Colored Troops” for the National Archives, wrote this:

“The first official authorization to employ African Americans in federal service was the Second Confiscation and Militia Act of July 17, 1862. This act allowed President Abraham Lincoln to receive into the military service persons of African descent and gave permission to use them for any purpose ‘he may judge best for the public welfare.’ However, the President did not authorize use of African Americans in combat until issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863: ‘And I further declare and make known, that such persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.’ With these words the Union army changed. Up until September 1862, the main focus of the war had been to preserve the Union. With the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation freedom for slaves now became a legitimate war aim.”

Lincoln was on board. His Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863 stipulated “freedom of the slaves would be maintained by the ‘Executive government of the United States.’” Their freedom was now a recognized war aim.

Back up into mid-to-late1862.

Major General Benjamin Butler, USA, introduced to you earlier, was motivated to receive Negroes into the service. Butler was in charge of the Department of the Gulf for the Union. Like so many other Union generals, he needed reinforcements to fight, in his case, to hold New Orleans.

As he was wont to do, he launched off on his own. He approached some of the prominent free Negroes, the Creoles of New Orleans who had been in the Confederacy’s 1st Louisiana Native Guard, CSA. Butler invited them to join the Union and fight against the Confederacy. These were the same men who had offered their services to the CSA. But they had been humiliated previously by the poor support received and the legislature saying only whites could serve. Nonetheless, many still wanted to fight, in part because they wanted to show the world they were equals.

About ten percent of those approached by Butler agreed, which was the vast majority of eligible free men of color in New Orleans.

On August 22, 1862 General Butler issued General Order No. 63 authorizing the enrollment of black troops. Within two weeks he enlisted 1,000 and was able to form his first regiment. Only free blacks could enroll. However, recruiters were very loose and allowed many runaway slaves to enroll.

These men formed the nucleus of what would become the Union’s 1st Louisiana Native Guard, USA (vice 1st Louisiana Native Guard, CSA). The first regiment of the 1st Louisiana Native Guard, USA was mustered into federal service on September 27, 1862 (other sources say September 20). The regiment’s strength was 1,000. The number of runaway slaves rushing to enlist was so large the Louisiana Native Guard, USA had mustered four full regiments into the Union Army by November 24, 1862. Butler now had 4,000 new soldiers.

George Washington Williams, in his book A History of the Negro Troops in the War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865, wrote:

“During this brief period three regiments of infantry and one of heavy artillery, all composed of Negroes, had volunteered and been organized and accepted by the United States. The enthusiasm of the men and the short time in which they prepared themselves for service was unprecedented.” 

Williams went on to say that on the day General Butler made his appeal, the Secretary of War sent an order to Brigadier General Rufus Saxton, now responsible for all Union forces in Florida, South Carolina and Georgia, telling him:

“(You are) authorized to arm, uniform, equip and receive into service of the United States such numbers of Volunteers of African descent as you may deem expedient, not exceeding five thousand; and may detail officers to instruct them in military drill, discipline, and duty, and to command them.”

Part of the secretary’s motivation was to attract slaves from the plantations as a means to deplete the work force available to the Confederacy.

Williams continues:

“Notwithstanding the official and stubborn opposition to the military employment of Negroes, before the closing days of 1862 the army of the United States Government bore upon its rolls four regiments of Negroes.”

But do not sugar-coat this endeavor. Stephen J. Ochs, writing "The Rock of New Orleans" published by The New York Times, wrote:

"The Native Guards faced daunting challenges in the face of bitter white racism. White New Orleanians insulted them in the streets, while white landlords harassed their families and slave owners refused to allow soldiers to have contact with wives who were still slaves. In addition, the federal government failed to honor General Butler’s pledge of bounties, equal pay and rations for soldiers’ families. White officers snubbed their black counterparts, and white enlisted men refused to salute or obey black officers and showered insults on the enlisted men of the Guards.

"Moreover, the 1st Regiment had difficulty procuring supplies and equipment, and once in the field spent most of its time on guard or fatigue duty, the latter involving back-breaking manual labor that stigmatized black troops and left little time for drill and training. To make matters worse, Gen. Nathanial P. Banks, who replaced Butler in December 1862, mounted a campaign to remove the black officers of the Native Guards, focusing his initial efforts on the 2nd and 3rd regiments.”

The 1st Regiment the Louisiana Native Guard was composed of free men of color, with all black line officers (captains and below); the 2nd was composed of both free men and freed slaves, with some black and some white officers, and the 3rd was composed of freed slaves, with all black line officers.
The field grade officers (majors and above) were white, with one exception: Major Francois (Francis) Ernest Dumas, USA shown here, of the 2nd Regiment. He was a Creole of color. He was the only "black" field grade officer in the Native Guard and only one of two in the entire Union Army.

Major General Nathanial Banks, USA, replaced Butler in December 1862. He and others were concerned the Confederates would mount an effort to retake New Orleans. He needed to bolster his forces below the city, including a place called Ship Island. As you see on the above map, it was near the mouth of the Mississippi River. It was the jumping off point for the Union to capture New Orleans.

It was a barrier island with the only deep-water harbor between Mobile Bay and the Mississippi River. Some see it as a superior harbor., safe from most dangerous storms. It was about five miles long and 0.25 miles wide, small indeed. It served as a vital anchorage for many decades. Fort Massachusetts was built there. It consisted of two islands. The Corps of Engineers rejoined them in 2019.

General Banks decided to deploy seven companies of the 2nd Regiment of the Native Guard to Ship Island to help defend the entry to the Mississippi River, Colonel Nathan Daniels, USA, in command. He and his Native Guard force arrived on January 12, 1863. Daniels was not excited about the duty, but understood it was vital to hold the island.

Three other companies of the 2nd Native Guard were sent to Fort Pike, on the eastern extremity of Lake Pontchartrain, to guard the eastern water approach to New Orleans.

Major Francois (Francis) Ernest Dumas, shown here and mentioned previously, was the only black field grade officer in the Native Guard. It turns out he was in the 2nd Regiment companies that went to Ship Island.

Ship Island was occupied by the 13th Maine Regiment of US Volunteers, Colonel Henry Rust, in command. Rust may have been from Maine, but he would write with certainty in his diary that he had little to no use for the blacks in the Union Army. He wrote:

"‘Nigger on the brain.’ No, I have not got that. It has stuck to my stomach and gone all over me. The feeling of certainty that I have got to leave my two good companies here to come into collision with these niggers has made me feel homesick, and I have serious thoughts of resigning.”

Rust told Daniels to keep the Native Guard troops away from the 13th Maine. Rust and all but one detachment of his men left the island on January 20, 1863. Once Rust was gone, Daniels integrated the units so they would drill and work together, in some cases requiring Maine lieutenants to be subordinate to Native Guard, black captains.

After a short time, the Maine officers refused to obey orders from black officers, and their enlisted men followed. Daniels arrested them and confined them to quarters with Native Guard sentries.

There were some forces from the 8th Vermont present as well but they did not cause such trouble as they were guarding Confederate prisoners and patrolled the post, therefore not exposed to the Native Guard. Both the Maine detachment and 8th Vermont departed. Daniels' next problems would come when ships with white crews landed at the island.

Initially, the 2nd Regiment force was relegated to monotonous duties. However, on April 8, 1863 a steamer arrived at Ship Island and uploaded two companies, Bravo and Charlie along with a 12-pounder boat howitzer, Colonel Daniels in command.

This steamer left on April 9, rendezvoused with another, and anchored off shore East Pascagoula, Mississippi, shown on the mainland on the map. The two companies of Native Guard landed and took possession of the village. 

The diary of Colonel Daniels has been published in a book entitled, Thank God My Regiment an African One, by Clare B. Weaver and Edwin C. Bearss.

The Confederates were surprised when the Native Guard landed but soon attacked attempting to drive the Native Guard into the sea. The Native Guard, led by Major Dumas, more than held its own and drove the Confederates back. Word then came Confederate reinforcements were on their way, so Colonel Daniels recalled his men and they evacuated, returning to Ship Island.

Daniels reported this "skirmish" on April 9, 1863 to his headquarters:

"I have the honor to report that I embarked with a detachment of 180 men of my regiment on U.S. transport General Banks, and yesterday at 9 a.m. made an attack upon Pascagoula, Miss. Landed my force, took possession of the place, and hoisted the American colors upon the hotel. I immediately thereafter was attacked by the Confederate cavalry, some 300 strong, and one company of infantry. Repulsed them after a severe fight, killing 20 or more, and wounding a large number, capturing 3 prisoners and the Confederate colors. Held the town until 2 p.m., frequent skirmishes occurring meanwhile, when I withdrew my forces to the boat, learning that large re-enforcements had arrived from the camp up the Pascagoula River. Loss in battle, 2 killed and 5 slightly wounded."

Native Guard soldiers were the ones who hoisted that flag upon the hotel. 

The 2nd Regiment, Louisiana Naive Guard was the first black unit on the Gulf Frontier dung the Civil War to meet Confederates in battle and suffer and inflict casualties. According to Daniels, Major Dumas fought with great courage. Daniels summed up how hard his men fought with this entry:

"One of the privates … had both legs blown off by a shell … so that his bowels hung from the gaping hole … and the remnants of his poor mutilated body was being borne by men upon a stretcher when, he raised up on his elbow, gave the military salute and exclaimed, 'don't give up Colonel, we can whip the rebels yet. God bless you colonel — Fight them to the death.' … He died soon thereafter."

Shirley Elizabeth Thompson, writing Exiles at Home: The Struggle to Become and American in Creole New Orleans, wrote:

"Dumas and other officers earned special commendation as officers who were 'constantly in the thickest of the fight, and by their unflinching bravery and admirable handling of their commands … select great honor upon the flag under and for which the so nobly struggled.'"

More on Dumas later.

Battle of Port Hudson - the Louisiana Native Guard to battle again, a big one

 Following the Battle of Antietam, stalemate was the word of the day for the war in the East. Captain Farragut, following the capture of New Orleans, was able to sail his fleet and gain surrenders at Baton Rouge and Natchez. If he would have had ground forces available, he could have taken Vicksburg, Mississippi. Lacking that he sailed up to Memphis. 

The Confederacy as a result strengthened its positions at Vicksburg and Port Hudson. The Union earmarked 1863 as the year to control the entire Mississippi River. Major Generals Ulysses Grant and John McClernand were ordered to move against Vicksburg, the former from his position in Memphis and the latter from northern Mississippi. General Grant had tried to take Vicksburg in 1862 but failed.

General Banks was told to drive up the Mississippi to marry up with Grant for the assault on Vicksburg. To do that he would first have to take Port Hudson.

Banks was not pleased with the situation in New Orleans. James G. Hollandsworth, Jr, in his book Pretense of Glory: The life of General Nathanial P. Banks, quoted Banks saying this to a fellow general officer:

“I find … on arriving here (New Orleans) an immense military government, embracing every form of civil administration, the assessment of taxes, punishments, charities, trade, regulation of churches, confiscation of estates, and the working of plantations, in addition to the ordinary affairs of a military department. Everybody connected with the government has been employed in stealing other people’s property.”

Banks also found his forces in disrepair, many suffering from diseases. His inspector general said “the ignorance of officers is lamentable.” Most of his force were nine-month volunteers whose enlistments were to expire by August 1863.

Nonetheless, Banks organized a corps, the XIX Corps, of four divisions. But his force was extended from Pensacola, Florida to Baton Rouge. Hollandsworth wrote that there was a “flood of black refugees, and soon the presence of thousands of ‘contrabands,’ in need of food, clothing, housing, created a major problem.” So Banks could see that the order of the day was to put these blacks to work. He set up an aggressive labor system.

At this point in time, late 1862 - early 1863, Lt. General Henry Wager Halleck, USA, shown here, was the General-in-Chief of Union armies. He told Banks that President Lincoln “regards the opening of the Mississippi River as the first and most important of all our military and naval operations, and it is hoped that you will not lose a moment in accomplishing it.”

That underscored the idea that capturing Port Hudson upstream Baton Rouge and New Orleans was number one priority on Banks’ plate. Banks however was burdened by the idea of persuading the people of Louisiana and New Orleans to reject their secession. He had no chance of success as the people there resented the Union armies. As a result, Banks was reluctant to move against Port Hudson. Colonel Sidney A. Bean, USA, one of Banks' subordinates, recorded in his diary that under Butler, “much was accomplished with small means. Now nothing is accomplished with great means.”

A note on Banks. He was by background a millworker and became a politician in Massachusetts. He served as Massachusetts governor. He was a "political general," selected ahead of officers from West Point, as were many generals in the Union Army. He was an accomplished debater but not a very good military man, especially at the rank of major general.

Admiral Farragut was furious that Banks was not moving toward Port Hudson. He was adamant that the move must be made, with or without ground forces. So he went against Port Hudson without ground forces. The attack began on March 16, 1863. Farragut employed four principal warships and three gunboats.

Port Hudson was located on a 80 ft. bluff on the east bank of the Mississippi river. The terrain was extremely rough, a maze of deep, thickly forested ravines, swamps, and cane brakes giving the effect of a natural fortress.

  According to historian John D. Winters, 

"Port Hudson, unlike Baton Rouge, was one of the strongest points on the river, and batteries placed upon the bluffs could command the entire river front."

The Confederates were ready, Major General Franklin Gardner, CSA, shown here, in command. Gardner was a New Yorker, a West Point graduate and a seasoned veteran of Shiloh. Banks had been told wrongly that Confederate men were being sent from Port Hudson to Vicksburg. Just the opposite was true. Gardner had received reinforcements sent from Vicksburg. Gardner's men had over 20 cannon covering the river arranged in eleven batteries of artillery, including nine batteries of heavy coastal artillery. They had also prepared piles of wood to ignite for nighttime illumination and had warning observations posts manned.

According to historian John D. Winters, "Port Hudson, unlike Baton Rouge, was one of the strongest points on the river, and batteries placed upon the bluffs could command the entire river front."

The Confederates were well prepared, Farragut’s fleet was battered when attempting to run the enemy batteries. The artwork shown here, done by "unknown," is held by the Library of Congress, and shows the artist's perspective of the Battle of Port Hudson.

Banks’ ground force failed to get into position. So he withdrew, arguably retreated, his 17,000 troops to Baton Rouge while Farragut was at battle. Farragut managed to get two of his seven ships past the batteries and to the north of Port Hudson, one his flagship, the US Hartford, the other a gunboat, the USS Albatross. Two of Farragut's ships were very badly damaged and could not go upstream; they drifted back down the river. Two other ships ran aground. A final ship ran aground, was pummeled by artillery, and abandoned.

Farragut’s two ships, the Hartford and Albatross made it to the Red River, a short distance upstream. His orders were to block the Red River. He felt he could not do that, so he moved up the Mississippi and by March 19, 1863 was anchored about 12 miles below Vicksburg. 

Banks then attacked to the west, took control of Alexandria and gained a foothold on the Red River. At long last, in earky May 1863, Banks decided to attack Port Hudson.

Just prior to his decision to attack Port Hudson, on May 1, 1863, General Banks issued what to many was a surprise general order, General Orders No. 40, a proposal to create the Corps d'Afrique:

"Headquarters Department of the Gulf, Nineteenth Army Corps, Opelousas, May 1, 1863.

"The Major-General commanding the Department (General Banks) proposes the organization of a Corps d'Armee of colored troops, to be designated as the 'Corps d'Afrique.' It will consist ultimately of eighteen regiments, representing all arms -- infantry, artillery, cavalry -- making nine brigades of two regiments each, and three divisions of three brigades each, with appropriate corps of engineers, and flying hospitals for each division. Appropriate uniforms, and the graduation of pay to correspond with the value of services, will be hereafter awarded." 

For its part, the War Department did not recognize it as an official army corps.

The men to which Banks referred were assigned under General Ullman’s command. The Corps d’Afrique became known to many as “Ullman’s Brigade.”

Effectively, and apparently conceptually at this moment,  in a general order, the Corps d’Afrique was formed out of the organization of the Louisiana Native Guard that had sided with the Union. The Louisiana Native Guard had formed the First, Second and Third Louisiana Guard and would become the First, Second and Third Infantry, Corps d’Afrique.

Up until this time, the Louisiana Native Guard, USA had been relegated to menial tasks. But now it would go to battle, as the Battle of Port Hudson is not yet over, not by a long shot.

On May 11, 1863 Banks committed the 3rd Native Guard to build bridges to support movement of forces against Port Hudson. By May 22 Banks force increased from 30,000 to 40,000 troops, pitted against an estimated 7,500 Confederates. He deployed his forces to completely surround the city. On May 27, he launched his attacks.

Going against the recommendations of his subordinate officers, Banks decided to launch a full scale infantry assault on the Confederates’ fortifications, hoping to overwhelm the Confederates and force a quick victory. Behind those fortifications, however, were extensive artillery positions.

Among all his forces, he committed the 1st and 3rd Regiments Louisiana Native Guard, USA to the battle. They were assigned to Brigadier General William Dwight, USA.

Dwight had not intended to use the Native Guard in battle, but decided he had no choice as his other forces had failed to advance. He committed the Guard to a heavily fortified section at the extreme left of the Confederate lines. As a result, the Native Guard was not in the best position to launch an assault. Nonetheless, off they went through “the heavy crossfire from rifles, field artillery, and heavy coast guns.”

This art is a perspective of the Native Guard assault on the rebel wortks at Port Hudsoin, May 27, 1863," a sketch by a "special artist."

D. Terry Jones, in his paper “Louisiana ‘Native Guards’ fight well for Union," wrote:

“William Dwight, Jr., a thirty-one-year-old Massachusetts (brigadier) general, commanded the portion of the battlefield that included the Native Guards. Dwight wrote that he believed Banks had decided to use the black soldiers in order ‘to test the negro question. . . . The negro will have the fate of his race on his conduct. I shall compromise nothing in making this attack for I regard it as an experiment.’

“Incredibly, Dwight's ‘experiment’ did not include scouting out the position the Native Guards were to attack or even studying maps of the area. As it turned out, Louisiana's Black Union soldiers were being sent into a tangled maze of felled trees, thick brush, and irregular ground which was, perhaps, the strongest part of the Confederate defenses. General Dwight remained in the rear drinking throughout the entire fight."

Captain Andre Cailloux, USA, commanded E Company Native Guard. These are two good descriptions of what happened.

The first is by D. Terry Jones, just mentioned and quoted. The graphic shown here is a modern depiction of Captain André Cailloux:

“At about 10:00 a.m., the Native Guards moved forward across the six hundred yards of ground that separated them from the enemy. A third of the way across, Confederate artillery opened up with what was described as ‘shot and shells, and pieces of railroad iron twelve to eighteen inches long.’ One shell took off the head of the 1st Regiment's color bearer and scattered his brains on the men near him. Despite the horror, two soldiers stepped forward and vied for the honor to carry the flag.

Captain AndrĂ© Cailloux, one of the few black officers in the Union army, had his left arm shattered above the elbow, but he continued to lead his company forward until another bullet killed him instantly. When Cailloux's men saw him go down, they fired one volley and retreated in confusion. The Confederates kept up a steady fire, and one later wrote, ‘We mowed them down, and made them disperse, leaving their dead and wounded on the field to stink.’

“Out of the approximately 1,000 Native Guards who participated in the attack, 36 were killed and 133 were wounded. The 60 Confederate defenders facing them did not lose a single man. For the entire day, Banks lost about 2,000 men to the Confederates' 500 casualties.”

The second description comes from Stephen J. Ochs highlighted earlier:

"On the morning of May 27, the 1st and 3rd regiments (Louisiana Native Guard) received orders to participate in a general assault on the fortifications surrounding Port Hudson. Their objective was to storm a position on the bluffs protected by rifle pits, a swamp and a rebel engineered backwater from the Mississippi River. Cailloux’s company would bear the regimental standards and spearhead the assault over an area fully exposed to rebel fire.

"At 10 a.m. the bugle sounded and the Native Guards, forming a long line two ranks deep, emerged from the woods in good order, advancing toward the bluff about 600 yards away. At a distance of about 200 yards, the Confederates began to unleash withering musket and artillery fire at the advancing troops. The barrage threw the leading elements into confusion and they broke and ran to cover among willow trees.

"Cailloux and other officers rallied their men several times. Finally, Cailloux led a charge of screaming and shouting men that reached the backwater, about 200 yards from the bluffs. At that point, the Guards fired their first and apparently only volley. By then Cailloux had been hit in the left arm, but he kept going. His arm dangling by his side, Cailloux held his unsheathed sword aloft in his right hand and in French and English hoarsely exhorted his soldiers to follow him.

"As he moved in advance of his troops across the flooded ditch, Confederate artillery opened up with solid shot, grape and canister, while the infantry rained down lead. In the maelstrom of fire, Cailloux was struck in the head and killed.

"Only the availability of trees, stumps and other obstacles prevented a complete slaughter of the rest of the troops. At that point, the 1st Regiment broke and fell back, seeking shelter from Confederate artillery in a nearby willow forest until nightfall. All along the line that day, the Confederates repulsed Union forces, inflicting heavy losses.


These Native Guards were the first African American soldiers to see combat in a significant battle in this war. Regrettably, the attack did not succeed. The force had to retreat or face annihilation. However, praise for the performance of the Guard spread like wild fire, and the white officers sung their praise —- the Native Guard had proven they would and could fight with considerable valor.

The battle failed in large part to a series of errors made by General Banks. These included attacking these fortifications by rushing infantry at them instead of conducting a siege; failing to instruct his four generals when to attack, resulting in their attacking at different times in an uncoordinated fashion; and running his forces through rugged terrain and into multiple artillery crossfires."

Banks launched a second assault that also failed. He now decided to do what he had originally been advised to do, lay siege to the city. 

The Civil War Trust wrote:

"On May 27, after their frontal assaults were repulsed, the Federals settled into a siege which lasted for 48 days. Banks renewed his assaults on June 14 but the defenders successfully repelled them. On July 9, 1863, after hearing of the fall of Vicksburg, the Confederate garrison of Port Hudson surrendered, opening the Mississippi River to Union navigation from its source to New Orleans."

This was the longest siege in US military history.

The Union now controlled the entire Mississippi River.

Corps d'Afrique is real - the Bureau of Colored Troops is established

Recall that General Banks issued his General Order Nr. 40 proposing the Corps d'Afrique. Also recall the War Department refused to make that designation or organization official. So now events and actions transpired quickly.

In the midst of everything discussed thus far, on May 22, 1863, the US War Department issued General Order No. 143, establishing the Bureau of Colored Troops to handle "all matters relating to the organization of colored troops.”

General Lorenzo Thomas, USA, a West Point graduate, was assigned to take over recruiting blacks in the Mississippi Valley. Major Charles W. Foster , USA was named Chief of the Bureau of Colored Troops.

The designation United States Colored Troops (USCT) replaced the varied state titles that had been given to the African American soldiers over the next year. Instead of state designations, they became United States Colored Troops (USCT), and the various units became United States Colored Infantry, Artillery, or Cavalry. has written about the Native Guard and the Corps d'Afrique:

“In June 1863, shortly before the final victory was achieved at Port Hudson, the three Native Guard regiments were redesignated the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Corps d'Afrique. Although they had fought well at Port Hudson, poor treatment by fellow Union soldiers and difficult field conditions led to large scale resignations by the black officers and desertions by enlisted men.

"In April 1864 the Corps d'Afrique was dissolved, and its members placed in the newly organized 73rd and 74th Regiments of the United States Colored Troops (USCT). At the end of the war in 1865 only about 100 of the original 1,000 men were still in the Army.”

By war’s end, the Corps d’Afrique had 25 regiments and five regiments of engineers. Each of these was designated as numbered USCT units. The original four Louisiana Naive Guard Regiments became the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th Regiments of the Corps d’Afrique and were then re-designated the 73rd, 74th, 75th and 76th USCTs.

Events were moving quickly on this overall matter. This happened for a lot of the reasons already implied or said in this report. But clearly one driving reason is that Union commanders all over were organizing and fielding black regiments. Hondon B. Hargrove, writing Black Union Soldiers in the Civil War, said:

"While Generals Banks, Ullman and Thomas were making good progress in recruiting and organizing black regiments in the Mississippi Valley from Cairo to the Gulf, newly promoted Brigadier General E.A. Wild was busy recruiting and organizing them in North Carolina … Most of the northern states also pursued their own programs on a wider scale than ever before … Those regiments organized without approval by Washington in 1862, and which had finally gained federal sanction, had continued to perform vital military duties after the Emancipation Proclamation came into effect … The results of these disjointed efforts were sufficiently impressive to convince Washington that now is the time to act."

In other words, better late than never!

Approximately 175 regiments of more than 178,000 free blacks and freedmen (emancipated slaves) served during the last two years of the Civil War. By the end of the war they made up about 10 percent of the Union Army. The USCT suffered 2,751 combat casualties during the war, and 68,178 losses from all causes, disease being the worst for both black and white.

Native Guard Black Officers, for many, an unhappy ending

Following the Battle of Port Hudson, General Banks moved quickly to get more blacks into the Union Army. He intended to implement his Corps d'Afrique and create an entire division of black troops. As reported, the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Louisiana Native Guards became the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Regiments of the Corps d'Afrique.

Banks actually accepted black soldiers grudgingly. Black officers, though, to him were unacceptable. Despite their gallant service at East Pascagoula and Port Hudson, Banks decided to eliminate all black officers still in the Corps. He said they were a source of "constant embarrassment and annoyance." He said their use "demoralizes both the white tools and negroes." He called black officers arrogant. He informed President Lincoln in August 1863 that black men were "unsuited for this duty." This, after they had fought so valiantly for him at East Pascagoula and Port Hudson.

James Hollandsworth, author of The Louisiana Native Guards: The Black Military Experience During the Civil War, wrote that "the real problem was with white troops who did not want to salute black officers, did not want to obey them, did not want to stand while they sat" etc."

Hollandsworth wrote,

"A provost marshal under Banks told a friend after arriving in New Orleans that the black officers looked 'like dogs in full dress, ready to dance in the manger. Would you like to obey such a fool?"

Then Colonel Charles Paine, USA of the 2nd Louisiana Native Guard said, "They ought never to put a shoulder strap on a darkey." He is shown here as a brigadier general.

Colonel John A. Nelson, USA commanded the 3rd Regiment Native Guard. His men did not respect him. All 16 of Nelson's black officers signed a mass resignation in a petition to General Banks. In their book Thank God My Regiment an African One, by Clare B. Weaver and Edwin C. Bearss, the authors said "the petition to General Banks cited numerous prejudicial situations: 'even our own Regimental commander (Colonel Nelson) has abused us, under cover of his authority.' Nelson had been warned earlier against impressment of blacks during their recruitment, but had paid little attention and even continued his roughshod methods later."

Mass resignations in the 3rd Regiment bolstered Banks' feeling that he needed to purge all black officers out of the Corps d'Afrique. The 3rd Regiment had a mix of white and black line officers. However, the 1st and 2nd Regiments had all black line officers. This presented Banks with a challenge: How to get rid of them?

Banks' came up with a solution: Set up an examining board to evaluate these black officers. Hollandsworth wrote that "Banks let it be known that he intended to pay black enlisted men and their white field officers but not the black line officers." White officers would not have to face the examination board. 

In May 1863 Captain William B. Barrett wrote General Ullman and asked if he intended to remove all black officers while organizing the Corps d'Afrique. Ullman responded he had come "to no determination whatever" on this matter. He wanted to wait until he took command. Barrett remained, but eight more black officers resigned feeling they could see dismissal coming their way.

Justin Nystrom, writing "African Americans in the Civil War," said:

"Starting in the summer of 1863, Banks and his subordinates began a series of reviews that resulted in the expulsion of almost all the Afro-Creole officers who had been instrumental in raising the Native Guards, even those who had bravely led troops at Port Hudson."

Many black officers resigned. In August 1863, the remaining black officers were on the docket to face the examination board. That board was manned by white officers often junior in rank. Six more black officers resigned from the 2nd Regiment, including Captain Barrett and Major Dumas. There now were only seven left.

Then one more would resign, one more was dismissed for leaving his post and falling asleep, and one more resigned citing prejudice but his commander said he "has neither the respect or confidence of his men." That now left four. By the time itg was over, only Capt. Charles Sauvenet remained in the regiment. He retained his commission until the end of the war.

That left the 1st Regiment. By my count 21 left between mid-August 1863 and October 1863, for varied reasons. Five of them had passed the examination board. Eight black officers were left, and each passed the examination board as well. But seven of those resigned by March 22, 1864, leaving only one, Capt. Louis A. Snaer. He retained his commission until the end of the war.

Brigadier General George Andrews, shown here, assumed command of the Corps d'Afrique on July 10, 1863. He was the one to establish the examining boards and a school for white officers. That said, he advocated recruiting and enlisting colored troops, saying "the colored troops will prove themselves superior to the white troops." He believed the white officers could instruct and train them to be such.

In a letter of November 4, 1863 written to Colonel C.C. Dwight, USA President of the Examining Board," Andrews said:

"I cannot at present under any circumstances approve the application of a colored person for a commission in the Corps d'Afrique. The time for this may come, but it is not now."

So that was that.

An introduction to a few Black Officers of the Louisiana Naive Guard - Corps d'Afrique

Captain Andre Cailloux, USA

Captain Andre Cailloux, killed by artillery in the Battle of Port Hudson, is arguably one of the best known Native Guard officers. He was the commander of E Company, 1st Regiment. Cailloux is an interesting fellow who would have an enormous impact on Louisiana and New Orleans specifically.

He was a Creole, esteemed and wealthy, educated in France including the military arts. He first joined the CSA’s 1st Louisiana Native Guard and served as a lieutenant. He earned his living as a car maker. He became a leader of the free Afro-French Creole community of New Orleans. This community became a distinct one sandwiched between the white colonists and the majority of black slaves. He was also one of the best boxers in the city, an active supporter of the Institute Catholique, a school founded in the Fauborg Marigny district of New Orleans in 1840 for orphaned black children. He was fluent in English and French.

Cailloux was told to enlist only free men of color, but he looked the other way when escaped slaves came to join.

As mentioned he was killed at Port Hudson. His decomposed remains were recovered from the battlefield and brought to New Orleans after the battle was over. The Confederates would not allow the men to gather their dead until then.

James Hollandsworth, author of "The Louisiana Native Guards: The Black Military Experience During the Civil War," mentioned the funeral for Capt. Cailloux:

"His (Cailloux) was a somber yet impressive funeral. The band of the 42nd Massachusetts Infantry played the usual dirges, while six black captains from the 2nd Regiment of Native Guards acted as pallbearers. Flowers were strewn around the flag-draped casket, and candles burned continuously. After receiving last rites of the Catholic Church from a white priest, Cailloux's body was born on the shoulders of eight black soldiers and placed in the hearse. Two companies of recruits for a new black regiment acted as an honor guard. About a hundred sick and convalescing soldiers from the Native Guards also were in attendance. Large crowds of civilians, both black and white, stood on the banquette along the Esplanade waiting for a chance to see the hearse as it passed. Eventually, the bod reached the Bienville Street Cemetery, where Captain Cailloux, 'the blackest man in New Orleans,' was laid to rest."

Major Francois Ernest Dumas, USA

As discussed earlier, General Banks did not allow people of color to be field grade officers (Majors and above) with one exception: Major Francois (Francis) Ernest Dumas, shown here, of the 2nd Regiment, Native Guard.

He was a Creole of color. He had been a fairly rich man, said to be worth a quarter million dollars, and a slaveholder, educated in France. Yes, he was a slaveholder. He freed his slaves and organized them into a company in the 2nd Regiment Louisiana Native Guard. Dumas would be the first black field grade officer in the Union Army, was second in command of the 2nd Regiment, and was one of only two black field grade officers in the entire Union Army. He had earlier joined the 1st Louisiana Native Guard, CSA.

Recall the 2nd Regiment's deployment to Ship Island, and its landing at East Pascagoula, Mississippi, where it confronted Confederate forces. The 2nd Regiment, Louisiana Native Guard was the first black unit on the Gulf Frontier during the Civil War to meet Confederates in battle and suffer and inflict casualties.

Shirley Elizabeth Thompson, writing Exiles at Home: The Struggle to Become and American in Creole New Orleans, wrote:


Dumas resigned on July 3, 1863, no reason given. However, there is credible evidence he resigned because of General Banks' purge of black officers from the 2nd Regiment. He reportedly refused to face the examining board.

Following the Civil War, Dumas ran to be nominated for governor and lost by a very narrow margin. He was offered the number two spot and declined.

Captain Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback, USA, born with the last name Stewart, better known as PBS Pinchback

PBS Pinchback was born in Georgia but chose to join the Union Army. He helped raise several companies of the 1st Louisiana Native Guard while in New Orleans. He was commissioned a captain and commanded Alpha Company, 2nd Regiment. He was passed over twice for promotion.

He resigned in September 1863 after seeing so many blacks resigning from the three Native Guard regiments. He told General Banks he would resign if "you have concluded that none of us are fit to command." He had been the only colored soldier at Ft. Pike and felt the sting of prejudice while there. He left the service in November 1863.

Following the war, he was active in the Republican Party and became the most powerful black politician in Louisiana. The photo is of him as a politician. In 1868 he was elected a state senator in Louisiana. He became president pro tempore where blacks held seven of 36 seats. He served as acting lieutenant governor and as a result of impeachment proceedings against the governor, became acting governor on December 9, 1872, serving for about six weeks. He would be the first African American elected from Louisiana to the US Congress.

1st Lieutenant William F. Keeling, USA

William F. Keeling, from Norfolk, Virginia, was a 1st Lieutenant in the 2nd Regiment. A three member examination board met with him. The board determined his commission was issued provisionally and rescinded it.

He served later on the National Convention of Colored Men held at Syracuse, New York in October 1864. Black representatives from Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia attended. Keeling was one of five from Virginia, and was elected one of the convention's vice presidents. This was the first time Afro-Virginians freely and openly attended a political convention. The Union Army had been in and out of Virginia since 1861 but by this time it was enjoying successes. Keeling helped draft a "Declaration of Wrongs and Rights" in which the delegates pledged their support to Lincoln, the Union, and defeat of the Confederacy. The delegates pointed to the sacrifices made in battle by black Union soldiers and demanded respect and their rights as American citizens.

Captain E. Arnold Bertonneau, USA

Captain Arnold Bertonneau served with the 2nd Regiment as well. He had been a New Orleans wine merchant, had joined the 1st Louisiana Native Guard, CSA and then joined the Union Native Guard responding to General Butler's call. He resigned his commission in protest due to the mistreatment and misuse of his men. He passed the examination board, but resigned nonetheless and returned to New Orleans.

He became a leader in the black suffrage movement after President Lincoln restricted voting to white males only. He led a petition campaign and obtained more than 1,000 signatures demanding black men be free to vote. He delivered a stirring speech in 1864 entitled, "Every man should stand equal before the law." He was a member of the Constitutional Convention of April 1868, which gave Louisiana its first Reconstruction Constitution.

2nd Lieutenant John Crowder

John H. Crowder was a 2nd Lieutenant in the 1st Regiment, born in Louisville, Kentucky. He lied about his age, joining when he was 16, perhaps the youngest officer in the Union Army. He came from a poor but free black family. His mother and a prominent black clergyman taught him how to read and write, though some say he taught himself while serving as a cabin boy and later steward on the Mississippi River. His father had abandoned the family shortly after John was born to participate in the Mexican War, and never returned. As a result, his mother, Martha Ann Stars, moved Crowder to New Orleans which is where he joined the Naive Guard.

Bernie Mackinnon's Blog item, "Taps for John Crowder," said:

"A handful of his letters exist in the special collections library at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, most of them written to his mother. In one he remarked to her, 'If Abraham Lincoln knew that a colored Lad of my age could command a company, what would he say?' Crowder's youth brought consternation within the ranks, however, especially since he outshone other officers in leadership qualities. So besides regular insults from white citizenry, he had to contend with them from fellow officers. One in particular, a jealous captain later prosecuted for cowardice, started spreading false rumors about Crowder's personal conduct. When one of this captain's men committed a lewd act in front of an older woman—a friend of Crowder's who had nursed him through a fever—the young lieutenant reported it, his nemesis having failed to do so. 'I remember your first lesson,' he wrote his mother, 'that was to respect all females.' After this, the slander campaign against him intensified. But he was resolved not to be driven from the Native Guard—'to stay in the service, as long as there is a straw to hold to.'"

Crowder was in the thick of the attack on Port Hudson in 1863. He and the others, including Captain Andre Callioux, waited to attack Port Hudson at dawn on May 27, 1863. They were told they would lead the charge. As discussed, the attack was a disaster. Crowder fell early and was killed in action. His body along with the others who fell were left on the battlefield to rot. The Native Guard under a white flag attempted several times to get to the bodies of the fallen but the Confederates refused to allow it.

Glattharr wrote further, "Had an officer with authority an any sense examined the Confederate position, the charge of the 1st and 3rd Louisiana Native Guards would never have taken place … It should never have happened."

Crowder and Cailloux were among the first black officers to die fighting for the Union. You will recall the magnificent funeral held for Cailloux. Crowder received a pauper's funeral as his mother had no resources.

Captain Charles S. Sauvinet, USA

Captain Charles St. Albin Sauvinet was with the 2nd Regiment. He had also served with the 1st Louisiana Native Guard, CSA. He remarked, "If we had not volunteered, they would have forced us into the ranks." He helped General Butler raise and organize the new Native Guard, USA, initially serving in the 1st Regiment. He was fluent in German, Spanish, and French. He did not resign, leaving the service in 1865, compiling the longest continuous record of all black officers. After the war he became the first African-American to be the Orleans Parish civil sheriff.


The African American Civil War Memorial Museum wrote:

“African Americans fought in every major campaign and battle during the last two years of the war earning twenty-five Medals of Honor. USCT regiments captured Charleston, the Cradle of Secession, and Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy.”

The Civil War Trust wrote:

“In early 1863, Lincoln wrote to Andrew Johnson that, ‘The colored population is the great available yet unavailed of force for restoring the Union. The bare sight of fifty thousand armed and drilled black soldiers upon the banks of the Mississippi would end the rebellion at once; and who doubts that we can present that sight if we but take hold in earnest.’"

Frederick Douglass wrote:
"Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters U.S.; let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his soldier, and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on the earth or under the earth which can deny that he has earned the right of citizenship in the United States.”