The saga of a rebellious priest and a black hero-soldier who both played leading roles in the drama of emancipation during the Civil War in New Orleans.
Ochs (Desegregating the Altar, not reviewed) a teacher and history department chairman at Georgetown Preparatory School, paints a densely ironic picture of the destiny of these two men whose lives cross as one is burying the other. Andre Cailloux, a captain in the Union Army, became the first black war hero when he led a hopeless charge against the Confederate forces at Port Hudson, Louisiana. Maistre, a priest whose shadowy past included mixed tales of sex and money, was nonetheless the sole Catholic voice of abolition in New Orleans in 1863. The French born-Maistre had developed a special ministry for black Catholics, and he defied his own bishop’s orders in agreeing to preside over Cailloux' funeral. But whatever large (and perhaps even the small) points Ochs is attempting to make about the Catholic clergy of the day or the trials of free blacks (such as Cailloux) who fought in the Civil War tend to get lost in a heavily footnoted and endlessly detailed swamp. The most basic necessity of such a story (i.e., a clear and vivid picture of Cailloux and Maistre) never emerges from the thicket of Ochs’s tangled narrative, leaving altogether too many unanswered questions about their lives. Indeed, it's never entirely clear if the two men ever met while Cailloux was still alive. Ochs writes that `by sharing the collective stories of our past we come to a better understanding of our common humanity and of our identity, both individual and societal.` This is true enough, and Ochs is obviously is quite sympathetic to the cause and the spirit of these two men, but it is also unfortunately true that he fails to breathe much life into them.
Had done more to illuminate the humanity of these heroes, his history would have had both merit and appeal. As it is, it is for specialists only.