Heritage of heroes

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Free men of color in the Battle of New Orleans.

The story of New Orleans native and one-armed pitcher Edgar “Iron Claw” Populus would be fascinating by itself. Taken on its own, Iron Claw’s tale — fleetingly becoming an unstoppable sandlot hurler in NOLA blackball circles in the early 1930s — has been enough to enrapture at least this scribe.

But once one looks into Populus’ heritage, one finds an amazingly rich, complex, interwoven tapestry of Creole culture, freedom and bondage in the New Orleans area stretching back to at least the 1750s.

New Orleans has always been … different from much of the rest of the South in terms of race and ethnic relations. In the city’s antebellum years, there was a large population of free, mixed-race people of color called Creoles, descendants of African slaves and their French and Spanish masters.

Creoles held a unique place in early 19th-century NOLA society, often enjoying more (yet still limited, of course) freedoms than other people of African descent. There was a sizable Creole merchant middle class, and mixed-race culture in many ways mirrored that of white society.

One way that was so, apparently, was in military service for the various governments, i.e. French, Spanish, U.S., in charge of the region. On that count, Edgar Populus’ direct family line was studded with men who served their country as free, mixed-race Creoles.

Go back to the Civil War, when Iron Claw’s great-grandfather, Armand Populus, fought first in the Confederate Army (quite possibly because he was coerced into it) when he enlisted in the Louisiana 1st Native Guards Infantry Regiment as a private.

But Union forces took New Orleans early in the war, in 1862, at which time Armand seems to have switched signed and become a blue coat. He enlisted as a private in the U.S. Colored Troops, Company D, 74th Infantry Regiment, which had begun as the 2nd Louisiana Regiment Native Guard Infantry in October 1962 and assigned to the defense of New Orleans.

That regiment became the 2nd Regiment, Corps d’Afrique in June 1863 before evolving into the 74th Colored Regiment in April 1864 and again assigned to the defense of the city. This is what Armand Populus originally enlisted in. The regiment took part in several expeditions from Fort Pike over several months.

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1890 surviving soldiers Census sheet listing Armand Populus.

In July 1864, the 74th was consolidated with the 91st Colored Infantry Regiment, and Armand appears to have re-enlisted in this regiment toward the end of the war, again as a private. But the end of 1865, with the war over, the regiment seems to have mustered out.

Armand Populus, a mason by trade (like many members of the Populus family tree), live a relatively long and fruitful life, from roughly 1839 to 1906. He and his wife, the former Natalie “Amelie” Decoudreaux (sometimes spelled Decoubeau or other variations), had Edgar Populus’ grandfather, Lucien (eventually Lucien Sr.), in roughly 1854.

Armand remained connected to his Civil War service, appearing in an 1890 Census of surviving soldiers in New Orleans and living on Laharpe Street, and filing for veterans benefits as an invalid in 1897.

But the Populus family tradition of military service goes back even further, to the War of 1812, when the state of Louisiana reluctantly re-mustered black militias that had been established by the previous French and Spanish governments but had been disbanded once Louisiana was transferred to U.S. control. The white leaders and citizens, prompted by the slave revolt in Haiti, feared a similar uprising at home if they armed men of color, even in the service of their country. The U.S. commander of the defense of New Orleans, famed general and future president Andrew Jackson, eager recruited and praised free black soldiers who helped fend off British attacks on the city.

Thus enters the story of Vincent Populus, né about 1759, quite possibly as a slave of Miss Juana Kerroley Miears (other spellings exist), wife of Luis Populus. Juana Kerroley (and, by extension, Luis Populus) appeared to own numerous slaves who were given the surname Populus.

One of those, according to Louisiana slave records from 1719-1820, was a “mulatto” named Vicente, born in roughly 1759. That date matches up with New Orleans death records for a Vincent Populus, who died in 1839 and was reported to have been birthed in about 1759, making the likelihood that Vicente and Vincent were one and the same.

Once Juana Miears Kerroley died, she passed on the vast bulk of her estate to her widower, Luis Populus, who subsequently appears to have then freed most, if not all, of the willed slaves, probably including Vicente/Vincent. Vincent Populus would became one-armed baseball pitcher Edgar “Iron Claw” Populus’ great great great grandfather.

Likely born a slave, Vincent Populus went on to great things, especially when the War of 1812 rolled around and Louisiana reluctantly formed African-American militias. Many free blacks, including Creoles, jumped at the chance to serve, some in hopes that outstanding military records would lead to more freedoms and rights in society. Penned Jonathan D. Sutherland in “African Americans at War: An Encyclopedia”:

“African Americans believed that their continuing participation in the defense of the United States would result in gaining the freedoms and rights of other citizens. It should be remembered that the vast majority of African Americans did not at this time enjoy the rights enshrined in the Constitution, but the very real hope was that if they flocked to the flag to maintain U.S. independence, Congress and the public in general would recognize that African Americans were equal to their white counterparts and deserved to be valued as they were.”

Vincent Populus became one of the first black military officers in American history when he joined the 1st Battalion of Fortier’s Louisiana Militia, an organization of free black soldiers that had been disbanded in 1804 soon after the Haiti revolt but then hastily reorganized in 1814 to help defend New Orleans from the British.

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List of free black soldiers during the War of 1812, including Maj. Vincent Populus.

Vincent followed Isidore Honoré, also a free African American who was commissioned to the battalion as a second lieutenant, itself a groundbreaking move. Populus became the ranking black officer of the group of 350 free men of color and the first African American to be given the field rank of major in the U.S. Army.

(It’s also worth noting that at least nine other Populuses joined the battalion, some attaining ranks of lieutenant, corporal and sergeant.)

Vincent Populus’ military service seems to have added to his prestige and place among free Creole society in the first several decades of the 19th century. In her book, “The Strange History of the American Quadroon: Free Women of Color in the Revolutionary Atlantic World,” Emily Clark describes how affluent Creoles often followed strict societal mores when it came to coupling and marriage.

That included Vincent Populus and his brother, Maurice, both of whom arranged marriages for several of their daughters. Ironically, though, Clark writes, Vincent himself never married his lifelong partner, Marianne Navarre.

Vincent (and likely Marianne) had a son, Vincent Jr., in about 1812, who continued the Populus line down to Edgar, i.e. Iron Claw. Vincent Sr. died on Sept. 23, 1839, a quarter-century after he made military history.

In a postlude, the proud, successful and highly praised battalion in which Vincent Sr. served was disbanded a few years before his death, again because of white racism and fears of a black/slave insurrection. Wrote Bernard C. Nalty in his book, “Strength for the Fight: A History of Black Americans in the Military”:

“Heroism was not enough, however, to save the black militia. White self-confidence reasserted itself, as did the racism that pervaded American life. After all, true Americans need not follow the example of the Spanish or French, themselves lesser peoples, and rely on blacks for their protection. In 1834, a revision of the militia law sounded the death knell of the black militia, which would not be resurrected until the coming of the Civil War.

“Nor did the U.S. Army recognize the contribution of the black volunteers to the victory at New Orleans, for whites alone were eligible to serve in the Army’s ranks. Once again the government had turned to blacks in time of peril, accepted their aid, and then spurned them. …

“White Americans,” Nalty concluded, “remained blind to the military contribution of blacks.”

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