Bogged down in a back-and-forth fight, Confederates struggling to retake Louisiana’s capital waited in vain for help from their navy.
Baton Rouge found itself at the center of unwanted attention in the late summer of 1862. That April, the Union Navy had over- whelmed the Confederate defenders of Forts Jackson and St. Philip at the mouth of the Mississippi River, and Union Major General Benjamin Butler had occupied New Orleans. Federal planners then turned to Vicksburg as their next major goal. Baton Rouge, known for its vital cotton and sugar processing facilities, lay in the path of the Union drive to Vicksburg. The Confederate high command saw Louisiana’s capital city as a steppingstone toward retaking New Orleans. Those conflicting motives started a race for Baton Rouge that culminated in a costly, confusing fight on the foggy morning of August 5.
Butler had received orders from Union General-in-Chief George B. McClellan stressing the importance of establishing a base of operations in New Orleans, so the Federals could strike out into the lower Mississippi Valley. “The occupation of Baton Rouge by a combined naval and land force should be accomplished as soon as possible after you have gained New Orleans,” McClellan ordered Butler. “Then endeavor to open your communication with the northern column by the Mississippi.”
On May 7, 1862, Butler dispatched a small naval flotilla to Baton Rouge led by Captain James S. Palmer, commander of the gunboat USS Iroquois. The following day, Palmer landed two regiments and a small battery under the command of Brig. Gen. Thomas Williams to take possession of the city’s cotton-producing factories, arsenal and public property, which the Confederates had seized when Louisiana seceded from the Union.
Baton Rouge teenager Sarah Morgan recorded her initial impressions of the Yankees in her diary on May 8: “Our lawful (?) owners have at last arrived. At about sunset day before yesterday, the Iroquois anchored here, and a graceful young Federal stepped ashore, with a Yankee flag over his shoulder….This is a dreadful war to make even hearts of women so bitter.”
Two days later, Union gunboats moved nearby, ready to come to Williams’ aid if necessary. When a crowd of civilians gathered on the shore to look at USS Brooklyn, Williams told them not to congregate in such large numbers, warning that the gunboats would shell the city if they disobeyed. Sarah Morgan wrote: “Let them! Wretches! Does it take thirty thousand men and millions of dollars to murder defenseless women and children? O the great nation!” Williams recorded his own impressions on June 2: “We are in the capital of Louisiana. It’s a pretty town, an old town, prettily situated.”
Meanwhile bands of Confederate guerrillas, operating on the city’s fringes, frequently probed the Union defenses. On the morning of May 30, some of these so-called Partisan Rangers found a means of striking at the Union Navy. When USS Hartford engineer James Kimball and four others rowed to a city wharf in a small boat, they were fired upon by an estimated 40 guerrillas as they docked. Kimball and two of the men were wounded, and Union Admiral David Farragut responded by ordering the gunboats Kennebec and Hartford to open fire on the city. A panic ensued. Recalled Sarah Morgan in her diary, “As soon as we stood in the door, four or five shells sailed over our heads at the same time, seeming to make a perfect corkscrew in the air.” When the smoke cleared, several women lay dead—and some of the city’s historic structures had been heavily damaged.
Following Farragut’s display of firepower, Butler was assured that Union forces were in full control of the state capital. The guerrilla attacks had temporarily ceased by that time, and Butler ordered Williams to leave a small contingent behind and proceed up the river to Vicksburg, where Union forces were massing for a siege on that Confederate stronghold.
With the reduction of Union forces in Baton Rouge, the Confederates saw an opportunity to retake the city. Aided by the ironclad ram CSS Arkansas, the Rebels had withstood a Union Navy bombardment at Vicksburg in June 1862. Commanded by Lieutenant Isaac N. Brown, Arkansas then ran a gantlet of Union vessels, making its way from Memphis to just below Vicksburg.
Farragut headed back to New Orleans for supplies and repairs, and near the end of June the Union fleet suspended its attack on Vicksburg. Butler suspected that, given the Confederates’ successful defense there, they might soon attack Baton Rouge. He reported to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, “We have rumors of attempts to be made upon Baton Rouge, and I have strengthened the force there by the addition of a regiment and battery so that they have now their three Regiments, 4 pieces of artillery & a Company of Cavalry.” In late June, Union agents intercepted a message to residents of the capital that they should evacuate eight miles outside the city limits to avoid danger from an impending military action.
The Confederates already had some troops stationed nearby, at Camp Moore in Tangipahoa Parish, under the command of Brig. Gen. Daniel Ruggles. Also Maj. Gen. John C. Breckinridge was headed with 4,000 men to the camp, located roughly 25 miles from the capital. Breckinridge’s mission was to link up with Ruggles, then proceed toward Baton Rouge. Arkansas, which had undergone makeshift repairs after coming under fire at Vicksburg, was ordered to be on hand to provide support. Lieutenant Brown, however, decided to take an abbreviated leave and placed the ironclad under the command of its executive officer, Lieutenant Henry Stevens.
On July 10, Butler reported to Stanton that he had received word that enemy forces under Breckinridge were gathered near Camp Moore. Six days later, Butler wrote to Williams, posted at that point near Vicksburg, explaining this new threat: “The enemy are concentrating their forces in the neighborhood of Baton Rouge….Therefore if the state of affairs will permit without serious detriment to the public service, you will withdraw your force and return as soon as possible to Baton Rouge.” Williams quickly made his way back to the capital, and his forces were added to a containment garrison consisting of two regiments of the 21st Indiana, the 6th Michigan Volunteer Infantry and elements of the 6th Massachusetts Battery.
Breckinridge arrived at Camp Moore on the evening of July 28. Two days later, having divid- ed his force into two divisions—with Ruggles commanding the 2nd Division—a column of roughly 5,000 men marched for Baton Rouge. Due to illness in the ranks, as well as the high humidity and heat, the army had dwindled to a little more than 3,000 men by the time it arrived at Comite Bridge, just east of the capital. But when Breckinridge learned that his naval backup, Arkansas, had already made its way past Bayou Sara, north of the city, the Southerners’ morale revived; they remembered how that vessel had sowed confusion and repulsed the Federals at Vicksburg.
Hearing a commotion ahead of the column a few miles outside Baton Rouge, Breckinridge’s men halted and opened fire, suspecting that they had encountered a Union patrol. They soon learned they had fired on some of their own men and had wounded a brigade commander, Brig. Gen. Benjamin H. Helm, and Lieutenant A.H. Todd— Mary Todd Lincoln’s cousin.
Ruggles quickly reestablished order and formed his lines of battle in the eastern part of the city. Colonel Joseph Thompson, commanding a brigade, took up position on Greenwell Springs and Baton Rouge roads in the city’s northeast sector before first light on August 5. Combat lines formed quickly, with Thompson’s 1st Brigade on the right side of the line and Colonel Henry Watkins Allen of the 2nd Brigade positioned on the left. The end of the battle line extended through the woods and into an open field on the outskirts of town. A battery under the command of Captain O.J. Semmes was placed in the middle for support, and a squadron of cavalry under the command of Captain Augustus Scott provided flanking cover.
Williams dispersed his forces about 3 a.m. on August 5, situating his men to maximize support from the gunboats on the river, and also to defend against surprise attacks. The 21st Indiana was reportedly stationed “in the woods in rear of Magnolia Cemetery,” with the 6th Michigan on the right of the burial ground. The 7th Vermont stood in reserve behind the 21st Indiana and the 6th Michigan near the Catholic Cemetery. The 30th Massachusetts was positioned near the statehouse, to support the artillery.
The Confederates slowly moved forward until the opposing forces faced each other in two solid parallel lines, according to John Kendall Smith, an officer serving under Breckinridge. He noted that “the reserves were strong and so frequently distributed along their entire front that the effect was that of two battle lines.”
The 35th Alabama Infantry, under Colonel J.W. Robertson and Lieutenant Colonel Edward Godwin, had left Camp Moore later than Breckinridge and Ruggles expected, but they reached the angle of the main road leading into Baton Rouge in front of the Union encampments simultaneously. The 3rd Kentucky Infantry formed in an open field on the right flank, while the 5th Kentucky under Major J.C. Wickliffe formed just outside the city. Breckinridge ordered the 5th Kentucky to post one company as pickets to the right of its position along with some troops near the arsenal.
As daylight broke on the 5th, fog covered the field, making it hard for the two opponents to see each other. At the moment the Confeder- ate forces advanced, a Union battery opened up, and Semmes’ battery returned fire. The Union skirmishers at the head of the line then retreated, and the Confederate 1st Brigade commander, Colonel A.P. Thompson, led his men forward toward the enemy. The Rebel attack gained momentum for a time, forcing the Federals to withdraw and regroup. Most of the fighting that followed would center on the quickly collapsing encampments of the 14th Maine and the 21st Indiana, situated in the city’s western sector.
As the 1st Brigade advanced, a heavy Union battery opened fire and compelled it to pull back. According to Ruggles, “The enemy at this period were heavily reinforced, and a heavy battery to the left of the center opened an oblique fire on both brigades.” A Union column forced itself between two brigades, so Semmes rolled his battery up to fire on the Federals, who retreated.
In the early moments of the battle, Colonel Allen personally led the 9th Louisiana Battalion against a Union battery on his left. According to one report, “At the command charge the whole brigade raised a shout and made as gallant a charge as was ever witnessed.” When Union fire demoralized the Louisianans, Allen took up the regiment’s colors and led the attack, swarming toward the Federal guns just as the crew had reloaded with grapeshot and canister. The colonel maneuvered his horse in front of the cannons as the Federals fired, and he and his mount absorbed the blast. The colonel lapsed into unconsciousness, his right leg bruised and burned and his left leg shattered. Surgeons managed to save his life, but he would be in constant pain for the remaining four years of his life.
Among the Federal casualties was General Williams, who was killed while leading the 21st Indiana in a bayonet charge. Colonel Thomas W. Cahill assumed command of the Union forces.
As the fighting reached its crescendo, the Confederates were hoping for support from Arkansas. But the ram had troubles of its own. With its engines working only sporadically, the vessel had been slowly lumbering toward Baton Rouge. Around 1 p.m. on August 5, when it was about five miles above the town, Lieutenant Stevens tried to engage the Union gunboats near Baton Rouge—Essex, Sumter and Kineo—but the ironclad’s engines gave out. Realizing his predicament, Stevens tried to damage the Union fleet with his crippled ram. He ordered time fuses set, so Arkansas would float downstream toward the Union boats before exploding. The ironclad’s crew escaped just in time, with Stevens forced to swim for it. But the Union vessels were apparently undamaged.
Meanwhile friendly fire during the intense fighting on land led to additional casualties on both sides. The 7th Vermont, which was positioned in reserve behind the 21st Indiana, fired into the ranks of their comrades in front of them and killed several troopers, including Colonel George T. Roberts, the 7th’s commander.
The engagement continued for nearly five hours, with both sides enduring heavy casualties. The Federals lost 371 dead, while 478 Confederates perished. Both armies declared victory after the battle, although the Union forces remained in control of Baton Rouge. They would withdraw from the capital less than two weeks later, however.
As the Federals headed back to New Orleans, to cover their withdrawal they made hostages of local farmers and planters, also burning some farms. Rebel guerrillas harassed them sporadically along the way.
Once Union forces had left Baton Rouge behind, Butler ordered it burned to the ground. Fortunately for posterity, an impassioned plea by the city’s mayor, Moses Gates, changed the general’s mind. Gates begged forbearance for the city where “the orphan, the insane, and the helpless are confined and housed,” warning Butler that any move to burn down the city would surely result in his own infamy in history’s eyes.
Confederate forces initially occupied Baton Rouge after the Federals left, but they eventually evacuated the city as well. On December 17, 1862, Union troops under the command of Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks reoccupied the capital without a fight, and remained there until the end of the war.
Baton Rouge constituted a significant trophy for both sides in mid-1862, since holding the state and its capital was the key to their war efforts in the West. But even after Baton Rouge fell to the Union, overall Federal control of Louisiana would not be established until Reconstruction, and even then Southern honor and nostalgia for the past long inhibited its progress—in the eyes of Northerners.
Alan G. Gauthreaux, who writes from Jefferson, La., is the former National Outreach Coordinator for the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, and currently works for the Louisiana Department of Education, Division of Technology.
Originally published in the April 2010 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.