Battle of Baton Rouge saw full fury of the War

By Dr. Terry L. Jones
Special to The Journal

Battle of Baton Rouge (Harper's Weekly)
While New Orleans, Louisiana, suffered under the rule of "Beast" Butler in August 1862, Baton Rouge experienced the full fury of war. The U.S. Navy captured the city a few days after New Orleans was occupied, and the state government fled to Opelousas. When Confederate guerrillas fired on Union sailors rowing ashore to get their laundry done, fleet commander David Farragut bombarded Baton Rouge.

Sarah Morgan, a young woman who lived in the city, fled with many others when the shells began to fall. Afterward, she described the mass exodus in her diary. "It was a heartrending scene. Women searching for their babies along the road, where they had been lost, others sitting in the dust crying and wringing their hands, for by this time, we had not an idea but what Baton Rouge was either in ashes, or being plundered, and we had saved nothing." One person was killed in the bombardment and several others wounded. A number of buildings were destroyed and many more were damaged, including the Capitol and St. Joseph's Catholic Church.

General Thomas Williams then landed 2,600 Union soldiers and occupied the city. Unlike the turmoil that occurred in New Orleans under Butler's rule, the people of Baton Rouge came to respect General Williams because he sometimes provided armed guards to protect private homes from looters. On the other hand, Williams treated his own men cruelly and often ordered harsh punishments for even the smallest infraction. It was said that the soldiers got even by digging hidden pits around Baton Rouge so Williams would fall into them when he walked around on inspections.

In August 1862, the Confederates tried to recapture Baton Rouge. General John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky (a former U.S. vice-president and the 1860 Southern Democratic presidential nominee) took a small Confederate army from Camp Moore, Louisiana, to attack the city from the east. At the same time, the Confederate gunboat Arkansas was to steam down the Mississippi and attack the Union ships in the river. If all went well, General Williams and his Yankees would be crushed between them.

Breckinridge attacked on the foggy morning of August 5 and began pushing the enemy back toward the river. Unfortunately for the Confederates, the Arkansas never arrived because its engines malfunctioned on the way to the battle. The Union soldiers finally made a defensive stand near the modern-day Capitol building, and with the help of three gunboats in the river forced Breckinridge to retreat.

The Battle of Baton Rouge was small by Civil War standards. The Confederates lost 467 men killed, wounded, or captured, while the Union suffered 382 casualties. Among the latter was General Williams, who was killed in the fighting (it was rumored that his own men killed him). Two of the first Confederates to fall were Lt. A. H. Todd and Brig. Gen. Benjamin Hardin Helm, Mary Lincoln's half-brother and brother-in-law, respectively. As the Confederates approached Baton Rouge before daylight two units mistakenly fired on one another. Todd, who served as General Helm's aide, was shot and killed, and Helm suffered a crushed leg when his horse reared and fell on top of him.

When the Arkansas's crew was unable to restart the ship's engines, they decided to destroy the vessel rather than allow the enemy to capture it. The men torched the ironclad, set it adrift in the river, and scrambled ashore. When the fires reached the powder magazine, the Arkansas exploded and sank near the modern-day US 190 highway bridge at Baton Rouge.

Sarah Morgan witnessed the burning of the Arkansas and wrote in her diary, "I had no words or tears; I could only look at our sole hope burning, going, and pray silently. O it was so sad! Think it was our sole dependence! And we five girls looked at her as the smoke rolled over her, watched the flames burst from her decks, and the shells as they exploded one by one beneath the water, coming up in jets of steam. And we watched until down the road we saw crowds of men toiling along towards us. Then we knew they were those who had escaped [the Arkansas], and the girls sent up a shriek of pity. On they came, dirty, half dressed, some with only their guns, a few with bundles and knapsacks on their backs, grimy and tired, but still laughing."

Approximately one-third of Baton Rouge was destroyed in the battle on August 5 because the Union soldiers burned or knocked down nearly all of the houses and buildings close to the river to give their gunboats a clear field of fire. But the city's troubles were not over. On August 21, the Federals left the city, but not before going on a looting and burning spree that destroyed more of the town. The Yankees returned in December, burned down the Capitol building, and remained in the Baton Rouge area for the rest of the war.

Dr. Terry L. Jones is a professor of history at the University of Louisiana at Monroe and has published six books on the American Civil War.