Remembering the Battle of Baton Rouge

Readying the cannon for fire.

Readying the cannon for fire.

It’s hard to believe, but on August 5, 1862, a full-blown battle between Union and Confederate soldiers took place smack dab in the middle of Baton Rouge.

Today, the Foundation for Historical Louisiana held a ceremony in historic Magnolia Cemetery commemorating that day 151 years ago and the Battle of Baton Rouge. At the time, Baton Rouge was under Union occupation. Confederate General John C. Breckenridge, a former Vice President of the United States, had received orders to re-take the city and had amassed 4,000 men on the Comite River.

A few hours before dawn, with the ironclad C.S.S. Arkansas waiting upriver, Breckenridge struck along North Street through what is now known as Mid-City. The fighting raged along a line from near North Street, down North 19th Street to Government Street, with Magnolia Cemetery at the very heart of the struggle.

Reenactor John White in a Confederate Captain's uniform.

Reenactor John White in a Confederate Captain’s uniform.

The Confederates initially had success, until, about 7:30 a.m., when Confederate Colonel Henry Watkins Allen received a serious wound and the troops retreated in disarray. Later, during several uncoordinated Confederate attacks, the commanding general of the Union forces, Thomas Williams, was shot and killed.

Meanwhile, the C.S.S. Arkansas suffered engine failure, and, rather than face capture, she was blown up by her crew. The Union gunboat U.S.S. Essex, however, sat unharmed in the Mississippi River, and shelled Confederate troops at will.

After a few hours of fighting, close to 200 men were killed and another 650 were wounded or missing. Each side appeared traumatized. With many of his own leaders dead or wounded and with no help from the Arkansas, Breckenridge withdrew back toward the Comite River. The Battle of Baton Rouge was over.

Within two weeks, Union forces destroyed many downtown buildings and evacuated to New Orleans. In late August, Confederates re-occupied Baton Rouge, but only for a short while, until they moved to the more strategic Port Hudson position a dozen miles upriver. Union forces returned that December and remained through the end of the war.

As far as food goes, during the war, Union soldiers, on the whole, ate better than the Confederates because the federal government had a well-established commissary system. Typical rations included staples such as salt pork, dried fruit and vegetables, coffee, salt, and the infamous hard tack, a three-inch square of rock-solid bread made from flour, water, and salt.

Confederate soldiers were supposed to be supplied with items such as bacon, sugar, tea, molasses, and cornmeal, but, as mentioned, that was never a guarantee. For both sides, “extravagances” such as sugar, tobacco, coffee, canned meat, sweets, and fresh and canned fruit could be purchased from sutlers, civilian merchants who followed the armies and sold ridiculously high-priced goods to homesick soldiers.

Due to blockades and the large number of battles fought in southern states, in the end, the South was virtually starved into submission. But because of our ancestors’ Civil War hardships, today we Southerners know how to make something out of nothing.

This morning, however, we did not focus on the era’s hardscrabble cuisine. Instead, the guns and cannon were loud and the music serene, and all reminded us of  the unthinkable loss suffered by both sides.