Confederate forces failed to take control of city in minor 1862 clash
On an August day 150 years ago, Henry Watkins Allen, astride his horse, was shot down about where Dufrocq Elementary School is now.
“He and his horse were hit with a round of double canister,” said Lance Harris, director of curatorial services with the Louisiana Secretary of State’s Office. Harris said Allen was leading a company of Confederate soldiers in battle that day. It was the second time he was wounded in the war, having been shot in the jaw at Shiloh in April of 1862, Harris said. But Allen wasn’t finished with the war or with Louisiana.
“He convalesced around Baton Rouge for a long time after that and then became the governor of Confederate Louisiana,” Harris said. “His office was in Shreveport. When the war ended, he left and went to Mexico. Died and was buried there for a while. They eventually exhumed his remains and he ended up being buried here (on the grounds of the Old State Capitol).”
On Sunday, Aug. 5, it will have been a century-and-a-half since the quiet of a cemetery on Baton Rouge’s eastern fringe was shattered by the sound of battle. When North and South clashed here in what was to be known as the Battle of Baton Rouge, the city had the odd distinction of being a Deep South city attacked by the Confederate Army. The Union had occupied the unresisting town months before. The ensuing battle was inconclusive and hardly a blip on history’s screen.
“All told probably about 200 or 250 died (both sides combined) during the battle or of wounds from the battle afterwards, about 800 or so were wounded,” said Matthew Reonas, an adjunct history instructor at LSU who is also is a consultant working on a Civil War tourism project for Foundation for Historic Louisiana/Trustees of Historic Magnolia Cemetery. “In the big scheme of things, it was a rather small battle, but it was very intense.”
The battle was supposed to give the Confederate forces a toehold to retake south Louisiana — New Orleans being the plum. But the plan didn’t go well. The CSS Arkansas was supposed to slip downriver and shell the Union positions, but that didn’t happen because the Arkansas had engine trouble, ran aground and was scuttled upriver. The Confederate forces pushed the Union line back toward the center of town, but the closer they got to the Mississippi River, the closer they got to the Union gunboats anchored there. When they were in range, the Union gunners opened up. Confederate commander Gen. John Breckinridge assessed the situation and decided to withdraw and take the draw. The Union was left in control of the city. Nothing had changed.
The battle was, however, very important to Baton Rouge in ways the combatants could not have foreseen.
“The Union forces occupy New Orleans. They sail upriver. They occupy Baton Rouge. The Battle of Baton Rouge takes place in August. The Union officers say, ‘you know what, we’re a little too exposed right here.’ They evacuate the city. The Confederates take it back over for a couple of months. Then the Union Army takes back over in December. That’s when the Capitol gets burned,” Reonas said.
“From then on out, from December of 1862, it’s a garrison town. In fact, the white population had mostly left, the Confederate sympathizers. In the town it was largely African-American, runaway slaves, contraband, whatever you would call them, and Union soldiers. A lot of them were obviously troops who came upriver from New Orleans. They’d get supplies and rest in Baton Rouge. Then they’d go on to Port Hudson in ’63, and later on in ’64 they went up the Red River. All the wounded and sick would be shipped back to Baton Rouge to hospitals. Baton Rouge was a hospital town in many ways. All the public buildings were used for hospitals.
“From the Civil War until the Great Migration in the teens and ’20s, Baton Rouge was an African-American town. It was predominantly African-American. The refugees, especially the ones who were in business, began to filter back in ’63, ’64 and ’65,” Reonas said.
So the battle did effect important changes for Baton Rouge. Evidence of the battle — other than the National Cemetery between Florida Boulevard and Convention Street from N. 19th Street to 22nd Street — is scant. The National Cemetery was designated in 1867, and is the final resting place of Union dead from battles around Baton Rouge and some of the soldiers from the Battle of Baton Rouge. During the Civil War, the dead on battlefields were buried in common graves, large pits. Each side was buried in different pits. Some time afterwards, the Union forces came back to exhume their dead and place them in individual graves. The Confederates mostly did not.
“Probably the original burial pit site, or burial pits, is underneath Florida and 22nd streets,” Reonas said.
Busy commuters jockeying in rush hour traffic along Florida Boulevard/Street, may be unaware they are driving through the site of heated combat that occurred a century-and-a-half ago or that they may be driving over some of the combatants who fell there. “The only part of the battlefield that is even remotely preserved — although you can still see the topography you can go and you can see where, say for instance around the orphanage, where Gen. (Thomas) Williams, to keep the Confederates from advancing down North Street, there is a rise and he would put that artillery right on that rise, and they would just have banged away at the Confederates — Magnolia Cemetery is really the only piece of the battlefield left,” Reonas said.
That presents a kind of dilemma for historians hoping to mark the occasion of the battle. How do you show what can’t be seen anymore? Two exhibits are upcoming at local museums and an effort to produce a map and install keyed signage is under way.
At LSU’s Hill Memorial Library, the staff is assembling Old Times Here are Not Forgotten: Remembering the Civil War, which opens Monday, July 30. The multi-format display addresses not just the Battle of Baton Rouge but the whole Civil War.
“This year with the sesquicentennial of the Battle of Baton Rouge, which was Aug. 5, 1862, we thought that it was an appropriate time to do an exhibit in the summer that features materials that are related to that,” said Tara Z. Laver, interim head of Special Collections at LSU Libraries.
The exhibit will feature items from the library’s holding such as children’s literature that was used to teach about the Civil War in years past. The exhibit will also include “sheet music, publications, state’s publications, historical manuscripts and documents, also the photographs.”
“We also chose some histories that have been written about Civil War topics that have used materials from our collection,” Laver said. “All of the photographs are (Andrew) Lytle’s.”
Mark Martin, processing archivist for LSU Special Collections, said the Baton Rouge photographer’s work inhabits a unique niche in the collection’s Civil War holdings. “With the Lytle images the most important thing is that, for the 50th anniversary of the war there was a publication of a pictorial history of the Civil War, and apparently while they were assembling it, they realized that they had no Southern photographers in it.
“So they sent agents out to look for anything by Southern photographers. (Federal forces had accompanying photographers but not the Confederacy). The only extant images they were aware of were Lytle’s,” Martin said. “They were published in the pictorial history.”
“Generally we wanted to give a good overview of the range of formats of things we have for the Civil War. We are thrilled that we have a gallery in the library because it means that anyone who comes in and sees something they’re interested in can later come back after the exhibit is taken down and look through the whole thing in a reading room at their leisure,” said Leah Wood Jewett, exhibitions coordinator for LSU Libraries’ Special Collections. “That’s nice, as opposed to having a museum where it might go away and never come back.”
Centerpiece of the LSU exhibit is a map of the Battle of Baton Rouge, a big map.
“The major map that we have is a manuscript map, hand-drawn on linen,” Laver said. “It’s easy to see how it matches up with present-day Baton Rouge. People are always fascinated by this Baton Rouge map. For one thing, it’s big. I think the frame we got for it is 40 by 60 inches.”
At the Old State Capitol, Harris is at work on A City Torn: Baton Rouge and the Civil War, which opens Aug. 9. Included in the exhibit is a diorama, a scale model display that depicts Baton Rouge the night the Capitol was burned in December 1862. The model is lit from within and appears to be in flames. Most of the exhibit will be text panels explaining the causes of the war and how it impacted Baton Rouge. “Kiosks show repercussions of the battle,” Harris said. At the end of the tour, visitors will encounter a familiar face of sorts: the statue of the Confederate soldier that formerly stood on North Boulevard but was removed for construction of Town Square. It’s the first time the soldier has been displayed at the Old State Capitol, he said.
The Foundation for Historical Louisiana is working to raise funds for their project to develop a tour brochure, interpretive signage and a smartphone application that will help visitors find Civil War sites on Baton Rouge Streets. “It’s about 25 sites that people can stop and visit,” Reonas said.
“Right now we’ve got an interpretive brochure that’s real close to being done,” Reonas said. “We’re trying to dig up some local people to fund the larger project, but right now, we’re trying to focus on the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Baton Rouge.”
The exhibits and tours of the historic sites are designed to pique one’s memory.
“To some degree it’s because it was American versus American which meant that there were Americans who lost and that there were Americans who won,” Laver said of the Civil War. “Until Vietnam, there wasn’t a war that Americans necessarily lost. I think you have that in your collective memory.”
ä ON THE INTERNET:
LSU Libraries: http://www.lib.lsu.edu/
The link to the Battle of Baton Rouge map on the Louisiana Digital Library: http://www.louisianadigitallibrary.org/u?/LMP,20 or http://tinyurl.com/d36rwa6
The Old State Capitol: http://www.louisianaoldstatecapitol.org/
The Foundation for Historical Louisiana: http://www.fhl.org/indexFHLv2.shtm