One hundred-fifty years ago Sunday, several thousand Confederate soldiers attacked Union forces in the early morning hours as they camped on the land surrounding what is now the public bus terminal on Florida Boulevard.
The soldiers fought the Battle of Baton Rouge for five hours in the sweltering heat, before the Union troops ultimately unleashed heavy artillery that forced the Confederates to retreat.
Perspiring in gray and brown canvas replicas of those soldiers’ uniforms Saturday, a line of men fired cannons and black-powder long guns into the air in Magnolia Cemetery as part of a ceremony commemorating the battle and its victims.
As the men shot the guns and saluted, it was not hard to imagine the site as a battle scene on Aug. 5, 1862. A trumpeter played military tunes. Women wearing bonnets and long-sleeved, hoop-skirted dresses fanned themselves.
The cemetery is the only portion of the battleground that remains just as it was that day, said Richard Holloway, a member of the Louisiana Sesquicentennial Civil War and Reconstruction Task Force.
“This is hallowed ground,” Holloway told the crowd of about 150 people. “Soldiers of both sides hid behind these very graves and trees.”
Holloway recalled the heroism of Henry Watkins Allen, one of the leaders of the Confederate army, who was shot in the cheek.
He just stopped the blood with a ball of cotton and kept fighting through the pain.
Allen would go on to run for Louisiana governor and win with no opposition.
“Who could run against this brave man?” Holloway said.
Small Confederate flags dotted the cemetery’s gravestones. Many in the audience said their ancestors had fought for the Confederacy.
Carolyn Bennett, executive director of the Foundation for Historical Louisiana, addressed the dilemma of honoring the fallen Confederate soldiers while contending with the fact that they were fighting for the cause of continuing slavery.
“I’d like to particularly thank all the African Americans who came today,” she told the audience, which included a handful of black people.
“It’s an enduring question — how do we, in 2012, talk about this war, the Confederates, the soldiers?”
An attendee, Guy Brody, who is black, said he was not offended by the demonstration of support for the Confederate army today.
He said he did not see contemporary Confederate flags as representing an issue of racism anymore.
“It’s mostly about family and history and tradition now,” Brody said. “I can understand that.”
Another attendee, King Robinson, laid a flower and a small Confederate flag onto the gravestone of his great-great-grandfather, Zachariah R. Causey, who died in the battle.
“How do you reconcile something like this?” he said. “But he was my ancestor. He fought for what he believed in. I think I can honor that.”
Robinson said his great-great-grandfather’s commitment to his beliefs had, in part, inspired him to serve 25 years in the U.S. Air Force, completing 44 combat missions in southeast Asia.
“I kind of look at him as a comrade in arms besides being an ancestor,” he said.
After the battle, bodies of nearly 100 Confederate casualties were placed in a giant pit at the current site of Florida and 22nd streets, said Dr. Thomas Richey, a Zachary surgeon who, in his spare time, wrote a book about the clash, “Battle of Baton Rouge.”
Robinson’s great-great-grandfather was one of only a handful of fallen Confederate soldiers who had his own gravestone in the cemetery. His family members had returned to the pit a few days after the battle and examined the bodies until they found him, Robinson said.
Richey, also a descendant of a Confederate soldier, said there were countless “fascinating” stories that arose from the five-hour battle.
Abraham Lincoln’s brother-in-law, who was fighting for the Confederacy, was killed on North Street near the intersection with Ward’s Creek, he said.
A woman disguised herself as a man to be able to accompany her husband to the battle, he said.
And, he said, one of the Union soldiers at the site was an 8-year-old boy — thought to be the youngest soldier to fight on either side throughout the entire Civil War.
Another attendee, Polly Williams, said she, too, came to the ceremony to honor her Confederate ancestors. She said it was important for society to reflect on historical events.
“You’ve got to know what you’ve been through,” she said, “to know where you’re going.”