Historian tells of ironclad’s troubles during the Battle of Baton Rouge

When Maj. Gen. John C. Breckinridge led about 2,600 Confederate troops on an early morning sneak attack of a Union troop encampment in Baton Rouge on Aug. 5, 1862, he expected the battle-tested Confederate ironclad, the CSS Arkansas, to occupy the Union ships in the water.

But engine trouble from a collision with a Union ship a few days earlier kept the Confederate ironclad stranded in Port Hudson. A local historian, speaking Saturday morning at a ceremony memorializing those who died in the battle 152 years ago, could only speculate how the arrival of the Arkansas might have swung the Battle of Baton Rouge toward the South.

“The best case for the Arkansas would have been that she could have run off the Union fleet, Breckinridge could have captured all the troops here and they could have held it for one day I believe,” Robert Seal, of Bogalusa, said to about 90 people who attended the Saturday memorial ceremony at the Historic Magnolia Cemetery. “But the next day (Union Admiral David) Farragut showed up with this huge fleet. It’s one of those things, you never know.”

Without the Arkansas, Union ships, led by the USS Essex, relentlessly shelled the Confederate troops, forcing Breckinridge to withdraw. About six hours after the initial Rebel surge, the Battle of Baton Rouge was over.

Seal’s talk about the Arkansas was the keynote address of the ceremony that featured cannon and musket volleys from re-enactors garbed in authentic Civil War-era clothing and a wreath laying. The Foundation for Historical Louisiana has sponsored the event for 31 years.

The 152nd anniversary of the battle is Tuesday.

“This isn’t a celebration,” said master of ceremonies B.J. Lorio, a board member of the both the Foundation and the Historic Magnolia Cemetery. “It’s just a remembrance for what these people gave for what they believed.”

A local historian said last year that each side suffered about 84 casualties in addition to the hundreds injured.

Seal gave his presentation while standing behind a detailed model he constructed of the 165-foot long Arkansas built to about 1:32 scale, which is a common size for models, and is made of mainly foam with some wood paneling, miniature cannons, anchors and other elements.

Completed in 1862, the Rebel ironclad ran the blockade at Vicksburg later that year, Seal said.

To reach Vicksburg, the ironclad ran a gauntlet of about 40 Union ships on both sides of the Mississippi River. The Arkansas’ captain, Lt. Isaac Newton Brown, hugged one river bank, parallel to the line of Union ships anchored in the water. The shots from the cannons of those Union ships sailed over the Arkansas while some of the shots from the Federal ships on the other bank hit their compatriots next to the Arkansas.

“A lot of the dirty work for the Arkansas was done by the Union,” Seal said. “It was greatly appreciated by the crew of the Arkansas.”

But soon after, a collision between the USS Queen of the West and the Arkansas led to the engine trouble that kept the Rebel ironclad from helping out the troops at the Battle of Baton Rouge, Seal said.

After the initial fighting on Aug. 5, 1862 ended, engineers continued working on the engines to get the ship moving again to confront the Union ships that had shelled the Confederate soldiers, but continued engine troubles forced the captain to make the decision to scuttle the ship so it did not fall into Union hands.

Crew members lit the magazines, set the ship toward the Essex at Baton Rouge and abandoned ship, Seal said. The ordnance blew and the ship sank by the levee in Port Allen.

“It’s still over there, underneath the levee,” Seal said.

Carolyn Bennett, executive director of the Foundation for Historical Louisiana, said in an interview after the ceremony they continue to sponsor the event after 30 years because of the educational aspect of the program.

“It’s just an effort to get folks into their local history,” Bennett said.

Among the participants were re-enactors James Cannon, 41, from Pointe Coupee Parish, and Paul Bergeron, 51, from East Baton Rouge. Cannon has been participating in re-enactments for five years while Bergeron has performing in re-enactments for about 17 years.

“I kind of thought it would be a fun hobby and it is,” Cannon said.

Both men said they try to be as authentic as they can when gathering items for their uniforms.

Bergeron wears a wool uniform, a rubber poncho, brass buttons and leather shoelaces, while carrying a replica Richmond musket.

“Sometimes you’re on a budget and can’t get everything at once,” Bergeron said. “It does take a while to acquire a good kit.”

Follow Ryan Broussard on Twitter @ryanmbroussard.