By the end of July 1862, the withdrawal of the Northern fleets from Vicksburg and the evacuation of Natchez had left Confederation control of ’a significant portion of the course of the Mississippi, as the river was on the verge of being entirely in Northerner hands just a month earlier. In addition, the epicenter of operations in the West had shifted to President Lincoln's usual politico-military fad of eastern Tennessee.
The bulk of the Union troops had been regrouped under Buell's command at Corinth, from where they were advancing - maddeningly slowly - towards Chattanooga. Grant had been left with only forces incapable of doing more than securing the occupation of the conquered areas of western Tennessee and northern Mississippi. This situation, further exacerbated by Butler's low numbers in Louisiana, meant that the North would not be able to take the initiative against Vicksburg for the remainder of the summer.
The Battle of Baton Rouge
The Northerners' inaction and the withdrawal of their ships was the perfect opportunity for the Southerners to regain the initiative along the Mississippi. Their situation was hardly favorable in terms of manpower, but they had the advantage of seeing the Federals grappling with the guerrilla which was organized in response to the northern occupation. The southerners forced the blue soldiers to concentrate on the defense of their camps, their depots and their supply lines, so many worries requiring large numbers and from which the Confederate regular troops suffered little or no harm - even if they weren't. there were also unionist partisans operating in the territories still in the hands of the Confederation.
Incidentally, most of the Southern forces in the West would also be used on other projects, with President Davis aiming at an invasion of Kentucky. Buell’s inaction would make it easier for her, but at the same time she would leave few troops to operate along the Mississippi. Since being ordered to leave Arkansas after its defeat at Pea Ridge in March, the small army of ’Earl Van Dorn had arrived too late to participate in the Battle of Shiloh or the Siege of Corinth, but in time to reinforce Vicksburg's defenses when needed. Van Dorn did not have large numbers at his disposal: his own troops, Sterling Price's Missourians, and various scattered units including a Kentucky brigade commanded by John Breckinridge.
Though sometimes strapped for means, Van Dorn was never lacking in audacity or imagination - nor was he chilled by the dire consequences of his boldness at Pea Ridge. Eager to extend his control of the Mississippi downstream, he set up a combined operation to take back Baton Rouge. The CSS river battleship Arkansas would have to descend the river to rub shoulders with the Federal gunboats there, while a small division, under Breckinridge, assaulted the town by land. On July 27, 1862, 5,000 men left Vicksburg for Camp Moore, a Confederate military installation located in the parish of Tangipahoa, eastern Louisiana (the parish is the Louisiana equivalent of the county in other states, only the name changes).
On the northerly side, the town was defended by only a modest combined force of 2,500 men, comprising seven infantry regiments and four field artillery batteries. Everything was under the orders of Brigadier-General Thomas Williams. The federal position was not not very suitable for defense. The city, on the eastern side of the Mississippi, was hardly fortified. It stretched over fairly uneven ground, in an area where woods alternated with wide clearings. The only entrenchments had been dug in the northwest corner of the Louisiana capital, around the main northern camp. Other camps were scattered around the city. On the river, two gunboats were likely to provide support: the USS Essex, battleship, and the USS Cayuga, in wood.
Map of Louisiana with the main localities concerned (author's notes on a background from the Perry-Castaneda map library).
Williams was quickly informed of Breckinridge's advance by fleeing slaves and then by his own patrols, which confirmed the Southerners presence nearby on August 4. The long and exhausting march from Camp Moore had considerably stretched the small Southern army, and its leader felt that at the dawn of 5 August, he had barely half of his men on foot for an attack - roughly the size of his opponent. Still, Breckinridge attacked at four in the morning. The Northern troops were not surprised, but unlike their adversaries, who had fought for many in Shiloh, they had never seen fire.
The soldiers in blue quickly lost ground, abandoning their camps on the edge of the city and retreating in good order. through the streets of the city. We fought fiercely in the middle of the municipal cemetery. General Williams was killed as he gathered forces for a counterattack, leaving command to Colonel Cahill, who managed to keep his small army together. Cruel fighting fought for six hours, in the streets swept by the contents of the grape boxes fired relentlessly by the cannons, between the houses which offered so many shelters for snipers. Although driven back to the river, the Federals continued to resist. Paradoxically, their recoil ended up giving them a tactical advantage: it put the Southern troops within firing range of the gunboats anchored on the Mississippi.
Large caliber projectiles from Northern ships soon struck Confederate lines, causing heavy casualties to the Gray soldiers. Around ten o'clock, noting that theArkansas had not arrived, contrary to what he expected, to attack the enemy gunboats, Breckinridge did not insist and sounded the retreat. The battle of Baton Rouge thus ended on a northerner victory. It had proved particularly deadly for the two belligerents. In all, 168 men were killed. The North lost 383 soldiers, the South 456, that is to say 839 killed, wounded and missing to report to some 5,000 combatants of the two camps. Although it was small in scale compared to others, this commitment was not to remain without consequences at the strategic level, as the sequence of events would demonstrate.
War on the Mississippi
The Confederates might have been victorious if theArkansas had been there, as Van Dorn's plan had foreseen. However, the river battleship was in poor condition after his various fights in July. Finished in haste, it lacked spare parts to ensure its maintenance, especially with regard to its machines. The crew had also been seriously diminished by the casualties, including Captain Brown, still not recovered from the injury they received on July 15. So much so that the officer had to ask for a few days of leave, leaving command of the ship to his second, Henry Stevens. Brown ordered the 22-year-old lieutenant not to sail under any circumstances until he returned.
Van Dorn, however, expressly counted on the cooperation of theArkansas for the operation against Baton Rouge. He firmly ordered Stevens to go downstream, and eventually won his case. The journey, however, turned out to be calamitous and marked by recurrent propulsion failures. So much so that on August 5, Arkansas was still too far from Baton Rouge to hope to support Breckinridge's men. The battleship did not arrive until the next day at the end of its journey, spotting its old enemy theEssex - which he had faced twice before - and preparing to engage in combat. This is the moment that his machines chose to give back the soul definitively. Stevens managed to beach it just long enough to set it on fire and evacuate it. Drifting downstream, theArkansas in flames ends up explode around noon. With her brief three-week career thus completed, the Southerner ceased to be a threat to Union river forces.
The destruction ofArkansas would allow Union ships to travel more confidently on the Mississippi. At Helena, Commodore Davis was thus able to set up a small expedition against the approaches to Vicksburg. On August 16, the two armored gunboats USS Mound City and USS Benton, accompanied by five spur ships, caught a Southern transport transhipping a cargo of weapons from Vicksburg to Milliken’s Bend, Arkansas. After seizing it, the small fleet made their way to the Yazoo River, which the Southerners had carelessly failed to bring into defense. This time the Confederate installations on the Yazoo were devastated, depriving Vicksburg of significant amounts of supplies and equipment.
At the same time, Northerner ships patrolling the Mississippi began to be attacked with increasing frequency by snipers and partisan groups. As he had been in Baton Rouge in May, Farragut was ruthless. After another attack, he burned and bombed Donaldsonville, between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, on August 9 - not without giving residents time to evacuate the city. So there were no casualties, but the harshness of the northern occupation was not meant to diminish the activity of the southern guerrillas, on the contrary. Meanwhile, the aggressiveness of the Confederates began to worry General Butler, who was still in short supply. Deciding to concentrate around New Orleans, he made evacuate Baton Rouge on August 21, after a large part of the city, already damaged by the fighting of the 5th, was destroyed so as not to serve as a base for the southern army.
Soon after, theEssex began a solitary patrol up the Mississippi River. The Union's armored gunboat came under fire again in Bayou Sara, Louisiana on August 24. In retaliation, theEssex briefly bombed the city. The same scenario happened again at Natchez on September 3, before the ship set off for New Orleans. It was on September 7, as she passed the small hamlet of Port Hudson, that the Federal Gunboat became acquainted with a major strategic consequence of the Battle of Baton Rouge and the evacuation of the city. The Confederates had installed batteries there, which opened fire. Although theEssex was not seriously affected, it was evident that the Southerners were in Port Hudson to stay.
After his retirement in Baton Rouge, Breckinridge had sent 1,500 men, commanded by Daniel Ruggles, to occupy Port Hudson. The site had a configuration similar to that of Vicksburg, although less imposing. Port Hudson was surrounded by steep hills, the sheer drops of which overlooked the river for about 25 meters. The Mississippi twisted tightly there, making Northerner ships all the easier targets. The site was therefore easy to fortify and defend. It was also of definite strategic interest. Located just downstream from the confluence of the Mississippi and the Red River, Port Hudson protected the latter from northern incursions. However, in the absence of a major railway line, the Red River was the main line of communication between the other side of Mississippi (Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas) and the rest of the Confederation. It could therefore continue to benefit from the resources of these regions as long as it controlled the portion of the Mississippi between Vicksburg and Port Hudson. At the same time, these last two cities would become priority objectives for the North for the coming year.
- Article on the Battle of Baton Rouge and related operations.
- Factual summary of the Battle of Baton Rouge.
- General article on the battle.
- Digital version of the northern magazine Harper’s Weekly of September 6, 1862, reporting the battle of Baton Rouge.
- Detailed account of naval operations on the Mississippi, both downstream and upstream.