Returning south after a failed naval assault on Vicksburg, Mississippi in late July, Rear Adm. David G. Farragut's Mississippi River flotilla landed 3,200 Union troops in Baton Rouge to serve as the city's garrison. Their commander, Brig. Gen. Thomas Williams, tried shoring up defenses north of the city while confining his camps and the garrison's defensive lines to a small area on Baton Rouge's eastern outskirts. Several Union gunboats moored at the city's docks covered the Union's western river front and in an emergency could provide artillery support for Williams.
Vicksburg temporary Confederate commander, Maj. Gen. Earl Van Dorn, pleased at the failure of Farragut's earlier assault, beleived that the occupation of Port Hudson would secure his command's southern river flank. He authorized an attack on Baton Rouge by Maj. Gen. John C. Breckenridge and 4,000 of the Vicksburg garrison. Even temporary seizure of the city would allow Confederates time to occupy Port Hudson and reinforce it with heavy artillery. The ironclad CSS Ram Arkansas was dispatched to support the attack and eliminate the Union gunboats at Baton Rouge.
On the 4th, Union scouts reported Confederates preparing for attack northeast of the city. Williams deployed 3 regiments in a line running from the intersection of the Clinton and Bayou Sara-Jackson roads northeast of the city to the intersection of Perkins and Clay Cut roads to the southwest. Four regiments were ordered to form an interior defensive line and 4 artillery batteries to support both interior and exterior lines; Williams alerted the gunboats to protect his rear. Nearly half the garrison was incapacitated by fever, but many left their sickbeds to join the defense, bringing Williams' strength to 2,400-2,700 men.
From a camp on the Comite River, 10 miles northeast of Baton Rouge, Breckenridge's force marched on the city at 11:00 P.M., on the 4th. After his 4,000 men had joined a small command at Camp Moore, 60 miles northeast of baton Rouge, half of the group came down with fever, and he had only 2,600 troops to attack the Federals. Cut into 2 small divisions, they were led by Brig. Gens. Daniel Ruggles and Charles Clark. On the Mississippi River, Confederate Navy Lt. Henry K. Stevens was having trouble with the Arkansas' engines. The ironclad was pulled into shore 8 miles above of Baton Rouge and was undergoing repairs when the engagement's first shots were fired at 4:30 A.M., on the 5th.
In heavy, early morning fog, Confederate and Union pickets skirmished all along Williams' eastern defense line, some troops mistakenly firing on their comrades. A small Confederate detachment with artillery marched around to the north and hit the Union's left flank. Repulsed, they were fired on in the fog by troops coming to their support under Clark. His men charged on, routed a regiment of left-flank Federals, and drove them headlong at their commanders on the Union right, interrupting Ruggles' attack on the Union right flank. Fog, charging and retreating troops, and the small area of combat created confusion. Union troops broke, running west into the city. Confederates followed, and street and house-to-house fighting began. Some armed Baton Rouge civilians joined attacking Confederates and turned on the retreating Union troops. Others streamed out of town, refugees in their night-clothes.
As Union troops fell backtoward the river, Williams was killed while haraguing his men to counterattack: leaderless, the Federals ran for the safety of the gunboats. Shellfire from the Union gunboats covered the infantry's flight, and Breckenridge withdrew his force from the city. The fight was effectively over by 10:00 A.M.
Col Thomas W. Cahill assumed temporary Union command, confining his demoralized troops to their defensive perimeter for several days. Breckenridge used his time to have Ruggle's troops occupy Port Hudson and cover its bluffs with heavy cannon. Clark, his legs shattered during a charge on a Union battery, was left crippled on the feild and taken prisoner. The Arkansas was scuttled by Stevens when, still inoperable, it was threatened by gunboats approaching from the Baton Rouge.
The Federals evacuated Baton Rouge 16 days after the engagement and returned to New Orleans.
Civil War Harper's Weekly, September 6, 1862 THE BATTLE AT BATON ROUGE. We condense from the Herald correspondence the following account of these affairs:
General Williams received information as early as Monday, the 28th ult., that the rebels had started from Camp Moore for the purpose of making an attack on Baton Rouge.
About two o'clock on the afternoon of the 4th information was received from some negroes that the rebels were approaching in force from the Greenwell Springs road, upon which the troops were got under arms, ready for the menaced attack. At half past three o'clock on the following morning the reveille was beaten, and, the troops having formed, they were marched out to meet the enemy. About a mile out of town our little army west drawn up in line of battle, awaiting the the expected attack.
The engagement was brought on by one of the companies of the Twenty-first Indiana, which was on picket duty about a mile back of the camp, being driven in by the
rebels. As soon as the firing was heard General Williams sent the other companies of the Twenty-first Indiana to the support of the pickets. On reaching the scene of action they found that the enemy was in too great force to contend with successfully, upon which they fell back to the front of their tents, followed by the enemy. There they made a stand, and engaged the entire brigade of General Clarke, consisting of two Mississippi regiments, and a third regiment, composed partially of men from Mississippi, the rest being from Arkansas. The fighting at that place was very severe. The Indiana boys performed prodigies of valor, and kept the enemy in check for a considerable time. General Williams, finding, however, that they were too far advanced to receive support from the other regiments, ordered them to fall back, which was done to the distance of from 200 to 250 yards.
Just about this time the right wing of tie Union army was engaged by Colonel Allen's brigade. This wing consisted of the Sixth Michigan and Nims's battery. Simultaneous with this movement our left was attacked by Ruggle's brigade. Attached to the left wing was the Fourteenth Maine and Everett's battery. The fighting at this point was excessively severe, and the roar of battle was heard all along the line from left to right. This lasted for about twenty minutes, during which time the rebels kept their troops masked under the cover of the woods as much as possible, while the Union soldiers were exposed to their fire in the open field. Considerable inconvenience was experienced by our troops, too, in consequence of their facing to the east, which caused the looming sun to shine in their faces, rendering their operations exceedingly difficult. Still our brave troops flinched not, but manfully bore the shock of overwhelming numbers in the face of every difficulty.
The Thirtieth Massachusetts was now ordered to advance and support the Michigan troops; but while they were getting into position it was found that their aid was not necessary, as the Michigan boys had already repulsed their opponents. The Ninth Connecticut and the Fourth Wisconsin, which were held in reserve, were ordered about the same time to advance in support of the other regiments; but as they were going on the field the enemy retired. At one period of the fight the enemy got into the camp of the Twenty-first Indiana and burned it, upon which this regiment, from the cover of the woods, poured a most terrific volley into them, doing fearful execution, and causing them to retire precipitately. They met a similar fate from the Twentieth Maine, into whose camp they had forced an entrance, though they succeeded in burning this camp too.
While the fight was raging three companies of the Sixth Michigan Volunteers were in peril of being cut off by the Fourth and Thirtieth Louisiana regiments, commanded by Colonel Allen, acting as Brigadier-General. These two regiments suddenly emerged from the woods and marched toward the three companies, with the view of turning their right flank. They had succeeded in capturing two guns belonging to Nines's battery, and a well-known rebel officer, named Henderson, was seen to wave a flag in triumph over the guns. Some say it was a black flag; but doubts have been expressed in regard to the correctness of the statement. The two guns were brought to bear on the gallant Michigan boys; but they were too nimble for the rebels. Lying flat on the ground, the rebel balls flew over them, upon which they started to their feet and poured so well-directed a volley into the enemy's ranks as to completely astonish him. This was handsomely seconded by the remaining guns of Nims's battery, which, making a detour along the road, so severely galled the Louisiana regiments by a well-timed cross-fire that when the two companies of the Michigan Sixth came to the bayonet charge the rebels were driven back to the cover of the woods, leaving the two guns they had captured behind then. Nims's battery thus got their own again.
The hardest part of the fighting was in the centre, where the Fourteenth Maine fought with distinguished bravery. The Twenty-first Indiana also fought like tigers, and it is said that a rebel general paid them the handsome compliment of saying that but for those damned Indianians Baton Rouge would have been captured, though theere are Union soldiers who do not see it exactly in that light.
When the long roll was beaten the gun-boats Essex, Sumter, Kineo, and Katahdin took up their positions, the two former to protect our left and the two latter our right flank The Essex and the Sumter opened fire in the woods, their shells screaming through the trees, tearing them into shreds and scattering an iron hail around. Signal-officer Davis, of the Kineo, stationed himself on the tower of the State House, from which elevation he had an excellent view of the field, and could signal to the vessels where to throw in their shells. After the battle had raged for some time the Union troops began to fall back on the Penitentiary, when several well-directed shots from the 11-inch guns of the boats kept the rebels in check. Shortly after this the firing ceased.
At half past three P.M. firing was re-opened, the gun-boats Kineo and Katahdin shelling the woods in different directions where the enemy were, doing great execution. It has been stated that one shell from the Kineo killed from forty to sixty rebels. Toward evening the firing again ceased: but the gun-boats continued to send in a shell every half hour in different parts of the woods during the whole night, with the view of keeping the rebels at bay; but they had already fled, the gallant charge of the Sixth Michigan having completed their discomfiture.
The rebels were led by Major-General John C. Brcekinridge, who scampered off in such haste that he left his sword behind. It was picked up on the field, and is retained as a trophy. Perhaps it was this circumstance that gave rise to the report that the traitor lost his right arm.