Rebel Failure at Baton Rouge; Federals Take Malvern; Jackson vs. Garnett

August 5, 1862 (Tuesday)

General Thomas Williams

General John Breckinridge had begun his march from Camp Moore with nearly 5,000 troops. Due to disease, unforgiving humidity, and the hard, sixty mile tramp towards Union-held Baton Rouge, by this date, his force was half that. As he was losing men, Breckinridge had heard that Federal forces placed in defense of the city numbered over 5,000, and refused to make the attack until he was supported by Confederate naval power. General Earl Van Dorn, commanding in Vicksburg, dispatched the CSS Arkansas to come to Breckinridge’s aid. As the ship steamed her slow descent towards the Louisiana state capital, the Rebel troops waited to strike.1

Meanwhile, the Federals under General Thomas Williams were expecting an attack. Breckinridge had suspected that Williams’ force was twice its actual size. In reality, both sides were evenly matched by the numbers. The Union troops, however, were well-rested and had the luxury of being garrisoned rather than on the march.

Union camps at Baton Rouge, early August 1862.

The previous day, General Williams sent two of his six regiments to the outer reaches of the city as his first line of defense. The night passed peacefully until just before dawn. The sounds of reveille, then marching, and soon after, firing came from the Rebel camp.2

Breckinridge’s Confederates had marched through the night, after receiving word from the Arkansas that she would be in position before morning light. Divided into two main brigades, the Rebels attacked from the east, pushing towards the Mississippi River, where they expected to soon see the CSS Arkansas. The left of the Rebel line exploded with artillery and a charge, which drove back the Federals and overtook two field pieces. The momentum wained as one of the brigade commanders went down and Union reinforcements arrived on the field. This first Rebel attack failed.3

“Boys,” said Union General Williams to a regrouping Indiana regiment, “your field officers are all gone; I will lead you.” The boys gave a resounding cheer and followed their General into the battle. But soon, Williams was shot dead and the Federal line retreated.4

Battle of Baton Rouge

As they fell back, Union gunboats fired over the town upon the advancing Rebels, who strained their ears in vain to hear the guns of the Arkansas. Near the center of the line, the Confederates were holding, pouring a vicious fire into the Federal troops, who returned the favor with the same.

On the Confederate right, the Union troops began to give way, but slowly. As they fell back, the Rebels entered the city, closing in on their foes near a penitentiary. But officer after officer was felled by Union ball, passing command from General to Colonel to Captain as the gray crest slowed and ground to a halt.

This left only one brigade on the field. But Breckinridge saw to his left another, taking cover in a swale. Though they were out of ammunition, he ordered them to charge with their bayonets in support of their still-battling comrades. Through the shelling of the Federal gunboats, they made their charge and the Federals retreated into the town.

The day was not yet won for Breckinridge. He looked around and saw only 1,000 men remaining. The others had been wounded, killed or had dropped out from exhaustion. The Federals had posted several batteries and commanded the approaches to the town. There was nothing left in his troops. They had done all they could to retake Baton Rouge. The promised CSS Arkansas was nowhere to be seen. The Confederates, led by Breckinridge, fell back a mile to look for water, but there was none to be had. And so, they moved back onto the battlefield, dodging an array of projectiles while draining the suburban wells.

The Rebels held their ground, neither skirmishing nor retreating, but always waiting for the Arkansas. It wasn’t until 4pm that General Breckinridge learned the news.5

The vessel had to steam 300 miles down the Mississippi from Vicksburg, but her engines could not take the constant pressure. When she pulled to within sight of the city, her starboard engine failed. Her port engine, however, was still at full steam, which caused the Arkansas to run hard aground against the shore. There was nothing her captain or crew could do to help themselves, let alone Breckinridge.

She was stranded, and would have been fallen upon by the Union gunboats if Col. Thomas Cahill, who had taken command from the fallen General Williams, hadn’t have ordered the ships to stay in the harbor in case Breckinridge renewed the attack.

The crew of the Arkansas struggled to lighten her load in hopes that she could become unstuck, but by 4pm, it was clear that she could be of no help to the ground troops. 6

With nothing more that he could do, General Breckinridge marched what was left of his force back to the previous day’s camp, ten miles from Baton Rouge.7

The Arkansas‘s crew continued to work, and finally freed her an hour later. The starboard engine, which had given them trouble since leaving Vickburg, was repaired, but even the engineer was incredibly leery on how well his fix would hold for her.

Meanwhile, the Union flotilla, under Flag Officer William D. Porter (brother of Admiral David Dixon Porter), was moving into position to hit the wounded Rebel ship at first light the next morning. 8


Malvern Hill Falls to the Federals

As the dawn crept over Malvern Hill, twenty miles east of Richmond, General Joe Hooker’s Division, sent by General McClellan to take the hill, pressed forward. Mostly, the skirmishing was light or not at all. Cannons boomed throughout the day as Rebel cavalry abandoned their positions to overwhelming numbers. Before noon, Malvern Hill was again in Federal hands.9

By evening, General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, was notified that Malvern Hill had fallen. Believing that this was an advance by McClellan’s entire army, he ordered Generals Longstreet and McLaws to move their men (the bulk of his force) towards the hill the next morning.10


Garnett’s Court Martial

General Richard Garnett

Over four months had passed since the Battle of Kernstown. While it was a Confederate loss, it caused much fear in Washington over the dreaded Stonewall Jackson and siphoned Union troops from the Virginia Peninsula into the Shenandoah Valley.

During the fight, General Richard Garnett had called for a retreat without express orders from Jackson to do so. A week later, Jackson arrested him for dereliction of duty. And on this date, in the camp of General Richard Ewell just west of Orange Court House, the court martial finally began.

Though Jackson would not take the stand until the next day, he had compiled seven charges against Garnett. Some were merely misunderstandings, while others were factual mistakes, if not actual lies. The crux of the charges, however, accused Garnett of giving the “order to fall back, when he should have encouraged his command to hold its position.”

Over the course of the next few days, both Garnet and Jackson would defend their positions.11

  1. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 15, p16-17. Van Dorn’s report. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 15, p59. Col. Nathan A.M. Dudly’s report from the 13th Mass. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 15, p77. Breckinridge’s report. []
  4. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 15, p57. Cahill’s report. []
  5. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 15, p77-79. Breckinridge’s report. []
  6. The CSS Arkansas: A Confederate Ironclad on Western Waters by Myron J. Smith, Jr., McFarland, 2011. []
  7. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 15, p77-79. Breckinridge’s report. []
  8. The CSS Arkansas: A Confederate Ironclad on Western Waters by Myron J. Smith, Jr., McFarland, 2011. []
  9. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 2, p952. []
  10. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 2, p956. []
  11. “The Army of Northern Virginia’s Most Notorious Court-Martial: Jackson vs. Garnett” by Robert Krick, as appearing in his book The Smoothbore Volley That Doomed the Confederacy, Louisiana State University Press, 2004. []
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Rebel Failure at Baton Rouge; Federals Take Malvern; Jackson vs. Garnett by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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