This month, the Federal Mississippi River fleet had split in two and moved off in opposite directions. This left the river corridor between Vicksburg, Mississippi, and Port Hudson, Louisiana, in Confederate hands. This isolated the Federal occupation force at the Louisiana capital of Baton Rouge.
The Federal presence at Baton Rouge severely hampered the Confederate supply line to the Trans-Mississippi because it gave the Federals control of both sides of the Red River. Supply restrictions would be lifted if the Confederates could regain Baton Rouge, not to mention the boost to southern morale that would come with retaking the Louisiana capital.
Major General Earl Van Dorn, commanding Confederates in the area of Vicksburg, directed Major General John C. Breckinridge, former U.S. vice president, to lead 4,000 Confederates southward out of Jackson, Tennessee. Their mission was to cross the Mississippi within the river corridor, and surprise and destroy the Federal garrison at Baton Rouge.
Breckinridge did not think the town was worth the effort because even if regained, it could not be held against the powerful Federal gunboats. But Van Dorn disagreed and ordered Breckinridge to proceed. Breckinridge’s men boarded trains in Vicksburg on July 27 and arrived at Camp Moore near Kentwood, Louisiana, the following afternoon. From there they were to march overland about 60 miles southwest to Baton Rouge.
Breckinridge split his force into two divisions and began the advance at dawn on the 30th. However, he suspended the march the next day when he learned “that the effective force of the enemy was not less than 5,000 and that the ground was commanded by three gunboats lying in the river.” Breckinridge, whose force had dwindled to 2,600 due to illness, telegraphed Van Dorn that he would still “undertake to capture the (Baton Rouge) garrison if Arkansas could be sent down to clear the river or divert the fire of the gunboats.”
The C.S.S. Arkansas was the Confederacy’s most formidable ironclad ram on the Mississippi, currently stationed at Vicksburg. But the vessel needed major repairs, and her commander, Lieutenant Isaac N. Brown, had taken sick leave. Nevertheless, Van Dorn gave assurances that the Arkansas would be at Baton Rouge by the morning of August 5, and Breckinridge made plans to resume his approach.
- Ballard, Michael B., Vicksburg: The Campaign That Opened the Mississippi. The University of North Carolina Press, 2004.
- Catton, Bruce and Long, E.B. (ed.), Terrible Swift Sword: Centennial History of the Civil War Book 2. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. (Kindle Edition), 1963.
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville. New York: Vintage Books, 1958.