Major General Earl Van Dorn, commanding Confederate forces in the vicinity of Vicksburg, Mississippi, had tasked Major General John C. Breckinridge to lead a 4,000-man force to retake the Louisiana capital of Baton Rouge. By this time, Breckinridge’s force had dwindled to about 3,400 due to illness and fatigue in the extreme summer heat. Although he opposed Van Dorn’s quest to regain Baton Rouge, Breckinridge complied with orders and led his men from Camp Moore toward the Louisiana capital.
Van Dorn appealed to Major General Sterling Price, commanding Confederates in the Tupelo, Mississippi, area, to send reinforcements to Breckinridge. But Price had been tasked by his superior, General Braxton Bragg, to threaten Corinth, Mississippi, and possibly invade western Tennessee, so he declined. He then urged Van Dorn to assist him in his movement: “Every consideration makes it important that I shall move forward without a day’s unnecessary delay. I earnestly desire your cooperation in such a movement, and will, as I have before said, be glad to place my army and myself under your command in that contingency.”
Van Dorn told Price that such cooperation would be impossible. Price notified Bragg’s chief of staff: “I am extremely impatient to begin a forward movement, and am bending every energy to do so without any unnecessary delay. I am ordering forward the entire disposable force in the district. I expect to begin my march within a week or ten days.”
Meanwhile, Breckinridge’s operation continued. During the march, he learned that 5,000 Federals and three gunboats were at Baton Rouge awaiting him. He therefore requested the services of the Confederate ironclad, the C.S.S. Arkansas, to offset the Federal naval power. The Arkansas’s damage from combat the previous month had been repaired, but she still had chronic engine trouble.
Captain Isaac N. Brown, commanding the Arkansas, had gone to Grenada, Mississippi, on sick leave. Before leaving, Brown gave strict orders to his replacement, First Lieutenant Henry K. Stevens, to keep the ship at Vicksburg. However, Van Dorn overrode Brown and directed Stevens to take the ship to Baton Rouge in support of Breckinridge.
When Stevens informed Brown of this change, Brown left his sickbed and appealed to Flag Officer William F. Lynch at Jackson, Mississippi, to have his order reinstated. Brown argued that the ship could not make the 300-mile trip because her engines had never been fully functional. But Lynch had little regard for the Arkansas’s usefulness and allowed Van Dorn to use her for the attack.
The Arkansas headed out on August 4, but she was without her chief engineer, and she had to make several stops due to the engine issues. Stevens called a council of war, where it was decided to continue with the mission. The vessel stopped at Port Hudson for inspection, and Stevens was told that several Federal gunboats were patrolling in the Baton Rouge area of the Mississippi River.
When Breckinridge received assurances that the ironclad would be ready to support him before dawn, he planned to attack the next morning. Meanwhile, Brigadier General Thomas Williams, commanding the Federal garrison at Baton Rouge, learned of the Confederate approach and prepared his defenses. Both sides had about the same number of men, but Breckinridge’s Confederates were more tired, having marched 60 miles from Camp Moore.
The Confederates charged through heavy fog at dawn on the 5th. They pushed east toward the Mississippi and hoped to see the Arkansas coming up in the Federal rear. The Confederates on the left, led by Brigadier General Charles Clark, quickly pushed the enemy back and captured two cannon, but Federal reinforcements came up and the Confederate momentum stalled. Federals captured Clark, who was also severely wounded.
Fighting soon intensified. When all the officers of an Indiana regiment were killed or wounded, Williams announced to the troops, “Boys, your field officers are all gone; I will lead you.” But then Williams was mortally wounded and he later died on the field.
The Federals pulled back toward the river as their gunboats (U.S.S. Cayuga, Katahdin, Kineo, and Sumter) poured enfilade fire into the Confederate right. The Arkansas was nowhere to be seen. Neither side gave ground in the center, but the Federal right slowly fell back. A counterattack pushed the Confederates back, but Breckinridge ordered a bayonet charge that drove the Federals into town. Furious fighting took place in the streets.
Despite driving the Federals from the field, Breckinridge could advance no further because Federal guns commanded all the approaches, and the Federal gunboats covered the troops. Moreover, Confederates were dropping out from exhaustion, casualties were extreme, and the Arkansas never showed. Fighting stopped around 10 a.m.
Breckinridge held his ground until 4 p.m., when he learned that the Arkansas’s starboard engine had given out four miles from Baton Rouge, causing her to run aground. Apparently the Federal broadsides that the Arkansas had sustained last month cracked the engine connecting rods, which broke under full steam.
Colonel Thomas Cahill, succeeding Williams as the Federal commander, ordered the gunboats to stay at Baton Rouge in case Breckinridge renewed the attack. This saved the Arkansas from destruction. Breckinridge left a small force to observe the Federals and withdrew the rest of his men to their camps on the Comite River, 10 miles away. The Federals did not pursue.
The Federals sustained 383 casualties (84 killed, 266 wounded, and 33 missing or captured), including the loss of their commander. The Confederates lost 456 (84 killed, 315 wounded, and 57 missing or captured), including a brother-in-law of President Abraham Lincoln. Another Confederate brother-in-law, Brigadier General Ben Hardin Helm, was seriously injured when his horse fell on him.
Breckinridge issued a proclamation to his men, commending them for their valor in the fight. He blamed the withdrawal on the absence of the Arkansas and declared, “You have given the enemy a severe and salutary lesson, and now those who so lately were ravaging and plundering this region do not care to extend their pickets beyond the sight of their fleet.”
Meanwhile, the crew of the Arkansas finally lightened her enough to free her from grounding. By that time, the Federal gunboats, commanded by Flag Officer William D. Porter and led by Porter’s ironclad U.S.S. Essex, headed out to confront the Confederate vessel.
Confederates repaired the Arkansas’s starboard engine the next day and continued downriver to take on the Federals. But then her port engine gave out as the Federal gunboats approached. Lieutenant Stevens directed his crew to bring the Arkansas close to shore for defense. The Essex came within range and began firing on her. The Arkansas’s engines started up again, but when her lines were cut, the engines failed again, sending her drifting toward the Federals.
The ship grounded in a patch of cypress trees, making her an easy target. Stevens finally ordered his men to destroy the vessel to prevent capture. The crew set up a skirmish line on shore, and Federals fired on the ship for three hours until she finally exploded. Stevens later reported, “It was beautiful to see her, when abandoned by Commander and crew, and dedicated to sacrifice, fighting the battle on her own hook.” Stevens and his crew fled; one man recalled that they went “partly on foot, horseback, and in wagons, the planters, their wives and daughters receiving us… all along our route with the utmost kindness.” They eventually reached safety at Jackson, Mississippi.
This ended the Arkansas’s legendary 23-day career, and it was the last time the Confederacy tried putting such an intimidating ironclad on the Mississippi. It was also the last time the Confederates threatened Baton Rouge. The Confederates may not have been able to regain the Louisiana capital, but the campaign was a success. They held just a small portion of the Mississippi beforehand, but now the Confederates controlled the vital waterway from Helena, Arkansas, to Port Hudson, a stretch of several hundred miles. They soon concentrated efforts on building a new stronghold at Port Hudson.
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