Hell Under the Short Ribs: The 6th Michigan at Baton Rouge
In August of 1862, the Confederacy was on the march across a thousand-mile front. In eastern Virginia, General Robert E. Lee was beginning his drive north from Richmond which would culminate in the bloody engagements at Cedar Mountain, Second Bull Run, and Antietam. In the heartland, Generals Braxton Bragg and Edmund Kirby Smith were embarking on their campaign which would carry the Confederate banner into Kentucky. In the far west, Confederate partisan bands started pushing against Federal control of Missouri which resulted in the battles of Moore’s Mill and Kirksville.
In the deep South, General John Breckinridge was on the move as well, his objective being the Federal garrison at Baton Rouge, Louisiana. An important point on the Mississippi River, Baton Rouge not only the capital of Louisiana, but it was the furthest north that General Benjamin Butler’s Department of the Gulf had penetrated into the Confederacy.
At Baton Rouge lay in camp 3,000 Union troops under the command of a crusty regular General Thomas Williams. It was a mixed force with regiments representing seven states, most of them, however, being New Englanders. Among the western troops at Baton Rouge were the 21st Indiana, the 4th Wisconsin, and the 6th Michigan, the last of which is of particular interest in this article. The camp of the 6th Michigan was on the eastern outskirts of town in a grove of live oaks located at the southwestern corner of Government Street and Perkins Road. Private George A. Welton of Co.E was with the 6th Michigan and left the following account of the Battle of Baton Rouge which occurred on August 5, 1862.
Sometime in the early days of June 1862, the 6th Michigan arrived at Baton Rouge, Louisiana after a trip up the Father of Waters as far as Warrenton, Mississippi. Having had some hard experiences, we were assigned quarters in the U.S. barracks which had been in existence for a number of years previous to the war. We were grateful at the change from extremely active service to the much-needed rest and quiet which we were soon enjoying, broken only by frequent picket duty and an occasional reconnaissance. The weather, however, being delightful, these duties were a source of enjoyment to us as they afforded unlimited scope to our abilities as foragers and what soldier ever repined under such circumstances?
|General Orders of the Dept. of the Gulf|
Gen. Benjamin Butler
The force at Baton Rouge on the evening of August 4, 1862 consisted of the following infantry regiments: 9th Connecticut, 30th Massachusetts, 14th Maine, 7th Vermont, 21st Indiana, 4th Wisconsin, and 6th Michigan, along with Nims’ 2nd Massachusetts and Manning’s 4th Massachusetts batteries. We also had two guns which had been captured and were manned by a detachment from the 21st Indiana manned by Lieutenant James H. Brown [Co. F].
On account of the long sea voyage with its inertia and confinement necessary for transportation to that department and the hardships of the trip up the river combined with the debilitating effects of the climate of the far South, the whole force before mentioned totaled only about 2,500 effective men who could be mustered for duty. Many of these took their places in line of battle from the convalescent wards of the different hospitals of the city. The force was under the command of Brigadier General Thomas S. Williams, a brave and efficient officer, although somewhat unpopular with the Western men of his command on account of the rigorous discipline which he undertook to enforce.
On the night of the 4th we were informed that a large force of the enemy was within striking distance and that a fuss with them in the near future was highly probable, and we were ordered to have one day’s cooked rations in our haversacks, canteens filled, and our fighting implements in good condition for business, and everything in good shape so as to be ready at the first tap of the long roll. On account of numerous previous rumors to the same effect which had proved false, many of the boys neglected the part of the orders relating to rations and water and realized their mistake very early the next day.
|Captain Sylvester Cogswell|
Co. E, 6th Michigan Inf.
Bentley Library, UofM
Our regiment was camped without tents on the morning of the 5th on a road leading east from the city at the Ball Alley in a grove of live oaks, one company (Co. C) being on picket in our front. I slept well and when the first picket firing commenced on the morning of the 5th, I had just arisen and finished my simple toilet being a habitual early riser. I immediately donned my accouterments and ran to the quarters of Lieutenant William H. Dickey, commanding company, and awakened him and then took my place with the company which by this time was rapidly forming in consequence of which action our company was ready for business before the alarm was beaten.
In obedience to orders from headquarters, three companies (A, B, and F) were, with the section of artillery, left at the Ball Alley under the command of Captain John Corden of the 6th Michigan [Co. F]; the remaining six companies of the regiment then in camp were double-quicked to the position partly covering the Magnolia Cemetery. When we arrived at our position in line of battle (which was a good one), we found four guns of the 4th Massachusetts Battery in position, but for some unaccountable reason, to the best of my recollection, they did not fire a shot. In moving out to our position we had to file right and move forward for some distance in four ranks, marching endways; and right here the first shell passed over our heads, I should judge about 20 feet above the ground. Being a shot from a rifled gun, its motion was what the boys used to call “quick and devilish.” It being unexpected, we were somewhat surprised to put it mildly, and every man as far as I could see ahead fell to the ground without waiting for orders. After taking position we were ordered to lie down.
|The 6th Michigan fought among the live oaks on the grounds of Magnolia Cemetery. An annual reenactment has been held on the grounds for many years.|
Quite sharp firing had by this time begun on the left and the morning being foggy and what little air there was stirring bringing the smoke of the firing all to our front, we were consequently unable to see 10 rods in our front. But we could hear and knew that we should soon have a hand in the affair. As we lay on the ground, we could see under the fog to the height of about a man’s knees and I could plainly see the legs of the Johnnies long before we could distinguish their forms through the dense obscurity. Captain Charles E. Clark [Co. D], commanding the detachment, ordered us to lie close and preserve silence until ordered to commence firing and I distinctly remember how terribly anxious I was to begin business long before he got ready.
"One important fact of this battle deserves to be known: they armed the Negroes who they enticed from their masters in the surrounding country and put them in the front of their lines. The consequence was they were terribly slaughtered, over half of the 300 of them killed or badly wounded. They lay dead along the street, Yankee and Negro together, a just and righteous retribution. What a great tax upon the ingenuity of the Yankees to make out a brilliant victory from this disastrous affair!" Unknown Confederate officer writing to Arkansas True Democrat newspaper
The Rebs came on in fine style with a nicely-dressed line until they were within about 50 paces of us when Captain Clark gave us the command to “let them have it and aim low!” As we fired it seemed to me as if more than one-half of them went to ground; we were so near and lying down, about every shot took effect. The terrible effect of our dire seemed to demoralize the unhurt, and they turned and ran back some 40 rods to a piece of timber on the farther side of the cemetery where their officers succeeded in forming a new line and then being strongly reinforced, after a short time, they again advanced. Of course, they had given us the benefit of their best efforts in the shooting line and up to this time our losses had been quite heavy.
The fog and smoke had now lifted and cleared away and when they again advanced, we had a good view of them from the start. We reserved our fire until they were again about halfway to us when we commenced to fire at will. They immediately raised the cry of “don’t shoot, you are firing on your own men!” Acting adjutant Lieutenant Alfred J. Ralph of Co. I said, “I will find out,” and promptly rode down to the front between the two lines until he ascertained that it was a hoax calculated to deceive us into activity. He galloped back amidst a shower of balls but came off unharmed, as brave a feat as anything I saw in my nearly four years of service.
At about the same time, I discovered that the force advancing wore fringed hunting shirts and leggings as a uniform and called the attention of my company commander Lieutenant Dickey to the fact, and he immediately ordered our company to give them hell under the short ribs. The whole detachment then began giving them liberal doses of cold lead and the destruction in their ranks was fearful; but still they came, all in perfect order and discipline and with as much deliberation as though on drill until they were again within about 40 paces of our line when the order was given us “rise up and fix bayonets.” This was promptly obeyed and next came the order “guard against infantry” which position was promptly taken. The Rebel officers immediately gave the order to charge, but we had given them such a terrible punishment in the two advances that the men did not seem to have the determination to come on, and after wriggling around like a bunch of earthworms in a tin cup for a short time, they broke and ran back to the timber again.
Of course, we were not idle all this time and as soon as they broke, we again began giving them government rations of lead as fast as they could be issued. Our force being so small, our officers did not attempt a countercharge, feeling that the holding of our position and beating them back would be glory enough for this occasion. They again got their lines reorganized and moved off by the left flank for the purpose of turning our right, but Nims’ battery now whirled into position a little to our right and rear, when we immediately moved into position to support the battery. The enemy made desperate efforts to capture the battery, but the battery boys served them up the canister so lively and we of the support assisted to the extent that they were compelled to retire in much disorder, and did not again come on and as far as we were concerned the battle was ended.
|General Thomas R. Williams|
Killed in action August 5, 1862 at Baton Rouge
After a short time, General John C. Breckinridge withdrew his whole force and Colonel Thomas W. Cahill (who had succeeded to the command after General Williams was killed early in the fight) reformed the line on a shorter basis, and we patiently awaited the expected renewal of hostilities which did not come. The carnage was fearful considering the number engaged; our whole loss being some 400 killed and wounded and our small regiment lost 16 killed and 48 wounded. The loss on the part of the Rebels was also appalling, and in the published reports of their loss I am confident that half was never told. Their official loss is reported as 93 killed and some 400 wounded, but I know that 78 dead Rebels were picked up and buried in front of the position of our regiment, and the fighting in front of the 21st Indiana and 14th Maine was fully as sanguinary as with us.
One thing which contributed to the extraordinary loss on our side was the absence of all defensive works and it has always been a mystery to me why as experienced a soldier of General Williams had utterly neglected to fortify our position at Baton Rouge. In the latter days of the war such things were taken as a matter of immediate necessity in every camping ground of two days’ occupation.
|Detail from the national colors of the 6th Michigan with the faded battle honor for Baton Rouge and the date August 5, 1862. The motto of the regiment was simple and direct: do your duty.|
To learn more about the 6th Michigan, please check our Eric R. Faust’s newly published history of the regiment here.
Private George A. Welton, Co. E, 6th Michigan Volunteer Infantry, “Baton Rouge,” National Tribune, February 16, 1888, pg. 3; Welton later was promoted to corporal when the 6th Michigan was converted to a Heavy Artillery regiment and to sergeant while with the 7th Michigan Cavalry.
"The Fight at Baton Rouge," Arkansas True Democrat (Arkansas), September 17, 1862, pg. 2
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