A Massachusetts Gunner at Baton Rouge

Sergeant John D. Fiske of the 2nd Massachusetts Light Artillery recalled that the action at the little-remembered Battle of Baton Rouge, Louisiana was intense but not as deadly as anticipated.

“It is somewhat remarkable that we came off almost unscathed when the bullets were whistling around our heads like hail,” he wrote in a letter to his father. “We were in an open field on one side of the road and the Rebels were in the woods on the other side. It was quite foggy and with the fog and smoke we were obliged to hold our fire frequently. Once while we were enveloped in smoke, a whole regiment came out of the woods intending to make a charge upon our battery. The smoke cleared up just enough to show us the devils coming on their hands and knees at the extreme right of the battery where two of our guns were stationed. One of the guns is one to which I belong. They were scarcely 30 yards off. We immediately fired into them with both guns charged with canister which checked them. Another charge, and they started for the woods.  After the battle, several of us went to the place and counted 63 dead Rebels. The wounded had been taken away. We thought it was pretty good work for three rounds from two guns.”

The battle, fought August 5, 1862, marked one of the first engagements in a broad Confederate offensive that stretched across a thousand-mile front. 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. 3,000 Union troops lay in camp at Baton Rouge 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 including the subject of this post, the 2nd Massachusetts Light Artillery under Captain Ormand J. Nims. 

The following letter, written to his father Verney Fiske in Southbridge, originally appeared in the September 12, 1862, edition of the Southbridge Journal.

 

The image of Private Charles Sherman of the 2nd Massachusetts Light Artillery on the left coupled with Mark Maritato's color painting shows the colorful Zouave attire worn by the battery when they mustered into service in the summer of 1861. However, the battery transitioned into standard Federal artillerymen's uniforms before heading south to take part in the campaign against New Orleans. The Bay Staters used their 3-inch ordnance rifles to great effect at Baton Rouge as is described by Sergeant Fiske's letter below.

Baton Rouge, Louisiana

August 11, 1862

Dear father,

          I will give you some account of the battle which we had here on the 5th of August. We had news that the enemy was advancing upon us two or three days before they made their appearance. On the morning of the 5th just at daylight, we heard firing in the direction of our pickets. Our troops were immediately ordered out and we met the enemy about 10,000 strong under the command of General John C. Breckinridge. Generals Lovell, Ruggles, and acting brigadier general Allen were also here. General Ruggles is reported killed as is Colonel Allen. Lovell is reported to have been wounded but there is no certainty of it. General Breckinridge is also reported wounded.

General Thomas Williams was our commander and he was killed early in the action. The command then devolved upon Colonel Dudley of the 30th Massachusetts. The colonel of the 7th Vermont was killed and we lost quite a number of officers. Altogether, our loss is 75 killed, 240 wounded, and 25 missing. The enemy’s loss cannot be much less than 1,000 in killed and wounded, besides we have quite a number of prisoners, most of whom have been sent down to New Orleans. None of the men belonging to our battery were killed but we had three or four wounded and lost four or five horses which were shot.

This detail from a period print depicting the camp of the 2nd Massachusetts Light Artillery in Maryland during the summer of 1861 gives a good idea of the order in which the camps were laid out. The artillery pieces, limbers, caissons, battery wagons, and forges occupy the center of the company street with tents laid out facing the street on both sides. For a vivid depiction of everyday life in an artillery battery, few better accounts exist than John Billings' Hardtack & Coffee: The Unwritten Story of Army Life. Billings served three years in the 10th Massachusetts Light Artillery in the Army of the Potomac.

It is somewhat remarkable that we came off almost unscathed when the bullets were whistling around our heads like hail. Most of them fire too high, although on one occasion they fired too low as we could see the bullets strike in the road but a few yards ahead of us like a shower on a dusty road. We were in an open field on one side of the road and the Rebels were in the woods on the other side.

It was quite foggy and with the fog and smoke we were obliged to hold our fire frequently. Once while we were enveloped in smoke, a whole regiment came out of the woods intending to make a charge upon our battery. The smoke cleared up just enough to show us the devils coming on their hands and knees at the extreme right of the battery where two of our guns were stationed. One of the guns is one to which I belong. They were scarcely 30 yards off. We immediately fired into them with both guns charged with canister which checked them. Another charge, and they started for the woods.  After the battle, several of us went to the place and counted 63 dead Rebels. The wounded had been taken away. We thought it was pretty good work for three rounds from two guns. Probably there were many more wounded. We had to fall back in order to draw them out of the woods, so we fell back just outside of the town but the enemy did not come in after us.

The main action of the Battle of Baton Rouge occurred on the outskirts of town as depicted above. The 2nd Massachusetts, labeled here as Nims' Battery, fought beside the 6th Michigan and 30th Massachusetts throughout the battle and acquitted themselves well under fire. 


One little incident occurred in our battery which will reflect credit upon three or four members of the company. We were ordered to change our position, the gunners mounted, and the horses started off when the horses were shot from one of the pieces. The rest of the men did not know it for they were intent on getting into a new position where they could pitch into the enemy to better advantage. The three cannoneers who were mounted on the limber of the piece dismounted, cleared the dead horses from the piece, and dragged the gun by hand quite a distance and then fired into the enemy several times. Colonel Dudley saw the act and inquired of their names.

The 6th Michigan and 21st Indiana fought bravely. At one time there were nearly 1,600 Louisiana troops coming down on three companies of the Michigan troops and two pieces of the Indiana battery. They made a charge and took one of the guns and Colonel Allen jumped on it with a blue flag in his hand and gave one cheer to his men and fell to the ground pierced by seven bullets. The three companies poured in the lead so fast that the whole brigade was forced to fall back and leave the gun they had nearly taken. One of the Rebel lieutenants was taken prisoner and said he thought by the firing that there were more Michigan troops than they had. The Michigan and Indiana boys knelt down and fired, then laid down and loaded. We had three companies of the 6th Michigan to support our battery.

The Federal camp at Baton Rouge during the torrid summer of 1862. 

We had seven regiments altogether, but the 4th Wisconsin was ordered out to guard the left approach to town and did not share in the fight. The 9th Connecticut was kept in reserve so that left us the 6th Michigan, 21st Indiana, 30th Massachusetts, 14th Maine, and the 7th Vermont. The Vermont regiment ran away and did not stop until they got to the river. Some of them were driven back to the field again but they have got a stain on their name. There were three gunboats in the river which did good service by throwing shells among the enemy. The day after the battle, the ram Arkansas which I mentioned in one of my letters came down the river and was blown up by the ironclad gunboat Essex.

We expect another attack from the enemy but we are ready for them. If they come in too large a force, we are to burn the city and go down the river to New Orleans.

 

Source:

Letter from Sergeant John Davis Fiske, 2nd Massachusetts Light Artillery, Southbridge Journal (Massachusetts), September 12, 1862, pg. 1


Comments

Most Popular Posts

Arming the Buckeyes: Longarms of the Ohio Infantry Regiments

Dressing the Rebels: How to Dye Butternut Jeans Cloth

Bullets for the Union: Manufacturing Small Arms Ammunition During the Civil War

The Vaunted Enfield Rifle Musket

Straw Already Threshed: Sherman on Shiloh

Charging Battery Robinett: An Alabama Soldier Recalls the Vicious Fighting at Corinth

Federal Arms in the Chickamauga Campaign

In front of Atlanta with the 68th Ohio

The Legend of Leatherbreeches: Hubert Dilger in the Atlanta Campaign

A Fight for Corn: Eight Medals of Honor Awarded at Nolensville