As Civil War re-enactors fired two cannons Saturday to honor the Union and Confederate soldiers killed during the Battle of Baton Rouge 151 years ago, the big guns spewed a blanket of thick smoke and debris over the former battlefield that is now Historic Magnolia Cemetery.
The smoke and haze caused by the blasts from the replica Navy deck gun and six-pounder cannon was reminiscent of how the battlefield may have looked in the early morning hours of Aug. 5, 1862.
At 4 a.m. that day, during a dense morning fog, Maj. Gen. John C. Breckinridge led 2,600 Confederate troops on a sneak attack on a Union troop encampment that had been in place in Baton Rouge for more than 60 days.
The surprise attack forced the stunned Union troops, under Brig. Gen. Thomas Williams, to retreat back toward the Mississippi River, where they came under the protection of the firepower of four Union gunships, led by the U.S.S. Essex.
However, the Confederate ironclad ship, the C.S.S. Arkansas, which was supposed to divert the attention of the Union fleet from the Rebel advance into Baton Rouge, had engine trouble four miles upriver and wound up being scuttled.
That left the Union ships to fire freely at Breckenridge’s troops once the fog lifted, forcing the Confederates to withdraw toward the Comite River.
The Battle of Baton Rouge was over six hours after it began.
Monday marks the 151st anniversary of that battle.
For the past 30 years, history buffs, re-enactors and the descendants of Civil War veterans have attended annual ceremonies sponsored by the Foundation for Historical Louisiana to honor the soldiers of both sides who fought and died that day.
“A lot of people lost their lives, lost their limbs for what they believed 150 years ago in this location, so try to keep that in mind,” B.J. Lorio, a member of the Board of Trustees of Historic Magnolia Cemetery, told the nearly 80 people, including about 15 re-enactors, gathered for the ceremonies.
Only a handful of Confederate soldiers’ graves remain marked at Historic Magnolia Cemetery.
Chip Landry, commander of the 10th Brigade of the Louisiana State Militia, a group of re-enactors, who also is chairman of the Historic Magnolia Cemetery Board of Trustees, said the death toll from the battle is conservatively estimated at about 84 Union soldiers killed and about 84 Confederate troops killed.
Those casualty numbers do not include the hundreds more who were wounded or captured during the battle.
The National Cemetery across Florida Boulevard is the final resting place of Union dead from battles in the vicinity of Baton Rouge and some of the soldiers from the Battle of Baton Rouge, including row after row of unknown soldiers.
Members of the Louisiana State Militia’s 10th Brigade, dressed in the type of garb the Confederate soldiers may have worn, hoisted the American and Confederate 1st National Flag up a flagpole about 15 feet behind a memorial honoring the Confederate soldiers who died in the battle.
There also was a wreath-laying ceremony at the foot of the Confederate memorial, Confederate flags were planted next to the nine Confederate graves, three seven-musket volleys were fired and a stirring rendition of taps was played.
“I think that in this day and age, when our wars overseas are fought by small numbers of professional soldiers rather than vast volunteer or draft armies, our societal connection with the bitter realities of war, our investment in the outcome and the cost, is greatly diminished,” guest speaker Matthew Reonas, a Civil War historian, said in his speech titled “What Lies Remnant in the Land.”
Landry said he honored his great-grandfather, Capt. Trasimond Landry, from Brusly, by participating in Saturday’s service.
“It makes it personal,” Chip Landry said.
Trasimond Landry fought alongside Col. Henry Watkins Allen, a former state legislator as an infantryman during the battle.
Allen was fatally wounded during a charge near what is now Dufrocq Elementary School, but Trasimond Landry survived the battle and the war.
In Chip Landry’s view, though, the Battle of Baton Rouge should never have happened.
“It was a wasted effort,” he said, on the part of the Confederacy because Baton Rouge was not Louisiana’s capital at the time, Opelousas was.
Chip Landry added that the Confederate commander thought taking back Baton Rouge from Union forces would be a feather in his cap, hence the ill-fated attempt.
Spectators seeing the musket and cannon fire by re-enactors in period uniforms Saturday may have been tempted to let their minds wander to what life must have been like for soldiers back then.
That was, until a car alarm started blaring from behind the cemetery, possibly set off by the booming cannons, and pulled everyone back to the present.