Monday, February 13, 2006

Richey: "The Battle of Baton Rouge"

Ed Bearss's lengthy Louisiana History (Vol III, No. 3, Spring 1962) article has long been the standard account of the Battle of Baton Rouge. What Thomas Richey's new book The Battle of Baton Rouge does is increase our understanding of the battle by expanding around the edges of Bearss's work. Richey adds depth by providing background into the city's role in the war up to the August 5, 1862 battle. Capsule histories of each regiment and battery that participated in the battle are included along with numbers and armaments information when available. Brief portraits of the officers leading these units are provided as well.

Thomas Williams, the Union commander at Baton Rouge, is given rather rough treatment. I was unaware that he had invented a new formation called the "Order of Combat". He drilled his men incessantly on this although it appears to have been universally reviled by his fellow officers. Curiously, when the battle actually occurred, Williams abandoned his cherished tactical project and deployed his men conventionally. His death during the fight ended the experiment. The text descriptions of the Order of Combat in the book are a bit confusing and I wish a diagram of the drill had been provided.

The book has a large number of maps depicting troops movements at the regiment and battery level, but the author made the unfortunate choice of overlaying these units over a modern map of the city. Undoubtedly, this helps visitors and current residents find where the action occurred but it doesn't further the reader's understanding. Fortunately, a good period map is provided for reference. This solves the problem but I would have wished the author had switched the two instead.

The level of research is adequate and Richey does attempt some revision of current thought on the battle. As an example, he asserts that there was no significant diminution of Confederate strength prior to the battle and instead proposes that Breckinridge had up to 4,000 men at the battle rather than the conventional figure of 2,600. Richey claims to have found no accounts that depict the approach march as anything but a normal journey with no evidence of extensive straggling or other kinds of march attrition. It isn't an entirely convincing case but worth contemplating.

For me, one of the most interesting aspects of the battle is the terrain. It was certainly unusual to find a Civil War urban battlefield composed equally of city buildings and densely wooded areas. Some call it the only truly urban battle of the Civil War but I'm not sure how accurate that is. Like most things, it probably comes down to a question of degree.

In the end, the Battle of Baton Rouge was a wasteful, inconclusive battle. The major lasting result, in my mind, is the loss of the C.S.S. Arkansas, which due to engine trouble could not participate in the battle and was soon after blown up by its crew to avoid capture. It was a critical loss of a powerful ironclad. Overall, this inexpensive volume is a cut above the usual quality of a POD book and is well worth buying for those interested in this battle.

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