It took some time and a good bit of research, but here is the article on the 31st Mississippi Infantry, the winning entry in the contest to help me choose my next article subject. I decided to concentrate on the 31st Mississippi’s participation in one battle, as trying to cover their entire Civil War service would have taken a long, long time. I chose the Battle of Baton Rouge as it was a engagement that I was not familiar with and wanted to learn about. It also helped that I was able to find a good many sources related to the 31st Mississippi’s participation in the battle. I hope you enjoy reading article as much as I enjoyed researching and writing it.
The 31st Mississippi Infantry mustered into Confederate service at Saltillo, Mississippi, in the spring of 1862 under the command of Colonel Jehu A. Orr. As organized,
the regiment consisted of the following units: Company A, “Orr Guards,” from Pontotoc County; Company B, “Dixie Guards,” from Choctaw County; Company C, “Chickasaw Guards,” from Chickasaw County; Company D, “Dixie Rebels,” from Calhoun County; Company E, “Choctaw Rebels,” from Choctaw County; Company F, “Calhoun Tigers,” from Calhoun County; Company G, “Orr Guards,” from Pontotoc County; Company H, “Captain Jenning’s Company,” from Itawamba County; Company I, “Jackson Rifles,” from Choctaw County; and Company K, “Captain McWhorter’s Company,” from Pontotoc County. (For Dixie Land I’ll Take My Stand, Volume 1, page 960; Military History of Mississippi, page 288).
The 31st had little time to train, as reinforcements were needed at Corinth to meet the advancing Federal army that was moving on the city in the wake of the Confederate defeat at the Battle of Shiloh. H.N. Faulkinbury, a private in Company D of the 31st, wrote an account of the organization and early days of the regiment. He may have been lacking in grammatical skill, but he did make clear just how rushed their training was: “Our Regt. was organized our respected Capton whos name was M.D.L. Stephens was promoted to Lieut. col. wher upon our 1st Leiut. F.M. Gilespe taken his position. At Saltillo Itwambia Co. Miss. was organized our Regt. the 31st Miss. Ther we drilled about one month then went to Corinth shortly after the Shilow Battle was fought. Ther we was all furnished with a good musket apiece and other equipages.” (Diary of H.N. Faulkinbury, Mississippi Department of Archives and History).
At Corinth, the 31st Mississippi was assigned to the command of Major General John C.
Breckenridge, serving in a brigade led by Colonel Robert P. Trabue. As the Federal army closed on Corinth the 31st was engaged in some skirmishing with the enemy. They also took part in the rear-guard action to delay the Union army when the Confederates abandoned Corinth on May 29, 1862, and retreated to Tupelo. (Military History of Mississippi, page 289).
The retreat to Tupelo was very hard on the green soldiers of the 31st Mississippi; many of the men were already suffering from sickness, and the long grueling march took a toll on the regiment. H.N. Faulkinbury took part in the retreat and recorded his thoughts about it: “On the great Corinth retreat we fared very well to wat some our poor soldiers did for ther was great menny of them very sick at that time whow perished and dide [died] on the road sides. We fill [fell] back to Tupelo on the M & O. R.R. [Mobile & Ohio Railroad] we was all worn out and brooke down a marching by this time. I had sorter begain to expreance [experience] some of the hardships of the life of a soldier.”
The 31st Mississippi did not have a long stay in Tupelo, for in early June, General
Breckenridge was ordered to Vicksburg with his troops to help defend the city, which was then under attack by the enemy. (Military History of Mississippi, page 289). These troops were needed because Union naval forces had moved on Vicksburg from both ends of the river. In April 1862, Flag Officer David G. Farragut entered the mouth of the Mississippi with the West Gulf Blockading Squadron, a fleet of ocean-going vessels. After fighting his way past forts Jackson and St. Philip below New Orleans, he proceeded to the Crescent City, which fell without a fight on April 25, 1862. (An Illustrated Guide to the Vicksburg Campaign and National Military Park, page 36).
At the same time that New Orleans fell, the Mississippi Flotilla, consisting of rams and ironclads commanded by Flag Officer Charles H. Davis, was moving down the Mississippi River. On June 6, 1862, Davis’ fleet destroyed the rag-tag Confederate vessels defending Memphis, and the city was forced to surrender. With both New Orleans and Memphis in Union hands, the two powerful Northern fleets were free to advance on Vicksburg. (An Illustrated Guide to the Vicksburg Campaign and National Military Park, page 36).
Farragut’s fleet was the first to move, heading upriver toward Vicksburg, stopping along the way to force the surrender of Baton Rouge on May 7, and Natchez on May 13. On May 18, 1862, an advance force under Commander S. Phillips Lee dropped anchor at Vicksburg, and sent a message demanding the immediate surrender of the city. But unlike Baton Rouge and Natchez, Vicksburg did have defenders, and they were able to successfully resist the Union forces despite being terribly battered by an intense naval bombardment that lasted from May 20 – July 26, 1862. (An Illustrated Guide to the Vicksburg Campaign, and National Military Park, page 37).
The 31st Mississippi’s brigade, now commanded by Brigadier General Benjamin Hardin
Helm, arrived at Vicksburg in mid-June. Cyrus Decatur McElroy, a private in Company H of the 31st, wrote of his arrival in the Hill City: “We marched along down the banks of the great Father of the Waters and saw the gunboats and transports of the enemy in the distance, moving slowly about on the surface of the water. We soon found that we were not unnoticed by them, for scarcely had we reached town when we heard the roar of cannon from the mortar boats of the enemy and soon a shell came whistling along which burst immediately over our heads. One followed another in quick succession, and now followed a scene such as I had never witnessed before. Women and children were seen running in every direction bare-footed and bare-headed trying to escape the horrible death that seemed almost inevitable. Fortunately none of us were hurt and we reached camp about dark.” (Cyrus Decatur McElroy Letter, Mississippi Department of Archives and History).
Despite his intense efforts, Farragut was unable to capture Vicksburg, and with the Mississippi River falling, he had to take his fleet south or risk having it stranded. On July 27, 1862, he ordered his ships to make steam for New Orleans, ending the threat to Vicksburg that summer. (An Illustrated Guide to the Vicksburg Campaign and National Military Park, page 39).
With Vicksburg safe for the time being, Major General Earl Van Dorn, commander of the
District of Mississippi, felt it was time to take the initiative against the Federals and “Strike a blow before he had time to organize and mature a new scheme of assault.” (Official Records, Series 1, Volume XV, page 16). Toward that end Van Dorn resolved to attack and recapture Baton Rouge, the state capital of Louisiana. The general stated that the city was held by a force he believed to be about 3,500 strong with the support of the union navy, which had gunboats just offshore of the capital in the Mississippi River. Van Dorn believed that the capture of Baton Rouge would “Open the Mississippi, secure the navigation of Red River, then in a state of blockade, and also render easier the recapture of New Orleans.” (Official Records, Series 1, Volume XV, page 16).
To effect the capture of Baton Rouge, Van Dorn ordered General Breckenridge to take 5,000 men from Vicksburg and move by rail to Camp Moore, Louisiana, where he would add to his command the 1,000 soldiers there under Brigadier General Daniel Ruggles. To help neutralize the Union gunboats in the waters off Baton Rouge, Van Dorn ordered the ironclad C.S.S. Arkansas, then at Vicksburg, to steam down the Mississippi and attack the Federal vessels. (Official Records, Series 1, Volume XV, pages 17-18).
General Breckenridge left Vicksburg by rail on July 27, and his weary command, including the 31st Mississippi, arrived at Camp Moore on the evening of the next day. Once there he began to organize his soldiers for the attack on Baton Rouge. Unfortunately Breckenridge had significantly less than the 5,000 men that Van Dorn had authorized for the operation. The general had only been able to scrape up 4,000 men at Vicksburg, and by the time they reached Camp Moore, he was down to only 3,400 soldiers. Breckenridge wrote that he had lost many men due to “The effects of exposure at Vicksburg, from heavy rains without shelter and from the extreme heat.” (Official Records, Series 1, Volume XV, page 76).
The Confederates at Camp Moore were organized into two divisions by General
Breckenridge, the First Division led by Brigadier General Charles Clark, and the Second Division led by Brigadier General Daniel Ruggles. The 31st Mississippi served in the First Division, Second Brigade, commanded by Brigadier General Benjamin H. Helm. Serving with them in the brigade were the 4th Kentucky Infantry, 5th Kentucky Infantry, 31st Alabama Infantry, and Pettus’s Flying Artillery from Mississippi. Colonel Orr being sick, command of the 31st Mississippi fell to Major H.E. Topp. (Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume 3, page 585; Military History of Mississippi, page 289).
With his attacking force so greatly reduced, General Breckenridge realized that the role of the C.S.S. Arkansas in neutralizing the Federal Fleet at Baton Rouge was critical to the success of his mission, and he telegraphed Van Dorn to see when the ironclad would reach the Louisiana capital. The reply quickly came back over the wires that the Arkansas would arrive at Baton Rouge by daylight on August 5, 1862. (Official Records, Series 1, Volume XV, page 77).
The 31st Mississippi, along with the rest of the Confederate army, marched out of Camp Moore on July 30 for Baton Rouge, some 65 miles to the southwest. By the afternoon of August 4 the Rebels had reached the Comite River, about 10 miles from the city. The hardships of the march, however, had taken a toll; Breckenridge estimated that so many men dropped out because of sickness that he had only 2,600 effectives for the next day’s battle. (Official Records, Series 1, Volume XV, page 77).
Breckenridge had his men make a night march on August 4-5 to reach Baton Rouge before daybreak, hoping to surprise the Federal garrison. Cyrus D. McElroy noted that “On the evening of the 4th of August we were called into line and informed by Maj. Topp (who was then in command of our regiment) that a council of war had been held, and that it was resolved to attack the enemy at 4 o’clock the next morning. We accordingly cooked rations for two days, ate suppers, filled our canteens, and just after dark took up the line of march for the city, our design being to surprise the enemy at daylight, while at the same time the Arkansas was to attack the Federal fleet.” (Cyrus D. McElroy letter, Mississippi Department of Archives and History).
The Confederates reached the eastern outskirts of Baton Rouge before dawn on August 5, and Breckenridge began to deploy his men for the attack. An unfortunate mishap,
however, destroyed an chance of a surprise attack on the Federal garrison, which numbered about 2,500 men. A group of Confederate Partisan Rangers made accidental contact with the Federal pickets guarding the approaches to the city. As they hastily galloped back to the Confederate lines, they were mistaken for the enemy, and shots were exchanged. There were a number of casualties from friendly fire, among them General Helm, the 31st’s brigade commander, who was wounded, and his aide, Lieutenant A.H. Todd, the brother of Mary Todd Lincoln, who was killed. With Helm out of the fight before it even began, Colonel Thomas H. Hunt of the 4th Kentucky Infantry assumed command of the brigade. (Official Records, Series 1, Volume XV, page 77).
General Breckenridge arranged his forces for the attack along the Greenwell Springs Road which led into Baton Rouge. He only had enough troops for a single thin line of battle, with General Ruggles division on the left of the road, and General Clark’s division to the right. When there was enough light to see, General Ruggles’ troops advanced to open the battle. His men pushed back the Federals in the opening minutes of the battle as General Clark prepared his troops to engage the center and left of the enemy line. (Official Records, Series 1, Volume XV, pages 77-78).
As Clark’s troops moved into position to attack, a Mississippi officer who may have been a member of the 31st Mississippi noted, “As we approached, that grand old air, ‘The march of Norma,’ could be easily distinguished, vainly endeavoring to inspire their cowardly hirelings to resist the coming avalanche of brave Southern soldiers. We soon formed line of battle and marched upon the concealed enemy.” (Daily Constitutionalist, August 19, 1862).
Cyrus D. McElroy wrote a detailed account of the 31st Mississippi’s part in the battle, as he
remembered it: “When within two miles of town we filed right into a field of green corn, and formed in line of battle. We then marched on through the corn and entered a field of sugar cane. Pressing on through this we entered an old pasture just at the dawn of day. Just after this we heard the battle commence on our left. We heard the boys raise the yell, and knew they were charging the enemy. We pushed on an entered another pasture. Here we were greeted by grape shot and canister, round shot and shell, and everything that would do to shoot out of cannon. We however, pushed on until we reached the edge of the city. Our battery had come up, and we lay down for a few moments near it behind a plank fence. We then rose, pushed down the fence, passed into the street, made a left flank movement, went in double quick about 200 hundred yards, then faced in line of battle opposite the 14th Maine regiment. Our company of 76, was now thrown out as skirmishers. We took several prisoners, arms ammunition, etc. We passed through the camp and entered a corn field where the enemy were stationed. Here our regiment had a hard fight, but finally repulsed the enemy. (Cyrus D. McElroy letter, Mississippi Department of Archives and History).
One of the Union soldiers on the receiving end of the 31st Mississippi’s attack was Ira B.
Gardner, a first lieutenant in Company I, 14th Maine Infantry. As his company commander was sick, the young lieutenant found himself in command of his company during the battle. He wrote of the fighting: “About that time the sun came out, the fog lifted and I saw one brigade of Clark’s division charging our front and within not more than fifteen or twenty rods. I immediately gave the order to my company to fire; the other nine companies also fired into the brigade. In a short time Colonel Nickerson appeared and took command. He immediately ordered a change of front to the rear on the right company. Being in command of the right company, the initiative devolved upon me. Their batteries were still shelling our camp and the musketry fire was quite heavy. I immediately put my company in position as a right angle to our first line, facing to the left and rear. The other companies quickly took their positions on my left. My position was still on the right of the line on the bank of the Bayou Sara Road. Colonel Nickerson gave the order to forward and we marched through the camp. About the time I reached the left of the camp, looking up the Bayou Sara Road, apparently not more than two hundred feet from me I saw Captain Semmes with his battalion of partisan rangers charging down the road. I immediately gave the order to fire again, without waiting for the colonel. The other nine companies again fired. Captain Semmes of the partisan rangers was between the brigades of Helm and Smith and it proved that our change of front came just in time to stop Helm’s brigade coming in on our left. By this time Smith’s brigade had rallied and was advancing with our regiment at a right angle to his line of battle. It will be seen that no regiment in the world could have withstood the charge of a brigade on its front and one on its left flank with no protection for the flank…the regiment fell back in confusion.” (“Personal Experiences with the Fourteenth Maine Volunteers: From 1861 to 1865.” By Ira B. Gardner; in War Papers Volume IV, published in 1915 by Lefavor-Tower Company).
The Union line was broken and the Federals forced to retreat, but they had put up a stubborn defense, and hundreds of wounded and dead Confederates littered the field. The 31st Mississippi and their brigade was especially hard hit; Colonel Hunt went down with a serious wound, and a Mississippi officer noted, “The 31st Mississippi suffered greatly – Three color bearers were shot down in quick succession, and yet each time it fell, a gallant Mississippian was on hand to raise on high the bonnie blue flag that bears the thirteen stars!!” (Daily Constitutionalist, August 19, 1862).
After forcing the 14th Maine to retreat, Cyrus D. McElroy noted in his letter what the regiment did next: “We now fell back to a ravine, rested a while, then fell back to the top of a hill and made a left oblique movement, which threw us on the left of and to the support of the 3rd Kentucky regiment, which was under a galling fire from the 2nd and 7th Indiana regiments. We fired a few rounds, then charged bayonets, which put the enemy to flight. The fate of the day was now decided. The victory was ours, but we were not not able to hold the field, as the Federals were shelling it from their gunboats. We now fell back two miles, rested until evening, and returned to camp.” (Cyrus D. McElroy letter, Mississippi Department of Archives and History).
The Confederates had pressed the Federals back to the Mississippi River, but direct fire from the Union gunboats in the waterway prevented them from taking the last position and completing the victory. The C.S.S. Arkansas had trouble with its engines, and the crew was forced to destroy the vessel to keep it from falling into enemy hands. General Breckenridge, realizing nothing could be done against the Union gunboats, ordered his troops to withdraw, and the Rebels slowly retreated from Baton Rouge and gave up their hard-won gains. (Official Records, Series 1, Volume XV, page 79).
The 31st Mississippi had fought well at Baton Rouge, but all they had to show for it was a long list of casualties – 16 killed or mortally wounded, and 31 wounded. By August 20, the regiment was back in central Mississippi, and Doctor Thomas J. Blackwell, a surgeon in the 31st Mississippi, noted: “The troops from Baton Rouge arrived today with Col. Orr at their head, and a worn, dusty and tired set set of men as I ever saw. Poor fellows, many of them died on the battle field and others must soon follow by the ‘wasting hand of disease,’ to the common grave of ‘all the living.’ I believe that the soldier who lost his life by disease, in camp, is as much, if not more, of a hero, as he that perishes by the bullet or cannon shot on the battle field, and that the government should provide for the families of both alike.”
The Battle of Baton Rouge was over, and for a time the men of the 31st Mississippi Infantry would have a much deserved rest. But in their future lay many more battles…but those stories will have to be told at some later date.