Friendly (gun)fire was “heard” as far away as Washington, D.C. after Confederate troops advanced to attack the 14th Maine Infantry Regiment and other Union units at Baton Rouge, La. on Aug. 5, 1862.
On July 7, Col. Frank S. Nickerson led the green 14th Maine ashore at Baton Rouge after an uneventful steamboat cruise north along the Mississippi River from New Orleans. Nickerson reported to Brig. Gen. Thomas Williams, a martinet who “had shown little sympathy for the suffering of his men,” wrote Christopher G. Pena in “Battle of Baton Rouge.”
Williams was “a strict disciplinarian” who drilled his infantrymen “with full sacks during the oppressive [Louisiana] heat,” Pena wrote. “The result caused hundreds of his men to fall ill or die.”
Maine boys accustomed to cool, clear lakes and soothing Canadian breezes suffered immeasurably in the stifling Louisiana swamps. Disease felled 14th Maine lads by the score; throughout the Baton Rouge garrison, “by the first week of August , nearly one-half of his (Williams) men were on the sick list,” Pena noted.
Confederate troops also suffered that miserable summer. “The periodic thunderstorms and hot, humid weather proved the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Civil War historian Edwin C. Bearss wrote in “The Battle of Baton Rouge.”
“Hundreds of the Southerner, many of whom were already suffering from malaria and dysentery, soon filled the army hospitals at Camp Moore” in Louisiana, he noted. Confederate Maj. Gen. John C. Breckinridge was collecting troops at Camp Moore preparatory to attacking Baton Rouge.
By late afternoon on Monday, Aug. 4, 1862, Union scouts “pinpointed the greyclads’ advance as it crossed the Comite [River], about ten miles east of Baton Rouge,” according to Bearss. William had long since deployed his disease-wracked regiments; assigned the far left flank, the 14th Maine deployed with “its right flank resting on Greenwall Springs Road” and its left flank abutting “the road that intersected Bayou Sara and Clinton Plank Road,” Bearss wrote.
The Maine boys’ next-door neighbor, the 21st Indiana Infantry, anchored its left flank on Greenwall Springs Road and spread south “in front of Magnolia Cemetery,” Bearss indicated. If a fight developed, both regiments would deploy east beyond their respective campsites; Williams had already detailed a Massachusetts artillery battery — Carruth’s 6th Light — to provide fire support if the Johnnies attacked.
About 4 a.m., Aug. 5, a Confederate miscue alerted the Baton Rouge garrison that an attack was imminent. Confederate troops had started advancing toward Baton Rouge along Greenwall Springs Road at 11 p.m., Aug 4; five hours later, Confederate irregulars — Bearss called them “partisans” — collided with 21st Indiana pickets outside the Union lines.
Federal gunshots routed the partisans; fleeing the Union bullets that caused them little harm, the irregulars slammed into regular Confederate troops. Friendly fire erupted; frightened artillery horses absconded with cannons and limbers, and the horse ridden by Brig. Gen. Benjamin Hardin Helm fell and pinned him. The badly injured Helm would not lead his men into battle.
A Confederate bullet also killed Lt. Alexander H. Todd, another Southern officer.
Besides causing Union commanders to order the “long roll” sounded in their regimental camps, the gray-upon-gray bloodshed echoed all the way to the White House: Helm was married to Alexander Todd’s sister, Emilie, and she and her brother were half-siblings of Mary Todd Lincoln.
“Helm was, of all things, Abraham Lincoln’s favorite brother-in-law,” wrote Winston Groom in “Shiloh, 1862.”
Before sunrise, Confederate troops attacked Baton Rouge in a thick fog. The 14th Maine Infantry fought valiantly, with the inexperienced Maine lads giving better than they got before Breckenridge ordered his men to withdraw in mid-morning.
Four days later, Nickerson reported that his regiment lost 36 men killed, 71 men wounded, and 12 men missing. The 14th Maine Infantry had “seen the elephant.”
And the news only got worse for the Lincolns. After surviving the bloodbath at Shiloh in early April 1862 and his friendly fire-caused injuries at Baton Rouge four months later, Benjamin Hardin Helm continued in Confederate service.
“He was killed at the Battle of Chickamauga in 1863, sending the President of the United States into deep, but very private, mourning,” Groom noted.
Brian Swartz can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.