The Sacking of Baton Rouge, Part 4

The City of Baton Rouge was not of high strategic value. After some weeks of occupation, the Yankees simply left the city. The fleet of gunboats and transportation barges loaded with freed slaves steamed off to New Orleans. This was the beginning of a mass migration of freed African-American slaves making their way to the Federal occupied city of New Orleans. Eliza reports that many freed female slaves abandoned their babies to leave for the Crescent City. I expect that means they left their babies with family members or friends until they could return. One morning the gunboats and transportation barges were simply gone.

Eliza does not know, but she believed at the time that the damage in the City of Baton Rouge was caused not just by the departing Union soldiers but also by what she describes as brutal and ignorant freed slaves. Certainly, there are many contemporary accounts of freed slaves abusing their new found freedom. Perhaps, today we cannot blame them so much for reacting to sudden freedom. But, the Federals even then were responsible under accepted rules of war to maintain order. The Federal authorities often allowed the freed slaves to get away with criminal behavior.

The Baton Rouge residents were not allowed into the city until after the place had been sacked. Eliza and James ventured inside Baton Rouge days after the Federals had evacuated. They went inside the home of Judge Thomas G. Morgan, a native of Pennsylvania. Eliza and James found portraits, family heirlooms, some Revolutionary War era, slashed by Union sabers. Throughout the city, they found tall shade trees cut down and tossed across the streets. Contents of store closets at Judge Morgan’s house were dumped on the floor. Molasses, vinegar, everything that could deface and cause a stain had been smeared on the walls and furniture. Judge Morgan was not a secessionist, although three of his sons did serve in the Confederate army. Unlike many slave-owners, Judge Morgan taught his slaves to read and write. His daughter, Sarah, would later write a diary of the war years.

Upstairs in Judge Morgan’s house, the armoires had all been knocked over and smashed. The dainty dresses of the young women had all been shredded and torn. China, toilet articles and bits of glass that had been used to decorate the rooms were strewn about the beds and ground into a mass of fragments. Family records and the contents of desks in Judge Morgan’s house and that of his neighbors were strewn about the streets. Precious family papers were blowing in the wind. Family records from innumerable Bibles were found on the sidewalks of the city.

After seeing Judge Morgan’s house, knowing if this could happen at his house, then the rest of the city was likely worse, Eliza was heart-sick. She could not inspect another home. After seeing the destruction, James sent many of his slaves to Eliza’s brother’s plantation in Texas.  This move violated Federal rules. James knew this could lead to him being arrested. Under Yankee rule, arrests were common and often arbitrary.

Eliza believed that moving the slaves would ensure the slaves could work and earn some food. It would also remove slaves who, she said, were becoming “discontent” and dangerous. She was likely describing slaves who were starting to view the Federals not as the enemy, but as potential saviors. Because they broke one of the Federal rules – not moving “contraband” – the McHattons made preparations to leave on a moment’s notice.

Eliza McHatton-Ripley, From Flag to Flag (United Kingdom: Dodo Press 2009) (reprint), pp. 28-31

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