The Four-Sided Pentagon

1024px-Pentagon_Barracks_(Baton_Rouge)

Pentagon Barracks in Baton Rouge, LA –  Image by Spatms (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

One of the first questions asked by any visitor to the Pentagon Barracks in Baton Rouge, Louisiana is, “Where is the fifth building?” There is a space for it, but there are only four, hefty-columned brick buildings in a pentagon arrangement with the fifth side open to the river.

 

This architectural anomaly, originally designed in 1818-1819 by Capt. James Gadsden for U.S. Army fortifications and barracks, called for four of the sides of the pentagon to be barracks that would house one thousand soldiers and the fifth building would actually be two buildings constructed end to end to make the fifth side. The southern of the two fifth-side buildings would be a commissary-quartermaster warehouse and the northern building would be an ordnance warehouse. These buildings were located nearest the river so that supplies could be loaded into them more easily. (See image below.)

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Design plan by U S Army Captain James Gadsden 1819  (Source: Map Collection, Louisiana State Library, Baton Rouge)

But designs, materials, and environments do not often mesh well together.

In the case of the ordnance warehouse, poor workmanship and sub-standard building materials, caused it to be condemned and demolished shortly after its construction.

In the case of the design of the fortification barracks, the oppressive heat and humidity of south Louisiana were not taken into adequate consideration.

An inspection of the progress of the barracks’ construction was made in May 1820 by the U.S. Inspector General’s office of the Baton Rouge Barracks and a portion of the final report follows:

The building is intended both for Barracks and Fortification: the lower story is
pierced in the rear with loop holes: these apertures are not sufficiently large to admit such a passage of air as to render it comfortable as lodgings, it is even now
scarcely habitable and in mid summer, must be abandoned. This work is calculated 
to use at musketry, it would appear then better that there should be larger openings in the rear, so as to render it more fit for Quarters, which in case of attack might be closed with shutters musket proof.

The Arsenal or Storehouse now building under the direction of the Ordnance Department and which forms a part of this work will be found every way inadequate to contain a moiety of the stores & which this defense will require,
the whole of the lower story of the Barracks is not more than will be wanted
for that purpose.

That part of the work which has been superintended by the Quartermaster appears
to be executed in an artist like manner. The Arsenal or Storehouse built under the direction of the Ordnance Dept. is wretchedly executed. The brick of the basement of the first story are laid in what resembled Mississippi mud more than mortar, this substitute for cement will never become hard, and may now he removed from between the Bricks by the finger alone; the wall towards the river is five or 6 inches out of plumb. It is impossible that this building will stand if charged with the weight of one half the stores it is designed to put in it.

[Records of Inspector General’s Office, 18 H-1824, National Archives, Record Group 1591.]

As the buildings stand today, windows with heavy shutters replaced the musket loop holes in the barracks.

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In addition to the design and building problems disease among the soldiers and workers constructing the buildings plagued the work.

Diseases common to living in encampments as well as mosquito-borne illnesses like yellow fever, dogged the soldiers and the other workers who had been brought in from other states to assist in the construction. In 1819, 30 workers and 20 soldiers died of yellow fever.  In 1821, 91 soldiers died.

My 3x great-grandfather, U. S. Army Lt. Jasper Strong, was stationed at the building site during the barracks’ construction, but he was only on-site a portion of the time. Unfortunately in June of 1821 he was listed as “present sick” at the barracks site. It is probable that he was sick due to the oppressive heat, being that he was a native of Vermont, but the hot and humid conditions so common in south Louisiana were no surprise to him since this was his second assignment in the South. He had already spent the previous year building a new fort near New Orleans at the Rigolets (RIG-uh-leez) Pass, the strait connecting Lake Pontchartrain and the Gulf of Mexico.  He could have suffered from one of the many maladies associated with camp life, but if he had been sick with yellow fever, it is not likely that he would have survived.

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President Zachary Taylor (1848) – By Joseph Henry Bush (1794-1865) (The White House Historical Association) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Interestingly when Jasper Strong was present for duty at the Baton Rouge barracks from December 1822 through January of 1823, his Commander was future U.S. President Zachary Taylor who was 38 years old at the time.

US Army SERVICE RECORD for Jasper Strong as 2nd Lieutenant:

  • 1819 – Graduated from West Point
  • 1819-1821 – Stationed at Fort Petite Cocquille at the Rigolets near New Orleans for the construction of Fort Pike
  • Jun 1821 – Baton Rouge Barracks – Present sick – Commander Richard Whartenby
  • Oct 1821 – Fort Belle Fontaine (St. Louis, MO) Absent on furlough – Commander Thomas Hamilton
  • January – November 1822 – Baton Rouge Barracks – Absent on furlough – Commander Talbot Chambers  (In October of 1822 Jasper Strong is listed as Justin Strong – was he gone so much that they forgot his name?)
  • December 1822 – January 1823 – Baton Rouge Barracks – Present for duty – Commander Zachary Taylor

As Lieutenant Jasper Strong:

  • Mar 1823 – Baton Rouge Barracks – Present for duty – Commander Talbot Chambers
  • May 1823 – Baton Rouge Barracks – Absent on Recruiting service at New Orleans – Commander Talbot Chambers

The US Army soldiers who were constructing the new barracks were housed in the old fortifications to the south of the construction site formerly known as Fuerte San Carlos (~ Fort St. Charles).

Baton Rouge map 1805

A Spanish map of Baton Rouge showing the earthen fortifications of Fuerte San Carolos in 1805.   Pintado, Vicente Sebastián. Florida Occidental, Distrito de Baton Rouge, año de 1805. 1805. Map. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <https://www.loc.gov/item/2013586080/&gt;

This earthen fortification was built by the British after they gained control of the area in 1763 due to the Treaty of Paris. The fort was named Fort New Richmond and it remained in British hands until the Revolutionary War when Bernardo de Galvez, commandant of Spanish-controlled New Orleans,  happily sided with the colonial patriots in order to move the British out of the Mississippi River region.  The Spanish marched from New Orleans to Baton Rouge in September 1779 and were successful in their attack on the British in the only battle of the Revolutionary War fought in Louisiana.  The Spanish renamed the fortification, Fuerte San Carlos and it remained under Spanish control until 1810 when some disgruntled English citizens living in the Spanish controlled area were unhappy with Spanish rule. They seized the fort in September of 1810 and declared themselves the independent Republic of West Florida.  That independent country lasted three months until the United States annexed the fledgling Republic. To replace the rundown fortification, the US Army made plans to build a new arsenal and barracks in Baton Rouge.

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But Jasper Strong was not my only ancestor to walk the grounds of this plot of land on the Mississippi River.  Another of my third great-grandfathers, Jacob Guice, joined Col. Claiborne’s 1st Mississippi Militia and marched to Baton Rouge from Natchez in the Mississippi Territory during September 1812 to defend it against the British in the War of 1812.  Jacob was stationed at the fortification of Fuerte San Carlos until March of 1813.

Grave of Jacob Guice - Guice/Armstrong Cemetery - McNair, MS

Grave of Jacob Guice with star emblem denoting service in the War of 1812

More recently my grandfather, C.L. Guice, was a student cadet at the Pentagon Barracks in the 1920’s when the buildings were part of Louisiana State University.  He never knew his great-grandfather Jacob Guice had been stationed almost on the same grounds one hundred years before.

 

I was born in Baton Rouge in 1962 not far from the Barracks at the old Lady of the Lake Hospital that used to be across Capitol Lake from the State Capitol building. I have walked the grounds of the Pentagon Barracks many times through the years, never realizing how many of my forebears preceded me. Needless to say, these historic buildings are now an endearing connection to my past.

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