ECW Weekender: Sarah Morgan and the Old State House in Baton Rouge

Louisiana Old State Capitol Museum, Baton Rouge, Louisiana (Sheritta Bitikofer, 2022)

The Louisiana Old State Capitol Museum in Baton Rouge has remained one of the many popular tourist sites for the city since 1994 when it was made into Louisiana’s Center for Political and Governmental History, and educational history museum. This grand Neo-Gothic structure, towering upon the bluffs along the Mississippi River never ceases to awe the first-time visitor with its soaring turrets and castle-like features. Built according to the architectural plans of James Dakin between 1847 and 1850, the building was intended to serve as the seat of Louisiana’s state government, transferring that title from the bustling and “sinful” New Orleans one hundred miles further south. The land on which the new state house was to be built was donated by Judge Thomas Gibbes Morgan, along with a donation from the city of Baton Rouge of $20,000 to make the construction possible. Dakin wrote, “In making this design, I have endeavored…to adopt such a taste and style of architecture as would at once give the edifice a decided distinctive, classic and commanding character.”[1] Mark Twain, however, had a different opinion when he wrote in his novel, “It is pathetic enough that a whitewashed castle, with turrets and things – materials all ungenuine within and without, pretending to be what they are not – should ever have been built in this otherwise honorable place…”[2] The edifice was certainly unconventional for the era, as the typical capitol buildings resembled the more popular Greek revival style.

Sarah Morgan (courtesy of University of North Carolina Chapel Hill)

Since the building’s completion, repairs were a constant reality, though a greater threat loomed on the horizon. Following in suit with other southern states, Louisiana held its secession convention in the House chamber of the State House in Baton Rouge on January 23, 1861, and cast its ballots in favor of secession on January 26. Louisiana became The Sovereign and Independent Commonwealth of Louisiana for two months before joining the Confederate States of America. One family that would be impacted by the coming war in Louisiana was Sarah Morgan, daughter of the previously mentioned Judge Thomas Gibbes Morgan. At 19, she and her family along with eight enslaved persons lived in a large two-story home on Church Street, not far from the State House. Though the Morgan family were advocates for Union at first, they became unwavering Confederates, giving three sons to the Southern army – Gibbes and George fought in Virginia and Jimmy served as a midshipman in the Confederate Navy. A half-brother, Philip Hicky Morgan, remained a Unionist and stayed in New Orleans throughout the war. Judge Morgan died in November of 1861, prompting the move of sister Eliza LaNoue and her family – five children in all – into the Church Street home to help care for the family.

War came to Sarah’s doorstep on May 7, 1862, following the capture of New Orleans by Union Flag Officer David Farragut the previous month. Gunboats anchored off Baton Rouge and shelled the city, driving the Morgan family into the countryside or to take refuge in the State Asylum for the Deaf and Blind. They would eventually flee and board with friends among the West Baton Rouge Planters, then move to East Feliciana Parish, not far from Port Hudson. Sarah became a prolific diarist during the war and her published works have been an oft-cited source for the Confederate civilian experience in Louisiana.

State House after fire of December 1862 – photo from January of 1863. Notice the scorch marks above the windows and how light comes through the open ceiling. (courtesy of State Library of Louisiana)

Within weeks after their arrival in May, Federal forces occupied Baton Rouge. The state government evacuated the city beforehand, moving to Opelousas and later Shreveport, leaving the State House vacant. Federal soldiers camped on the greens around the State House and the building itself was used as a command post, prison, and garrison for African American troops under General Culver Glover. Except for a short stint in the later part of 1862 when Confederates had temporarily retaken the city, the Federal presence in Baton Rouge continued throughout the war. The books, paintings, and other valuables within the State House were shipped to New Orleans by order of General Benjamin Butler, saving them from the next disaster to befall the “old gray castle.” On December 28, 1862, soldiers who were cooking in the northwest turret of the State House accidentally set fire to the interior, which raged uncontrollably. While the stone exterior remained relatively intact, the inside was charred and gutted. Though not in the city, news of the fire reached Sarah Morgan. She wrote on January 1, 1863:

“I learn, to my unspeakable grief, that the State House is burned down. Those blessed Yankees have been in the town some three weeks and this is the result, confound them! Adieu, Home and Happiness! Yankees inhabit my first, and have almost succeeded in destroying my second. Let the whole town burn, now; without our State House, it is nothing. Without its chief ornament, what does our poor little town look like? Do wretched Yankees, standing in the little room at home, look through the single window without seeing the white towers against the blue sky? How can Baton Rouge exist without our pride? I can hardly fancy it. Though desecrated, mutilated, pillaged, almost destroyed within by the Yankees in their previous visit, still we had the outside left untouched, at least, until this crowning act of barbarism. Our beautiful gardens! Our evening walks! Oh Yankees! If you were only in glory! You’d have fire enough there, to induce you to dispense with the burning of our beautiful State House! … Baton Rouge is ruined forever now; let it burn; I would hardly cry… I wish you had been laid low before you were desecrated by the touch of Yankee heathens! Nothing but fire can purify you now. Burn, then, and may the Yankees burn with you![3]

Though a touch melodramatic, Sarah’s entry is dripping with the sorrow and grief of the loss of the State House. It had been a focal point of her childhood – as she took many walks around the State House grounds with her family and friends – and a source of pride for her family and her state. Three days later she softened her ire by writing, “Bless Yankees for one thing; they say they tried hard to save our State House.”[4] In the summer of 1863, Sarah and her family would move in with her half-brother in New Orleans and remain there until war’s end.

Staircase and stained-glass dome of the Old State Capitol, built by William A. Freret in 1882 (Sheritta Bitikofer, 2022)

Following the war and in the years of Reconstruction, the Louisiana state capitol was moved once more to New Orleans, until 1879 when the state constitutional convention reinstated Baton Rouge as the seat of government. The State House would remain dilapidated and in ruins until 1882, when architect and engineers William A. Freret took on the task of rebuilding the castle, enhancing the interior design with a stunning central spiral staircase leading upward to a stained-glass dome. The project cost $153,000 and was completed in 1884. The State House became the stage for countless heated debates and fistfights among the politicians. Huey Long was the last governor to be sworn in at the State House, as a new capitol building was completed in 1932.

The now Old State House went through a series of rehabilitation efforts by the Works Progress Administration, Veteran organizations, and the Louisiana State Museum system until 1991 when the most extensive restoration began. The building reopened as a museum in 1994 under the direction of Secretary of State W. Fox McKeithen.

Today, visitors can tour the Senate and House Chambers on the second floor of the Old State House, peruse the many portraits and paintings of past Louisiana governors (former Lieutenant Colonel Henry Watkins Allen of the 4th Louisiana Infantry Regiment and former Union Colonel George F. Shipley of the 12th Maine Volunteer Infantry among them). The first floor is dedicated to telling the story of the Old State House and Louisiana’s political history, including a multi-room exhibit that focuses on Governor Huey Long and his assassination.

Sarah Morgan, once more, comes to play a role at the Old State House, in the exhibit titled “The Ghost of the Castle.” It’s rumored that Sarah’s admiration for the State House of her childhood tethered her spirit to the building and she now “haunts” the halls of the museum – despite the fact that she moved to South Carolina after the war was over and died in Paris on May 5, 1909. While this plays a bit into dark tourism, the 4D, interactive video casts Sarah Morgan as the guardian of the State House and frames its journey of construction, destruction, and reconstruction from the values and feelings of this Confederate woman. Instead of a stuffy retelling of the State House’s history by a bland narrator, Sarah is given the floor, manifesting as a ghostly apparition in a mirror, and shares her unvarnished opinions of the Federal occupation of Baton Rouge, the destruction of the State House, and her hopes for a brighter future, imploring the guests to become stewards of her “beloved castle.” The phrases used in the presentation echoes the sentiments in her diary, calling the Federal occupants “Yankees” after a tense pause as if she wanted to use more colorful words, and fashioning the fire-starters of December 1862 as “careless hooligans.” She also uses language to endear herself to the Old State House, saying they had “grown old together” and likened the castle to something out of Ivanhoe – harkening to the Old World chivalry and romanticism.

Sarah Morgan’s exhibit at the Louisiana Old State Capitol Museum (Sheritta Bitikofer, 2022)

Combined with an immersive audio-visual presentation, complete with a rattling chandelier, the theatrical presentation is as moving and informative as it is entertaining. This 12-minute presentation has won three awards, the 2012 Themed Entertainment Association’s Thea Award for Outstanding Achievement, the Award of Excellence in the 2010 Southeastern Museum Conference Exhibition Competition, and the 2011 Award of Merit by the AASLH Leadership in History. The adjoining exhibit covers the architectural history of southwest Louisiana, as well as a room set aside just for Sarah and her connection with the Old State House.

The Louisiana Old State Capitol Museum is open Tuesday through Friday from 10a.m. to 4p.m., Saturday from 9a.m. to 3p.m. and is closed on Sunday. Admission to tour the Old State House is free, though there is a small fee for “The Ghost of the Castle” showing that can be purchased in the gift shop. Located at 100 North Boulevard, Baton Rouge, LA 70801, parking is available on River Street or in the 3rd Street Parking Garage.

 

Endnotes

[1] Quoted in https://louisianaoldstatecapitol.org/explore/the-history

[2] Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi, (United Kingdom: Harper & Brothers, 1917), p. 333

[3] Charles East, ed., Sarah Morgan: The Civil War Diary of a Southern Woman, (New York, Touchstone, Simon & Schuster, 1991), p. 382

[4] Ibid, p. 385

About Sheritta Bitikofer

Sheritta Bitikofer is a lifelong student of history with a specific interest in the Civil War era. Along with being a wife, historical fiction author, and fur-mama of two, she is an active member of the Mobile and Pensacola Civil War Roundtables and currently pursuing a bachelors degree in US History at American Public University.
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5 Responses to ECW Weekender: Sarah Morgan and the Old State House in Baton Rouge

  1. Joe Lafleur says:

    Thanks for this. I really enjoyed hearing Sarah’s story straight forward and of course the magnificent Old State House. Most of my ECW friends don’t know the majority of my living relatives are in Baton Rogue.
    Joseph Delta Lafleur, III

  2. Lyle Smith says:

    Hope you made it up to Port Hudson and to the plantation home Sarah Morgan was living in during the siege of Port Hudson. Her descendants (scattered the world over) finally decided to sell the land they still own to housing developers. What use to be green pasture is now being turned into multiple acre housing estates. The plantation home still stands, but is private and modernized. There is a LA state historical marker at the turn off to a gravel road indicating the plantation and Sarah Morgan’s existence there.

  3. Indeed, during their occupation of the city, the Yankees defaced paintings, some Revolutionary War era, in Judge Morgan’s house, slicing paintings with their sabres. Judge Morgan was from Pennsylvania. The Federals dumped molasses, vinegar, whatever was handy on the walls and furniture inside the Judge’s home. They seemed to have some anger toward the Judge, even though he generally opposed secession. Says another diary by Eliza McHatton-Ripley.
    Tom

  4. Joel Manuel says:

    Huey Long may have been the last governor inaugurated there when it was the State House, but Gov. Mike Foster’s first inauguration took place at the Old Capitol in 1996. His grandfather, Murphy Foster, had been governor in the 1890s, and he wanted to honor that legacy (if I remember correctly). I was at that inauguration; it was bitterly cold for Louisiana. I’ve worked in downtown Baton Rouge for 25 years and can see the top of the Old Capitol from my window. My wife once worked in the office building that stands on the site of the Morgan house. Great article. 🙂

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