Since the early 19th century, the Pentagon Barracks — the four-building complex on the grounds now occupied by the State Capitol and Capitol Park, have been a U.S. Army installation and arsenal and have housed everything from LSU to state lawmakers.
The state historic marker fronting the Pentagon Barracks says 1822, which would mean 2022 marks the 200th anniversary for the complex along Baton Rouge’s River Road.
But is it?
Sometimes, a story changes with continuing historical research and archaeological findings. Speculation of the barracks’ date of completion has changed since its 1973 placement on the National Register of Historic Places.
Some archaeological research in the past 20 years shows 1822 isn’t a landmark year when it comes to these four buildings.
Yes, four. It’s true that an authentic pentagon would have five buildings, which was once the case with this complex. But the fifth building was short-lived. So the four remaining Pentagon Barracks stand in the same spot in which they were constructed between 1819 and 1825.
Gadsden develops original plans
Still, their story begins in 1818, when the U.S. Army stationed Lt. James Gadsden in Baton Rouge. This was the same Gadsden who later coordinated the Gadsden Purchase for land purchased by the United States from Mexico to form the southern portions of Arizona and New Mexico.
Gadsden was serving as the minister of Mexico at the time, and served as an Army general before that. But he was a lieutenant who also was an engineer when he was assigned to Baton Rouge.
His connection to the Pentagon Barracks is thoroughly documented in a 2003 archaeological report by contract archaeology firm Coastal Environments. The report, titled “Pentagon Barracks: Cultural Resources Monitoring of Machine Excavations for Exterior Renovations and Site Improvements, Baton Rouge, Louisiana,” offers probably the most comprehensive history of the barracks.
It was written for the Louisiana Legislative Budgetary Control Council and is filled with maps and photographs of artifacts discovered at the site. That is, whatever artifacts were left after the grounds were cleared for the 1930 construction of the State Capitol.
Back to Gadsden. He was tasked with overseeing the construction of a depot and new barracks capable of housing 1,000 men.
“Gadsden was selected to design both the barracks and depot,” the report states. “Gadsden developed several plans for a proposed barracks in 1818 and 1819 before settling on five buildings arranged in the shape of a pentagon.”
Three U.S. presidents, including Lincoln, in barracks
Maps show that the barracks and surrounding post were built on the grounds of the Spanish Fuerte San Carlos, which is why surveyor Andre LeSage referred to the property as Fort St. Charles in his 1820 report and again to the completed complex in his final report in 1825.
That final report seems to be a bookmark for the barracks’ 1825 completion date.
Gadsden initially designed the barracks with galleries facing the commons area, or parade grounds, where a fountain stands today.
The idea was that the barracks and its arsenal were a stronghold on the Mississippi River, vulnerable to enemy attack. So Gadsden designed their exterior walls with gun loops, or ports, without galleries or windows.
An added extra would have been a moat with a drawbridge, making it more difficult for enemy forces to enter. This was never built.
How much did the structures cost? According to the archaeology report, the federal government paid $13,500 to Fergus Duplantier on behalf of John Gracie for the 200 French arpents, the equivalent of about 200 acres, for what would be called the Baton Rouge Military Cantonment and Arsenal Complex.
Congress later appropriated a total of $35,000 for the buildings and arsenal, with the building contract awarded to Joel Hill, who brought in 100 brick masons from Ohio, Kentucky and New England in 1820.
Though those data points may sound impressive, construction was actually done by soldiers stationed under the supervision of Capt. John Jones. Add to that Hill’s use of substandard materials and construction techniques, and it makes total sense as to why the fifth building, a commissary and quartermaster post whose construction was shoddier than the others, had to be torn down by 1821.
Sheriff dies in duel over dispute between locals and Army
That was the same year one Lt. Col. Zachary Taylor made his appearance on the grounds. The future president would be stationed at the Pentagon Barracks on and off between 1821 and 1829, but Jones continued supervision of construction.
Here’s where an interesting anecdote has been inserted into Jones’ part of the story. It seems problems developed between the Army and local residents, resulting in a tiff between Jones and East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff F.L. Amelung. The feud escalated, and the men decided to resolve it in a duel.
Who won? Well, Jones’ Army training seemed to have served him well. The sheriff didn’t survive.
Jones’ crew completed construction. Again, LaSage’s survey is dated 1825, but there is one significant date tied to 1822. That’s when the bricked, underground cisterns were added to the complex.
Then comes the rest of the story. Author Karen Kingsley, in her 2003 book, “Buildings of Louisiana,” points out that, along with Taylor, the barracks have housed dozens of notable figures who either were garrisoned there or passed through on visits, including William Tecumseh Sherman, P.G.T. Beauregard, Jefferson Davis, George Custer, Ulysses S. Grant and Abraham Lincoln.
“In my book, I give the dates for the barracks’ construction as 1819 to 1824, which I obviously took from Powell A. Casey’s research for ‘Encyclopedia of Forts, Posts, Named Camps and Other Military Installations in Louisiana, 1700-1981,'” Kingsley said. “Casey’s sources are archives, including the National Archives in D.C.”
Union troops use barracks as hospital
Some years later, according to the archaeological report, the barracks were used for Union encampments with the barracks serving as a hospital during the Civil War. The barracks continued housing soldiers until the installation was transferred to the U.S. Department of the Interior in 1884.
Finally, in 1886, the grounds were transferred to LSU. This would be the university’s third residence after starting in Pineville, then followed by a short stint at the Louisiana Asylum for the Deaf, Dumb and Blind in Baton Rouge.
“The Army wasn’t going to use it as an arsenal,” said Paul Hoffman, professor emeritus of history at LSU. “They were not going to use it as a garrison facility, either. So it was surplus, and they turned it over to the Department of the Interior to be disposed of. And at that point, everybody was interested in LSU, plus the local town folks. At one point, the mayor wanted to get the property and basically use it as a real estate development.”
LSU comes to town
But LSU’s first president, David Boyd, made his case for the school.
“He said, ‘This is perfect for what we need, because we’re expanding our enrollment,'” Hoffman said. “He wanted to have a residential college where boys could be there 24/7 and get military style discipline. So he got the Pentagon Barracks plus other buildings that could be used.”
Hoffman added that galleries were added to the barracks’ exterior walls at this time.
Converted to state offices and apartments
LSU eventually moved to its current location south of downtown Baton Rouge in 1925. The barracks were then transferred to the state and converted to state offices.
The buildings have since housed the Lieutenant Governor’s Office, a museum and now apartments for use by state lawmakers during legislative sessions, which, Mike Michot, of Lafayette, didn’t take for granted when he was serving in the state Senate.
“I would usually go back home during sessions, because I live in Lafayette, but when I became chairman of the State Finance Committee, I thought I should rent one of the apartments,” he said.
One night, while leaving a day’s session for the barracks, Michot was struck by his surroundings. He stopped to look at the barracks in front of him, then he turned to look at the Capitol.
“It was lit up,” he said. “And as I turned to walk into the barracks, I started thinking about how historical it all was and how I was a part of that history.”
A history that has spanned 200 years.