Tuesday, June 30, 2009
OHP BOOK REVIEW OF EARTEN WALLS, IRON MEN: FORT DERUSSY, LOUISIANA BY STEVEN M. MAYEUX
Non-fiction, notes, maps, illustrated, bibliography, 370 pp., 2007. University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, TN 37996-4108 www.utoress.org.
The War Between the States has more books written about it than any other era in history; however, most of what is available pertains to the Army of Northern Virginia and Army of Tennessee. The Army of Trans-Mississippi has been largely disregarded by authors and historians. With a need to educate on this particular theatre, Earthen Walls, Iron Men: Fort DeRussy, Louisiana, and the Defense of Red River gives an account of this major Confederate fortification located on the lower Red River.
“Long regarded as little more than a footnote by historians, the fort in fact played a critical role in the defense of the Red River region,” writes author Steven M. Mayeux. Even though the period that Fort DeRussy was in operation was short, mid-1862 to mid-1864 with a long duration of being abandoned within this time frame, its tale is one full of naval battles, land battles, battles between gunboats and the shore batteries, and personalities that would control its fate. “Acts of extreme cleverness, incredible stupidity, admirable loyalty, loathsome betrayal, noble heroism, and base cowardice all played themselves out” during the stretch of time the fort was active.
After the fall of New Orleans in April 1862, there were tales that a Union gunboat would attempt to come up the Red River. Even though these rumors did not occur at that point in time, the police juries along the Red River spoke to Major General Richard Taylor to “contemplate erecting fortifications to defend Red River.” Col. Lewis G. DeRussy was appointed as superintendent of the construction of a fort on the Red River. “Barbin’s Landing” was chosen as the site and construction began, thus commencing the saga of this fort.
It is important to note that Fort DeRussy was an impressive stronghold. When assessing the fort, U.S. Admiral David Porter observes, “The works… are of the most extensive and formidable kind. Colonel DeRussy, from appearances, is a most excellent engineer to build forts.” In addition to this, Capt. Thomas Selfridge, commander of the USS Osage, declared Fort DeRussy “a formidable work, probably the strongest constructed by the Confederates during the war.” Twenty years after the capture of the fort, U.S. Admiral Porter wrote, “Without a doubt, they (Confederates) established a new era in military engineering which none have ever excelled, and on a scale equaled by the works of the Titans of old.”
For those who have lived in Louisiana, it has been rumored that the Red River Campaign was primarily fought for cotton – the Southerners had it and the Yankees wanted it. “Whether or not cotton stealing was the primary reason for the expedition, the U.S. Navy certainly lost no time in getting down to the business of hauling cotton,” contend Mr. Mayeux. Many accounts are given where loyal Southerners are relived by force of their stores of cotton. To victors go the spoils.
Fort DeRussy changes hands several times during her existence. “The capture of Fort DeRussy was a serious blow to Richard Taylor and the defenders of central and northwestern Louisiana. The Red River was, for now, for all practical purposes, open to Shreveport.” It is interesting to read how this strategic bend in the river is utilized by the different armies. The Confederate forces tried to maintain its fortifications, while the Union attempted to destroy the earth works.
In late May 1864, the Confederate forces regained control of the fort, only to find her in ruins. No only was this garrison in shambles, “there was nothing left in the lower Red River valley to defend. All of the cotton was gone, stolen, or destroyed, along with the tools, horsepower, and manpower necessary to make any more. From Natchitoches to Simmesport, the area was now known as the ‘Burnt District,’” asserts Mr. Mayeaux.
After the war, Fort DeRussy remained in the memories of the locals, while it was overlooked by history. She changed owners and was used for various different reasons until February 1994 when several members of la Commission des Avoyelles met to discuss possibly purchasing the property to establish a park. The wheels were set into motion. The Friends of Fort DeRussy was established and the property purchased. The land is in control of the Louisiana Office of State Parks, where it receives visitors throughout the year.
The cemetery located within the fort is cloaked with mystery itself. The number of burials has been an item of speculation. The wooden crosses have long since deteriorated, leaving unmarked graves. It should be noted that the remains of Col. Lewis Gustave DeRussy were re-interred to the grounds of the fort that bears his name.
In addition to the chronicle of Fort DeRussy, a listing of combat casualties – Union and Confederate – are included in the book. Slaves who died building the fortification are also noted. Short histories of the other Forts DeRussy is provided for the reader.
Being a native of Louisiana, it was exciting to read about a fort that was mentioned by school teachers and local historians. Mr. Mayeaux does an exceptional job in exposing the history of Fort DeRussy. As a Marine officer, he reviews the primary sources to give the reader an insight as to the military operations. When dealing with first person accounts, he delves into its accuracy and authenticity of the statement by examining all of the details.
The author also does a superb job by writing in a fashion that reads more like a novel than a non-fiction publication. The reader is held in suspense waiting for the outcome of the different actions taking place in and around Fort DeRussy. Earthen Walls, Iron Men is essential to any historian desiring to better educate himself about the Army of Trans-Mississippi and the Red River Campaign.
Written by Cassie A. Barrow