Thursday, September 06, 2007

Mayeux: "Earthen Walls, Iron Men: Fort DeRussy, Louisiana, and the Defense of Red River"

[Earthen Walls, Iron Men: Fort DeRussy, Louisiana, and the Defense of Red River by Steven M. Mayeux (University of Tennessee Press, 2007) Cloth, maps, photos, illustrations, footnotes, bibliography, appendices. Pages total/main=384/282 ISBN: 1-57233-576-9 $45]
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In the wider literature, Fort DeRussy1 is probably best known as the lightly defended fortification stormed by Joe Mower's division in the opening stages of the Red River Campaign. While undoubtedly the most significant event in its history, the Civil War experience of the fort, its defenders, and the nearby civilian population is much deeper and longstanding than that single dramatic episode. Now, for the first time, the complete history of Ft. DeRussy is brought to life in Steven Mayeux's wonderful study Earthen Walls, Iron Men.

Appropriately, Earthen Walls focuses most intently on the the fort's military context. The debate between the Confederate high command and various engineering officers over the earthwork's location and design is discussed in detail, along with their struggle to obtain sufficient materials, armaments, and labor for its construction. With the trained eye of a military man (Mayeux is a former Marine Corps officer), the author conveys to the reader the strengths and weaknesses of Ft. DeRussy in a meaningful manner. Interestingly, the installation was never designed to withstand a serious attack from the landward side, perhaps indicating that someone was learning the hard lessons of Island No. 10, Ft. Donelson, Arkansas Post, etc.2

Centered around DeRussy and its adjoining casemated river battery, a defense in depth was planned for the lower Red River valley, with additional obstructions placed downriver and earthen fortifications constructed along likely land approaches. The fort itself came under direct attack on several occasions. The first incident occurred in February 1863, with the disastrous expedition led by the U.S.N. ram Queen of the West. The Queen was disabled and captured by the defenders of Fort Taylor (DeRussy's progenitor). The opening of the river to Confederate rams then led to the sinking of the ironclad Indianola, events covered in great detail by Mayeux. Unsparing in his criticism of unworthy officers, the author dismisses Queen of the West commander Col. Charles Ellet3 as a reckless incompetent. In May of the same year, the U.S. Navy took another crack at the fort, which was also repulsed. A few days later, a stronger effort was made, but the fort was abandoned before the ironclads arrived. The garrison had withdrawn in the face of General Banks's advance on the Red River town of Alexandria, which outflanked DeRussy.

When Banks withdrew from the valley in preparation for his Port Hudson campaign, the Confederates returned to DeRussy and rebuilt the damaged installation. However, little of military significance occurred until March of 1864 and the commencement of the Red River Campaign. Here, A.J. Smith's corps-sized column easily bypassed the outlying Confederate defenses west of Simmesport and stormed the fort, which was sacrificed along with its small garrison in order to allow the bulk of General Walker's division to escape unscathed.

With fort and battery destroyed, the DeRussy site was used as a gunboat station and a contraband camp by the Federals. Slavery was effectively destroyed in the area, as previously productive plantations were ransacked and cotton confiscated. Throughout, Mayeux is unsparing in his criticism of David Porter, not for issues of military competence, but rather for the admiral's official prevarications and his all too indiscriminate thirst for prize money.

The final chapter brings the fort's history up to the present. Preservation efforts4 directed toward the DeRussy site and the nearby cemetery are briefly discussed. Seven appendices provide additional text and documentation. The first is a chapter length biographical sketch of Lewis Gustave DeRussy, the fort's namesake. Others list useful information such as commanding officers of the fort, casualties, and the names of the slaves who died during construction.

The publisher is to be commended for allowing the use of footnotes instead of endnotes (an uncommon luxury for readers these days). Earthen Walls also has an impressive bibliography, grounded in primary sources with extensive manuscript collection consultation. The great array of well chosen maps and illustrations included in the book is another valuable asset. The author assembled a large number of engineer maps, sketches, and illustrations of the fort itself [the one chosen for the jacket cover is a work of art]. Missing, however, are maps of the two-mile long earthwork defenses (anchored by Fort Humbug) in the Yellow Bayou/Bayou des Glaises area, and of the defensive position taken by Walker's division atop the bluffs near Long Bridge. A regimental scale map of Smith's infantry assault on Ft. DeRussy would have been helpful as well.

Astutely analyzed, exhaustively researched, well written, and beautifully illustrated, Earthen Walls, Iron Men is an original contribution to the historiography of the Trans-Mississippi theater. It's value as a case study of the Confederacy's use of fortified batteries and obstructions to counteract U.S. naval supremacy on the continent's inland waterways should also be recognized. Very highly recommended.
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Additional Notes:
1 - Well, Louisiana's Ft. DeRussy anyway. Several installations carry the same name, including one perhaps more famous as part of the chain of forts guarding Washington D.C.
Earthen Walls's Appendix G covers this.
2 - Specifically, avoiding the double disaster of losing both place and garrison in the face of Federal supremacy in army-navy combined operations.
3 - Amusingly, yet appropriately, Mayeux takes great pains on several occasions to ensure the reader that Ellet's Mississippi Marine Brigade had no relation to the U.S. Marine Corps.
4 - Friends of Fort DeRussy.

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