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Saving Fort DeRussy

By Steve Mayeux


Feb/Mar 2004

In 1864, Fort DeRussy was a name to be feared by Yankee sailors contemplating mov-ing up the Red River into central Louisiana. In spite of all of Union Admiral David Porter's bluster about his desire for "an old-fashioned gun-boat and fort fight," he prudently waited for 10,000 of crusty old A. J. Smith's Vicksburg veterans to reduce the fort from the land side before sending his armada" "with its 210 pieces of artillery " "into the maws of Fort DeRussy's ominous six-gun water battery.

Smith vowed to leave the fort without "one stone on another" a Biblical reference, as one would be hard-pressed to find any sort of stone within 50 miles of Fort DeRussy. When he left the place a few days after its capture, he opined that, although the fort was not completely dismantled, it was dismantled to the point that "the next big rain would destroy it."

A few weeks later, Yankee soldiers occupying the newspaper office in Natchitoches wrote an article notifying one and all that "Fort DeRussy has fallen, like Lucifer, never to rise again."

When author Dave Page passed through Marksville looking for the fort in the early 1990s, he left town thinking that those ersatz journalists had been right. He couldn't find the fort, and he couldn't find anyone in the town who knew where it was.

In fact, the fort was still standing just as the Yankees had left it (perhaps a little the worse for wear) just a few miles up the road from the town. But it was overgrown to the point that it could not be seen from the road that ran by it. At some points the bamboo and privet bushes were so thick that the fort was invisible from only a few feet away.

In 1994, a group of local history buffs met to discuss the possibility of purchasing the Fort DeRussy property. Encouraged by State Parks officials and with assistance from the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites, in 1996 the locals were able to purchase five acres of the property containing the fort's main redoubt.

As the member of the local group most versed in area Civil War history, I was tasked with the job of spearheading the efforts to increase interest in the fort to the point that the Office of State Parks would be willing to add the fort to their list of State Historic Sites. The Friends of Fort DeRussy was formed as a committee of La Commission des Avoyelles, the parish historical association.

The "experts" were quick to come out of the woodwork to tell us how to do the job. Don't clear any underbrush or trees, we were told "if you do, the relic hunters will dig the place up! And don't put up any monuments" that's old-fashioned, and destroys the historical authenticity of the place! Preservation, we were told, is the end-all and be-all. Nothing should be disturbed.

The property was fenced and posted, but when we brought the folks from the State Division of Historic Preservation out to the site to talk about a listing on the National Register of Historic Places, the state officer sniffed and told us, in effect, that our site was nothing but an overgrown mound and that they couldn't even see what was there. Call us back, they said, when you've got something to show us.

It was at that point that we dismissed all our experts and decided to do things "our" way. We made arrangements with the nearby state prison, and had a crew of inmates out at the fort for two weeks clearing out underbrush, re-vealing the fort's excellent state of preservation. (We never did have a problem with relic hunters.)

We participated in the annual Park Days sponsored by the Civil War Preservation Trust. We flooded the local newspapers and television stations with stories about the fort's history and events at the fort. The Cenla Historical Reenactors Group "adopted" us, and put on several living history demonstrations. The property was donated to the City of Marksville in order to get a $75,000 grant from the state to improve the site so that it could be accepted by the State Parks system, with Friends of Fort DeRussy in charge of spending the money for the city.

We soon had regular visits by Ed Bearss with groups from HistoryAmerica Tours and the Delta Queen steamboat. Monuments were erected in memory of the 69 slaves who died while building the fort and to two Confederate soldiers who died while defending the fort. A 200-foot long bridge was reconstructed across Barbin's Bayou in place of one the Yankees had destroyed during the war.

A grant of $150,000 was received from the Red River Waterway Commission to purchase an additional 53 acres, and 11 more acres were donated by the City of Marksville, at which time the state agreed to accept the donation of the fort and adjoining 70 acres.

Meanwhile, Gen. Lewis DeRussy's remains were removed from a heavily-vandalized cemetery near Natchitoches and reinterred at the fort that bears his name. The General's funeral was attended by several hundred mourners and reenactors from the three wars in which he participated, and was perhaps the highlight of my association with the fort.

The Friends of Fort DeRussy never lacked for assistance in any phase of their work. Local and parish governing bodies, businesses, schools, prisons, the Levee Board, the National Guard, numerous individuals, all we had to do was ask, and help was there. And we did ask. We owe a debt of gratitude to a large number of people. We appreciate them all.

We are a little disappointed in the lack of cooperation by the US Navy concerning the return of our cannon that they are holding at the Washington Navy Yard, but remain hopeful that when they see what has been done with the fort, they will be a little more accommodating. But other than that, everyone has been more than helpful in working to restore the fort.

In 1994, a history of the fort was compiled. It consisted of 12 pages of double-spaced text, and was the most com-plete history of the fort ever put together. The history of the fort now consists of over 350 pages of text.

The site is rich in history, and the Red River Campaign is only one part of it. Three significant actions and numerous skirmishes took place at the fort, over a period of two years. The site was also a major Red River steamboat landing both before and after the War.

The Master Plan for the fort is now in its developmental stages. While a completed Fort DeRussy Visitor Center is still some years away, every month brings us closer to that day when the 10-year-old dream of a revitalized Fort DeRussy will be a reality.

Friends of Fort DeRussy has recently incorporated as an independent 501(c)3 non-profit organization, and everyone with an interest in the fort is encouraged to join. We are making a difference, and we intend to work closely with State Parks in the development of the site. The more members we can muster, the better.

For more information, contact Friends of Fort DeRussy, 7162 Hwy 29, Cottonport, LA 71327, or by e-mail at fortderussy@hotmail.com.

Steve Mayeux, a former Marine officer and current president of Friends of Fort DeRussy, works as an agricultural consultant in central Louisiana. He was named the Avoyelles Parish "Avoyellean of the Year" in 1999 for his work in spearheading the efforts t

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