Fort DeRussy is located on the Red River in central Louisiana, and played a significant role in the defense of that waterway in 1863 and '64. Over the years, the site grew over, and by the 1990s it was basically lost.
Visitors looking for the fort would drive right past and never see it, though it was only a few hundred feet from the road. In 1994, a local historical society began a project to resurrect the fort from the overgrown brush patch that it had become.
Property was purchased, a fence was built, brush was cleared, funds were raised, publicity was garnered, more funds were raised, monuments were dedicated, more property was purchased - and by 1999 the originally purchased five acres had grown to 70 acres, the Louisiana legislature had declared the fort a State Historic Site, and the property was turned over to the Office of State Parks for further development.
The wheels of government turn slowly, and it was not until the summer of 2005, with constant needling from the Friends of Fort DeRussy (FFD) and strong assistance from Dr. Donald Hines, President of the Louisiana Senate, that State Parks was able to obtain funding for development of the site.
The days shortly after July of 2005, when the legislation was signed, were busy days for FFD, as we worked to make sure the funding got to where it was needed. But the excitement didn't last long.
Toward the end of August, Hurricane Katrina devastated the largest city in the state, and as September came to a close, Hurricane Rita wreaked havoc on the rest of the state.
The money set aside for Fort DeRussy blew away in the winds of the storms. New priorities were set, and Fort DeRussy was not among them.
The fort itself was not seriously damaged by the storms. Katrina was nothing more than a breezy day with a quarter-inch of rain falling at the fort. There were ramifications, however.
Fort DeRussy Road, which had been in terrible condition, was in the midst of a resurfacing project when Katrina hit. FFD had spent years working to get the road repaired, and Senator Hines had done some serious maneuvering to find a way to get funding for the project.
The process was then underway, and a deep base of soil cement was finished on a Thursday. The hard surface was going to be put on top of that base early the following week, but Katrina made landfall on Monday, and the Mississippi company that was to do the surfacing job took heavy damage to their equipment and had their workers scattered.
While the company tried to regroup, traffic continued to pass over the unsurfaced road base, and in late September, Rita dumped 10 inches of rain on that unsurfaced base. Traffic continued to use the road, and when the surface was finally applied in mid-October, it went down on top of a base that was much rougher that it should have been.
The new road is much better than it was, but not nearly as good as it should be. Cracks are already starting to appear.
But that problem was not nearly as serious as the loss of development funds. When the Friends enquired about getting the funding restored in 2006, we were told to forget it. But politics can be strange, and Senator Hines was able to pull a rabbit out of his hat and money was found for architectural design at the fort.
Then, in the spring of 2007, a group of ultra-authentic reenactors arrived in the Kisatchie Hills of Louisiana for "Banks' Grand Retreat," and raised over $4,000 for property acquisition at the fort.
And in the summer of 2007, once again with prodding from Senator Hines - who, thankfully, did not need any real prodding from FFD - the State Legislature increased the money necessary to get the Fort DeRussy project going.
So, two years after what looked like nails in the coffin for Fort DeRussy State Historic Site, we are truly "back in the game."
And as if the restoration of funding for the fort is not good enough news, there is also the new book. Fort DeRussy has, until recently, always been considered not much more than a footnote in history books.
With the release of Earthen Walls, Iron Men: Fort DeRussy, Louisiana and the Defense of Red River (University of Tennessee Press, hardback, 376 pages, with illustrations and footnotes) in August 2007, there is now a true one-stop source for information on the fort.
Prior to the book's release, anyone seeking information on the fort's history had to content themselves with a paragraph here, a footnote there, and maybe a few pages in hard-to-find 19th-century regimental histories.
As the author, I'm proud to say that the book has been receiving good reviews, and has been nominated for at least one award. Sales have been good, so there may be another edition in the future. I hope so, as even more information has come to light since the book went to press.
Fort DeRussy State Historic Site is not completely out of the woods yet. While funding has been obtained and bids have been let for architectural designs for a visitor center, no serious improvements have yet been made. FFD will continue to work diligently to make sure that necessary follow-ups occur.
Anyone interested in helping with this work is encouraged to join Friends of Fort DeRussy, either through our Web site at www.fortderussy.org or by sending $15 annual dues (of course, larger tax-exempt donations are also welcome) to us at 7162 Hwy 29, Cottonport, LA 71327.
And lest anyone think that we have dropped the Fort DeRussy cannon from our list of priorities, please be aware that we have not. For those of you unfamiliar with this situation, the only remaining cannon that was used at Fort DeRussy is currently being held captive by the U.S. Navy at the Washington Navy Yard.
It is the intention of Friends of Fort DeRussy to have this gun returned to its rightful place when the fort is properly developed. Certain Naval personnel have indicated that it is their intention that this will not happen. We'll see.
Steve Mayeux, long-time president of Friends of Fort DeRussy Inc., is a graduate of LSU and a former Marine officer. He is also the author of Earthen Walls, Iron Men: Fort DeRussy, Louisiana, and the Defense of Red River, now available at bookstores everywhere.