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ACW Book Review: Earthen Walls, Iron Men

By Mike Oppenheim
6/5/2018 • America's Civil War Magazine

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

by Steven M. Mayeux, University of Tennessee, 2007, $29.50

The minor naval and land battles that took place along central Louisiana’s Red River in 1863 and 1864 deserve more than the footnotes they usually receive in accounts of Civil War campaigns in the West. A retired Marine officer and Louisiana native, Steven M.Mayeux spent a decade researching primary sources to produce a meticulous history of these battles.The text is accompanied by a plethora of technical details of ships and defenses that should satisfy any dedicated Civil War buff.

The large plantations and small towns along the lower Red River felt no urgency for the first year of secession, but the sudden fall of New Orleans in April 1862 galvanized everyone. The Red and neighboring Black and Atchafalaya rivers provided transportation throughout the state into Texas, and Union gunboats soon began picking off cargo vessels.

Local parishes appealed to state and Confederate governments,which offered advice, engineering officers, and cannon. Getting money was never in the cards, so five parishes and one Texas county raised it themselves. By early 1863 this money and slave labor had built what was soon known as Fort DeRussy at a strategic bend 30 miles upriver from the Mississippi.

The first action occurred in February, when two ships led by the Union ram, Queen of the West, captured several vessels and burned a few plantations before confronting the fort. It is a naval axiom that a duel between a ship’s guns and land fortifications never favors the ship, but this was never tested because the ram quickly ran aground and was captured. Repaired and joined by Rebel gunboats, this small Confederate fleet sailed into the Mississippi in pursuit of the fleeing crew, now accompanied by a huge Union gunboat, Indianola. Despite its size, Indianola was apparently crewed with incompetents, and in the resulting clash with the gunboats it was rammed, disabled and sank.

Soon after these modest fireworks, the famously inept Union commander in Louisiana,Nathaniel Banks,marched north. Fort DeRussy was not designed to fend off an attack from the land and was less important strategically than Shreveport, so defenders retreated, and Banks’ forces destroyed it in May.Banks withdrew,but it was late fall before Confederate troops reoccupied the fort.

Readers may suddenly realize they have moved from May to December 1863 without news of the Vicksburg campaign barely 100 miles away.While a major media event to both warring parties, the fall of Vicksburg made little difference in the lives of Louisiana citizens. Union forces had been a threat for more than a year, and the persistent claim that cutting the Mississippi deprived the Confederacy of supplies pouring in from western states is now considered a myth. Most supplies produced in the West stayed in the West.

With a spring Union offensive guaranteed, defenders worked frantically to rebuild the fort.Mayeux paints a vivid picture of the miserable freezing cold and mud endured by the workers. On this second effort, planters were less willing to send slaves,working conditions were awful, and dozens died.This misery is superbly documented only because soldiers were forced to work,so their complaints fill the archives.

As expected, Banks advanced in spring 1864 with 10,000 troops. Fort DeRussy’s defenders again withdrew, leaving a rear guard that put up a spirited defense before surrendering. True to form, Banks continued north,dithered,lost a minor battle at Mansfield and then retreated. During this occupation, Union forces worked hard to demolish the fort,and since they never again threatened the Red River area, local commanders made no attempt to rebuild.

Mayeux concludes with a 30-page biography of Lewis Gustave DeRussy,the fort’s original designer,an engineer of modest accomplishments.Readers will learn of efforts to preserve the area,culminating in its 1999 designation as a state historic site.The appendices list literally every casualty suffered on both sides as well as names of slaves who died during the fort’s construction.

 

Originally published in the March 2008 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here

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