The Life and Times of Lewis DeRussy
by Steven M. Mayeux
A paper presented before the
First Annual Frontier History Symposium
Fort Jesup, Louisiana
March 1, 2002
Lewis Gustave DeRussy was a little-known, but very active, participant in the early days of Louisiana’s history. He was a State senator, a State representative, a parish assessor, a civil engineer, and a loving husband and father. He was also a veteran of three wars – The War of 1812, the Mexican War, and the Civil War; the modern equivalent of which would be someone who had served on active duty as an officer in World War I, World War II, and Vietnam. Between wars, he was a Major General in the State Militia. He was involved in at least two duels and two shipwrecks. He was the oldest West Point graduate to serve as an officer in the Confederate Army, and he had three Confederate forts named after him. (He also had a brother and a nephew who were generals in the Union Army, and between the three of them there were five Fort DeRussys.) Some men are born with a silver spoon in their mouths. Lewis DeRussy was born with a steel bayonet in his.
Lewis was the son of Thomas DeRussy and Madeliene de Bessieres. Thomas was born a French citizen, and was an officer in the French Navy when he was recruited by Benjamin Franklin, Commissioner to France, to serve under John Paul Jones in the newly formed American Navy. He was serving as an officer aboard the frigate Pallas during the famous battle off Flamborough Head. He was probably the officer in charge of the work crew assigned to keep the Bonhomme Richard afloat after the battle. The Richard sank, but Jones did not forget his loyal officers.
After the war, Thomas DeRussy settled on family holdings in the West Indies, in what is now Haiti. But Thomas was apparently doomed to a life of excitement. His son, René Edward, was born in 1792, and shortly after that he and his family were forced to flee for their lives from a particularly violent slave uprising. Legend has it that they were saved by an American warship in the harbor, sent there by John Paul Jones to rescue them. The ship brought them to New York City, where they settled, and where Lewis Gustave was born in 1795.
There is some debate over whether Lewis’ middle name is actually Gustave or Gustavus. Records show the name spelled both ways. No signature with his middle name spelled out is known to exist. He definitely spelled his first name LEWIS, which is peculiar considering that his parents were French, and would be expected to spell the name LOUIS.
In addition to getting him rescued from Haitian slave uprisings, Thomas DeRussy’s Revolutionary War career also had other benefits. Both René and Lewis received appointments to the new US Military Academy at West Point. René graduated in 1812, and Lewis in 1814. (Lewis was ranked 96th at West Point – not in his class, but rather was the 96th graduate in the history of the school.) Lewis graduated in a surprisingly short time, being at the Academy for only eleven months, from April, 1813 to March, 1814. One would expect this was due to the War with Great Britain that was ongoing at that time, but some graduates of the Class of 1809 were at the Academy for only seven months.
Upon graduation, DeRussy was assigned as an engineer to the defenses of New York City. After the war he was in garrison in New York, and in January, 1816, he married the lovely Elizabeth Claire Boerum, of the prominent Long Island Boerums. From late 1816 to 1819 he served as an Artillery officer, and in 1819 Lewis was sent as Surveyor and Topographer of the survey party that established the boundary between the United States and Canada, as per the Treaty of Ghent. He spent two years on that assignment, where he was popular with his coworkers if for no other reason than that he was the only man in the party whose wife sent him packages of cakes and preserves. How these items made the journey, via steamboat and Indian messengers, to a land of “savages, rocks, and sterility,” would no doubt make a good story in itself. Lewis finally returned to his thoughtful wife, and the next few years were spent either on Artillery or Topographical duties until 1826, when he was promoted to Major and became Paymaster of the Red River Posts.
DeRussy and his growing family lived off base in a house on the road between Fort Jesup and Natchitoches. There were six children in the family. Marie Emilie was the only daughter, and may have been the oldest child. She was the first married. Thomas Edward may have been the oldest son, but his birth date in not known. He married in 1842. William was born in New York in 1824, and Gustavias (who was probably Lewis, Jr.) was also born in New York in 1827, indicating that Elizabeth did not come immediately to Louisiana with Lewis in 1826. When she did come she must have brought her little sister Ann with her. And as 17-year-old New York girls were rare at Ft. Jesup in 1828, it didn’t take long for her to find a beau. Ann Boerum was soon Mrs. Major George Birch. Unfortunately, Ann died in October, 1829, a few months after her eighteenth birthday. Lewis’ next son, George Birch DeRussy, was born several months later. (In J. Fair Hardin’s book, Ann was said to be 48 years old at the time of her death. The Boerum family Bible shows that she was born in 1811. For her to have been 48, she would have had to have been born when her mother was only twelve. And she was Jane Fox Boerum’s thirteenth child.)
Lewis’ next son was also named for a neighbor and friend. John Cortez DeRussy, born 1832, was named for John Francois Cortes, a wild young man from Natchitoches who would marry Marie Emilie DeRussy in 1834. By all accounts, John Cortes was an arrogant, violent, hateful man, who could be absolutely charming when he wanted to be. But he was a mean drunk, and a poor choice for a husband. Or a son-in-law.
In 1836, Elizabeth Claire DeRussy died, and was buried in the Ft. Jesup graveyard with her sister. But the years have been kind to Elizabeth. Her grave marker lies flat on the ground, and the marble has been eroded by 160+ years of rain and weather, to the point that the second “4” in her age (44) now looks like a “1”. Elizabeth DeRussy lives on in eternity with three years subtracted from her age, surely every woman’s dream.
With his wife’s passing, DeRussy seems to have thrown himself into local politics. He ran for State Senator in 1838 as a Whig, while still on active duty at the fort. He was defeated by General Pierre Bossier, a Democrat. In 1839, DeRussy stood as a second for General Francois Gaiennie in his famous duel with Bossier. Bossier and Gaiennie faced off with rifles at forty yards, and although Gaiennie fired first, he missed, and was killed.
DeRussy also seems to have been as much involved with his family as with politics during this period of his life. His brother John had joined him in Natchitoches, and was sheriff of Natchitoches Parish in 1839. Another of his wife’s sisters had also come down from New York, and in 1840 Louisa Boerum married Thomas P. Jones, the deputy clerk of court. Also in 1840, Lewis remarried, to Eliza Davenport Russell of Grand Ecore. Eliza was the widow of Dr. Samuel Russell, a state representative. Legend has the wealthy Dr. Russell connected in some way with the infamous outlaw John Murrel, and to this day the Russell Cemetery at Grand Ecore is vandalized by treasure hunters seeking the key to “Murrel’s Gold.”
DeRussy moved into the Russell home at Grand Ecore, which stood at what is now the southern approach to the Red River bridge. Although the house never belonged to DeRussy, it came in later years to be called the DeRussy house, causing varying degrees of aggravation to the descendants of the Russell family.
In addition to his political and familial involvements, DeRussy was also involved with church matters. During this same period he was on the board of directors of Trinity Episcopal Church. Another West Point graduate, Leonidas Polk, was Bishop of the Southwest Diocese, and made at least two visits to Natchitoches in 1839 and ‘41.
1842 was not a good year for Lewis DeRussy. For several years, the hot-headed John Cortes had been giving DeRussy’s daughter Emilie a hard time. Cortes was a frequent defendant in lawsuits over unpaid debts, and bragged that he had once “received and accepted challenges to three duels in a single day.” Emilie, on the other hand, was a model of decorum, and frequently defended her husband’s indefensible behavior. She had endured beatings, public verbal abuse, and accusations of adultery. Lewis himself had been threatened by Cortes. Emilie left Cortes, but finally gave in to pressure from family and friends and returned. The whole affair came to a head one Sunday afternoon when Cortes walked into the office of attorney James Giles, Emilie’s alleged “lover”, and shot and killed him while he ate dinner. Cortes fled to Mexico, where he took a commission in the Mexican Army that was then at war with the Republic of Texas.
But DeRussy’s troubles for that year were just starting. As Paymaster, DeRussy was responsible for paying the troops at Fort Towson, Oklahoma, as well as at Fort Jesup. While carrying a payroll there, the steamboat on which DeRussy was riding blew up, and the payroll was lost. As a result, he was dismissed from the service, and DeRussy’s 29 years of military service came to an end.
Lewis appealed his dismissal, though, and won. President Tyler found that he had “been too harshly dealt with”, and ordered that the next opening in the Paymaster’s Department be given to DeRussy. But no opening appeared before the Polk administration took over, and the next opening was given to another officer. DeRussy was personally disliked by the Paymaster General, and he believed the oversight was intentional. It probably was. Lewis was never returned to active duty in the Regular Army.
His military training did not go to waste, particularly the engineering training that he received at West Point and in the Topographical Corps. DeRussy obtained work as a civil engineer, and was involved in many land reclamation and river channelization projects throughout the state, pioneering methods of swamp reclamation that are still used. His 1853 map of the falls of the Red River at Alexandria served as the basis for almost all of the Civil War maps of the area, and his work is easily recognized in maps of Bailey’s Dam. On other maps, “DeRussy’s Channel” through the rapids is well marked.
But the military was DeRussy’s first love, and when the Mexican War broke out in 1846, he was elected Colonel of the Louisiana Regiment of Volunteers and led them to Mexico in January, 1847. The regiment was dogged by bad luck throughout the war. The troops sailed from New Orleans to Mexico, where one of their ships, with the Colonel aboard, promptly wrecked off the beach. The ship was stranded for eight days, surrounded by Mexicans demanding their surrender. DeRussy’s men were able to slip away from their pursuers, and arrived at Tampico in late February, 1847, just before a relief expedition set out to rescue them. But the men had lost a large part of their arms and equipment, and were forced to remain at Tampico as garrison troops for most of the war.
On March 6, DeRussy was involved in the second duel of his career. DeRussy and Copeland S. Hunt, a Captain in his command, took the field of honor, “all rank was waived and the parties appeared on the ground as private citizens.” Captain Hunt received a very slight flesh wound to the breast. What incited the combat is unknown, but a newspaper correspondent did say that “under the circumstances there was no way to avoid the hostile meeting.”
The situation with DeRussy’s command in Tampico was not good. Dysentery and malaria were rampant, and the men suffered from the lack of clothing and supplies that had been lost in the shipwreck. Requests for aid were sent back to Louisiana, but none was forthcoming.
In early July, DeRussy and a force of 126 men were sent to recover American prisoners of war being held by the Mexicans in a town some eighty miles away. The mission was ambushed, lost several men and all ninety of their pack mules, and was forced to retreat while under constant attack. By the time the town of Tantayuka was reached, their one cannon was out of ammunition and the men were down to nine rounds each for their muskets. Cannister charges were improvised for the cannon from champagne bottles found in the town, but the unit was surrounded. A surrender demand was made and refused, and DeRussy’s command was finally able to fight their way back to Tampico. Newspapers reported that DeRussy himself had taken several balls through his clothes.
The rest of the war passed uneventfully for the Louisiana Regiment, disease and boredom being their only enemies. DeRussy served at Tampico as Justice of the Peace, Chief of Police, and Storekeeper of the Custom House, and also put his engineering skills to work, cutting a channel two miles long through a marsh into the Tampico River, which allowed steam navigation to 100 miles inland.
DeRussy’s Regiment returned to Louisiana in July of 1848, and disbanded. Shortly after that, DeRussy was appointed Major General in the State Militia, and served in that capacity until 1861. He remained active in politics, serving as a state representative from 1851 to 1853, state senator from 1853 to 1855, and was also elected Natchitoches Parish assessor in 1854.
When the dogs of war barked again in 1861, DeRussy got back into harness. He was elected Colonel of the 2nd Louisiana Infantry, and took that unit to Virginia in the summer of ’61. Upon his arrival there, he found himself stationed near Fortress Monroe, where his older brother, René, was also stationed. Unfortunately, René was fighting for the other side. The Civil War may have been a war of brother against brother, but the DeRussy boys were having none of it. Family legend has it that they met; and shortly afterwards, René was in California, in charge of the US West Coast defenses, and Lewis resigned as commander of the 2nd Louisiana, and worked for a while as an engineer for General Polk on the Mississippi River defenses around Island No. 10 and Belmont, Kentucky. While there, serving with the rank of Major, DeRussy played the role of peacemaker between Generals Polk and Pillow. Those two did not get along, and Lewis, although junior in rank, was respected by both men for his age and accomplishments, and served as a referee when the two generals quarreled.
DeRussy soon returned to Louisiana, and tried to settle down, but was called back to duty to choose a site for the defense of Red River. He chose a bend in the lower river near Marksville, at Barbin’s Landing, the first point coming up the river where the high ground is within cannon shot of the river. The defenses there were first called Fort Taylor, after General Richard Taylor, but soon became Fort DeRussy. During the entire war, in three attempts, the Union Navy was never able to get past a defended Fort DeRussy. Fortunately for the Navy, on their second attempt they found the fort abandoned, and on their third attempt, they arrived just after the fort was captured by the Union Army.
Shortly after choosing the site for the fort and beginning construction, DeRussy returned to his home at Grand Ecore. He apparently was away when the Union Army occupied his house in 1864, although his wife was there and did receive visitors from the occupying forces, who occasionally came by to pay their respects to the old man. The house was not burnt when they left, and stood until 1888.
In 1844, DeRussy took in one of his first wife’s nieces, whose mother had died. Emily Brandt was 13 when she arrived at Grand Ecore from New York, and she fell in love with her stepbrother, and they later married. Emily dearly loved her “Uncle DeRussy,” and we are indebted to her, and her diary, for the story of how Lewis died. It was December of 1864, about nine months after the Yankees had left the area. The 69-year-old man had spiced beef for supper. He retired to bed in perfect health, and about 10 PM began to feel poorly. He complained of indigestion, and died about midnight. He was buried two days later, on a Sunday morning, in the Russell family cemetery at Grand Ecore, wearing a nice suit and laid out in a cypress coffin.
This should be the end of the story . . . but it’s not. There is a peculiar, and completely unintended, tradition in the DeRussy family. Lewis’ brother, Rene, died in California in 1865. But he had been superintendent of the Military Academy in the 1830’s, and in 1907 his body was disinterred and reburied at West Point. Lewis’ first wife, in a totally unrelated event, was also disinterred in 1907, moved from her resting place at Ft. Jesup to the National Cemetery in Pineville.
By the late 20th century, the Russell family cemetery had been swallowed by woods and trashed by vandals. Only one marker remained whole, the fence had been stolen, and many of the graves had been dug into, due at least in part to the purported connection to Murrel’s treasure. When a local historical society in Avoyelles Parish began efforts to restore Fort DeRussy and discovered the many contributions that DeRussy had made to early Louisiana history, descendants were contacted and asked for permission to move DeRussy’s remains to the fort. They enthusiastically agreed, and in September, 1999, DeRussy was reinterred on the grounds of the fort, with religious services and military honors, becoming the third person in his immediate family to be buried twice.
And that, for now, is the end of the story.
Steve Mayeux has been chairman of The Friends of Fort DeRussy since its founding in 1994. He is a graduate of LSU, a former Marine officer, and a member of La Commission des Avoyelles, the Louisiana Historical Association, the Council on America’s Military Past, and the Marine Corps Tankers Association. Mayeux received the 1999 Avoyellean of the Year Award for spearheading the efforts to have Fort DeRussy made a State Historic Site.