A Brief History of
Fort DeRussy, an earthen fort built to defend the Red River from naval
intrusions during the Civil War, is located in Avoyelles Parish, Louisiana, about
three miles north of the town of Marksville. It was named after Colonel Lewis G.
DeRussy of Natchitoches, the oldest West Point graduate to serve in the Confederate
Army and a veteran of the War of 1812 and the Mexican War. DeRussy, a prominent engineer
in civilian life, was engineering officer in charge of the construction of the first
fortifications at that site. Construction of the fort began in November of 1862.
Fort DeRussy was the site of three major Civil War engagements and numerous
minor skirmishes. In February of 1863, the US ram Queen of the West was captured
by Confederate troops at the fort, and was repaired and refitted there prior to being
sent out to capture the US ironclad Indianola. In May of the same year, as the fort
was being abandoned, the Confederate gunboats Cotton and Grand Duke were attacked
by the US gunboats Albatross, Arizona and Estrella in the river in front of the fort.
In spite of significant losses on the Confederate boats (4 missing, 17 wounded),
this action also ended as a Confederate victory. The Union gunboats retreated down
the river, and the captains of the Arizona and Estrella were later court-martialed
(but acquitted) over this incident. Shortly after this action, US naval forces took
the abandoned fort, destroyed portions of it, and then left the area. The returning
Confederate army rebuilt the fort and adjacent water batteries, and in March of 1864,
at the start of the Red River Campaign, the fort was attacked from the land side
by US General Andrew Jackson Smith's army. Confederate General John Walker's Texans
retreated before Smith's army, leaving a small force of 300 men to defend the fort
against Smith's 10,000. The fort was captured after a four-hour siege and assault.
Union losses were around 7 killed, and about 44 wounded. Confederate losses were
even less, approximately 5 killed and 4 wounded. Union forces spent 3 days attempting
to tear the fort down, and finally gave up, but not before an additional 2 men were
killed and 4 wounded in an explosion.
After the capture by US forces, Fort DeRussy was used as a recruiting
station for black troops, and as a "contraband camp" for escaped slaves for several
weeks. By mid-April, US ground forces had abandoned the fort, although a naval presence
was maintained in the river at the fort. During this period, until the departure
of US forces in late May, fighting was semi-continuous between small Confederate
units on the shore and US gunboats in the river. Naval forces shelled the fort at
irregular intervals during this time to prevent its takeover by Confederate troops.
Fort DeRussy was never re-manned after the Red River Campaign. It was
used as a campsite by troops passing through the area, and as a signal station. Although
eroded by time, weather, and a destructive occupying army, a substantial portion
of the earthworks are still in existence, and the main redoubt was purchased by La
Commission des Avoyelles in March, 1996. The property (about 70 acres) became a State
Historic Site in 1999. Although not open to the public at this time, work is ongoing
at the fort with the purpose of making the area accessible to visitors in the near