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The Fort DeRussy Cannon

On March 14, 1864, units of the US Army under the command of Brigadier General Andrew Jackson Smith captured Fort DeRussy, Louisiana. The US Navy was not involved in the capture of the fort, as by the time their gunboats arrived the fort was so closely invested by the besieging Army troops that Naval gunfire would have resulted in friendly casualties. Along with the fort and its garrison, Smith captured ten artillery pieces. Two of these guns, 6-pounder field pieces, were destroyed by bursting on the night of March 16. The eight big guns – two 9-inch Dahlgrens, two 24-pounders, three 32-pounder smoothbores, and one 32-pounder rifled gun – were carried away under the auspices of the US Navy over the next few weeks.

Only one of the eight large guns is still in existence, that being the rifled and banded Model of 1829 32-pounder Seacoast Gun. This particular gun was made at the Columbia Foundry in Georgetown (Washington, DC) in 1834, and was marked with the foundry number 289 and was proofed by William Jenkins Worth, whose proof mark WJW was stamped on the muzzle face. Originally a smoothbore, the gun was rifled and banded by Confederate ordnance men early in the war. The gun’s history prior to its arrival at Fort DeRussy (1834-1862) cannot be determined, as the documentation concerning early Army guns was destroyed by the National Archives in the 1950’s.

Research on the Internet, through Wayne Stark’s National Register of Surviving Civil War Artillery, show that the gun is presently located at the Washington Navy Yard, 901 M Street SE, Washington, DC. The Navy Museum, located on the Navy Yard grounds, confirmed that the gun was at that location, and Mr. Baird Webel, of Representative John Cooksey’s staff, has provided recent pictures of the gun to The Friends of Fort DeRussy.

The pictures provided by Congressman Cooksey’s office show that the gun is erroneously marked as having been captured by the Navy on May 4, 1863. There was a naval battle fought in Red River in front of Fort DeRussy on that date, involving the US gunboats Albatross, Arizona and Estrella versus the Confederate gunboats Cotton and Grand Duke. This battle resulted in the defeat of the US forces, who returned the next day with reinforcements and found the fort abandoned. There was a 32-pounder gun found at the fort at that time (probably the 32-pounder which had been damaged by extreme heat which is mentioned in the court-martial proceedings of Lt. Col. Aristide Gerard, CSA), but this gun was burst by members of the crew of USS Benton on May 10 and is definitely not the gun that is currently in the Washington Navy Yard.

[“The enemy had, however, evacuated the works, taking away all but one gun…” Adm. David D. Porter, May 7, 1863. ORN 24{Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies, Volume 24}, p. 645.

“Sent 4 men to assist Mr. Willetts (gunner) to burst a siege gun.” Deck Log of USS Benton, May 10, 1863, abstracted in ORN 24, p. 685.

“I also destroyed (by bursting) one heavy 32-pounder…” D. D. Porter, May 13, 1863. ORN 24, p. 646.]

The gun in question may have been present at the battle on May 4, 1863. A cannon somewhat matching the description of the rifled 32-pounder was a precipitating cause of the battle – the reason the Confederate gunboats were at the abandoned fort was to recover just such a gun that had been thrown into the river during an earlier panic. The gun had been raised, placed on a barge and sent upstream just ten minutes before the battle began; but the barge broke loose from the steamer towing it upriver, and the barge and cannon drifted into the battle zone while the fighting was in progress, and were commented on by parties on both sides of the affair. After the battle and departure of the US gunboats, the Confederate boats recovered the barge and gun. This may or may not have been the same gun that is now at the Washington Navy Yard.

“. . . the submerged 32-pounder gun . . . was placed on board the barge ready to be towed to Alexandria, La. . . . Captain George Hite, of the steamer Countess, was immediately ordered by me to take the barge in tow. This he did, and steamed out of sight and danger up the river.” Capt. John Kelso, May 13, 1863. ORN 20, p. 91.

“In the midst of the fight I observed with indignation and regret that the barge had been cast off from the Countess and had floated down against the raft. . . The Countess made her appearance subsequently and relieved us of the barge.”  Ibid., p. 92.

“. . . alongside one of the steamers was a flatboat with a very large gun, the XI-inch gun in all probability that was said to have been taken from the ill-fated ironclad Indianola: it was ready to be towed away.” Lt. Commander John E. Hart, May 6, 1863. ORN 20, p. 80.

“I feel quite sure that with both the other steamers I could have driven them (the rebels) away. . . and recaptured the Indianola’s XI-inch gun . . .”  Ibid., p. 82.)

The rifled gun that is currently on display in Washington was in position in the northeast gun emplacement of Fort DeRussy’s main redoubt in early 1864. Complaints about the gun’s field of fire by Maj. Gen. John G. Walker, CSA, caused the gun to be moved to the water battery on the river’s edge. This gun ended up in a position by itself, just north of the casemated battery. This particular gun was the only one of the guns in the water batteries that was able to be turned to fire at the attacking land forces during the assault on March 14, 1864.

[Fort DeRussy table of distances map, Tulane University Archives.

“The most effective guns should therefore, I think, be placed in the water battery. Where they now are not more than 1 shot out of 10 would be accurately aimed . . . I therefore recommend that the 9-inch and 32-pounder (rifled) be removed as soon as possible to the water battery.” John G. Walker, January 17, 1864, ORA 34/2 (Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Volume 34, part 2), p. 894.

“. . . in the new Barbette water Battery were mounted the two 32 pdr Carronades.  An IX in gun and the rifled 32 pdr were being mounted in the same Battery.” J. L. Brent, March 11, 1864. Brent Papers, Tulane University. This seems to be incorrect, as both maps made by US forces after the capture of the fort show the rifled piece in a position by itself, north of the casemated battery. The battery with the two carronades and a IX-inch Dahlgren was southeast of the casemate. ORA 34/1, 224, and ORN 26, 34.

“. . . but one of the guns in the water battery could be trailed upon the enemy, and from which but one shot was fired, and that was from the 32-pounder rifle;” J. G. Walker, March 19, 1864, ORA 34/1, p. 601.]

The rifled 32-pounder now at the Washington Navy Yard is listed as having been captured at Fort DeRussy on March 14, 1864, in two different Naval reports (ORN 26, pp. 26, 27 – see enclosures), and is also mentioned in a less detailed description in the Army report of captured ordnance (ORA 34/1, p. 314). Admiral David Porter ordered the captain of USS Benton to remove any “desirable” guns from the fort on March 15, and on March 17 Commander Robert Townsend, USS Essex, reported that the rifled 32-pounder had been moved down to the river bank (ORN 26, pp. 28, 32). On the afternoon of April 8, 1864, the steamer General Lyons tied up to the bank at the fort and took on board four of the captured guns. No record has been found indicating when, or if, the Army turned the cannons over to the Navy or authorized the Navy to remove the cannons from the fort, although Gen. Smith was aware that the Navy took the guns.

[“U.S. Supply Str Genl Lyon came down & made fast alongside   she took from us one hundred & nine (109) bales of cotton. At 3, Genl Lyon cast off & went alongside the bank & took on board four (4) guns captured at Fort De Russey.” Deck Log, USS Essex, April 8, 1864.

“The artillery captured, with the exception of two 6-pounder iron guns, was taken on board the several boats of the fleet.” Maj. Gen. A. J. Smith, September 26, 1865, ORA 34/1, p. 306.]

As concerns the erroneous information stamped on the gun’s reinforcing band, efforts were underway to see if the Curator at The Navy Museum could provide information as to when, and by whom, those stampings were authorized; unfortunately, once it was realized that Friends of Fort DeRussy was claiming the gun as belonging to the fort, the Navy ceased cooperating in this matter.

The markings stamped on the gun very obviously indicate that it is the 32-pounder captured by the Navy after the May 4, 1863 battle. As previously shown, that gun was blown up at the fort on May 10, 1863.

There are two possibilities for these stampings:

1. Admiral Porter stated that he captured the gun at Fort DeRussy in 1863, either intentionally or due to faulty memory.

2. Admiral Porter stated that the gun was captured at Fort DeRussy, and Naval personnel, knowing that the only battle at Fort DeRussy in which the Navy was actively involved occurred on May 4, 1863, marked the cannon accordingly.

Either way, the markings are in error, and the gun on display is not the gun described. As of March 10, 1999, the Navy spokespeople were still claiming that the gun at the Navy Yard was captured on May 4, 1863.

In spite of their claim that the gun they now have was the gun captured on May 4, 1863, the Navy is hedging their bets with the claim that the guns captured on March 14, 1864, were captured by a combined operation of Army and Navy forces. This is not borne out by statements of participants in the capture of the fort, including onlooking Naval bystanders.

[“The gunboats were not engaged; the honor of this victory may be set down to the credit of the land forces.” March 18, 1864. Newspaper account, quoted in The Rebellion Record:  A Diary of America Events, Volume 8, p. 430.

“. . . [Gen. A. J.] Smith then took the Fort by assault, without much difficulty. In these operations the gunboat could be of little use, because the nature of the country made it difficult to observe the progress of the land operations, and there was great danger of firing into our own forces.” Thomas O. Selfridge, What Finer Tradition: The Memoirs of Thomas O. Selfridge, Jr., Rear Admiral, USN, p. 95.

“The guns and works were captured uninjured and 185 prisoners fell into General Smith’s hands…” Lt. Cmdr. S. L. Phelps, March 16, 1864. ORN 24, p. 31.

Admiral Porter himself denied his fleet any credit in the 1864 capture of Fort DeRussy. In his memoirs, Incidents and Anecdotes of the Civil War, published in 1885, Porter stated that the gunboats’ delay at the upriver obstructions, “short as it was, proved fatal to our hopes and expectations of being the captors of Fort DeRussy.” Porter acknowledged that “The victory, of course, belonged to the soldiers. . .”

[Admiral David Porter, Incidents and Anecdotes of the Civil War, pp. 215-216.]

The Fort DeRussy Cannon is not a legitimate Naval War Trophy. It is more along the lines of a souvenir, such as a noncombatant or a civilian would buy from a front-line veteran after the battle was over. There is nothing wrong with having such souvenirs, of course, unless the new owner portrays the souvenir as having been captured by himself in the heat of battle. Unfortunately, this is the case with this particular gun, and its display at the Washington Navy Yard should be a source of embarrassment to any honorable Navy veteran.

This information was prepared by     Steven M. Mayeux

President, Friends of Fort DeRussy, Inc.

The Friends of Fort DeRussy would like to have the Fort DeRussy Cannon returned to the fort.


Reasons Why the Cannon should be Returned


The cannon belongs to Fort DeRussy. While the Navy may have had good practical reasons for removing the cannon in 1864, the cannon still belongs to Fort DeRussy. The Navy has written this concept into law concerning items captured from the Navy, i.e., USS Eastport, USS Signal, USS Covington, et al, all of which lie buried in or near Red River in the vicinity of Fort DeRussy, and all of which are still claimed as Navy property, in spite of the fact that they were captured and sunk during the war. Additionally, the reasons for removing the cannon no longer exist.


The cannon’s significance will be increased a thousandfold by its display at Fort DeRussy. A Navy spokesman described the Fort DeRussy Cannon as a “national treasure”, but displayed at the Washington Navy Yard with 49 other cannons, the gun becomes just one more old cannon in a row of old cannons. Nothing points this out as much as the fact that The Navy Museum personnel themselves do not know the true history of this particular gun. On the other hand, displayed at Fort DeRussy where it actually saw service in the Civil War, the gun would be a real piece of history, a genuine “national treasure.”


Louisiana is no longer at war with the United States. Over the past 135 years, Louisiana has contributed thousands of men and women to America’s Naval Services who have served loyally in combat and peacetime. The development and manufacture of the Higgins boat alone saved countless lives in World War II. The return of the Fort DeRussy Cannon would be small compensation for Louisiana’s contributions to the US Navy.


The cannon is currently being misrepresented. The gun on display at the Navy Yard is being presented to the public as having been captured by Admiral Porter at Fort DeRussy in 1863. It was not. This gun was captured by the Army, and is not a legitimate Naval war trophy.


The honor of the Navy is at stake. For the Navy to keep this cannon now that the facts of its acquisition are known would be a stain on the Honorable Traditions of the Navy. While the concepts of honor and integrity may be currently passé in most of Washington, surely the Washington Navy Yard is one of the bastions that hold steady to the ideals of our Founding Fathers. The Navy has maintained the cannon in excellent condition for over a century, but now that it can be seen that it is not a legitimate Naval war trophy, and that its possession has been tainted by deceit and braggadocio, the only proper thing to do is to return the gun to its rightful owners.



Additional Reasons why the Cannon should be Returned


 The cannon’s potential is not being fully utilized at the Navy Yard. Although the cannon may be exposed to huge numbers of tourists each year at the Navy Yard, these tourists cannot learn anything about the gun. Recently, visitors from Central Louisiana tried to get their pictures taken with the gun, the picture to be published in a local newspaper. No one at the Navy Museum could tell them which cannon was the Fort DeRussy Cannon! They were told that no one there knew which gun it was, and that there were no books there which could give them that information. While this was probably not true, the visitors left without being able to look at the gun, even though they walked right in front of it on their way into the Museum.


The cannon is not on a proper carriage. While a generic, one-size-fits-all mount may be necessary for a large cannon collection such as is held by the Washington Navy Yard, it does not show the gun in its proper context. Fort DeRussy is willing and capable of having a reproduction center-pivot barbette carriage built (at a cost of approximately $25,000) to display the cannon as it was mounted during the Civil War. Given the Navy’s priorities (ships, men, and munitions), it would be unrealistic for them to spend the necessary money to appropriately mount the Fort DeRussy Cannon or any of the other guns in their large collection.


The Navy would not lose anything by having the gun on display at Fort DeRussy. Should the Navy decide to “loan” the gun to Fort DeRussy, they will still maintain all of their legal rights to it, the gun will still be a part of their core collection, the gun will still be available to serious researchers (and in its proper context); in short, the Navy loses nothing. On the other hand, the Navy stands to gain a great deal from a public relations standpoint. (One must consider that while the Navy may have legal ownership of the Fort DeRussy Cannon, morally and ethically the cannon is a part of, and belongs to, Fort DeRussy. No law or judicial decision can change that. But the gun’s presence at Fort DeRussy or the Washington Navy Yard does not change that one way or the other.)


The presence of the gun at the Navy Yard is a potential public relations nightmare for the Navy.  The erroneous information stamped on the cannon, should it become public knowledge, could make the Navy look like a bunch of “in-the-rear-with-the-gear” glory-seekers. In actual fact, some of the noblest and bravest men in the world are the Navy Corpsmen who serve with Marine units, and certainly there are large numbers of other brave and honorable men in the Navy whose reputations should not be tarnished just because one long-ago sailor tried to impress someone.


Fort DeRussy is named after the son of one of the Navy’s first officers. Lewis DeRussy, namesake of the fort, is the son of Thomas DeRussy, a French Naval Officer who was recruited by Benjamin Franklin to serve in the newly formed US Navy. Thomas DeRussy served under John Paul Jones, and was aboard Pallas when that ship and Bonhomme Richard engaged and defeated HMS Dutchess of Scarborough and Serapis. The Navy has a definite stake in honoring its founding officers, and to honor Lewis DeRussy would bring honor to his father. (Lewis DeRussy’s West Point appointment was due in large part to his father’s actions in the Revolutionary War.)


The cannon should be returned to Fort DeRussy out of respect for Rear Admiral Richard Byrd. Rear Admiral Richard E. Byrd is one of the US Navy’s great heroes of the 20th Century. The Naval aviator and Polar explorer was a 1912 graduate of the US Naval Academy, and over his lifetime was awarded the Medal of Honor, the Navy Cross, two Distinguished Service Medals and two Legions of Merit. Rear Admiral Byrd was the grandson of Lt. Col. William Byrd, CSA, the commanding officer of Fort DeRussy when the Fort DeRussy Cannon was taken from the fort. (Lt. Col. Byrd was also the grandfather of former Virginia Governor and US Senator Harry Flood Byrd, and great-grandfather of former US Senator from Virginia Harry Flood Byrd, Jr.) Admiral Byrd would no doubt have been very much in favor of having the Navy return his grandfather’s cannon, and the refusal of the Navy to do so would show an uncalled-for lack of respect for the family of a true Naval hero.


Fort DeRussy is Louisiana’s newest State Historic Site. The acquisition of the fort will now allow the Louisiana Office of State Parks the opportunity to create a “trail” of Civil War sites up the length of the state. This long-sought trail will be heavily promoted and is expected to draw large numbers of tourists to the state. Fort DeRussy, being a new park, will be the least known of the sites so it will be the most heavily promoted. In its first few years of operation, the new park can be expected to draw unusually large numbers of tourists. The Fort DeRussy Cannon would be a centerpiece of the fort and would be central to national advertisements regarding the new park. Prior to State acquisition, the fort had already generated $300,000 in Federal and State grants. With State involvement, even larger amounts will be spent. The Navy’s donation, or “loan,” of the cannon would undoubtedly result in a lot of good publicity for the Navy and the fort. The gun would be exposed to a very heavy visitor viewing and its presence would be widely known and discussed among cannon aficionados. The resulting publicity and tourism would also benefit a rural area of the State that is now heavily dependent on casino gambling and a prison system for employment.


The US Government feels that Fort DeRussy is worth developing. Fort DeRussy is being given a $75,000 grant from the Land & Water Conservation Fund by the US Congress for use in the purchase of more land to add to the fort site. Obviously, the US Government feels that Fort DeRussy is worthy of development. The presence of the cannon at the fort would add immeasurably to the improvement of the fort as an historic site, and would enhance the spending of this taxpayer money.

Photo by Baird Webel