Almost a General: James de Berty Trudeau

Trudeau in the Civil War

The Trudeau family was among the prominent old families of New Orleans. They provided soldiers and administrators to the French and Spanish rulers of Louisiana. The first was Jean Trudeau, a French Canadian, confidant of Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, and an agent with the Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes. The most prominent was Zénon Trudeau, who was an active Spanish official in the Missouri area. His brother was Charles Laveau Trudeau, who worked as Surveyor General of Louisiana and was grandfather of Marie Laveau, the fabled Voodoo Queen of New Orleans.

James de Berty Trudeau was born in Jefferson Parish in 1817 to his father René Trudeau and Adèle Sauve Trudeau. He loved to hunt, paint, and sculpt. He went to school in Paris and then had a military education in Switzerland before learning medicine in France and Philadelphia. He befriended the painter and naturalist John James Audubon, who named a bird Trudeau’s Tern after him. Trudeau accompanied Audubon and his son John Woodhouse Audubon, on John C. Fremont’s 1841 Rocky Mountain expedition. The son painted a portrait of Trudeau when he stayed with the Osage tribe.

Trudeau Among the Osage

In 1843 Trudeau left the Osage and practiced medicine in New York City. He helped found the New York Academy of Medicine in 1847. He married Céphise Berge in 1843. They had three children, with the son Edward being born on October 5, 1848. Céphise though divorced her husband, and married a French officer.

Trudeau stayed in New York City until 1858, by which time he had a reputation as an artist. Why he left is unclear, but it seems Trudeau’s social standing had fallen in New York City. His divorce likely placed a black mark on him and his statuette caricatures of some doctors were not well received by their subjects. Edward later speculated that Trudeau’s love of hunting and time with the Osage were considered unseemly. Trudeau went to New Orleans and by 1860 was again practicing medicine and writing articles.

When Louisiana seceded, Trudeau was made brigadier general of artillery with the Louisiana Militia. He wrote on military topics and trained the state’s artillery. He was posted at Forts Jackson and St. Philip, where he prepared the defenses in the opening weeks of the conflict. Trudeau could be difficult and he bickered with other officers over rank, but he worked earnestly to recruit troops and he was rewarded with command a brigade.

In September 1861, Major General Leonidas Polk requested Trudeau’s services in laying out the defenses of Columbus, Kentucky. Trudeau, now a colonel in the Confederate army, was appointed chief of artillery and in February 1862 he was sent by General P.G.T. Beauregard to command the artillery at Island Number Ten. Both Polk and Beauregard held Trudeau in high regard, and Polk petitioned for his promotion to brigadier general in the Confederate army.

Trudeau worked diligently to defend both New Madrid and Island No. 10. He was popular with the men and his superiors. However, both locations ultimately fell into Union hands. Trudeau was not present for the surrender, having left on April 1. He joined Beauregard’s staff in time for Shiloh. At that battle he acted as chief of artillery and claimed credit for setting up the grand barrage that played a part in the fall of the Hornet’s Nest. He was at some point seriously wounded, likely on April 7. He returned to New Orleans and then to the family plantation in Ascension Parish to recuperate. Despite endorsements from numerous Louisiana politicians, Jefferson Davis did not act to promote Trudeau. This was likely due to his connection to Beauregard, and there is evidence that Davis generally held the Creoles of Louisiana in low regard, and saw no point in promoting one who lacked West Point training. In addition, Davis had negative associations with any officer involved with Island No. 10. On the brighter side, Trudeau married Louise Bringier at some point in 1863. The two remained together until his death and were apparently a happy couple.

On November 5, 1863, Trudeau was captured at his plantation home. He was initially confused with Brigadier General Alfred Mouton, but once that was cleared up he was allowed to stay at his home on parole. In 1864 he broke his parole and allegedly sent Davis a report on conditions in the Florida Parishes of Louisiana. There is no direct evidence for this, but he did send a report to Major General Stephen D. Lee, who was in overall command in Mississippi and East Louisiana at the time.

Trudeau told Lee that conditions in the Florida Parishes were deplorable. The area was hit hard by Federal raiders and was known for lawlessness, with both sides committing numerous atrocities. Trudeau offered his services to Lee but he instead led Louisiana state forces near the shores of Lake Pontchartrain, which was overrun with bandits. These forces were a mix of infantry and cavalry and did not exceed 300 men. In January 1865 Trudeau was captured by a band of criminals, likely Confederate deserters, who almost hanged him.

Edward Trudeau

After the war Trudeau returned to New Orleans to resume his medical practice, although his love of hunting distracted him and his practice did not flourish.  He died on May 25, 1887 and was interred in the Trudeau family vault in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, not far from his more famous relative Marie Laveau. As for his son Edward, he remained in New York City throughout the war and became one of the country’s leading doctors, a pioneer in public health who was honored in 2008 with a stamp. Garry Trudeau of Doonesbury fame is a direct descendant of James and Edward. He described James de Berty Trudeau as man commissioned as an officer only due to his social status and a general failure and embarrassment to the family. This likely represents the feelings more of the New York branch than the Louisiana branch of the family, although Edward admired his father as an artist and doctor. Although he hardly knew him, Edward kept Audubon’s simple portrait until his death, at which point it hung at the Saranac Laboratory for the Study of Tuberculosis, which was founded by Edward in 1894. Regardless of how Garry and Edward felt, James Trudeau certainly had one of the oddest careers of the era. Few Confederate officers could claim such diverse talents, friends, life experiences, and descendants.

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3 Responses to Almost a General: James de Berty Trudeau

  1. David Corbett says:

    Interesting article, thanks.

  2. Sevilla Finley says:

    I he believe Jefferson Parish was incorporated in 1825?

  3. Mike Maxwell says:

    Excellent article…
    Over the years, I have encountered what can best be described as “rabid refusals” to acknowledge Trudeau as a General, and as Chief of Artillery (due to lack of official recognition by CSA officials.) Yet, there is no doubt the man held the role of Chief of Artillery at Island No.10 (and that stronghold in the Mississippi River required superhuman efforts by the Union forces to overcome, involving digging an eight-mile canal; Robert’s Raid against Battery Number One; Walke’s run of USS Carondelet through the gauntlet; the first naval use of 13-inch mortars; and the first employment of a balloon (piloted by Steiner) in the Western Theatre.
    For someone who “was not an artillery chief,” it required extraordinary efforts to overcome the work of de Berty Trudeau.

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