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Eugene Woodruff: Victim of Yellow Fever at Shreveport

"To my beloved Son Eugene A. Woodruff, Lieut. of Engrs, U.S.A. A [illegible] of the Howard Association [illegible] the Great Epidemic. Died Sept 30, 1873 Aged 31 Years {illegible].

The Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1873 claimed several victims in Shreveport, including Eugene Woodruff, the man who was charged (figuratively and literally) with removing the Great Raft of the Red River.

Eugene Woodruff, a Connecticut-born graduate of West Point, joined the US Army Corps of Engineers after 1866. In 1871, he was sent to the Red River valley below Shreveport to direct the removal of debris and obstructions in the river's channel, and he did so using nitroglycerine. While the explosives opened up navigation north of Shreveport, they also removed the water's backup in Big Cypress Bayou, which eventually became a much smaller creek and, within a few decades, led to the demise of the river port in Jefferson (Marion County, Texas).

Woodruff would never know of these far-reaching geographic consequences, though. Instead, he came to Shreveport to gather supplies for his crew and witnessed how yellow fever had gripped the city. This disease was blamed on "putrid air," with some editorials speculating that the raft's removal caused "immense quantities of decayed vegetable matter" to poison the atmosphere (Times Picayune, Sep 17 1873). However, since most of the men who worked the raft removal remained in excellent health, this theory was disputed (Shreveport Times, Oct 18 1873). Modern medicine has revealed that yellow fever is caused by the bites of infected mosquitoes, and effective vaccines have eliminated much of the threat today.

Eugene Woodruff was stricken in September of 1873 after refusing to vacate the city and instead, caring for the afflicted through the benevolent Howard Association, believing it his soldier's duty. He succumbed to the disease himself on the 30th of that month, a mere 31 years old.

C.W. Howell, Captain of Engineers and Woodruff's boss, paid beautiful tribute to him in a letter written to the US Army. The letter was published in the New Orleans Republican in October of 1873: "he took his part in bringing order out of chase; in inspiring others with his own fearless spirit; working good both at the bedside of the sick and among those who could only be held in the path of duty and charity by a present bright example... He died a martyr to the blessed cause of charity."

Woodruff was buried in Shreveport's Oakland Cemetery beneath a beautiful tombstone, a few yards away from the mass grave reserved for other victims of the 1873 yellow fever epidemic.

Newspaper article
A list of the dead, Sept 17, 1873 in the Shreveport Times.
The commemorative plaque that identifies the "Yellow Fever Mound" at Oakland Cemetery in downtown Shreveport.
Mass grave
The mass grave of over 700 yellow fever victims in Shreveport's Oakland Cemetery formed a substantial hill.

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