Compared to many of his veteran colleagues at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Louis Boudousquié is still somewhat of a newcomer to the Sacramento District after serving for little more than a year, but his bond with the Corps runs deep.
His job as a procurement analyst is one of those behind-the-scenes jobs at the Corps that most people don’t see or understand. Suffice to say, it requires a talent for meticulously poring through a lot of spreadsheets, contracts, audit trails, regulations, policies, and industry best practices. In other words, the stuff that gives the rest of us nightmares, but we sleep better knowing people like Louis love their jobs.
His cubicle looks like virtually all the others in the district’s contracting division, save for one particularly special artifact hanging prominently in his line of sight; an elegantly-framed map, entitled "Boudousquié's Reference Map of Mobile and Vicinity," dated 1889.
Louis discovered the map over twenty years ago while researching records of his family’s history, and it immediately captured his curiosity.
“The map was created and refined over a period of many years, and serves as an abiding tribute to my great-grandfather’s service with our Corps and to the members of his community,” Louis said with an admiring emphasis. “Every stroke is by his hand, each measurement meticulously recorded, illustrated, engraved, lithographed and printed by one man.”
Mapmaking has always been a critical function for the Army Corps of Engineers, going all the way back to the American Revolution, according to USACE historian Dr. Matthew Pearcy.
“Good maps would often be the difference between victory or defeat,” said Pearcy.
While Paul Charles’ map is not known for making the difference between victory or defeat, Louis is certain it helped the people of Mobile when they needed it most.
Combining generations of family lore with a trove of historical documents he mined from the National Archives and Alabama museums, Louis filled in the chronological gaps in his great-grandfather’s story, and his purpose for creating the map on his own accord.
By all accounts, Paul Charles and his socially prominent family were blessed. His father Charles was impresario of the French Opera House and his mother a celebrated soprano who performed there regularly, but when the Civil War uprooted them from their native New Orleans and his father was imprisoned, the family fled to rebuild their lives 150 miles away in Mobile, Alabama. They enrolled their son at nearby Spring Hill College, but his time there would also be cut short by the war.
More than 40 years later, in a school alumni publication, Paul Charles reflected on that time of great uncertainty, and how he and his classmates were hopelessly preoccupied with news of the war:
“One afternoon, at supper time, disastrous tidings were agitating and depressing to an unusual degree, the sullen, silent and spiritless students, and as we filed out from the refectory, where the untouched food emphasized how deeply the boys had been impressed, one of the smaller ones nudged me on the side and exclaimed, 'If I was as big as you, I would not be here pretending to study.' I did, and during the night there was no sleep for me and others; the following morning with fifty of my fellow students, I enlisted ‘for the war.’”
After serving as a combat engineer for two years, Paul Charles wanted to build upon his wartime experiences surveying the nooks and crannies of Mobile Bay, so he boarded a ship bound for his mother’s native France, and enrolled at Chaptal College in Paris, known at the time as the “nursery of engineers.”
After completing his degree in civil engineering and architecture, he returned to Mobile and, in 1870, he was hired as a draftsman at the U.S. Engineer Office in Mobile, the predecessor to the Mobile District.
Initially, he helped update reference maps of the coastal areas of Alabama and Mississippi, creating vital tools for sailors aboard marine vessels ranging from shrimp trawlers to barges and battleships. For many years later while serving as the Deputy or Assistant Engineer, he was responsible for all of the District’s major projects.
Louis said he believes those early Corps projects that helped support national defense and the region’s economic well being, served as inspiration for the map that now hangs above his desk.
“Beginning in the wake of the Civil War, his life’s mission as an engineer was to rebuild, ultimately promoting economic development of the community through the Port of Mobile and linked infrastructure. This was given full expression in his work with the Corps of Engineers,” said Louis.
While the city’s natural waterways helped it richly prosper from the cotton and slave trade for decades before the war, it came at an appalling cost to humanity. By 1860, more than a quarter of Mobile County’s 41,130 inhabitants were slaves. When Confederate Lt. Gen. Richard Taylor surrendered the city to Union forces on May 4, 1865, it spared the city from complete destruction. But its workforce had been vastly diminished, and it faced a long and difficult road toward economic recovery.
Many artifacts Louis has discovered indicate how his great-grandfather was committed to helping Mobile navigate their way back to prosperity.
An 1889 letter from the Mobile Chamber of Commerce praised him for his “advocacy of the region” since returning from France. In many ways, Paul Charles’ advocacy mirrored the Corps’ efforts to promote economic development of the area. This is evidenced by an 1898 letter from the District’s Chief Engineer, Major William Rossell, to the French Ambassador, Jules Cambon. The letter appealed to the ambassador to consider Mobile as the future home for “sober and laborious” French immigrants who sought a new home with the soil, climate and resources similar to their homeland.
Louis points out this letter to the ambassador was in his great-grandfather’s own hand and native French. It contains the very same sentiments literally spelled out in the upper right corner of the map.
“Under the map’s title, my great-grandfather extolled the virtues of Mobile Bay; its natural resources, climate and cultural richness of the “Mediterranean of the New World,” clearly in an effort to make it commercially appealing to investment from industries and governmental agencies at home and abroad.”
Based upon family lore, Louis believes his great-grandfather labored on the map for more than twenty years as he updated and refined its details. An earlier version was published in 1872.
“Mobile Bay is an estuary at the confluence of six rivers, connected to eight smaller bays and several coastal lagoons. He surveyed every bit of it himself,” said Louis.
Trying to compare what it was like to undertake a survey of the 413-square-mile Mobile Bay in the 19th Century to doing so today using modern precision instruments and resources is akin to comparing the experience of walking across the United States to coasting over it in First Class on a jetliner.
“This scale of work and dedication by any standard represents the monumental achievement of one man,” said Louis. “I am tremendously proud of his many accomplishments and contributions as a civil engineer, land surveyor, cartographer, engraver, lithographer and artist while serving with The Corps.”
Louis, his grandfather and great-grandfather were all teenage soldiers and Army surveyors and draftsmen. Following six years of active duty with the 1st Armored Division as a German linguist in addition to his primary responsibilities, Louis spent another five years working in Germany, Austria and Switzerland as a surveyor, draftsman and commercial artist.
While time seems to change everything, some ties that bind us never break free. And that bond can serve as a reliable foundation for today’s work and tomorrow’s aspirations.
His and his great-grandfather’s roles with the Corps differ greatly, but Louis says that ultimately their shared commitment to the mission, and their determination to get the details right, is what seals their bond. To him, the map is a physical reminder of that shared commitment.
“More than just a representation of his professional skills, it reminds me of something I think my great-grandfather might ask; ‘What are you doing to make the Corps better today? How is your work of benefit to others?’ This map remains a memorial to his life of dedicated service.”