The crewmen of the French naval aviso Tonnerre (Thunder) embarked from Vera Cruz, Mexico, in late July 1857, en route to Havana. According to Andre Lafargue (1878-1949, New Orleans attorney, Francophile, and instrumental preservationist of this monument), a few crew members were stricken with yellow fever while in Vera Cruz harbor. The ships commander, Lieutenant Clement Maudet, believed that distance from the port in Mexico could prevent the spread of disease onboard, and so set course for Havana. Yet over the course of the journey to Cuba, many more sailors contracted the fever. In an attempt to seek medical help for those afflicted, the Tonnerre stopped at the Mississippi River Quarantine Station instead. Over the next twelve days, 19 more of the Tonnerre crew would perish, with many others falling ill. On August 19, 1857, the Tonnerre left the Quarantine Station for Havana, a journey during which 13 more crewmen would contract the fever, among whom three died and were buried at sea.
The tale of the Tonnerre, its crew, and its monument, highlights so many historical aspects of the mid-nineteenth Caribbean and Atlantic world. It is a story of memorialization and reclamation, of the interactions between cultures and nations, and of the management of public health in this time. In this post, we seek to unpack some of these curious aspects of the monument that rises so subtly from behind St. Louis Cathedral.
The Tonnerre is referred to in historical documents as both a corvette and an aviso or “advice ship.” While there appears to be some distinction between the two (and we don’t presume to call ourselves naval historians) – for example, avisos are customarily smaller than corvettes – documents consistently refer to the Tonnerre as a ship assigned the duty of relaying messages between larger naval commands. The four-gun Tonnerre was a steam-powered vessel, propelled by a paddle, and was inducted into service by the French Navy at Indret in 1838. By 1850, the French Navy had about a dozen such first class “advice boats,” including five constructed of iron (Le Mouette, Le Heron, Le Eclaireur, Le Requin, and L’Epervier), although the Tonnerre was not constructed of iron.
By 1857, the Tonnerre and its crew had already completed service in the Crimean War (1853-1856) in which an alliance of European powers fought Russia for influence over the Black Sea and Middle Eastern. Lieutenant Clement Maudet, who came to command the Tonnerre, fought with the French Foreign Legion in Crimea, earning a medal for his bravery. Many of the other sailors aboard the Tonnerre served in this conflict before being dispatched to the Caribbean.
The presence of the Tonnerre in the Caribbean also highlights the colonial and military interactions in the Caribbean and Atlantic world at the time. The Tonnerre was charged with relaying messages between Vera Cruz and Havana (a role the ship would serve through the late 1850s). The ship’s mission likely related to French economic and political interests in Mexico, which Emperor Napoleon III viewed as critical to Latin American trade access. French intervention would escalate to full on invasion in 1861, and later the unsuccessful installation of Hapsburg emperor Maximilian I. It was in this conflict in 1863, that Lieutenant Clement Maudet would die of wounds acquired in the Battle of Camerone.
The Tonnerre was the fifth ship of the French navy to bear this name. The first French Naval Tonnerre was the British HMS Thunder, captured in 1696. The Tonnerre under Maudet’s command in 1857 was retired in 1878. The French Navy currently operates the eighth Tonnerre, placed into active service in 2006.
The Tonnerre had an original crew of eighty sailors, including a doctor (who died of yellow fever at the Quarantine Station), sailors, ensigns, stokers (steam engine operators), chefs, and mates. Eighty of whom contracted yellow fever either in Mexico, Louisiana, or Cuba. Thirty of these seamen died. Two of the chefs aboard the Tonnerre who perished in 1857 appear to have been of Italian descent: Giovanni Carletto and Jean Janotti. Ages of the men who died aboard the Tonnerre are not listed.
The names inscribed onto the monument are:
Victor Daniel Lapenne, ler Martre Mecanicien
Jaques Aulain Thérnais, Maitre D’Equipage
Hervé Ernest Thépot, Marine Canonnier
Pierre Marie Rio, Quartier Maitre
Jean Napoléon Teynac, Matelot
Jean Marie Lebras, Matelot
Francois Marie ?ubeau, Matelot
Paul René Lebaillit, Matelot
Pierre Emérit, Matelot
Jean Louis Félix Ledet, Matelot
Armand Coppin, Matelot
Jules Reverdy, Matelot
Edouard Pierre Hély, Matelot
Jean Baptiste Caloni, Matelot
Marie Joseph Chalien, Matelot
Edouard Gustave Charles Wils, Matelot
Felix Victor Romain Lepoetre, Matelot
Jean Marguerite Francois Querré, Ouvrier Chauffeur
Etienne Léon Lanteaumé, Ouvrier Chaurffer
Emile Hummel, Maitre Amrurie
Henri Désiré Francois Gamas, Magasinier
Thomas Francois Luce, Commis Aux Vivres
Yves Lannien, Boulanger
Giovani Carletto, Coq
Jean Janotti, Maitre D’Hotel
Pierre Etienne Paul Rambourd, Enseigne De Vaisseau
Lucien Saulliere, Enseigne De Vaisseau
Nicolas DeImance Mongin, Medecin Major
The Fever and the Quarantine Station
Annual outbreaks of yellow fever shaped New Orleans history throughout the nineteenth century. Beginning in the spring and often lasting ‘til first frost in October or November, these epidemics destabilized New Orleans cultural and economic affairs. Prior to scientific advances that confirmed germ theory and the mosquito as vector, attempts to understand yellow fever were muddied by superstition and confusion.
Quarantine Stations were present in most eastern seaboard cities by the early 1800s. In New Orleans, the necessity of such stations was frequently debated and they were often decommissioned. In many cases, New Orleans merchants were staunch opponents of quarantine. Such systems, they said, disrupted commerce and were thus unacceptable. Their arguments appeared validated when, on occasion, epidemics broke out despite the presence of quarantine stations – likely due to the yellow fever mosquito (Aedes aegypti)’s fondness for sheltering in ship cargo holds. Incidentally, however, 1857 was not a significant epidemic year for New Orleans. As the Tonnerre had no intention of docking in the City en route to Havana, the condition of this one ship’s crew posed little danger of epidemic to the Crescent City.
The Quarantine Station that the Tonnerre sought shelter at was likely located about 75 miles downriver from New Orleans, in Plaquemines Parish. Thanks to Andre Lafargue’s sleuthing, it’s location can be narrowed to near the communities of Ostrica and Buras, Louisiana, very near to the mouth of the Mississippi River. This Quarantine Station was established around 1855, after the Louisiana state legislature passed a law calling for three quarantine stations: one at least seventy miles downriver from New Orleans, one near the entrance to Lake Pontchartrain, and a third on the Atchafalaya River. A number of other stations had been erected and abandoned in the decades before 1855, including one at English Turn. In April 1855, the newly-formed Louisiana Board of Health purchased two steamboats, “to serve as temporary quarters for the Mississippi River station until permanent buildings could be erected.” The Mississippi River Quarantine Station would be erected soon afterward.
The process of disinfection now employed consists of burning sulphur in iron pots. These pots are placed in tubs containing water. This method is liable to the grave objection that there is, in many cases, and especially during rough weather, danger of firing the ship.
In this report, the Board of Health appears to be investigating the feasibility of placing the Station back into service, although no evidence suggests this happened. However, the report documented the enduring presence of the Tonnerre monument:
The graveyard of the Quarantine Station is located about 200 feet to the rear of the Fever Hospital, and is surrounded by a rude fence and covers about three-fourths of an acre. Marks of about one-hundred graves can be discerned by the inclosure [sic], which are thickly covered with tall grass, brambles, and shrubs.
There is only a solitary marble monument, which bears the following inscription:
"A la mémoire de Trente Marins, faisant partie de l'équipage de l'avito vaisseau de la Marine Imperiale le Tonnerre, décède à la Quarantaine de la Nouvelle Orléans en Août, 1857. Erige par l'Odre de S.E. L'amiral Hamelin, ministre de la Marine de l'Empereur Napoléon III.”
Thanks to donations from the families of surviving Tonnerre crewmen, a marble monument was installed at the Quarantine Station in 1859. Unfortunately, the craftsperson that designed and built it is unknown. Photos from the monument’s recovery indicate that it was originally a marble-clad box tomb, with fluted corner pieces and a marble slab atop which the monument’s obelisk and urn were fixed. This style of memorial was typical of 1850s high-style cemetery architecture in both New Orleans and France. Derived from sarcophagus designs, similar monuments can be found in the cemeteries of Montparnasse (France) and St. Louis Cemetery No. 2, although less modified versions are visible in the upriver parishes.
The Tonnerre monument was described intact by the Louisiana Board of Health in 1880, even though the Quarantine Station cemetery had become derelict. Andre Lafargue shares a similar recollection from his youth, seeing the monument ascending from the brush as he traveled the river. Lafargue notes that at some time between 1880 and 1914 the obelisk fell in a hurricane. The Quarantine Station long abandoned, without intervention the Tonnerre monument would have sunken beneath overgrowth and debris.
We finally came to a spot, near a tree of greater dimensions than the others, and there found traces of former habitations, and all of a sudden our feet struck a pile of bricks and pieces of marble and we knew, after examination of the fragments, that we had finally found the spot where the cemetery stood long years before and where the monument had been built. The ladies, highly elated by the discovery, were very helpful in picking up various pieces of the pedestal and we finally located the obelisk, the main section of the most important part of the monument, and the gracefully draped urn. The urn had been wrenched from the top of the obelisk and the latter had broken into two pieces in its fall to the ground, after the pedestal and the foundation had been undermined by the elements and the rough usage of time.
The monument was reconstructed by New Orleans stonecutter and tomb builder Albert Weiblen. Weiblen built a burial vault atop which the monument would sit and bordered with a Georgia Creole marble coping wall. This vault forms a tumulus structure and simultaneously elevates the monument. Weiblen’s skill in reconstructing the monument is remarkably evident: it is difficult to determine which elements of the monument are replacements and which are original. But some clues are visible: one inscribed tablet is of a slightly different type of marble, and is inscribed with a pneumatic tool, whereas the other inscribed faces of the pedestal have smaller, hand-carved lettering. It appears as if the monument itself may have been slightly downsized, it’s dimensions shaved away to remove damaged or unsalvageable elements. A small bronze plaque was installed at the front of the coping by De Lucas Monument Company at the cost of $13.
Since its rededication, the Tonnerre monument has survived a few more hurricanes, and an instance in the 1930s in which an inebriated driver crashed through the gates of the Cathedral garden and toppled the obelisk. But for the most part the monument (and the remains therein) have known peaceful repose, quietly situated between St. Louis Cathedral and Royal Street, so often escaping notice.
 Every history of the Tonnerre’s trials at the Louisiana quarantine station omits the commander’s first name. Based on other histories of the French Navy in the Baltic and Mexico, and other statistical data, the commander of the Tonnerre was most likely Clement Maudet (1829-1863), French Legionnaire, who would die later in Mexico during the Battle of Camarone, part of the Second French Intervention.
 Ibid., 333-336.
 John Fincham, A History of Naval Architecture, to which is prefixed an introductory dissertation on the application of mathematical science to the art of naval construction (London: Whittaker and Co., 1851), 408.
 French war steamer Tonnerre embarks from Havana to Mexico, Daily Picayune, October 21, 1857; French war steamer Tonnerre returns to Havana, Daily Picayune, December 14, 1857.
 This is an extremely generalized recapitulation of colonialism in the Caribbean in the 1850s. For further reading see: The Second French Intervention in Mexico, The French Intervention in Mexico and the American Civil War, and if all of this is too complicated or frustrating, just check out this fun comic.
 Henry Rightor, Standard History of New Orleans, Louisiana (New Orleans: Lewis Publishing Company, 1900), 211-213.
 John Duffy, The Sanitarians: A History of American Public Health (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1992), 60; Joy J. Jackson, Where the River Runs Deep: The Story of a Mississippi River Pilot (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1993), 55; Alcee Fortier, Louisiana: Comprising Sketches of Parishes, Towns, Events, Institutions, and Persons, Arranged in Cyclopedic Form, Vol. 2 (Century Historical Association, 1914), 337. Jackson notes quarantine stations located at Cubit’s Gap (around 1910) and a post-1920 station at the lower end of Algiers. Andre Lafargue describes a quarantine station at Pilot Town, twenty miles downriver from Ostrica, by 1914.
 John Duffy, ed. The Rudolph Matas History of Medicine in Louisiana, Vol. II (Binghamton, New York: Vail-Ballou Press, Inc., 1962), 185-186.
 Joseph Jones, M.D. Report of the President of the Board of Health of the State of Louisiana for the Year 1880, 14. The report also notes the success of quarantine measures for that year, including the removal of the bark Excelsior, bound from Rio de Janiero, to Quarantine, which “certainly freed the city of New Orleans from the infected crew, and in the opinion of a portion of at least of the medical profession, preserved the citizens from an epidemic.”
 Ibid., 18.
 Ibid., 15.
 Andre Lafargue, “The Little Obelisk in the Cathedral Square in New Orleans,” 336.
 John Smith Kendall, A.M., History of New Orleans, Vol. III (Chicago: Lewis Publishing Company, 1922), 1149.
 Ibid., 338.
 Ibid., 336-342. There is no indication that this tree remains in the garden behind St. Louis Cathedral.
 Receipt from De Lucas Monument company to Comite Francaise, Andre Lafargue papers, MSS 552, Folder 10, Tulane Louisiana Research Collection.