Happy Birthday Pierre Benjamin Buisson! (1793)
On this day in 1793, Pierre Benjamin Buisson was born in Paris to Jean-Francoise-Claude Buisson and Marie Esther Guillotte. He was educated at l’Ecole Polytechnique, a military academy that was founded just a year after his birth, during the turbulent period of the French Revolution. Upon graduation, he joined Napoleon’s Grand Army of France a multinational military force in which Buisson served as a lieutenant from 1813-1815. He fought in battles at La Rothière, Troyes, Montereau, Nangis, Nogent, Bar sur Aube, Vitry, St. Dizier, and Pont de la Guillotine. At the battle of Montereau he was nearly killed as a bullet struck his horse as he rode it. This close call earned him the Legion of Honor medal, given to him from Napoleon himself.
In 1815, Napoleon was captured for a second time in his career as Emperor and this time as a safeguard from his escape, his captors exiled him to St. Helena, an island over 1000 miles away from nearest land. With his leader captured and his army dissolved, Buisson’s future in France was uncertain so he left the country to visit some cousins in New Orleans.
Once in town, he started bidding on building projects in the city. He lost the bid to remodel St. Louis Cathedral, but he was allowed to design the Custom House. Unfortunately this Custom House was deemed to small and just a few years later construction began on the third Customhouse, which is still present on Canal Street. While he is best known for working on the 2nd Customhouse, he also designed other buildings throughout Louisiana, ranging from homes in New Orleans to St. Martin de Tours Church in St. Martinville.
He was Jefferson Parish Surveyor from 1832-1846. During this time he planned city blocks into land previously used as plantations in the area today known as Uptown New Orleans, from the former city of Lafayette (present day Garden District and Irish Channel) all the way to Carrollton, where a bend in the river forces all the streets to turn. While he did not survey all of the land in this stretch, he was responsible for a good portion of it and street names assigned during this period still reflect things that were important to him.
In one section, the streets are named for his beloved Emperor, and in this neighborhood one will find not only Napoleon Avenue, but also places where battles were won – Milan, Jena, Austerlitz, Marengo, Constantinople. There was also a street named for Napoleon’s victory in the city of Berlin, but anti-German sentiment during WW1 led to a name change to honor General Pershing, a man who would later be honored with the title of General of the Armies of the United States (He and George Washington are the only people who have been bestowed with this title. Ever.) In this area, one can also find other city names that were important in the life of Napoleon: Bordeaux, Lyons, Valence, etc.
During this period, when he was not working on surveying, Buisson was designing and implementing infrastructure projects in the city. Unfortunately a fire in the office of William H. Williams in 1857 destroyed the surveyor archives including many of the drawings of Buisson.
In 1860, Buisson volunteered his military expertise to the Confederate forces, and assumed the rank of brigadier general and oversaw the 1st Brigade of Louisiana Militia. In this position, he created Fort Parapet, located upriver from New Orleans in the area today known as Shrewsbury, Louisiana. This Fort was positioned to protect the city if the Union forces arrived from the North on the Mississippi River. This fort was not put to use, as the Union forces fought their way through Forts Jackson and Philip below the city. On April 24th, a day after the Union forces moved past Forts Jackson and Philip, an attack was waged on Confederate troops led by Buisson at Chalmette. These troops were poorly supplied for this attack, and had no choice but to retreat into the woods.
With his last battle ending in defeat, Buisson retired to his home in Uptown New Orleans. He passed away on May 30, 1874, and is interred in St. Louis #2 Cemetery.
- Masson, Ann. “Benjamin Buisson.” In KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana, edited by David Johnson. Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 2010–. Article published September 28, 2012. http://www.knowla.org/entry/1239/&view=summary.
- Deléry, Simone Souchère Deléry. Napoleon’s Soldiers in America. Gretna: Pelican Pub., 1972.
- St Martin de Tours Brochure: http://saintmartindetours.org/documents/2015/12/StMrtnDeTours_brochure_web5.pdf
- Portrait – Louisiana State Museum, accessed through the Knowla site referenced above.
- Customhouse – Tulane Special Collections
- Robinson Atlas map found on New Orleans Clerk page: http://www.orleanscivilclerk.com/robinson/guide.htm