Colonel Joseph Bailey’s Red River Dam
In March of 1864, a land force consisting of the Union Army’s 19th Corps and portions of the 13th, 16th, and 17th Corps under the command of Major General Nathaniel Banks headed northwest up the Red River in Louisiana. Accompanying the army was Admiral David D. Porter and the Mississippi Squadron, a fleet of vessels designed for river warfare that had been a key part of the Federal military success along the western rivers. The objective of this Red River Campaign was to establish a United States presence in Confederate Texas.
Banks was defeated at the Battle of Sabine Crossroads, near Mansfield, Louisiana on April 8th, and began to retreat down the Red River. Meanwhile, the Mississippi Squadron was hampered by the rapidly decreasing water level on the river. By the time the fleet arrived at Alexandria in late April, the water level had dropped to the point that two falls about a mile apart were exposed. The river wasn’t deep enough for Porter’s ships to proceed, and until the river level rose, the Mississippi Squadron was trapped.
Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Bailey had a solution to this problem. Bailey was an engineer on the staff of the 19th Corps’ Major General William B. Franklin. He proposed building a dam on the river to raise the water level high enough for the fleet to float over the falls.
Joseph Bailey was born in Ohio in 1825. In 1850, he settled in the central Wisconsin town of Kilbourn City, now the modern day city of Wisconsin Dells. Though he was not formally trained as an engineer, he gained experience in the field by his work on several large construction projects, including dams on the Wisconsin River. Shortly after the start of the Civil War, Bailey enlisted in the 4th Wisconsin Infantry serving as a Captain of the regiment’s Company D.
In the fall of 1862, Bailey and his company were given the job of supervising the repair of a flood damaged Mississippi River levee near New Orleans. Bailey’s management of the project was noticed by one of the 19th Corps’ division commanders, Brigadier General Thomas W. Sherman. Sherman invited Bailey to join his staff as an engineer. Sherman was wounded in 1863, and after that, Bailey joined Franklin’s staff.
Building the Dam
Many officers were unimpressed with Bailey’s proposal, including Admiral Porter. But Franklin, a respected engineer himself, felt the idea would work, and General Banks was also on board. With few options available, Porter agreed to go along with the plan.
Banks assigned 3000 men to the project and added 300 wagons and horse teams. The task was enormous; the Red River was 758 feet wide and had a nine mile current at the location near the lower falls that Bailey selected for the dam. Work began on April 30th, with a portion of the dam built out from each side of the river.
From the north shore of the river (the side opposite Alexandria), Bailey constructed a tree dam. A tree dam consists of whole trees or logs placed side by side with the butt ends pointed downstream. Log crossties were used to secure the layer of trees in place. Another layer of logs was placed on the crossties of the first layer, crossties were fastened to the top of this layer, and so on. As layers of logs were added to the structure, the downstream side angled upward. The upstream portion was held in place by rocks taken from the bluffs along the river.
The Alexandria side of the river had few trees, so Bailey decided to use a crib dam for that side. The cribs were wooden rectangular frameworks that were filled with sand, rocks, and debris. The wood for constructing the cribs was obtained by dismantling wood frame buildings in town. There was a 150 foot gap between the two sections that was closed by sinking four large coal barges in the space.
The work continued day and night and on May 8th, the dam was complete, and it was working. The water level rose sufficiently over both falls that the fleet could begin to move. At 5 A.M. on May 9th, built up water pressure pushed two of the coal barges out of their moorings, opening a 66 foot gap that water poured through in a torrent.
With no time to lose, Porter ordered the gunboat Lexington to pass over the upper falls and steam through the gap in the dam. The Lexington plowed through the rushing waters and survived the wild ride to the cheers of the soldiers on shore. Lexington was followed by the monitors Neosho and Osage, and the tinclad Fort Hindman. All made it safely.
Four had made it, but eight vessels were still above the upper falls. Bailey then ordered wing dams built at the upper falls that would create a deeper channel for the trapped boats.
The wing dams helped, but not enough, so a bracket dam was also constructed at the upper falls site. The bracket dam was made of wooden planks attached to a sawhorse type of frame at a 30 degree angle with the low end of the planks on the river bottom. It worked. On May 12th, three City Class ironclad river gun boats, the Mound City, Carondelet, and Pittsburg passed through the gap in the dam, followed on the 13th by the City Class gunboat Louisville, the gunboat Chillicothe, the monitor Ozark, and two tugboats.
The Mississippi Squadron had been saved, and the army and navy continued on to the Mississippi River and the end of the Red River Campaign.
Several members of the press accompanied the expedition, and Bailey received national acclaim for his accomplishment. Porter, who had been skeptical of the project’s success, was genuinely grateful. “Words are inadequate to express the admiration I feel for the abilities of Lieutenant Colonel Bailey…The highest honors the Government can bestow on Colonel Bailey can never repay him for the service he has rendered the country” the Admiral wrote in his official report. Porter also presented Bailey with a sword and scabbard, and took up a collection among the navy officers for a gift of a silver punchbowl. The punchbowl featured detailed engravings of the dam and fleet and was made by Tiffany’s in New York. Bailey also received the thanks of Congress and a promotion to Brigadier General.
In the summer of 1865, Bailey returned home to Wisconsin. He received a hero’s welcome, but with limited economic opportunities available in Kilbourn City, Bailey and his family moved to Vernon County, Missouri at the end of the year. The Baileys bought a farm and in 1866, Joseph Bailey was elected sheriff of Vernon County, with his office in Nevada City.
On March 26, 1867, Bailey served a warrant for hog rustling on two brothers named Perry and Lewis Pixley. The Pixleys were former Confederate bushwhackers, and western Misssouri had seen some vicious fighting involving guerilla units and irregulars, with atrocities committed on both sides. They agreed to return to Nevada City for questioning, but only if they could keep their weapons. Bailey agreed, and the three set out for Nevada City.
They never made it. On March 27th, the body of Joseph Bailey was found face down in a stream with a bullet wound in the back of his head. Though it was assumed the Pixleys killed Bailey, there were no witnesses. The killers escaped, probably with help from other former bushwhackers who had no qualms about the death of a former northern General. The Pixleys were never caught, and no one was ever convicted of the murder. Bailey left behind a wife and five children and is buried at Fort Scott, Kansas.
- Generals in Blue: Lives of the Union Commanders (1992) by Ezra J. Warner
- Hero of the Red River: The Life and TImes of Joseph Bailey (2007) by Michael J. Goc
- One Damn Blunder from Beginning to End: The Red River Campaign of 1864 by Gary Dillard Joiner
- Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I Volume 26. (1895-1929),
U.S. War Department
- The Red River Campaign by Richard B. Irwin, In Battles and Leaders of the Civil War (1986), Johnson and Buel
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