May 8, 1864: Bailey’s dam

Bailey's Dams

Back to the Red River Campaign for a bit now. As you may remember, we left Banks’ troops up the Red River with low water preventing the gunboats from getting away. A colonel Joseph Bailey, who had been a civil engineer in private life, volunteered to direct the construction of wing dams to raise the water level in the channel enough to float the boats. On the first day, a few boats got over.

On the other hand, Lt. Col. Pearsall of the 99th USCT claimed that he could have done it better, and in fact advised Bailey on the proper way to construct the dams. In any case, much of the fleet remained trapped on the 8th.

Sunday, April 6, 2014
8:02 AM

From Banks’ report:

As soon as the lines of defense were completed preparations were made for the release of the fleet, which was then unable to pass below the falls. From the difficulty which the supply transports had encountered in passing the falls, it was known at Grand Ecore as early as the 15th of April that the navy could not go below, and the means for its release were freely discussed among officers of the army.

During the campaign at Port Hudson the steamers Starlight and Red Chief were captured by Grierson’s (Illinois) cavalry, under command of Colonel Prince, in Thompson’s Creek. The bed of the creek was nearly dry and the steamers were sunk several feet in the sand. After the capture of Port Hudson, Colonel Bailey constructed wing-dams, which by raising the water lifted the steamers from the sand and floated them out of the creek into the Mississippi. this incident naturally suggested the same works at Alexandria for the relief of the fleet. A survey was ordered for the purpose of determining what measures could be best undertaken. The engineers of the army had complete surveys of the falls, captured from the enemy during our occupation of Alexandria in 1863, at the commencement of the Port Hudson campaign. It was found, upon examining these charts and upon a survey of the river, that the channel was narrow and crooked, formed in solid rock, and that it would be wholly immense the construction of a dam to raise the river to such a height as to enable the vessels to float over the falls. This project was freely discussed by the engineers and officers of the army, and was generally believed to be practicable. Captain J. C. Palfrey, who had made the survey, reported that in his judgment it was entirely feasible, and the only question made related to the time that might be required for so great a work.

The management of this enterprise was naturally intrusted to Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Bailey, Fourth Wisconsin Volunteers, who was by profession a civil engineer, familiar with works of that kind common to slackwater navigation upon all the Western rivers, and had successfully released the steamers from Thompson’s Creek on the Mississippi. Colonel Bailey had suggested the practicability of the dam while we were at Grand Ecore, and had offered to release the Eastport when aground below Grand Ecore by the same means, which offer was declined. Material was collected during these preparations, and work commenced upon the dam on Sunday, May 1. Nearly the whole army was engaged at different times upon this work. The dam was completed on Sunday, May 8, and the gun-boats Osage, Hindman, and two others came over the rapids about 4 o’clock in the afternoon. The water had been raised upon the dam for 1 1/4 miles about 7 feet, with a fall below the dam of about 6 feet, making in all a fall of about 13 feet above and below the falls. The pressure of the water at its completion was terrific. I went over the work at 11 o’clock on the evening of the 8th, within of my staff officers, and felt that the pressure of the water was so great that it could not stand. I rode immediately to the point above where the fleet was anchored to ascertain if they were ready to follow the four boats that had already passed the rapids. I reached the fleet about 12 midnight. Scarcely a man or a light was to be seen.


No. 6. Report of Lieutenant Colonel Uri B. Pearsall, Ninety-ninth U. S. Colored Troops.
NEW ORLEANS, LA., August 1, 1864.

MAJOR: In compliance with the request of the major-general commanding the department, I have the honor to submit the following report concerning the construction of the dam across Red River in the month of May last. I was in command of the Ninety-ninth U. S. Colored Infantry (formerly the Fifth Engineers, Corps d’Afrique) during the whole of the Red River campaign, my regiment forming a part of the engineer troops commanded by Colonel George D. Robinson.

On the 29th of April this force was ordered to report to Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Bailey, then acting engineer Nineteenth Army Corps, for the purpose of constructing the dam above referred to. At the request of Colonel Bailey, Colonel Robinson and myself accompanied him to select the place for building the dam. After a thorough examination of the falls, Colonel Robinson and myself were of the opinion that two dams were necessary-one at the foot of the upper and the other at the foot of the lower falls. Colonel Bailey, however, decided that one would be sufficient, and accordingly we jointly selected the point at which the main dam was located.

On the morning of the 30th of April the troops selected for this duty were moved to convenient points near the dam and the work began at once. The force on the right bank consisted of the Ninety-seventh and Ninety-ninth U. S. Colored Infantry, under command of Colonel George D. Robinson, of the former regiment, and a detail of 400 men from the brigade of colored infantry, commanded by Colonel Dickey. On the left bank were the Twenty-ninth Maine, portions of One hundred and tenth and One hundred and sixty-first New York Volunteers, and the pioneer corps of the Thirteenth Army Corps. Of the work on the left bank I know but little, my duties confining me exclusively to the right bank. At the commencement Lieutenant-Colonel Bailey placed me in charge of all the work on the right bank, which included the placing and the loading of the barges in the center of the river, together with the building of the “crib-dam” to the right bank. Colonel Robinson was designated by Colonel Bailey to procure necessary materials (for this purpose retaining the Ninety-seventh U. S. Colored Infantry), as also all necessary teams employed at this point. The remainder of the working forces were under my control.

The work progressed rapidly, as both officers and men became more confident of success than they were at the commencement, and on the afternoon of the 8th of May channel was closed, with the exception of the three spaces of 20 feet each between the barges and a current of water under the second barge from the right bank, which was only partly loaded, it being our intention to merely scuttle it and place a sufficient amount of railroad iron on the top to prevent its rising up.


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