May 10, 1864: Partial success of Bailey’s dam

Bailey's Dam

We continue with two very divergent accounts of Bailey’s dam; that of Banks, who gives all the credit to Bailey, and that of Pearsall, who claims that he was responsible for reconstructing the dam so that it was effective.

From Banks’ report:

The army immediately commenced the reconstruction of the dam. Finding it impossible to resist the current of the river entirely, the opening made by the flood was only partially closed, and eight or ten wing-dams were constructed on the right and left bank of the river, in accordance with the original plan, turning the current of water directly upon the channel and raising it at the different points sufficiently to allow the vessels to pass.

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From Pearsall’s Report:

The new plan was commenced with commendable vigor, the troops being employed in constructing the same as originally proposed until the afternoon of the 10th, which completed a temporary obstruction, close to each side of the channel, by means of light log cribs lashed together with rope and filled with brush and bricks. This work raised about 14 inches of water.

I will here state that in the mean time the gun-boat Chillicothe had managed to work her way through. The Carondelet attempted to
follow, but owing to the rapidity of the current, and also to the wing-dams not being placed perpendicular to the direction of the channel, she was forced aside and lay with her bow close below the end of the wing-dam extending from the left bank, her stern being down stream and pointing diagonally across the channel. Several attempts were made to haul her from this position, all which failed, and the navy finally concluded her case a hopeless one and thought there was sufficient room alongside for the others to pass. The Mound City was accordingly ordered to try it, and grounded abreast of the Carondelet. Five more iron-clads were still above them.

Such, in brief, was the position of affairs on the afternoon of the 10th of May, as Major-General Banks, will doubtless remember having a conversation with Colonel Bailey and myself at that time. It was at this crisis that Colonel Bailey asked me what could be done to relieve the boats. I replied in these words: “If you will allow me to build a dam where I please, on my own plan, and give me the men and materials I require, I will agree to put a foot of water under those boats (referring to the Mound City and Carondelet) by to-morrow night.” He asked me what I required, and I told him the pioneer corps of the Thirteenth Army Corps to report to me at midnight to cross to the left bank, and that 10,000 feet of 2-inch plank should be there at 9 o’clock the next morning.

Colonel Bailey agreed to this proposition, and accordingly about 1 a.m. of that night Captain Hutchens, commanding the pioneers, reported to me for duty. Immediate steps were taken to get across the river. I hailed every boat in the fleet to obtain cutters for this purpose, but the reply of all was, “wait until daylight.” We were accordingly forced to do so, and it was sunrise before all were across to the opposite side. I immediately instructed the men in building two-legged trestles for a “bracket dam.” They worked with even greater energy than ever before, and the trestles were all made by 9 a.m. Some pieces of iron bolts (size one-half inch) were procured and one set into the foot of the legs of each trestle; also one in the cap pieces at the end resting on the pontoon, up stream. The place selected by me for this “bracket dam” was at a point opposite the lower end of the Carondelet, extending out close to this vessel from the left bank. A party of men, selected and headed by myself, placed these trestles in position there under very adverse circumstances, the water being about 4 1/2 feet deep and very swift, and coupled with a very slippery bottom, making it almost impossible to stand against the current. Several men were swept away in this duty, but no lives were lost. The trestles were fastened as soon as they were in position by means of taking “sets” and driving the iron bolts above referred to down into the bottom. All were in position by 10 a.m., and the plank having arrived all that remained was to place them. This was done in less than an hour, and by 11 a.m. there was at least a foot of water thrown under the Mound City and the Carondelet and both vessels floated off easily before the ultimate height of water was obtained. The five remaining vessels passed with but little difficulty, and at noon on the following day were safe below the main dam at Alexandria.

Much has been said of the part taken by the navy in rescuing their fleet, and I deem it proper to state my honest convictions in regard to it. To Captain Langthorne, of the Mound City, and the subordinate officers and men employed with him, it must be acknowledged great praise is due. In regard to any other efforts put forth by them I must say that none other were observed by me, and it seems incredible that much could have been done by them in my absence. I slept but twenty-nine hours during those twelve eventful days. My meals were almost invariably brought to me; therefore my presence was almost constant.

It may be said that the navy loaned ropes, made bolts, &c., but in so doing they performed the duties of the quartermaster’s department only; while on the other hand, there is much in this report showing that they caused a delay of six hours at the most critical point of our operations, whereas if no delay had occurred in the building of the bracket dam that saved seven of their best iron-clads, the army could have moved a day sooner from Alexandria. These facts can be substantiated by many officers besides myself, and the impartial historian will [not], neither could, with propriety make any other record than that the army of General Banks saved the fleet of Admiral Porter.

In conclusion, I would beg leave to state that the project of building a dam across Red River, although difficult, could never have been pronounced impracticable by any men who followed a similar avocation in civil life. The bottom and shores being so extremely favorable, and official reports having been promulgated by the naval authorities asserting that Colonel Bailey was the only man in the army who believed the plan practicable, that he was the originator of it, &c. I deem it my sacred duty to refute such assertions so far as they concern myself, having waited three months to see it contradicted by others. The major-general commanding the department will recollect of my assurances to him in this respect ere the work had fairly begun. It can also be proved that it was pronounced feasible by me while at Grand Ecore. These statements are made in self-defense, without doubting that the credit justly belongs to others; yet were such statements substantiated against an officer like myself, after ten years of practical experience in building dams on the most difficult rivers in the country, it would be deemed sufficient evidence by me of my utter incompetency to hold my present position.

I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
U. B. PEARSALL,
Lieutenant Colonel Ninety-ninth U. S. Colored Infantry.
Major GEORGE B. DRAKE,
Assistant Adjutant-General.

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