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Sawing out the channel above Island number10.

J. W. Bissell, Colonel, U. S. V., in charge of the work.

Method of cutting the channel.

The Engineer Regiment of the West was an organization composed of twelve full companies of carefully selected workmen, chiefly mechanics, and officered by men capable of directing such skilled labor. Most of the officers and about six hundred of the men were engaged in the operations about New Madrid and Island Number10. In all the operations of that regiment I am not aware that any of its officers ever made a report beyond a verbal notification to the general in command that the work required of it was done. This narrative is therefore made entirely from memory, aided by reference to letters written to my family.

It is perhaps proper to state here that the term “canal,” as used in all the letters and reports relating to the opening of this waterway, conveys an entirely wrong idea. No digging was done except by way of slightly widening a large break in the levee, and those who speak of “working waist-deep in the water” knew nothing of it.

The enemy held Island Number10 and the left bank opposite, and the same bank from New Madrid down to Tiptonville, a ridge of high land between the back swamp and the river. In rear of their position was Reelfoot Lake and the overflow, extending from above them to a point below Tiptonville. Escape by land was impossible, New Madrid and the right bank below being occupied by General Pope. The gun-boats under Foote held the river above, and our heavy batteries commanded the only place of debarkation below. Having accomplished this much, the problem for General Pope to solve was to cross his army to make an attack, for which purpose he judged that two gun-boats, to be used as ferry-boats, would be sufficient. The general was so confident that his letter to Foote would bring the boats that he directed me to go back to the fleet at Island Number8 by dug-out across the overflow, and come down with them past the batteries.

I reached the flag-ship in the afternoon about dark, and that evening Foote called together all his commanders in council. One or two wanted to run the blockade, but the commodore flatly refused. He explained that his boats, since they were armored solely about the bows, were invincible fighting up-stream, but fighting down-stream were of little account; and that if one of them should be boarded and captured, she could be turned against us, and could whip the whole fleet and place Cairo, Louisville, and St. Louis at her mercy! One of the captains said that if he were allowed to go, he would blow the vessel out of water if the enemy got on board. Another, I think, was quite as emphatic, but Foote was firm.

The next day, with two of the tugs of the fleet, I explored the shore carefully on each side: first on the eastern shore, to see if the enemy were securely shut in, which I found to be the case; and then on the western, to see if St. James's Bayou, which emptied into the river seven miles above Island Number8, in any way communicated with St. John's Bayou, which debouched at New Madrid. Here I found no possible way across.

Early the next morning while standing on the levee, chagrined at my failure to obtain a gun-boat, and while waiting for the guide to get the dug-out ready to take me back to camp, I spied, directly opposite me across the submerged fields, an opening in the timber; and the thought flashed upon me that there was the place to take the transports through. This proved to be an old wagon-road extending half a mile into the woods; beyond and around was a dense forest of heavy timber. The guide said it was two miles to the nearest bayou. I asked him to make a map upon my memorandum-book, which he did, showing a straight cut to the first bayou and the general route of the bayous to New Madrid. This route we carefully explored, and I reached Pope's headquarters about dark. When in my report of the interview I mentioned Foote's refusal, the general gave vent to his disappointment and indignation. Some officer present making some suggestion about a “canal,” I immediately pulled out my memorandum-book, and, showing the sketch, said the whole thing was provided for, and that I would have the boats through in fourteen days. [461]

General Pope then gave me an order on the authorities at Cairo for steamboats and material. That evening Captain William Tweeddale, Lieutenant Mahlon Randolph, and I sat up till a late hour arranging all the details, including barges to be fitted with heavy artillery to be used as gun-boats, and the next morning they started with one hundred men for Cairo, to meet me at Island Number8 with all the materials they could get

Corrected line of the channel above Island no.10 cut by the engineer regiment. (see p. 437.)

the first day. Other officers and men started by the same route daily, until the six hundred men of my force had returned, and my stock of supplies was complete. I returned in the dug-out through the selected channel, and in due time found at the proposed starting-point four stern-wheel steamboats, drawing thirty to thirty-six inches of water, and six large coal-barges, besides one Columbiad, three large siege-guns with carriages and ammunition, saws, lines, and all kinds of tools and tackle, and fully two million feet of timber and lumber.

The way through the submerged corn-field and the half-mile of road was easy enough, but when we reached the timber the labor of sawing out a channel commenced. The one steamer which had a powerful steam-capstan was put in the lead, and the others having hand-capstans were fastened single file in the rear, and then the six barges in like order, so that the progress of the first controlled all the others. Captain Tweeddale took charge of the cutting in front, while Lieutenant Randolph was fitting up the improvised gun-boats astern. About three hundred men were assigned to each, and they worked in relays from dawn until dark.

First of all, men standing on platforms on small rafts cut off the trees about eight feet above the water. As soon as a tree was down, another set of men, provided with boats and lines, adjusted about it a line which ran through a snatch-block and back to the steam-capstan, and hauled it out of the way; thus a partial cut was made forward, the lines always working more than two hundred feet ahead of the capstan, so as to leave plenty of room for the saws. It took about four sets of lines to keep pace with twelve saws.

When the space about the stumps allowed sufficient room, a raft about forty feet long was lashed to a stump, and the saw set at work in a frame attached by a pivot and working in an arc as shown in the sketch [page 460]--two men working the saw at opposite ends by a rope, and a fifth on the farther side of the tree guiding its teeth into the tree. Where the stumps were too close, or irregular, three yawl-boats were used instead of the raft. No trouble was experienced with stumps a foot or less in diameter. With the larger ones it was different; the elms spread out so much at the bottom that the saw almost always would run crooked and pinch. If it ran up, we notched the top and set the frame farther in; if down, we put in powerful tackle, and pulled the top of the stump over.

Here was where the ingenuity of the officers and men was exercised; as the saws were working four and a half feet beneath the surface, and the water was quite turbid, the question was how to ascertain what was interfering with the saw, and then to apply the remedy. But I found Captain Tweeddale equal to the most obstinate stump. I think two and a half hours was the longest time ever expended upon any one, while about two minutes would dispose of some small ones when the saw was ready. It took eight days to cut the two miles.

When we reached the bayous the hard and wet work began. The river had begun to fall, and the water was running very rapidly. We had to get rid of great drift-heaps from the lower side with our machinery all on the upper side. Small pieces of drift would be disposed of by the yawl-boats, or a single line and snatch-block would take them right out; but sometimes a great swamp-oak, three feet through, and as heavy as lignum-vitae, lying right across our channel a foot or so under water, would try our tackle. We had then to raise them up to the surface, and hold them there till they could be chopped in pieces. In one of the bayous for about two miles the current was so swift that all the men who were out on logs, or in exposed places, had safety-lines tied around them; and as the timber was slippery, some were indebted to these lines for their lives. During the whole work not a man was killed, injured, or taken sick.

While all this was being done in front of the boats, Lieutenant Randolph was at work with his detachment in the rear in improvising gun-boats to supply the lack of Foote's. The barges used were coal-barges, about eighty feet long and twenty wide, scow-shaped, with both ends alike. The sides were six inches thick, and of solid timber. The original plan was to use three of the steamboats with a barge on each side — the other steamer to be kept as a reserve. One Columbiad and three 32-pounders were mounted on platforms, and arrangements were made to use a considerable number of field-guns to be taken on board at New Madrid. Six hundred men of the Engineer Regiment, using one of the steamers with her two [462] barges, were to land at break of day at the mouth of the slough about a mile below and opposite Fort Thompson, and with their intrenching tools dig a line of rifle-pits as soon as possible. About the same number of picked men were to be with them to help fight or dig, as occasion might require. The other two sections of the flotilla were to be filled with men, and landed just below, as best could be done when the resistance was developed. The reserve steamer with her men, not being incumbered with barges, could move rapidly and take advantage of any opening to land the force.

When about half-way through the channel, I left the flotilla and reported progress to General Pope. Upon a reexamination of the ground from Fort Thompson, he concluded that it would be best to make the leading boat a fighting boat that could not be disabled; so he telegraphed to Cairo and St. Louis for a great number of coal-oil barrels, which were laid in two tiers all over the bottoms of two barges; the interstices were filled with dry rails, the whole well secured in place by a heavy floor. In the mean time the steamer was so bulk-headed with lumber that her engines and boilers were secure from damage from field-artillery, and the forward part of the hull, which projected beyond the barges, was bulk-headed off and filled with dry rails, to keep her from being disabled. On the steamer and barges protection was prepared for a large number of sharp-shooters.

The boats and barge gun-boats were kept concealed in the bayou, just back from New Madrid, for a day or two, till the soldiers could be prepared for the passage and attack. Meanwhile Foote concluded to risk the passage of the island with the Carondelet and afterward with the Pittsburgh, and the whole plan was changed; the gun-boats could move so much more rapidly that they were to silence the Confederate field-guns, while the transports could land the troops wherever an opening could be found. The barges were not used at all; nor did any of the Engineer Regiment cross; they were kept on the right bank, ready in case of disaster.

Several of the captured officers told me that after the gun-boats had run their batteries, nearly their whole force was withdrawn from about Island Number10 and kept concealed in the woods back of the practicable landing-places, and they were prepared to pick off all the men that could be landed; but when they saw the four transports, loaded with troops, steam out from the bayou, the word was given for each man to take care of himself. A few hundred did manage to make their way through the swamps in the rear, but the most of them quietly yielded to the inevitable. So well had the movement been concealed that they had not the least idea of what was being done.1

Postscript: The Official Records, which, since writing the above, I have just seen for the first time, contain a letter from General Pope to me, which I never before heard of (dated the day I was on my way back from the gun-boat with the plan fully matured), asking if I could not dig a canal, a “mere ditch of a foot wide which the water of the river would soon wash out,” from a point one mile above Island Number10 to a point one mile below. That land was at this time ten feet under water.

J. W. Bissell. December, 1884.

1 The effort to cut the canal was known to the Confederates as early as March 31st, the day General Mackall relieved General McCown of the command at Madrid Bend; for General Mackall says in his report, that General McCown then informed him “that they [the Union forces] were endeavoring to cut a canal across the opposite peninsula for the passage of transports, in order to land below the bend; that they would fail, and that the position was safe until the river fell, and no longer.”--editors.

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