Early in the month of March 1864, a military expedition, comprising both branches of the service, set out on what was known as the Red River campaign
The army which took part in
the movement was commanded by Major-General N. P. Banks
; the navy by Rear-Admiral D. D. Porter
The disastrous battle of Sabine Cross Roads
, fought April eighth, compelled the abandonment of the object of the expedition, which was the capture of Shreveport
, and the army and navy fell back to Grand Ecore
Nothing now remained to be done but to take measures for relieving the squadron from the critical position in which it was placed by reason of the low water in the Red River
There was strong ground for apprehending that all the vessels under Admiral Porter
's command, comprising some of the most effective iron-clads of the Mississippi
fleet, would have to be destroyed to prevent their falling into the hands of the enemy.
The capture or destruction of the squadron, with some two millions of dollars, would involve the blockade of the Red River
, and great inconvenience to the army, if not its destruction, and would also for a time give the rebels control of the Mississippi
After the gunboats succeeded in passing over the bar near Grand Ecore
, the army moved from there to Alexandria
, having on the way several severe skirmishes with the enemy, and a battle at Monett's Bluffs, on Cane River
On the arrival of the fleet at the falls near Alexandria
, which are about a mile in length, filled with rugged rocks, it was discovered that the water had fallen so low that it would be impossible for the vessels to pass them.
This difficulty had been anticipated by many officers of the army, who were acquainted with the treacherous character of Red River
navigation, before our return to Grand Ecore
, and the idea had been suggested of rescuing the squadron by means of a dam. Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Bailey
, of Wisconsin
, who had had much experience on the rivers of the North-west, and was familiar with the difficulties of swell-water navigation, consulted with Major-General William B. Franklin
, commanding the Nineteenth army corps, on whose staff he was at the time, and submitted to him the plan of a tree-dam.
No action was, however, taken until the arrival of the forces at Alexandria
, when the matter was placed before General Banks
, and the proposed plan explained in detail by Lieutenant-Colonel Bailey
The General entered fully into the project, with perfect confidence in its practicability, and Major-General David Hunter
, who was then at Alexandria
, on a mission from the Lieutenant-General
of the army, suggested that, although he had little confidence in its feasibility, he nevertheless thought the experiment had better be tried, inasmuch as General Franklin
, an engineer, recommended it. The Admiral
had no faith in its success.
As he expressed it in his own way: “If damming
would get the fleet over, it would have been afloat long before.”
On the morning of April thirtieth the work was begun by Lieutenant-Colonel Bailey
, who was aided by several staff officers, and details of nearly three thousand men, consisting chiefly of regiments from the Western States
There were also employed in the construction of this great work some two hundred army wagons and about a thousand horses, mules, and oxen.
Several hundred hardy lumbermen belonging to a regiment from Maine
, were employed on the right, or north bank in felling trees, while an equal number were engaged in hauling them to the river bank.
Flat-boats were constructed on which stone was brought from above, after being quarried, and the work was begun at the foot of.the falls by running out a tree-dam made from the heavy timber and stone, crosstied with the trunks of other large trees, and strengthened in every way which Yankee ingenunity could devise.
This dam extended out into the river a distance of about three hundred feet. Four large navy coal barges were then filled with stone and brick and sunk at the end of the dam. From the left, or south bank — there being no timber there — a series of heavy cribs were constructed from material obtained by demolishing some old mills and barns, while the brick, iron, and stone required to sink them and hold them in their place, were procured by tearing down two large sugar houses, and by taking up a quantity of railroad iron
, buried in the vicinity of Alexandria
In this work several colored regiments were employed, while the white troops carried forward the work on the other side of the river, both details working day and night.
The width of the Red River
at the lower end of the falls, the point where the dam was constructed, is seven hundred and fifty-eight feet, and the depth of the water from four to six feet, the current running about ten miles an hour.
Night and day the work was carried on without cessation, the men working willingly and cheerfully, although many were compelled to stand up to their waists in water during the damp and chilly nights, and under a burning sun by day, and notwithstanding very many had no faith in the success of the great undertaking.
The scene presented in the vicinity of the dam was novel and interesting.
Oak, elm, and pine trees, whose gigantic growth dated from the days of the daring De Soto
, were falling to the ground under the blows of the stalwart pioneers of Maine
, bearing with them in their fall trees of lesser growth; mules and oxen were dragging the trees, denuded of their branches, to the river's bank; wagons heavily loaded were moving in every direction; flat-boats carrying stone were floating with the current, while others were being drawn up the stream in the manner of canal boats.
Meanwhile hundreds of men were at work at each end of the dam, moving heavy logs to the outer end of the tree-dam, throwing in brushwood and branches of trees to make it tight; wheeling brick out to the cribs, carrying bars of railway iron
to the barges, and in various other ways contributing to the completion of the work, while on each bank of the river were to be seen thousands of spectators, consisting of officers of both services, groups
of sailors, soldiers, camp-followers, and citizens of Alexandria
, all eagerly watching our progress and discussing the chances of success.
At night the scene was even more striking and picturesque: The fires burning on both banks of the river and at different points on the dam; the thousand swarthy figures at work on land and water passing to and fro; the camp-fires of the army which surrounded us on every side; the loud commands of the officers super intending the work; the noisy shouts of the teamstears; the sound of the falling trees, and roaring of the rushing water, formed in its tout ensemble
one of the most impressive scenes we ever witnessed.
Mingled with these sounds we often heard as we passed on our rounds among the men, the sweet strains of “Annie Laurie
,” or the martial notes of the “Battle cry of freedom,” while at the other end of the dam, among the dusky members of the Corps d'afrique
, the popular refrain of “John Brown
's body lies a mouldering in the ground,” and some of those peculiar and plaintive plantation melodies of the South
, would greet us as we pursued our way. It was while on duty one night, when such a scene as we have attempted to describe presented itself to the looker-on, that a silvery-headed contraband, who had just come into our lines, approached us, and throwing up both his hands in perfect amazement, exclaimed: “Well, 'fore God, what won't de Yankees do next I”
Passing on our rounds one morning about three o'clock, a colored soldier caused considerable delay by carelessly allowing his wheelbarrow load of brick, which were being used in the cribs, to run off the long track or gangway, thereby detaining for a few moments a line of thirty or forty African
citizens, following behind.
“Hit dat fifty-dollar nigga in de head wid a brick!”
“Git dat wheelbarrer out ob de way!”
“What doina dar, nigga?”
“Kick dat blind child into de ribber!”
“Smath dat black man ober de shin!”
“Now den, you be quick dar, mighty quick!”
“What de debbel de matter wid dat nigga?”
“Mis'ble nigga, don't you knows you'se working for your sculp?
De rebels git you, you is done gone sure!”
Such were a few of the utterances of which his sable fellow-laborers delivered themselves, while the Captain
of the squad assailed the culprit with certain pithy expressions not proper to be recorded.
Feeling considerable sympathy for the subject of this deluge of abuse, we kindly inquired if he was tired.
, yass, massa Cunnel, I'se werry tired toten brick.
It's a heap harder dan picken cotton.”
During the construction of the dam, daily and almost constant skirmishing was carried on with the enemy, who were around us in strong force, and not only anticipated the capture of Admiral Porter
's entire fleet, but made it their boast that the army would be forced to surrender to General Kirby Smith
The dam they looked upon as a huge joke, and the salutation with which Union prisoners, whom the chances of war threw into their hands, were met, was: “Well, Yank
, how's the dam?”
Even the rebel prisoners whom we captured during its construction could not avoid chaffing their captors by the question: “How's your big dam progressing?”
The ridicule was not, however, confined to the camp of the enemy or to the rebel citizens of Alexandria
We think we can safely assert that, until the work progressed for a week, not ten per cent. of the officers and seamen of the navy had the slightest faith in our saving their fleet.
Indeed, we cannot now remember any officer, with the single exception of Volunteer Lieutenant Langthorne
, of the Mound City
, who, from the inauguration of the work, believed it would be the means of saving the squadron.
The percentage of unbelievers in the army was much less.
Perhaps one-half had faith in its ultimate success.
With many the building of the dam was an endless subject of mirth, and numberless were the witticisms to which it gave birth.
But the projector paid no attention to their jeers or jokes, nor did he ever for a moment lose heart or hope, but worked on manfully.
On the morning of the eighth of May the water had risen sufficiently on the upper falls to allow three of the iron-clads to cross and proceed down to within a short distance of the dam. In another day it would undoubtedly have been sufficiently high to enable all the other vessels of the fleet to pass the upper falls.
Unfortunately, at five o'clock on the morning of the ninth, the pressure of the water became so great that it swept away two of the large coal barges that were sunk at the end of the dam near the centre of the river.
When the accident was observed, the Admiral
rode to the point where the upper vessels were anchored and ordered the Lexington
to pass the upper falls, if possible, and immediately attempt to go through the opening in the dam, along which the water was rushing as fiercely as over the rapids at Niagara
The Lexington succeeded in getting over the falls and then steered directly for the opening in the dam, through which the water was dashing so furiously that it seemed as if certain destruction would be her fate.
Ten thousand spectators breathlessly awaited the result.
She entered the gap with a full head of steam; passed down the roaring, rushing torrent; made several spasmodic rolls ; hung for a moment, with a harsh, grating sound, on the rocks below; was then swept into deep water, and rounded to by the bank of the river.
Such a cheer arose from that vast multitude of sailors and soldiers, when the noble vessel was seen in safety below the falls, as we had never heard before, and certainly have not heard since.
Then all eyes were turned above the darn again, when another iron-clad was to be seen approaching.
She did not fare as well as the Lexington
, being considerably injured in the passage; but the other two passed through without any accident.
It was perhaps a fortunate circumstance that a portion of the dam was carried away in the manner that it was, as
the two barges that were forced out by the terrific pressure of the water swung round against some dangerous rocks, making a cushion for the vessels, and doubtless preventing, as afterwards appeared, the certain destruc on of a portion of the fleet.
, in a communication addressed to the Chairman
of the Committee
on the Conduct of the War
, says: “The water has been raised upon the dam for a mile and a quarter, about seven feet, with a fall below the dam of about six feet, making in all a fall of about thirteen feet, above and below the falls.
The pressure of the water at its completion was terrific.
I went over the work at eleven o'clock on the evening of the eighth, with one 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 possible if they were ready to follow the three boats that had already passed the rapids.
I reached the fleet about twelve o'clock, midnight. Scarcely a man or light was to be seen.
It was perfectly apparent that the boats were not in a condition to take advantage of the completion of the dam; and feeling that it could not stand another day, I wrote a note to Admiral Porter
at one o'clock on the morning of the ninth, which was delivered in person at two o'clock A. M., by Colonel J. G. Wilson
, stating my belief as to the condition of the dam and fleet, and asking that measures should be taken to put the boats in condition to move over the rapids at the earliest possible moment in the morning.
My apprehensions were fully verified.
A little after five o'clock on the morning of the ninth, I saw myself a material part of the dam swept away The three boats that had passed the rapids the afternoon before were able to pass below through the opening which the waters had made.
Only one of the vessels above the falls, the Lexington
, was ready to move when the dam gave way, and that came down after the break, and passed the dam safely, with all the vessels that were below the rapids.
Had the others been ready to move, all would have passed the rapids and the dam safely on Monday.”
The army, not in the least disheartened, immediately commenced the reconstruction of the dam, but not to close the breach, that being left substantially as it was. The question originally was, whether we should make one dam at the foot of the falls, with an opening for the ships to pass through, with wing-dams above, thus dividing the pressure, or trust all to one principal structure.
The dam had been carried away because the whole body of water had been stopped at one point, leaving no passage for the escape of any portion of it; Lieutenant-Colonel Bailey
, therefore, determined to leave the gap of about seventy feet, caused by the carrying away of the two barges, and construct a series of wing-dams on the upper falls in accordance with his original plan, thus turning all the water into one narrow channel.
Several of these were built on each side of the river, thereby increasing the depth one foot two inches, and enabling all the fleet to pass the upper falls.
This was accomplished in three days and nights, the wing-dams being constructed in the same manner as the tree-dam on the north side of the lower falls, and on the fourth day the work was completed on the main dam, by which the depth of water was increased five feet four and a half inches--a depth sufficient to enable the largest iron-clads to cross.
On the afternoon of the twelfth, three of the gunboats, their hatches battened down and every precaution taken to guard against accident, safely passed the dam. Early the following morning the remaining five passed in succession, amid the cheers of the assembled thousands.
By three o'clock that day the vessels were coaled; the guns and ammunition, which had been removed to lighten the vessels, replaced; the pontoon bridge at Alexandria
laid down to facilitate operations on the dam, taken up; and the whole fleet, with their convoy of army transports, were steaming down the river, while the troops moved forward on the river road to cover and protect them from the attacks of the enemy.
A few hours later, after the rearguard had left Alexandria
, the enemy took possession of the town, and, with rueful and elongated countenances, gazed sadly upon the work of a Northern army, whereby a fleet worth several millions of dollars, with a magnificent armament of powerful guns, which they had looked upon as their certain prize, had been rescued.
As the Admiral
says in his report to the Secretary of the Navy
: “This is, without doubt, the best engineering feat ever performed.
Under the best circumstances a private company would not have completed the work under one year, and to an ordinary mind the whole thing would have appeared an utter impossibility.
I do not believe that there ever was a case where such difficulties were overcome in so short a space of time, and without any previous preparation.”
of the Fifteenth regiment Maine
volunteers testified before the Committee
on the Conduct of the War
, in January, 1865, “that it was a very common thing among the lumbermen of Maine
to build such dams, and that he had one hundred and fifty men in his regiment who could build just such a dam,” a statement which we presume must be taken cum grano salis
The construction of the Red River dam
was almost exclusively the work of the army.
But little aid or encouragement was rendered by the navy, except by Volunteer Lieutenant Lang
-thorne, commanding the Mound City
,who assisted in setting the heavy cribs and coal barges.
The soldiers labored zealously night and day, in and out of the water, from the thirtieth of April to the twelfth of May inclusive, when the passage of the boats below the upper falls was completed.
The dam still remains intact as we left it, and bids fair, if undisturbed, to stand a hundred
years — an imperishable monument of American energy, ingenuity, and skill.
The opening made by the flood, and through which the fleet passed, is sometimes, but rarely, used, by steamers descending the stream, the Red River voyageurs
generally preferring a safer channel which has been made by the river washing away about seventy feet of the left or south bank near Alexandria
Non est ad astra mollis a terris via
. For the successful execution of this great work Lieutenant-Colonel Bailey
, the Wisconsin
farmer, was promoted to the rank of Brigadier-General
of volunteers, and received the thanks of Congress; while the officers of the Mississippi squadron testified their high appreciation of his inestimable services to them and the country, by presenting him with an elegant sword and a purse of three thousand dollars, which was transmitted to him with a highly complimentary letter from Admiral Porter
The officers and regiments who had the honor of assisting Lieutenant-Colonel Bailey
, and to whom he expresses in his report his deep sense of obligation, are as follows:
Colonel James Grant Wilson
, of General Banks
' staff; Colonel Charles C. Dwight
Nineteenth army corps; Lieutenant-Colonel W. B. Kinsey
, One Hundred and Sixty-first regiment New York volunteers; Lieutenant-Colonel N. B. Pearsall
, Ninety-seventh U. S. C. I.; Major Teutelle
, of General Franklin
's staff; Captains Harden
, and Morison
, of Ninety-seventh regiment U. S. C. I. ; Captain Stein
, Sixteenth regiment Ohio volunteers; Lieutenant Williamson
, of General Franklin
's staff; the Pioneer
corps of the Thirteeenth army corps; Twenty-ninth regiment Maine
volunteers; Twenty-third and Twenty-ninth Wisconsin volunteers; Seventy-seventh and One Hundred and Thirtieth Illinois volunteers; Nineteenth Kentucky and Twenty-third Ohio volunteers; Twenty-fourth Iowa and Twenty-seventh Indiana volunteers; Ninety-seventh and Ninety-ninth U. S. C. I.