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Passage of the falls by the fleet.

Report of rear-admiral D. D. Porter.

flag-ship Black Hawk, Mississippi Squadron, mouth of Red River, May 16, 1864.
sir: I have the honor to inform you that the vessels lately caught by low water above the falls at Alexandria have been released from their unpleasant position. The water had fallen so low that I had no hope or expectation of getting the vessels out this season, and as the army had made arrangements to evacuate the country, I saw nothing before me but the destruction of the best part of the Mississippi squadron.

There seems to have been an especial providence looking out for us in providing a man equal to the emergency. Lieutenant-Colonel Bailey, Acting Engineer of the Nineteenth army corps, proposed a plan of building a series of dams across the rocks at the falls, and raising the water high enough to let the vessels pass over. This proposition looked like madness, and the best engineers ridiculed it; but Colonel Bailey was so sanguine of success that I requested General Banks to have it done, and he entered heartily into the work. Provisions were short and forage was almost out, and the dam was promised to be finished in ten days, or the army would have to leave us. I was doubtful about the time, but had no doubt about the ultimate [530] success, if time would only permit. General Banks placed at the disposal of Colonel Bailey all the force he required, consisting of some three thousand men and two or three hundred wagons. All the neighboring steam-mills were torn down for material, two or three regiments of Maine men were set to work felling trees, and on the second day after my arrival in Alexandria from Grand Ecore the work had fairly begun. Trees were falling with great rapidity; teams were moving in all directions, bringing in brick and stone; quarries were opened; flatboats were built to bring stone down from above; and every man seemed to be working with a vigor I have seldom seen equalled, while perhaps not one in fifty believed in the success of the undertaking.

These falls are about a mile in length, filled with rugged rocks, over which, at the present stage of water, it seemed to be impossible to make a channel.

The work was commenced by running out from the left bank of the river a tree darn, made of the bodies of very large trees, brush, brick, and stone, cross-tied with other heavy timber, and strengthened in every way which ingenuity could devise. This was run out about three hundred feet into the river; four large coal-barges were then filled with brick and sunk at the end of it. From the right bank of the river cribs filled with stone were built out to meet the barges. All of which was successfully accomplished, notwithstanding there was a current running of nine miles an hour, which threatened to sweep every thing before it.

It will take too much time to enter into the details of this truly wonderful work. Suffice it to say, that the dam had nearly reached completion in eight days working time, and the water had risen sufficiently on the upper falls to allow the Fort Hindman, Osage, and Neosho to get down and be ready to pass the dam. In another day it would have been high enough to enable all the other vessels to pass the upper falls. Unfortunately, on the morning of the ninth instant, the pressure of water became so great that it swept away two of the stone barges, which swung in below the dam on one side. Seeing this unfortunate accident, I jumped on a horse and rode up to where the upper vessels were anchored, and ordered the Lexington to pass the upper falls, if possible, and immediately attempt to go through the dam. I thought I might be able to save the four vessels below, not knowing whether the persons employed on the work would ever have the heart to renew their enterprise.

The Lexington succeeded in getting over the upper falls just in time, the water rapidly falling as she was passing over. She then steered directly for the opening in the dam, through which the water was rushing so furiously that it seemed as if nothing but destruction awaited her. Thousands of beating hearts looked on, anxious for the result. The silence was so great as the Lexington approached the dam that a pin might almost be heard to fall. She entered the gap with a full head of steam on, pitched down the roaring torrent, made two or three spasmodic rolls, hung for a moment on the rocks below, was then swept into deep water by the current, and rounded to safely into the bank. Thirty thousand voices rose in one deafening cheer, and universal joy seemed to pervade the face of every man present.

The Neosho followed next; all her hatches battened down, and every precaution taken against accident. She did not fare as well as the Lexington, her pilot having become frightened as he approached the abyss and stopped her engine, when I particularly ordered a full head of steam to be carried; the result was that for a moment her hull disappeared from sight under the water. Every one thought she was lost. She rose, however, swept along over the rocks with the current, and fortunately escaped with only one hole in her bottom, which was stopped in the course of an hour.

The Hindman and Osage both came through beautifully without touching a thing, and I thought if I was only fortunate enough to get my large vessels as well over the falls, my fleet once more would do good service on the Mississippi.

The accident to the dam, instead of disheartening Colonel Bailey, only induced him to renew his exertions, after he had seen the success of getting four vessels through.

The noble-hearted soldiers, seeing their labor of the last eight days swept away in a moment, cheerfully went to work to repair damages, being confident now that all the gunboats would be finally brought over. These men had been working for eight days and nights up to their necks in water in the boiling sun, cutting trees and wheeling bricks, and nothing but good humor prevailed among them. On the whole, it was very fortunate that the dam was carried away, as the two barges that were swept away from the centre swung around against some rocks on the left, and made a fine cushion for the vessels, and prevented them, as it afterward appeared, from running on certain destruction.

The force of the water and the current being too great to construct a continuous dam of six hundred feet across the river in so short a time, Colonel Bailey determined to leave a gap of fifty-five feet in the dam, and build a series of wing dams on the upper falls. This was accomplished in three days time, and on the eleventh instant the Mound City, Carondelet, and Pittsburgh came over the upper falls, a good deal of labor having been expended in hauling them through, the channel being very crooked, and scarcely wide enough for them. Next day the Ozark, Louisville, Chillicothe, and two tugs also succeeded in crossing the upper falls. Immediately afterward the Mound City, Carondelet, and Pittsburgh started in succession to pass the dam, all their hatches battened down, and every precaution taken to prevent accident. The passage of these vessels was a most beautiful sight, only to be realized when seen. They passed over without an accident, [531] except the unshipping of one or two rudders. This was witnessed by all the troops, and the vessels were heartily cheered when they passed over. Next morning, at ten o'clock, the Louisville, Chillicothe, Ozark, and two tugs passed over without any accident, except the loss of a man, who was swept off the deck of one of the tugs. By three o'clock that afternoon the vessels were all coaled, ammunition replaced, and all steamed down the river, with the convoy of transports in company. A good deal of difficulty was anticipated in getting over the bars in lower Red River; depth of water reported only five feet; gunboats were drawing six. Providentially, we had a rise from the back-water of the Mississippi, that river being very high at that time; the back-water extending to Alexandria, one hundred and fifty miles distant, enabling us to pass all the bars and obstructions with safety.

Words are inadequate to express the admiration I feel for the abilities of Lieutenant-Colonel Bailey. This is, without doubt, the best engineering feat ever performed. Under the best circumstances, a private company would not have completed this work under one year, and to an ordinary mind the whole thing would have appeared an utter impossibility. Leaving out his abilities as an engineer, the credit he has conferred upon the country, he has saved to the Union a valuable fleet, worth nearly two million dollars. More, he has deprived the enemy of a triumph which would have emboldened them to carry on this war a year or two longer; for the intended departure of the army was a fixed fact, and there was nothing left for me to do, in case that event occurred, but to destroy every part of the vessels, so that the rebels could make nothing of them. The highest honors the Government can bestow on Colonel Bailey can never repay him for the service he has rendered the country.

To General Banks, personally, I am much indebted for the happy manner in which he has forwarded this enterprise, giving it his whole attention, night and day, scarcely sleeping while the work was going on; tending personally to see that all the requirements of Colonel Bailey were complied with on the instant.

I do not believe there ever was a case where such difficulties were overcome in such a short space of time, and without any preparation.

I beg leave to mention the names of some of the persons engaged on this work, as I think that credit should be given to every man employed on it. I am unable to give the names of all, but sincerely trust that General Banks will do full justice to every officer engaged in this undertaking, when he makes his report. I only regret that time did not enable me to get the names of all concerned. The following are the names of the most prominent persons:

Lieutenant-Colonel Bailey, Acting Military Engineer, Nineteenth army corps, in charge of the work.

Lieutenant-Colonel Pearcall, Assistant.

Colonel Dwight, Acting Assistant Inspector-General.

Lieutenant-Colonel W. B. Kinsey, One Hundred and Sixty-first New-York volunteers.

Lieutenant-Colonel Hubbard, Thirtieth Maine volunteers.

Major Sawtelle, Provost-Marshal, and Lieutenant Williamson, Ordnance Officer.

The following were a portion of the regiments employed: Twenty-ninth Maine, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Emmerson; One Hundred and Sixteenth New-York, commanded by Colonel George M. Love; One Hundred and Sixty-first New-York, commanded by Captain Prentiss; One Hundred and Thirty-third New-York, commanded by Colonel Currie.

The engineer regiment and officers of the Thirteenth army corps were also employed.

I feel that I have done but feeble justice to the work or the persons engaged in it. Being severely indisposed, I feel myself unable to go into further details. I trust some future historian will treat this matter as it deserves to be treated, because it is a subject in which the whole country should feel an interest, and the noble men who succeeded so admirably in this arduous task, should not lose one atom of credit so justly due them.

The Mississippi squadron will never forget the obligations it is under to Lieutenant-Colonel Bailey, acting Military Engineer of the Nineteenth army corps.

Previous to passing the vessels over the falls, I had nearly all the guns, ammunition, provisions, chain-cables, anchors, and every thing that could affect their draught, taken out of them.

The commanders were indefatigable in their exertion to accomplish the object before them, and a happier set of men were never seen than when their vessels were once more in fighting trim.

If this expedition has not been so successful as the country hoped for, it has exhibited the indomitable spirit of Eastern and Western men to overcome obstacles deemed by most people insurmountable. It has presented a new feature in the war, nothing like which has ever been accomplished before.

I regret to inform you, among the misfortunes of this expedition, of the loss of two small lightdraught gunboats — the Signal and Covington. I sent them down from Alexandria to convoy a quartermaster's boat, the Warner, loaded with cotton and some four hundred troops on board, not knowing that the enemy had any artillery on the river below us, or any thing more than wandering gangs of guerrillas, armed with muskets, which these vessels were competent to drive off. It appears, however, that the rebels were enabled to pass our advance force at night with six thousand men and some twenty-five pieces of artillery. With these they established a series of batteries at a place called Dunn's Bayou, thirty miles below Alexandria — a very commanding position. These batteries were so masked that they could not be seen in passing, even by the closest observation.

The first notice the vessels received of the battery [532] was a furious fire which opened on the quartermaster's boat, the Warner, piercing her boilers, and completely disabling her. At the same time six thousand infantry opened with musketry, killing and wounding half the soldiers on this vessel. She drifted in to the opposite bank, where a number managed to make their escape in the bushes, though many were killed in attempting to do so.

The Signal and Covington immediately rounded to and opened their guns on the batteries, and pushed up, endeavoring to rescue the Warner from her perlious position. They had, however, as much as they could do to take care of themselves, the cross-fire of the three batteries cutting them up in a terrible manner. Their steampipes were soon cut, and their boilers perforated with shot, notwithstanding which they fought the batteries for five long hours, the vessels being cut all to pieces, and many killed and wounded on board.

Acting Volunteer Lieutenant George P. Lord, commanding the Covington, having expended all his shot, spiked his guns, set fire to his vessel, and escaped with what was left of his crew to the shore, and his vessel blew up.

The Signal, Acting Volunteer Lieutenant Edward Morgan, still fought her guns for half an hour after the destruction of the Covington. He found it impossible to destroy his vessel by burning, her decks being covered with wounded, and hamanity forbade him sacrificing the lives of the noble fellows who had defended their vessel so gallantly. Hegave permission to all those who wished to escape to do so. Some of them attempted to get off by climbing up the bank. Many were killed while doing so, by the murderous fire of musketry poured in from the opposite side. The captain remained by the vessel, and was captured, if he remained alive; but I have no information regarding him. The rebels took the guns off of her, and placed her across the channel as an obstruction — sunk her.

General Banks, on hearing the news, sent out cavalry to hunt for the unfortunate men, many of whom were picked up and brought into Alexandria. A number escaped down-river, and went aboard some light-draught gunboats that were coming up at the time to the scene of action, but were driven back by the superior artillery of the enemy.

I feel very much for the poor fellows who fell into the rebels' hands, as the latter have been very merciless to some of the prisoners they have taken, and committed outrages at which humanity shudders.

The vessels will all return to their stations in a few days, as there is no prospect, under present circumstances, of renewing operations in this part of Louisiana, the season having passed for operating with any chance of success.

I am sorry to see that the rebel guerrillas have become quite troublesome on the Mississippi since I left, all of which will be rectified within the coming week.

I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

David D. Porter, Rear-Admiral. Hon. Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy, Washington, D. C.

Additional report of rear-admiral D. D. Porter.

flag-ship Black Hawk, Mississippi Squadron, off mouth of Red River, La., May 19, 1864.
sir: In my report in relation to the release of the gunboats from their unpleasant position above the falls, I did not think it prudent to mention that I was obliged to destroy eleven thirty-two pounders — not having time to haul them from above the fall to Alexandria, the army having moved and drawn in all their pickets. The best guns were hauled first. The thirty-two pounders were old guns, and would have been condemned on the first opportunity. For the same reason I also omitted to mention that I was obliged to take off the iron from the sides of the Pook gunboats, and from the Ozark, to enable them to get over. Not being able to haul this iron around the falls to Alexandria, from want of wagons, I ordered the gunboats to run up the river at night to a point where they could find from five to six fathoms of water, where the iron was thrown overboard, and where, in a few moments, it would sink many feet under the quicksands, thus leaving no possible chance for the rebels to recover it.

The Pook vessels run so much better without this iron than they ever did before, and it never having been of any use to them, I propose leaving it off altogether. Their forward casemates are still heavily protected with iron, and as they always fight bow on, it is all they should carry. Besides, they are getting old, and having done a great deal of service without any repairs, they cannot bear the weight. They now run from two to two and a half knots faster than before.

The Ozark is a miserable vessel. Her turret has ceased to work altogether, and is about twice as high and heavy as it should be. I really do not know what can be done with her, unless it is to take the turret off, and, with some additional strengthening, put casemates about her. This, when done, will enable her to lie at some of the points on the river where a formidable vessel is required.

I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

David D. Porter, Rear-Admiral, Commanding Mississippi Squadron. Hon. Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy, Washington, D. C.

Congratulatory letter to Pear-Admiral D. D. Porter.

Navy Department, May 31, 1864.
sir: The Department acknowledges the receipt of your interesting report of the sixteenth instant, giving a detailed and graphic account of the rescue of the Mississippi squadron from its perilous position above the falls at Alexandria, Red River, and of the aid which you received through the indomitable perseverance and engineering skill of Lieutenant-Colonel Bailey, Acting Military Engineer of the Nineteenth army corps. [533]

It is with no ordinary feelings of pleasure that the department learns of the safe passage of that valuable squadron, threatened as it was with inevitable capture or destruction, and congratulates you and your command that the fleet which had borne such a conspicuous part in many of the great events of the war has been spared to the country for future usefulness and renown.

You will tender the thanks of the department to the officers and men of the army for the cheerful aid given you in this great emergency, without which the squadron would unavoidably have fallen into the hands of the rebels or been destroyed. While regretting the loss of the steamers Signal and Covington, and lamenting for the brave men who fell in the engagement with the enemy, the department takes great pleasure in expressing its admiration of the gallant manner in which those vessels were defended, and has reason to believe that the officers and men did their whole duty nobly and faithfully.

Very respectfully,

Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy. Rear-Admiral D. D. Porter, Commanding Mississippi Squadron, Cairo, III.

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