Joseph Bailey and his Dam

Military engineer Joseph Bailey's presence with the Red River expedition was, in a sense, one of those coincidences of history that sometimes result in turning the course of events. His knowledge of engineering was not acquired through formal study at West Point. Instead, he had learned practical engineering on the Wisconsin frontier, where damming was a skill perfected by lumbermen to float logs to their sawmills.

Born in Ashtabula County, Ohio on May 6, 1827, Bailey grew up in Illinois. In 1850 he moved to Wisconsin, where for the next 20 years he was involved in the construction of dams, mills, and bridges. At the beginning of the war, Bailey formed a company of lumbermen and became a captain. Soon, though, his construction genius was recognized and he was supervising various engineering projects for the North, including construction at Fort Dix in Washington D.C. and the attempts to build canals during the Vicksburg campaign.

In 1863 Bailey won distinction at the battle of Port Hudson. There, despite the scoffs of formally trained military engineers, he constructed a gun emplacement in full sight of rebel fortifications and proceeded to silence the Confederate guns. He also built a dam during the siege to refloat two grounded steamboats.

All this had been accomplished while he was, officially, an officer in the Wisconsin 4th Cavalry. Recognizing Bailey's talent, General Banks, without authority, promoted him to colonel. But this promotion was the right of the Governor of Wisconsin, and it was retracted. Instead, Bailey was made a Lieutenant Colonel of Volunteers. Bailey was infuriated at this seeming injustice, and fortunately for Porter's stranded fleet, he had applied for and received a staff position as engineer for Major General William B. Franklin, one of Banks's officers.

To Bailey, constructing a dam to float the gunboats over the Rapids was a challenging but not impossible task. After all, he had Undertaken similar work in Wisconsin and at Port Hudson. In fact, he had foreseen the problem as early as April 9 and offered to construct a dam at that time. But while Franklin liked the idea, the matter was not yet critical, and other more important problems needed tending.

Most of the staff officers thought Bailey's idea was outrageous. Porter had joked about an earlier proposition by Bailey to build a dam to refloat the stranded gunboat Eastport saying: "Well, major, if you can dam better than I can, you must be a good hand at it, for I have been d--g all night" (Hoffman 1877:99). Now, though, a major part of the fleet was about to be lost and Porter instructed a messenger, "Tell General Franklin that if he [Bailey] will build a dam or any thing else, and get me out of this scrape, I'll be eternally grateful to him" (Hoffman 1877:101). Later, Porter would record that "the 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 in the work" (Beecher 1866:342).

Fortunately, once Franklin and Banks decided to accept Bailey's idea, they ordered everyone's cooperation. Some 3,000 troops were put to work chopping down trees, gathering stones and bricks, and dragging the raw materials down to where the dam would be constructed. On the Pineville side of the river, Maine, New York, and Wisconsin soldiers cut down trees, while on the Alexandria side, black troops were put to work gathering wood from buildings. One historical account describes the scene:


Map showing the location of Bailey's Dam in relation to Alexandria during the Civil War.

In the midst of this furious activity, Bailey was constantly on Hand directing the construction. On site, the soldiers toiled through the day and night; the slightest disobedience was harshly corrected. Two officers were even arrested for allowing a barge, which was to be part of the dam, to sink in the wrong place. Meanwhile, on shore, the dam and Bailey were the main source of amusement. To most of the navy, half the army, and much of the townspeople, the dam was a great joke. Word of Bailey's dam quickly spread to the rebels, who would taunt their enemy with "How's your big dam progressing?" (Moore 1868:12). But Bailey ignored the wisecracks and concentrated on his plan.


The tinclad Signal towing material for Bailey's Dam. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Engineering and Archaeology

During the Civil War, the rapids at Alexandria were composed of rocky outcroppings of sandstone and siltstone forming shoals along a mile stretch of the Red River, even at times of high water. At low water, the upper and lower ends of the rapids were exposed. Long before the war, the rapids had been a problem to river traffic. When the water was low, goods being transported by steamboat up and down the river had to be unloaded, carried past the rapids by wagon, and reloaded on different boats.

Numerous ideas had been proposed to improve the river passage; even the famous Henry Miller Shreve proposed a solution, but no action was taken. By 1864 the only navigational aid at the rapids was a small channel cut out of the rocky river bottom. While this was an improvement, the water was still too low to navigate the rapids during the campaign.

It is a strange twist of history, but we can say that today we know more about some details of Bailey's dam construction than did the soldiers who built it. Those men were laboring day and night to build the dam as quickly as possible. In the confusion and fury of activity, there was little time for anyone but Bailey to fully comprehend the plan. Today, historians have studied the many reports and eyewitness accounts of the dam construction to piece together what happened. In addition, careful archaeological excavation of the actual dam remains provided undeniable evidence of the techniques used. In 1984 a combined historical and archaeological study was undertaken by a historian from the Corps of Engineers and archaeologists from Coastal Environments, Inc. The results of their studies provide a detailed view of the activities at Bailey's Dam and testify to the magnitude of Bailey's engineering feat.

Historical documents indicate that Bailey first built his dam just above the lower, downstream rapids. There, the river was around 758 feet wide, and a 10-mile-per-hour current rushed over the shoals. By constructing the dam at that particular location, he hoped the water would rise enough behind the dam to allow the gunboats to float over the upper rapids. Then, with the built-up water pressure, the dam could be broken through at the proper time and the gunboats could rush over the lower rapids, carried by the force of the released water.

Following Bailey's practical nature, the dam was built with any locally available material readily at hand. To do so, he used different methods of construction for each riverbank. On the west (Alexandria) bank, he built the dam of large wooden boxes called cribs. Bailey constructed a number of cribs which were placed side by side from the bank out into the river.


Sketch of crib dam which accompanied Colonel Bailey's report (U.S. War Department 1891-1895:Plate 53-3).

Archaeologists investigated these structures during a low water period by carefully digging two small excavation units around partially exposed crib remains. These units were 4 feet wide and 8 feet long. As the archaeologists removed the surrounding mud and dirt and exposed the cribs, they painstakingly recorded the position of each timber and beam. Afterward they studied their photographs and notes, comparing their findings with the historical records.

Historical accounts indicate that lumber from Alexandria mills, homes, and barns was quickly stripped for use in building the cribs. Bricks, stone, and even machinery were used to fill and anchor the cribs. Additionally, historical illustrations show that iron bars were placed vertically in the four corners of each crib, to provide a supporting framework.

The evidence from modern archaeological excavations generally supports the historical accounts with some interesting variations. Both lines of evidence testify to the ingenuity of Lieutenant Colonel Bailey. The excavations revealed that the crib framework was constructed of hand hewn 4-by-lO-inch timbers, which is strong evidence that the lumber was from nearby buildings. The ends of these timbers were notched so that they fit tightly together at the corners of the cribs. The corners were supported by smaller vertical wood posts. However, in the cribs excavated by the archaeologists, there was no evidence of the iron support bars. Furthermore, there was no evidence of machinery parts in the cribs. Instead, they found that the cribs were filled mostly with sand and mud and only capped with a layer of loose brick and stone. A metal fragment of a large sugar kettle was also found among this brick and stone. A sugar kettle was just the kind of loose hut heavy object that could be quickly transported to the cribs for anchoring material.

On the east (Pineville) bank, there were no town buildings to strip for lumber but there was, quite conveniently, a forest. With abundant trees available, Bailey constructed a 'self-loading" tree dam. According to historical diagrams, trees were stacked lengthwise with the flow of the stream. The upstream treetops were anchored to the river bottom with stones. The downstream trunks were raised higher than the upstream tops by alternating layers of other logs running perpendicular to, or across, the stream. This technique presented a dam face of logs angled upward with the stream flow. As the river was held back by the log face, the water pressure actually made the dam stronger or "self-loading."


Sketch of tree dam which accompanied Colonel Bailey's report (U.S. War Department 1891-1895:Plate 53-3).

The archaeological investigation of the tree dam was completed in a manner similar to the excavations at the crib structures. But here a trench excavation unit was dug. This trench was 22 feet long and 5 feet wide, and it was positioned parallel to the flow of the river. During these investigations, the river began to rise, and when the excavation unit was finally abandoned, the archaeologists were working about 2 feet below the water level. The field crew was successful in reaching that depth only with the aid of a water pump. Archaeologists had hoped to excavate a slice of the dam completely down to its base, but attempts to excavate deeper were halted when the pump could not keep out the incoming water.


Archaeologist David Kelley drawing a map of logs uncovered during the tree dam excavation.

The tree dam excavations revealed that both pine and hardwood logs were used and that the tree bark was left intact. The tree limbs had been cut off, but by observing the knots on the tree trunks, archaeologists were able to note the direction in which the trees were positioned. They found that many of the trees were positioned with their tops downstream, exactly opposite of that shown in historical illustrations. Also, all of the upstream ends of the trees had been trimmed of their branches, and their tips had been pointed with an axe. Spaces between the logs were filled with sand and mud, and the entire structure was covered with brick and stone. Interestingly, the archaeologists also found a hewn, octagonal, wood column among the logs. The upstream end of the column had been rough cut, seemingly to fit into that particular spot in the tree dam. The column was most likely a mast from a riverboat.


Portion of the tree dam exposed during the low water in August 1984.

Together the crib and tree dam sections did not cross the entire 758-foot riverbed. A 150-foot gap existed between the two dams. To close this gap, four coal barges were used. While the remains of these barges were not found in the archaeological excavations, historical photographs provide a fairly detailed picture of their appearance. These 24-hy-170-foot barges were sunk in the gap, lying lengthwise with the current, and more stones, brick, and iron rails were used to anchor them. Braces and ropes, anchored to the riverbanks, were also needed to secure the barges against the rising water pressure.

Bailey directed that the second barge from the Alexandria side be only partially filled with anchoring materials. This was the barge that he hoped either to ram or blast out of the way, creating a flood that the gunboats would ride like kayaks. As it turned out. Bailey's idea worked, but not exactly as he would have liked.


Building the Red River Dam. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

NEXT >>