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1864 June 11: Bailey’s Dam on the Red River

June 14, 2014

The following is from The Prescott Journal of June 11, 1864.

From the Mississippi Squadron.

T H E   R E D   R I V E R   D A M.


Evacuation and Burning of Alexandria.

Passage Down Red River.

Correspondence of the State Journal.

Red River, May, 1864.

Since my last we have been having rather rough times of it on Red River.  The Benefit was the last boat out, and since that time our communication has been cut off.  The question was how long could we hold out here waiting for a rise in the river when there was not the slightest prospect of such good fortune.  Gen. Banks [Nathaniel P. Banks] was in a great hurry to get out, but without the gunboats his passage out was not altogether safe, and should the army leave the place the fate of the gunboats was sealed.  The rebels were constantly attacking us on all sides, Pliognac¹ on the north side, but the greater force still on the south side.  The indomitable Smith [A. J. Smith] was constantly heard of fighting them, first in one place, then in another, until his praises were the theme of every tongue and a petition was put in circulation in the fleet recommending him for promotion, which was signed by nearly every officer.

Meantime the project was started of daming [sic] the river at a point nearly below the lower rapids, and the work was given in charge of Col. Bailey,² of the Engineer corps, and hundreds of men went to work with a will to accomplish the task.  Capt. Langthorn [sic]³ of the Mound City most ably seconded the efforts of Col. Bailey, leaving his ship every morning at sunrise and only returning at 8 or 9 o’clock at night, and by dint of working day and night for five days, the water was backed up on the rapids so that the two little monitors, the Fort Hindman and Lexington got over.  But it was still too low to admit of the heavier vessels.  The same night, from the immense pressure of water, a portion of the dam gave way, it being almost impossible to hold it with such means as were at hand.

To add to our discomfiture, we learned that the gunboats Covington and Signal were lost on their way out.  From one of the engineers of the latter boat I learned the following particulars :  The two gunboats were convoying the transport Warner out, loaded with troops.  They encountered a battery some forty miles below here and commenced action instantly.  They could have both run the battery without much damage, but the Warner getting aground, caused them to be detained until the batteries on shore were reinforced, and the Covington, becoming disabled, was blown up.  The Signal still kept up the fight, and her commander gave orders for all the unemployed men to get ashore, as the steam pipe was cut and the boat unmanageable.  Owing to the number of sharpshooters this business of getting up the bank was extremely hazardous.  The men succeeded however, in joining a party of the Covington’s men and proceeded up the river on foot.  They were scattered once in the woods by rebel cavalry, but finally arrived here after a fatiguing march of forty-eight hours without food.

From a scout we learn that several of our vessels were at Fort DeRussy, but our troubles all lie between here and there.  On the 8th, the Chillicothe got over the upper falls into the basin below.  It being found impossible to make the dam hold to raise the water any higher, the order was given to lighten the vessels as much as possible.  According[ly] everything of weight was taken off with due regard to still leaving the boats in a defensible condition.  Part of each battery, old iron anchors and the iron plating on our sides were taken off, and on the 11th the Carondelet started over the shoals and got hard and fast and nearly out of the channel.  The Mound City started over, and of course she got aground.  The soldiers started two wing dams, one from each side of the river, to throw the body of water into the channel.  I never saw soldiers work with such will.  It was amusing to see with what alacrity they would lay hold of a line, when brought to the shore.  Sometimes as many as two thousand were on one line, and I often saw a 14 inch hawser broke in twain by sheer strength.  Happily, on the 12th, we got over and into the basin of back-water caused by the dam below, and the Carondelet soon followed.  The other boats continued lightening, and as the wing dams were now of great service the rest got over the same night.—But now our trouble was only half over.  We had yet before us the final leap to safety or destruction.  The main dam was stretched across the river from the north side, only a short portion of it projecting from the opposite side, leaving a space of about sixty feet through which the water was rushing with lightning rapidity, and in a short distance descending some ten feet, with a surface as smooth as glass, then breaking into huge rollers which tumbled about with a deafening noise.  Truly it was a wild looking place to run a large gunboat into.  The Lexington, Fort Hindman, Neosho and Osage went over ;  also the Admiral’s tug Dahlia.  But they were lighter draft vessels and the breach at that time was wider and the current less swift, although a man was washed overboard from the Neosho and drowned.  One man was also lost from the tug.  It was with many misgivings that we surveyed the prospect.

As the Mound City was the first to get over the shoals above and being the heaviest vessel in the flotilla, she had the honor of leading off the race and at about six P.M. we cast off our lines and prepared to take the shoot.  Port holes were closed up, hatches battoned [sic] down, trunks and articles of wardbrobe [sic] were brought to deck from the rooms below, and everything put in as safe a condition as possible.  The old boat seemed loth to encounter the ordeal and refused to turn her bow to it for some time.  At last she pointed directly for it some three hundred yards above.  I think every heart beat a trifle quicker as she approached the fearful leap.

The scene was of much too thrilling interest for me truly to describe.  Every noise was hushed on board the vessel except the orders of Capt. Langthorn [sic], given in a firm, distinct tone to the Pilots at the wheel.— Thousands of our anxious soldiers were on either bank to witness a success or a catastrophy [sic].  Brass bands had marched up on both sides and were playing, one the “Star Spangled Banner,” and the other the “Battle Cry of Freedom.”  Your correspondent was never in such painful suspense as during the few seconds before taking the tremendous slide.  He tried to execute a few steps of a hornpipe, but the effort proved a miserable failure.  In less time than it takes for you to read this, our bow struck the head of the vortex and a cheer rose from every throat of our men, which was vociferously responded to by the men on shore, but was instantly hushed.  With the velocity of the locomotive we took the fearful plunge.  The steamer struck the breakers and threw the water quite over her.  But see !  She strikes !  She groans !—Her bow rises high out of the water, then sinks again, while her motion is checked and her timbers crack with an ominous sound to a sailor.  For an instant she is motionless, and the water rolled furiously over her stern and every one felt that wood and iron would go to pieces in a very few seconds.  But there !  She starts again, she moves, and the noise caused by the rock beneath her passed from stem to sterm [sic] and we dropped into our bearings on the water below, and although the loss of our rudder rendered us unmanageable, if we were not sinking, we were safe.  The pumps were sounded but no extra water was found.  We struck the bank and a thousand willing hands were ready to grasp our line and make us fast, and a rousing cheer went up for our success.  The thing was done ;  the Iron Clad Fleet was safe ;  for all knew that if we could go over, the rest could, as we were the deepest in the water.  The Bands marched back playing lively airs, the crowd dispersed, and we lay at the bank as though nothing had happened.

Capt. Langthorn [sic] proved himself, as he always does, equal to the emergency, and conducted the boat in a masterly manner.  I was most afraid that from the warping and twisting of the vessel a steam pipe joint would be broken, in which event every soul below decks would have suffered death by scalding.  One hundred and twenty men were killed in this way at St. Charles, on White river, on this same boat by a shot to the steam drum, when the ports were all open, while now all were closed and battened, leaving no place of escape for steam.

The Carondelet and Pittsburg [sic] came over the same evening, when the Admiral deeming it too late, the rest remained above and came over without accident the next morning.

Bailey's Dam, from "Harper's Weekly" of June 18, 1864

Bailey’s Dam, from “Harper’s Weekly” of June 18, 1864

Col. Bailey, of the 19th Army Corps, deserves to wear two buttons in a group and a star in the centre of his shoulder strap, for his untiring zeal and energy in constructing this dam, which proved the salvation of the Iron Clads, and perhaps the army.  It will be regarded as one of the most remarkable operations of the war.  To dam a river that never was dammed (except by word of mouth) in the space of four days, in such a place and with such material, is no common occurrence, and the gallant constructor will long be remembered with kindly feelings by the navy.  I am happy to say that the officers of this fleet have started in circulation a subscription for a testimonial to Col. Bailey.  It was only just started when it reach us, but the amount subscribed already exceeded $500.

The Mound City went over the dam on the 12th, and on the 13th, in the afternoon, the evacuation took place.  As early as 10 A. M. the town was discovered to be on fire, and several squares were soon enveloped by the devouring element.  And now commenced a scene of frequent occurrence in the South since this war began, but one that would create a sensation through the whole North were it to happen in a town the size of Alexandria.  Frantic women were running here and there, trying in vain to save something of their household stores ;  but it was all in vain ;  the hungry flame lapped up their goods even after they were on the street.—Although there was scarcely a breath of wind, yet the fire spread with the greatest rapidity.  Gen. Banks made some ineffectual attempts to stay the progress of the flames, and tore down several buildings, but the soldiers did not work with much interest.  An engine was hauled to the river, but the hose was found to be cut.  After this it was allowed to have its own way.

Various opinions as to how the fire originated are in circulation.  Some say it was started by a drunken soldier ;  others that it was entirely accidental, and others, still, think it was fired by the secesh, to delay our ammunition trains.  The latter cause I think the most probable.  When we left, at about 3 P. M., the fire had swept everything on the main street for the distance of over half a mile.  The destruction of property was very great.

The guns that were taken from the boats above the falls were bursted, and everything being ready, we went off, leaving the place wrapped in a dense volume of smoke.  We proceeded down some ten miles and laid up for the night.

On the morning of the 14th we started in regular order, the Carondelet taking the lead, with a large sidewheel transport as a tender and consort, then another gunboat, then a transport, and so on with all the iron-clads.  The transports were to help the gunboats off the ground when necessary and the gunboats to protect the transports when attacked.—The Lexington, Fort Hindman and Sinclair brought up the rear.  We came along slowly, occasionally shelling the woods as some party of rebels would fire on the transports from the north side, we having no forces on that side of the river.  We tied up at night at the wrecks of the Signal, Covington and Warren.  The casualties as far as I know today have been two men killed on the Emerald, one on the Clara Bell and one killed and one wounded on the monitor Ozark.

We are now up with the advance of the army, who have been skirmishing with the enemy all the day, driving them slowly before them.  The river is very slack water, and full of all kinds of filth, dead horses, mules, and occasionally the body of a man is seen floating about.  But all such are buried as soon as discovered.  On the bank where we lay were found two or three thousand letters captured from the Warner, as she carried out a large army mail.  Several thousand dollars were lost it is said, as the army was recently paid off and many were sending home a portion of their pay.  We are now forty miles below Alexandria and thirty above Fort DeRussy, where we hear our gunboats are.  We have found no batteries as yet, but hear of them below.

On the 15th four gunboats and the flagship Cricket started ahead and proceeded at good speed down the river.  We encountered 1,500 rebels on the north side who fired into us, but we gave them a good shelling and left them running.  We had no more trouble and reached Fort De Russy at 2 p. m.  Here we received our mail, the first we had had for over three weeks.  We passed on down by the Choctaw and Benton and soon met a dispatch boat bearing the news that Gen. Grant [Ulysses S. Grant] was in Richmond, to which we responded with great cheering.  If we could have been returning from a great victory I think the cause of Uncle Jeff [Confederate President Jefferson Davis] would have been about played out.  Our greatest consolation is that we got out at all.  But we have learned the rebels that low water won’t catch us in the river, and I don’t think they will depend on it again.

Since coming into the river we have lost the following named boats :  Woodford, Hastings, La Crosse, City Belle, Warner, Eastport, Signal, Covington, Champion No. 3, Champion No. 5, and the Emma. The five first names and the last are army transports, the others belong to the navy.  We left several tons of iron and ammunition in the bottom of the river, also a few guns, (old style).  But had it not been for the fleet not a single transport would have gotten out of the river.

The Chillicothe, Mound City, Pittsburgh, and Sinclair are to proceed down the Atchafalaya I presume to see Banks’ safe across that bayou on this retreat.

The different descriptions of the battle of Pleasant Hill in your paper, are all nearly correct, as much so as can be got at, and to Gen. Banks we can lay the cause of our turning our forces down stream.—The idea of fighting a large battle with wagon trains, I don’t think ever originated with any other man.  The experiment was a failure and didn’t pay.  Gen. Smith [A.J. Smith] is bringing up the rear, because there is fighting to be done there and he and his boys are the kind of fellows that do that sort of business.

At a point some ten miles above Fort De Russy the army was obliged to leave the river on account of the low, marshy ground.  They struck off intending to cross the Atchafalaya at Simmesport.  The fleet came by way of the river and entered Bayou Atchafalaya.  The transports stopped in Old River, and the Chillicothe, Carondolet, Mound City, Louisville, Pittsburgh, and Gazelle came to Simmesport where they arrived at noon.

The mail goes.  Au revoir.          J. B. A.
Tuesday, May 16.

1.  Camille Armand Jules Marie, Prince de Polignac (1832-1913), was affectionately known by his troops as Prince Polecat.  He  was a French nobleman, scholar, and soldier who joined the Confederate States Army at the outbreak of the Civil War and became major general before the end of the war. He participated in the Battle of Shiloh and the Siege of Corinth. In January 1863 he was promoted to brigadier general. Two months later, he was transferred to the Trans-Mississippi Department and assigned command of a Texas infantry brigade. Polignac is best known for his leadership at the Battle of Mansfield (April 8, 1864), a Confederate victory in the first major action of the Red River Campaign. Polignac received a battlefield promotion at Mansfield, taking command of General Alfred Mouton’s division after his death. Polignac fought the next day (April 9) at Pleasant Hill. In June 1864, he was promoted to major general and continued to lead the division through the remainder of the campaign. In March 1865 he was sent to France to request intervention on behalf of the Confederacy, but he arrived too late to accomplish that mission. After the Civil War, Polignac returned to France, and resumed his travels and studies in Central America. He published several articles on his Civil War experiences. He returned to the French army as a brigadier general and commanded a division in the Franco-Prussian War (1870 to 1871).
2.  Joseph Bailey (1825-1867) was a civil engineer and lumberman in Wisconsin before the Civil War. When the War started, he was commissioned captain of Company D, 4th Wisconsin Infantry (Hudson City Guards were Company G). In April 1862, Bailey was named acting chief engineer for the city of New Orleans shortly after its occupation. He was promoted to major in May of 1863 and supported the Union Army’s engineering activities at the Siege of Port Hudson. In August 1863, he was again promoted, to lieutenant colonel, when the 4th Infantry was re-designated the 4th Wisconsin Cavalry. In June 1864, Bailey became colonel of the 4th Wisconsin Cavalry.
3.  Amos R. Langthorne, who was actually a lieutenant by rank.

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