Monday, June 2, 2008

Joseph Bailey's Dam...Northwoods ingenuity


In the spring of 1864, a Union Army and an accompanying flotilla of gunboats and transports under the command of Admiral David Porter pushed it's way west deep into rebel territory along the banks great Red River. The campaign came to a sudden stop when the army was beaten at the Battle of Mansfield. They were now in full retreat and Porter had orders to turn his fleet around and get back to the Mississippi River. However, it had been a dry year and the water levels were low. The Union fleet was stranded in place - at the falls above Alexandria, Louisiana. The rebel army was closing in. They wanted the fleet and were now certain of it's eventual capture or destruction.
Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Bailey was a seasoned Wisconsin lumberman and civil engineer before the war and with him were the 23rd and 29th Wisconsin - regiments that were packed with lumberjacks, river rats and northwoods regulars. Bailey now proposed a daring plan to Union commanders - using techniques he had learned on Wisconsin's rivers he would dam the Red River and thus raise the water to a level that would allow the vessels, when the dam was broken, to ride over the falls. Porter thought "(Bailey's) proposition was madness…", but he had no choice. The fleet and an entire army were at stake. Under Lieutenant Bailey’s direction and led by the Wisconsin regiments, the Union soldiers worked day and night over a two week stretch to dam the river. When the water level soon rose to a sufficient height, a breach was made in the dam, and the resulting great rush of water carried the flotilla, one by one, over the falls and down river to the eventual safety of the Mississippi River. In the midst of a failed campaign, Bailey had saved the day. The news electrified the nation and Bailey became the celebrity hero of the moment. Congress gave Bailey a gold medal and thanked him for saving them $2,000,000 worth of hardware and men. Admiral Porter gave him a gold sword and wrote him letters of gushing praise, a group naval officers gave him a silver punch bowl valued at $2,000 and Bailey finished the war as a full Brigadier General.
Two years later he was dead...
"On March 21, 1867, Sheriff Joseph Bailey, of Vernon County, Missouri, was murdered by two prisoners he was taking to jail. Joseph Bailey is buried in Evergreen Cemetery, at Fort Scott, Kansas."

"Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Bailey's Dam was the toil expended by the Union soldiers.... Through the hot days and chilly nights they labored diligently despite harassment from the enemy; the depression and fatigue of a long, failed campaign. . . . In many respects, their efforts offer some basis for Porter's claim that Bailey's Dam was "without doubt the greatest engineering feat ever performed."

The remains of Bailey's dam, his "imperishable monument of American energy, ingenuity, and skill", remained intact for decades and can still be seen.

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