Low water in May 1864 threatened to turn the Red River Campaign into a disaster for the Union. Three hundred miles lay between Admiral David Porter's Red River flotilla and the comparative safety of the Mississippi River. One mile of those three hundred consisted of a waterfall, a series of rapids, and a second waterfall; serious concerns in the best of times. In early April the sailors had unloaded much of the cargo to lighten the boats before they could pass over these obstacles. The Red River had since fallen six feet, and in late April 1864 the water over the rapids was only three feet and four inches deep. Porter's boats needed seven feet of water to float.
After five harrowing days steaming down the Red River as Confederate snipers and artillery along both sides of the river concentrated on doing as much damage as possible to his fleet - and doing a very good job of it - the remaining and badly battered ships arrived at Alexandria, Louisiana to meet the Union army. Porter found the navy had gone as far as it could go without a miracle.
The navy was fortunate the army had arrived at Alexandria or, stuck as it was above the falls, it would have been at the mercy of General Richard Taylor's Confederate troops. As it was, the choices for Porter were unpleasant even with General Nathaniel Banks' army now protecting his ships. His ships were in danger of being captured by the Confederates or he could scuttle them and ruin all the good work the United States Navy had accomplished in western waters over the past two years. Either way his reputation would be ruined and his navy career would be over.
Porter did not like his army counterpart; he believed Banks to be incompetent. And he had no faith that Banks would keep his army in Alexandria to protect the fleet until the river rose, especially as Banks had orders from General Ulysses S. Grant to conclude the Red River Campaign immediately whether it was successful or not. He knew Banks was anxious to wrap up what had turned out to be a disastrous effort and get on with the next phase of the work of 1864.
But Banks wasn't the sort of man who abandoned his own forces. From a practical standpoint, his army still had to march 100 miles down the Red River before it was out of harm's way; those large naval guns were excellent protection against the Rebels. He also hoped he could find a way to retrieve his own reputation ruined by the disastrous turn of events over the past month.
Banks had to get his troops out of Alexandria quickly; his supplies were down to three weeks of half rations and forage for the animals was almost nonexistent. Whatever supplies had once existed downstream had long been destroyed by the Confederates who would not allow their own property to fall into Union hands.
A miracle wasn't likely to occur. But a solution was suggested, although few in the beginning believed it would work. The chief engineer of the Nineteenth Corps, Lt. Col. Joseph Bailey, suggested that if a dam were built the water would deepen enough to float the fleet over the rapids.
Bailey had built dams before and knew they worked. As a lumberman in Wisconsin he built dams on sluggish streams to float the logs to the market. And after the capture of Port Hudson he had built a dam to float two boats that the Confederates had abandoned in the mud of a creek.
Porter and Banks were skeptical. The Red River was not sluggish - in fact its current was, at nine miles an hour, very swift - and was much, much wider that a stream or a creek. But Bailey's commander, General Franklin, was an engineer himself and thought the dam could work. Most conclusively, there was no alternative - other than waiting for the water to rise when it gave every indication it would continue to fall. They agreed Bailey should make the attempt.
How to Construct a Dam in Record Time
Bailey designed two wing dams above the second, or lower, falls. The Red River was 758 feet wide at this point. The falls were six feet high.
One dam, on the north or left bank, was constructed of trees harvested from the timber along its shores. The logs were laid with the current. Their branches were locked and their trunks were tied together.
The south bank was farmland and had few trees, so its dam was constructed of huge cribs that were filled with stones and heavy objects, such as machinery from the local cotton gins, until they submerged. A gap of about 150 feet remained in the center of the river; this was plugged by barges also filled with rubble until they sank.
Three thousand soldiers built these dams. A Maine regiment of loggers built the northern dam. Three regiments of New Yorkers familiar with construction work built the southern dam and scuttled the barges. Porter wrote, “Every man seemed to be working with a vigor I have seldom seen equaled, while perhaps not one in fifty believed in the success of the undertaking.”
In eight days and nights, they worked on land and in the water while enduring the jeers and jokes of the soldiers who watched dry from the shore and the annoying attentions of General Richard Taylor's Confederate marksmen.
Skepticism gradually shifted to amazement and then to hope. A contraband on seeing the dam for the first time, exclaimed, Before God, what won't the Yankees do next!
The sailors prepared their vessels for the tumultuous ride over the rapids. They stripped the side armor off and rid the boats of anything heavy. Anchors, chains, ammunition, and the guns were either carted below the falls for reloading after the boats rode through the chute or sunk in a five fathom hole in the river. They also unloaded the cotton that they'd been so eager to capture as a prize of war and an easy fortune.
Will the Dam Hold?
After eight days the water was almost deep enough to allow the lighter boats to pass through the chute. Four boats dropped over the upper falls and stationed themselves just above the dam until the water rose enough to make their run. Between sunset and midnight the river rose more than a foot. At midnight it was six feet deep. Only one more foot of water was needed for all of the vessels to make it across the falls.
But the strain on the dam was greater and greater. The current moved faster, and the water pressure was so great that the barges were trembling with the effort to remain in place. General Banks suspected the dam would break by dawn.
At 5:30 two of the barges shifted. They broke, swept downstream, and stuck on a ledge of rocks.
Porter, seeing the barges give way, leaped on a horse and galloped upstream. He ordered the four boats to shoot the chute before the water level became too low. Three of the boats were moored at the banks and had to start their engines. The oldest boat of the fleet, the Lexington, put on a full head of steam, passed over the remaining rocks of the channel, and headed for the 66-foot opening. On the banks 30,000 soldiers and sailors watched. Porter wrote in his report,
"She 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 the 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 skipper of the monitor, the Neosho, at the last moment before heading into the chute ordered the engines cut off instead of following Porter's orders to keep them going full steam. The boat was in the current and so, without any control, dove into the fall, struck bottom - with an ominous metallic clang - and to everyone's considerable relief, emerged from the froth of the waterfalls with only a single hole.
The skippers of the other two vessels that had been moored by the dam had now seen the right way and the wrong way to make the plunge; they got their boats over the falls without incident.
Several vessels remained above the upper falls, and the water was again too shallow.
Bailey to the Rescue Again?
The weight of the water was too heavy for the barges linking the center two dams. The two dams, however, were strong. The trick, then, engineer Bailey knew, was to take the bulk of the weight off the dams. Another dam had to be built.
This dam was constructed above the upper falls to slow the impact of the water current over the rapids. The soldiers, now familiar with their tasks and no doubt encouraged by the success of their first effort, worked with a will. Only three days later three more vessels passed through the dam at the upper falls, made the mile-long run over the rapids, and dropped over the second falls. The next day the last three boats steamed over the falls. The navy and the army could quit Alexandria and resume their journey downstream.
In gratitude Admiral Porter gave Bailey a $700 sword. The navy presented him with a silver vase. The U.S. Congress formally thanked him and promoted him two grades to the rank of brigadier general. In his report Porter wrote, "The highest honors that the Government can bestow on Colonel Bailey can never repay him for the service he has rendered the country. He has saved the Union a valuable fleet, worth nearly two million dollars, and he has deprived the enemy of a triumph which would have emboldened them to carry on this war a year or two longer."