The Red River Dam, Louisiana, was a work of unusual interest, and its results were of such far-reaching influence in the war of 1861-1865, that some details will be welcome. In May, 1864, Admiral Porter reported to the Secretary of the Navy:--That the vessels caught by low water above the falls at Alexandria have been released from the 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. 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 in 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 success if time would only permit. General Banks placed at the disposal of Colonel Bailey all the force he required, consisting of some 3,000 men and 200 or 300 wagons. All the neighboring stream 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; flat-boats were built to bring stone down from above, and 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.(U.S. War Department, War of Rebellion, Official Report, sec.1, 34, part 1) (Pearsall Book Vol. II, pg. 1147)
These falls are about a mile in length, filled with rugged rock, 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 dam, 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 300 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 9 miles an hour, which threatened to sweep everything before it.
It will take too much time to enter into the details of this truly wonderful work. Suffice to say that the dam had nearly reached completion in eigth 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 by 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 9th inst., the pressure of water became so great that it swept away two of the stone bargers, which swung in below the dam on one side. (U.S. War., War of Rebellion, Official Report, sec. 1, 34, page1)
The report of General Uri B. Pearsall covers the rest of the details. He said:-- I was in command of the Ninety-ninth U.S. Colored Inf. (formerly the Fifth Engineers, Corps d'Afrique) during the whole of the Red River campaign, my regiment forming a part of the engineer troops commanded by Col. George D. Robinson. On the 29th of April, this force was ordered to report to Lieut. Col. Joseph Bailey, the acting engineer, Nineteenth Army Corps, for the purpose of constructing the dam above referred to. At the request of Colonel Bailey, Colonel Robinson and myself accompanied him to select the place for building the dam. After a thorough examination of the falls, Colonel Robinson and myself were of the opinion that two dams were necessary--one at the foot of the upper and the other at the foot of the lower falls. Colonel Bailey, however, decided that one would be sufficient, and accordingly we jointly selected the point at which the main dam was located. (U.S. War Dept., War of Rebellion, Official Report, sec. 1, 34, part 1)
On the morning of the 30th of April, the troops selected for this duty were moved to convenient points near the dam and the work began at once. Of the work on the left bank I know but little, my duties confining me exclusively to the right bank. At the commencement, Lieut. Col. Bailey placed me in charge of all the work on the right bank, which included the placing and the loading of the barges in the center of the river, together with the building of the crib-dam to the right bank.
The work progressed rapidly, as both officers and men became more confident of success than they were at the commencement, and on the afternoon of the 8th of May, the cannel was closed with the exception of the three spaces of 20 feet each between the barges and a current of water under the second barge from the right bank, which was only partly loaded, it being our intention to merely scuttle it and place a sufficient amount of railroad iron on the top to prevent its rising up. Large braces were set diagonally up stream from the barges on each side, which, with large hawsers, were to prevent its being swept away, but the water rising rapidly, the weight prove insufficient for the purpose, and on the morning of the 9th it broke away, carrying with it the loaded barge nearest the right bank, both swinging in below and on the left hand side of the new chute thus formed. This accident (so considered at the time) was in my opinion the most fortunate occurrence that could have taken place, those barges which were swept away serving to lengthen the chute and confine the volume of water passing through between them and the right bank, thus creating an artificial depth of water for the boats until they were fully below the ledge of rocks. The also answered as a fender to the boats and prevented their turning in passing through. The water was actually higher on the main dam when this took place than at any time afterward, and the navy, although not moving a single vessel until after the break occurred, were enabled to pass the gun-boats Lexington and Fort Hindman, also the light- draught monitors Neosho and Osage, over the falls above into the pond and thence through the dam below in perfect safety. (U.S. War Dept., War of Rebellion, Official Report, sec.1, 34, part1).
At 7 o'clock on the morning of the 9th, Colonel Bailey directed me to leave a reliable officer in charge of tightening and repairing the remaining portion of the dam extending from the right bank, and then report to him in person on the same side of the river near the head of the falls, at which point he had decided to increase the depth of water by means of light wing-dams thrown out from each side. The new plan was commenced with commendable vigor, the troops being employed in constructing the same as originally proposed until the afternoon of the 10th, which completed a temporary obstruction, close to each side of the channel, by means of light log cribs lashed together with rope and filled with brush and bricks. This work raised about 14 inches of water.
I will here state that in the meantime the gun-boat Chillicothe had managed to work her way through. The Carondelet attempted to follow, but owing to the rapidity of the current, and also to the wing-dams not being placed perpendicular to the direction of the channel, she was forced aside and lay with her bow close below the end of the wing-dam extending from the left bank, her stern being down stream and pointing diagonally across the channel. Several attemps were made to haul her from this position, all of which failed, and the navy finally concluded her case a hopeless one and thought there was sufficient room alongside for the others to pass. The Mound City was accordingly ordered to try it, and grounded abreat of the Carondelet. Five more iron-clads were still above them.
Such, in brief, was the position of affairs on the afternoon of the 10th of May, as Major General Banks will doubtless remember having a conversation with Colonel Bailey and myself at that time. It was at this crisis that Colonel Bailey asked me what could be done to relieve the boats. I replied in these words: If you will allow me to build a dam where I please, on my own plan, and give me the men and materials I require, I will agree to put a foot of water under those boats (referring to Mound City and Carondelet) by tomorrow night. Colonel Bailey agreed to this proposition, and accordingly about 1 a.m. of that night Captain Hutchens, commanding the pioneers, reported to me for duty. Immediate steps were taken to get across the river. I hailed every boat in the fleet to obtain cutters for this purpose, but the reply of all was, wait until daylight. We were accordingly forced to do so, and it was sunrise before all were across to the opposite side. I immediately instructed the men in building two-legged trestles the trestles were all made by 9 a.m. Some pieces of iron bolts (size 1/2 inch) were procured and on set into the foot of the legs of each trestle; also one in the cap pieces at the end resting on the bottom, up stream. The place selected by me for this bracket-dam, was at a point opposite the lower end of the Carondelet, extending out close to this vessel from the left bank. A party of men, selected and headed by myself, placed these trestles in position there under very adverse circumstances, the water being about 4 1/2 feet deep and very swift, and coupled with a very slippery bottom, making it almost impossible to stand against the current. Several men were swept away in this duty, but no lives were lost. The trestles were fastened as soon as they were in position by means of taking sets and driving the iron bolts above referred to down into the bottom. All were in position by 10 a.m., and the plank having arrived, all that remained was to place them. This was done in less than an hour, and by 11 a.m., there was at least a foot of water thrown under the Mound City and the Carondelet and both vessels floated off easily before the ultimate height of water was obtained. The five remaining vessels passed with but little difficulty and at noon on the following day were safe below the main dam at Alexandria. (U.S. War Dept., War of the Rebellion, Official Report, sec. 1, 34, part 1.) (Pearsall Book vol. II, pg. 1150)
It is probable that no other incident could have so clearly disclosed the engineering experience and training of a lumberman from New York and Pennsylvania. When General Pearsall in his report said that he had ten years' practical experience in building dams on the most difficult rivers in the country, it would not be hard for the experienced lumberman to imagine some of the many occasions when General Pearsall must have encountered much more difficult problems than the Red River Dam, in holding the swiftly moving waters of the logging streams of Pennsylvania, or in raising them to relieve a log jam. As an immediate reward, Uri Balcom Pearsall was made Colonel of the 48th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry. (History of State of Kansas, vol. 4, page 808, part 2.)(Pearsall Book, vol. II, pg. 1150)
RED RIVER CAMPAIGN
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