Pictured: Joseph Bailey (from the National Archives).

From the Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation, and Tourism and by Stephen D. Smith and George Castille III:

Major General Nathaniel P Banks, Union commander of the Red River military expedition, found himself in a particularly tight situation in April of 1864. He had been defeated at the Battle of Mansfield while attempting to capture Shreveport, Louisiana, and now he was retreating down the Red River, harassed by Confederate troops at every turn. Throughout the campaign, the river’s low water level had been a constant problem to his naval support of gunboats under the command of Rear Admiral David D. Porter. Now, Banks and Porter discovered that the river was so low that the gunboats were trapped above the rapids at Alexandria.

To save the flotilla, Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Bailey suggested that the river could be dammed to raise the water level and f1oat the gunboats over the shallow rapids. Despite the doubts and jeers of many, Banks authorized Bailey to begin construction. Through the next two weeks, troops struggled to build the dam which eventually made it possible for the fleet to escape.

In 1976 the archaeological remains of Bailey’s Dam were placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and through 1986, they could be seen at times of low water. However, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is constructing a modern lock and dam downstream of this historic site, and the Red River will permanently cover Bailey’s Dam. Recognizing the historical and archaeological importance of’ the dam, the Corps sponsored archaeological excavations there in 1984.

This is the introduction to a booklet published by Smith and Castille about Bailey’s Dam. The entire booklet can be read here.

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.”

Alexandria, Louisiana 1864

3 thoughts

  1. The booklet mentioned is first rate and I reccomend you read it! . At the Louisiana History Museum you can also see detailed plans of the dams and how they were built, as drawn by Joseph Bailey after the war. In April we will put on display a scale model of the Mound City, one of the first Union gunboats to run the channel created by the dams.
    Dale Genius
    Loouisiana History Museum

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