Rough Ride On Red River
by Laurie Chambliss
No doubt it seemed like a good idea at the time.
Vicksburg had been taken last summer. "The Father of the Waters
flows unvexed to the sea," Lincoln has said. This was better as
poetry than as military analysis, however, as there were still
active Confederate forces on both sides of the lower Mississippi in
this spring of 1864.
They were particularly pestilential in the region of the Red River.
This waterway, running roughly parallel to the Mississippi, has its
navigable portion run from central-southern Arkansas south past
Shreveport, Natchitoches, and Alexandria. Both "navigable" and
"run", however, are words that should be used with caution when
talking about the Red.
Assigned to the project was a division of Gen. Sherman's army, added
to the force of, and commanded by, Gen. Nathaniel Prentiss Banks.
Bank's military career had consisted of losing to Stonewall Jackson
in the Shenandoah Valley, losing to Jackson again at Cedar Mountain,
and losing in an attempt to capture Port Hudson. (He got credit for
a win on that one because Port Hudson had to surrender anyway after
the fall of Vicksburg.) The total force came to 12,000 men.
The Navy side of the team was headed by Adm. David D. Porter. He
assembled four wooden gunboats to accompany the main fleet of 15
ironclads. Choosing as his flagship the USS Eastport, they moved out
on March 12th. Destination: Shreveport.
They never made it.
The mission struggled, battled, suffered disease, and continual
harassment by the forces of Major General Richard Taylor, CSA.
Sometimes the troops rode the boats, sometimes they marched
overland. They got as far as Sabine Crossroads, got whupped, and
headed back for the boats.
The boats got to....well, let's let Porter tell it:
"When I arrived at Springfield Landing I found a sight that made me
laugh. It was the smartest thing I ever knew the Rebels to do. They
had gotten that huge steamer, the New Falls City, across Red River,
one mile above Loggy Bayou, 15 feet of her on shore on each side,
the boat broken down in the middle, and a sandbar making below her.
An invitation in large letters to attend a ball in Shreveport was
kindly left stuck up by the rebels, which invitation we were never
able to accept."
So much for the background. As we tune in on our intrepid warriors
today, they have given up and are heading home. Unfortunately, they
are now in more trouble than ever.
The difficulty is the river. This is springtime, which normally
brings even heavier rains than normal to the bayous of Louisiana.
Admiral Porter had been rather counting on these rains, and they
just weren't there. Making matters even worse, if possible, was the
ingenuity of the confederates. They were dropping the level of the
Red by digging channels diverting water out of it. Porter managed to
scrape by (sometimes literally, as one ship after another ran
aground or hit snags and had to be repaired, pulled off , or
abandoned and destroyed) until he hit the rapids above Alexandria.
There was no getting around this obstacle. With every possible ounce
of weight removed, the ships needed a minimum of seven feet beneath
the keel to clear the rocks without ripping the bottoms out of the
boats. The depth of the river was three feet, four inches, and still
dropping. There seemed to be no choice but to burn the remaining
boats and fight their way out on foot, which would not only likely
lead to their being killed or captured, but would no doubt ruin
Porter's career. Porter was sufficiently desperate that he would
listen to any plan, no matter how crazy, that provided an
He got one. Crazy is a mild word for what Lt. Col. Joseph Bailey
came up with. A Wisconsin lumberjack before the war, he knew that
among the soldiers and sailors were quite a number of other
lumberjacks - Midwesterners and New England men who knew how to
swing an axe. Bailey proposed to build a dam. A "wing-dam" it was
called, with an arm sticking out from each shore, leaving only a
small gap in the middle. This could be closed with a sluice gate
until the water level rose to seven feet. Every other engineer in
the Army and Navy that looked at the plan pronounced it impossible,
ridiculous, or both. Bailey was, however, Chief Engineer of the 19th
Corps, which gave his opinion some weight. So did the lack of
So on May 2, 1864, the axes began to ring in the forest, and logs
anchored with stones, wire, and debris began to fill the river. To
speed the process, Bailey took two of the smaller, more damaged
barges, filled them with rocks, got them into position on the dam,
and sunk them. This worked brilliantly, even too well - the river
rose so fast that the barges broke loose. Porter managed to get two
ironclads and two wooden steamers cut loose in time to ride the wave
downstream, and by damn, it worked. They fairly flew down the river
and were past the falls without damage. "Thirty thousand voices rose
in one deafening cheer," Porter wrote later, "and universal joy
seemed to pervade the face of every man present."
Every man, that is, except the ones whose ships had not gotten
through in time, and were still stuck above the rapids. Rather then
abandon them, Bailey and his axemen, who were by now the heroes of
the fleet, set to work and built ANOTHER dam! It took until May 13 -
a Friday that year, as it happened - but Bailey finally got the last
three ships over the rapids and through the woods. The last of
Bank's troops came aboard, and the entire fleet steamed off like
hell for leather, and this time, at last they came home.
General Banks resigned at the end of the war and was promptly
elected to Congress - five terms as a Republican and one as a
Democrat, and was also US Marshall for Massachusetts.
Admiral Porter survived the war and was one of the tiny group that
escorted President Lincoln on his first tour of Richmond after the
fall of the Confederate capital.
Major General Bailey, in a reverse of usual military policy, was
immediately, publicly and loudly proclaimed a hero, with Admiral
Porter leading the applause. He got a brevet rank to Brigadier
General on June 7th, was awarded a Thanks of Congress citation, and
was even given a beautiful presentation sword by Admiral Porter
After the war he settled in Missouri...but that's another story.