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Joseph Bailey

Joseph Bailey during Civil War (

Joseph Bailey, an Ohio native, is most noted for his actions during the Red River Campaign of 1864, by building what is known as Bailey’s Dam. Initially a Captain for Wisconsin’s 4th Infantry from Columbia County, Bailey rose to the rank of Major General in 1865. While serving he is noted for his advanced siege work techniques and engineering feats.

During the Red River Campaign Rear Admiral Porter ended up getting stuck above the rapids at Alexandria due to the river being extremely low. Bailey suggested the idea to build a dam to raise the level of the water to allow the fleet to escape (Steven Smith, 1986). Without the building of the dam, Porter’s fleet would have been either trapped above the rapids where the confederates would be able to defeat them in battle or risk going over the rapids in shallow water, which would have resulted in the loss of most of the fleet.

Lieutenant Colonel Bailey was commissioned as an officer in Wisconsin’s 4th infantry as a Captain. When the Civil War broke out Bailey left his job as an engineer and forester near present day Wisconsin Dells, and organized the unit. While serving the 4th infantry was primarily an engineering unit that built bridges and other support for the Union cause. From his previous career as an engineer and early career tasks, it is not surprising that Lieutenant Colonel Bailey was able to rise to the occasion during the Red River campaign and build a dam that allowed for Union ships to escape from Confederate forces.

Red River Campaign

The Red River campaign was assigned to Major General Banks, who was presidential candidate at the time had his own personal goals set higher than the needs of the Army. Major General Banks had a large ego, seen in the Vicksburg Campaign of 1863-1864 in Vicksburg, Mississippi, where he was constantly trying to undermine General Grant’s orders, viewing them as inferior to what he was capable of. Being the highest ranking officer in the Army west of the Appalachian mountains did not help with his unwillingness to work with other officers. Major General Banks had made promises to some beneficiaries, present for the campaign, promising cotton in return for their support. Major General Banks arrived a week late to Alexandria to begin the campaign, and on the boat with him was not troops, but with spectators who were interested in the cotton. This caused a rift between both sides in that Rear Admiral Porter was upset by Major General Banks arriving a week late with civilian onlookers and not troops, and Major General Banks was upset with Rear Admiral Porter since the navy had been destroying the cotton supplies that he had promised his civilian onlookers. Rear Admiral Porter had originally thought that Major General Sherman was supposed to be leading the campaign and this was why he agreed to go along with the plan. Rear Admiral Porter was upset when he learned he was going to be working with Major General Porter due to his personality. With Major General Porter arriving late to multiple events, and Rear Admiral Porter destroying cotton present in the area created a larger divide between the two commanding officers. Another problem that caused a divide between the Navy and the Army was Rear Admiral Porter was good friends with General Grant and Major General Sherman, which made Major General Banks not trust Rear Admiral Porter, since Major General Banks did not like Major General Sherman or General Grant because of their successes. This divide prevented the Navy and Army from working together as one, and allowed the Confederates to fend off the Union efforts to completely control the trans-Mississippi region.

The Red River Campaign occured in April of 1864, the Union launched an attack in the Trans-Mississippi region to defeat the Confederate military factories, depots, and agricultural resources. The plan included Major General Banks to bring a large Union force down and meet up with Rear Admiral  Porter’s navy, which included many Ironclads and other deep water vessels. When preparing for the attack the Union failed to account for the shallow Red River, in which it sent the navy up. Rear Admiral Porter’s fleet was created with firepower in mind, and did not account for the shallow and often turning flow of the river. With these deep water vessels, the navy struggled maneuvering in the shallow Red River and the heavier ships would often get caught up on the sandy, and the snag-filled river. The main reason why the campaign failed was because Major General Banks had devised an attack plan that relied on three separate attack forces which were unable to communicate with each other. After multiple failed attacks by the Union, the Confederate Army launched counter-attacks, which drove the Union forces from the region. The Confederates were determined to fend off the Union not only to preserve their territory, but because of their dislike for Major General Banks. Major General Banks had a stated that the Confederates would not openly fight him, which only strengthened the resolve of the Confederate Army to fight harder. After multiple failed attacks, and a strong counterattack  Major General Banks had to retreat with his Army back to New Orleans or they would have been captured, which left the Navy with no support. The counter-attacks were successful, but were almost decisive for the Confederates, if they would have been able to destroy the navy, which they would have been able to do, if not for the actions of Lieutenant Colonel Bailey’s quick thinking and ingenuity to build a dam to allow for the Navy to escape down river.  In a campaign where there was a large communication divide between Major General Banks and Rear Admiral Porter, the willingness to allow for Lieutenant Colonel Bailey to attempt his plan allowed the Union to maintain intact in the region.

Building the Dam

With little support from higher ranking officers, Lieutenant Colonel Bailey set to complete the task at hand. At this time the Army had already retreated back to New Orleans, with Major General Banks gone the Navy higher ups was what allowed Lieutenant Colonel Bailey to pursue his idea of building a dam. The dam was needed because the Confederate Army had blown up a previous dam down river. By destroying the original dam, it caused the Red River to become even shallower than before, making it impossible for the deep water vessels to maneuver. The men he led toiled through hot days and cold nights while under enemy fire. By keeping the dam design simple, a winged dam, which Lieutenant Colonel Bailey had commonly used when building dams while logging in Wisconsin, allowed for the task to be completed as quickly as possible. The moral of the troops at the time was low due to the constant thoughts of the failed campaign and thoughts that they would be captured or killed. In a letter Major Wickham Hoffman on May 17, 1864, Lieutenant Colonel Bailey describes how there was “difficultly in procuring details to complete the work, but the men soon gained confidence and labored faithfully”(Joseph Bailey, 1864). Even through this adversary, Lieutenant Colonel Bailey was able to inspire his men to keep working and complete the task at hand. Through his ingenuity and outstanding leadership, the dam was completed and saved the lives of thousands of men. Rear Admiral Porter was cited for saying  that the dam was “without doubt the greatest engineering feat ever performed”(Von Nostrand 1868). With this high of praise coming from a high ranking officer it shows the amount of determination and will that Lieutenant Colonel Baily showed in ensuring that the campaign was not a complete failure. Building a dam, might not seem like an engineering feat that would stand the test of time, but even the simple task of building a dam proved critical in the Civil War. Bailey’s Dam allowed the Navy to escape from Confederate hands in a failed campaign. The Red River Campaign was suppose to be a decisive victory for the Union, but quickly turned into a failure, but it was not a complete defeat for the Union since most of the Army and Navy were able to escape from Confederate hands. It shows how in war even what can be considered a routine engineering feat can play a large role in the outcome.

Section from the Red River including the Dam and rapids (

Lieutenant Colonel Bailey had a map of the river drawn up at the time of the campaign. The detailed map shows how the engineers needed to construct the dam and where to build to allow for the Union ships to escape down river. By providing a detailed map it created a clear communication between everyone of what was expected to complete the plan.

The picture below shows the dam that allowed the ships to safely retreat to safety. In the picture large rocks and branches can be seen, and is descriptive of what the Navy had to navigate while operating on the river. Lieutenant Colonel Bailey built the dam with hopes that the gunboats would ride over the like a kayak would, as seen below.

Dam that allowed for Porter’s navy to escape (

The Red River Campaign of 1865 had already proved disasterous for the Union, but by the creative thinking of Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Bailey, a dam was built above the rapids of Alexandria allowed for Rear Admiral Porter’s fleet to escape without further loss. Major General Banks failures lead him to lose any chance for presidency and ended up having to testify before congress for his actions. For Lieutenant Colonel Bailey’s actions in the Red River Campaign he was cited with General Orders of thanks from congress in 1864. Along with being citied by Congress for his actions Lieutenant Colonel Baily was given a gold inlaid sword from Rear Admiral Porter and the Navy presented him with a silver bowl.

After completing his time in the Army and rising to the rank of Brigadier General, Bailey retired to be a sheriff in Missouri and was murdered while taking two prisoners to jail on March 21, 1867 and is buried in Fort Scott, Kansas. The remnants of the dam Bailey built can still be seen today on the Red River.

Primary Sources

  1. Bailey, J. “Report of Liet. Col. Joseph Bailey, Fourth Wisconsin Cavalry,  Acting Engineer Officer Nineteenth Army Corps. Red River Campaign.” (1864) Civil War, web
  2. Congress “General Orders, No. 211 (U.S. War Department).” (1864) In Ohio Civil War Central, web
  3. Von Nostrand, D. (1868) “1868 Document No.2: the Red River Dam. The rebellion record: a diary of American events (Vol. 11)” New York
  4. Wisconsin Historical Society, Joseph Bailey, 2410. web

Secondary Sources

  1. Bigelow, Albert (1895). “Dictionary of Wisconsin Biography,” Wisconsin Magazine of History 25.
  2. Guy, Pierce (1895) “Mementoes of the Late GEN. Joseph Bailey,” Milwaukee Sentinel. Madison,WI.
  3. Searles, Harry, (2011) Ohio Civil War Cemtral.
  4. Smith, Steven, Castille III, George (1986). Bailey’s Dam. Baton Rouge, Louisiana Archelogy Survey and Antiques Commission.
  5. Robinson, (1985). General Joseph Bailey Evergreen cemetery. Fort Scott Kansas. web.
  6. Joiner, Gary (2003) “The Red River Campaign” civil war trust, web.