of Lieut. Col. Uri B. Pearsall,
Ninety-ninth U. S. Colored Troops.
RED RIVER CAMPAIGN
NEW ORLEANS, LA.,
August 1, 1864.
Maj. GEORGE B. DRAKE,
MAJOR: In compliance with the request of the major-general commanding the department, I have the honor to submit the following report concerning the construction of the dam across Red River in the month of May last. I was in command of the Ninety-ninth U.S. Colored Infantry (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, then 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.
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. The force on the right bank consisted of the Ninety-seventh and Ninety-ninth U.S. Colored Infantry, under command of Col. George D. Robinson, of the former regiment, and a detail of 400 men from the brigade of colored infantry, commanded by Colonel Dickey. On the left bank were the Twenty-ninth Maine, portions of One hundred and tenth and One hundred and sixty-first New York Volunteers, and the pioneer corps of the Thirteenth Army Corps. Of the work on the left bank I know but little, my duties confining me exclusively to the right bank. At the commencement Lieutenant-Colonel 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. Colonel Robinson was designated by Colonel Bailey to procure necessary materials (for this purpose retaining the Ninety-seventh U.S. Colored Infantry), as also all necessary teams employed at this point. The remainder of the working forces were under my control.
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 channel 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 proved 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. They 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.
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 forces moved from the lower or main dam consisted of detachments from the various regiments and the pioneer corps of Thirteenth Army Corps. 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 mean time 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 attempts 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 abreast 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 the Mound City and Carondelet) by to-morrow night." He asked me what I required, and I told him the pioneer corps of the Thirteenth Army Corps to report to me at midnight to cross to the left bank, and that 10,000 feet of 2-inch plank should be there at 9 o'clock the next morning. 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 for a "bracket dam." They worked with even greater energy than ever before, and the trestles were all made by 9 a.m. Some pieces of iron bolts (size one-half inch) were procured and one 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 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.
Much has been said of the part taken by the navy in rescuing their fleet, and I deem it proper to state my honest convictions in regard to it. To Captain Langthorne, of the Mound City, and the subordinate officers and men employed with him, it must be acknowledged great praise is due. In regard to any other efforts put forth by them I must say that none other were observed by me, and it seems incredible that much could have been done by them in my absence. I slept but twenty-nine hours during those twelve eventful days. My meals were almost invariably brought to me; therefore my presence was almost constant.
It may be said that the navy loaned ropes, made bolts, &c., but in so doing they performed the duties of the quartermaster's department only while on the other hand, there is much in this report showing that they caused a delay of six hours at the most critical point of our operations, whereas if no delay had occurred in the building of the bracket dam that saved seven of their best iron-clads, the army could have moved a day sooner from Alexandria. These facts can be substantiated by many officers besides myself, and the impartial historian will [not], neither could, with propriety make any other record than that the army of General Banks saved the fleet of Admiral Porter.
In conclusion, I would beg leave to state that the project of building a dam across Red River, although difficult, could never have been pronounced impracticable by any men who followed a similar avocation in civil life. The bottom and shores being so extremely favorable, and official reports having been promulgated by the naval authorities asserting that Colonel Bailey was the only man in the army who believed the plan practicable, that he was the originator of it. &c., I deem it my sacred duty to refute such assertions so far as they concern myself, having waited three months to see it contradicted by others. The major-general commanding the department will recollect of my assurances to him in this respect ere the work had fairly begun. It can also be proved that it was pronounced feasible by me while at Grand Ecore. These statements are made in self-defense, without doubting that the credit justly belongs to others; yet were such statements substantiated against an officer like myself, after ten years of practical experience in building dams on the most difficult rivers in the country, it would be deemed sufficient evidence by me of my utter incompetency to hold my present position.
I have the honor to be, very respectfully your obedient servant,
U. B. PEARSALL,
Lieut Col. Ninety-ninth U.S. Colored Infantry.
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