Enlisting nature itself – Confederate engineering of the Red River

by Ned B. on December 13, 2013 · 0 comments

Back in the summer I wrote a couple of posts about the Red River campaign of 1864.  I intended to follow them with this concluding post, but my time has been occupied with other things, so I am only now getting around to putting it up.

During the Red River campaign, the river was a central character: each side manipulated its flow to aid or impede movement. One of the more famous incidents of the campaign has become known as Bailey’s Dam, which involved the construction of structures in the river in order to raise the water level so that the US gunboats could pass over the rapids above Alexandria.1 Less well known are the engineering efforts by the Confederates in defending the river. In my post regarding the road choices from Grand Ecore to Shreveport, I referred to the significance of the spot I marked with an arrow on the map detail. According to historian Gary Joiner there were Confederate fortifications there.2 What I find more interesting is the engineering effort focused on that location.

The Red River has a history of being difficult; improving it had been an ongoing effort for decades before the war. Starting in the 1830s the Army Corps of Engineers tackled the ‘Great Raft’, a massive logjam clogging the river for over 200 miles from Grand Ecore, Louisiana, to Texas. The man who led this effort was Henry Shreve, an innovative steamboat captain and designer who had been appointed as U.S. Superintendent of Western River Improvements.  By the late 1830s Shreve had cleared most of the raft.  At a steamboat landing newly created as a result of his efforts, a town was formed and named Shreveport in his honor.3  However, navigation of the Red River continued to be a such nuisance that it again became a focus of the Army Corps of Engineers in the decade after the war.4

The raft had secondary effects on the surrounding landscape.  When the river had been clogged, flood waters would spread into side channels called distributaries and would form lakes in the lowlands bordering the river. When the river was unclogged, the distributaries became bayous that paralleled the main river and the region remained dotted with lakes. About 25 miles below Shreveport the main river made a tight bend. At the bottom of the bend was a short waterway know as Tone’s Bayou that linked the Red River to Bayou Pierre. If Tone’s Bayou was unobstructed, water from the Red could flow into Bayou Pierre.  In the 1850s, Tone’s Bayou had been widened “which diverted a large quantity of water from and seriously affected navigation of the main river below”.5 This revealed the potential of Tone’s Bayou to change the Red. To counter this, in 1860 and 1861 the State of Louisiana had a cutoff made across the top of the bend, creating an island, and the end of Tone’s Bayou was obstructed.6

In late 1863 William Boggs, Chief of Staff for the Confederate Department of the Trans-Mississippi, wrote that the Department commander, General Kirby-Smith, desired that “the obstructions in the mouth of Tone’s Bayou be removed, and steps be taken to stop the cut-off” which would “take nearly all the water from Red River above Grand Ecore”. 7  This step was delayed until the following spring: “At the time of Banks’s Red River expedition, a levee was made by the confederate authorities across the main river, at the bottom of the loop, just below the exit of Tone’s Bayou, to reduce the water of the river by increasing the flow into the bayou.” 8  The impact was dramatic, lowering the river such that the fleet was almost destroyed.9

Thus it was not weather or bad luck that kept the river so low that spring; it was a clever stratagem of the Confederate leadership, who enlisted the river as part of their defensive plan.

  1. See, for example, the Civil War Trust’s page on Bailey’s Dam.
  2. See  One Damn Blunder from Beginning to End: The Red River Campaign of 1864  By Gary Dillard Joiner
  3. For more about clearing the raft see The Attack On The Great Raft in American Heritage’s Invention and Technology, Winter 1988 and also http://www.caddohistory.com/great_raft.html
  4. See Historical Vignette 003 – Lt. Eugene A. Woodruff, Red River Hero, US Army Corps of Engineers and The Red River Raft Over One-Half of It Already Removed, NYT May 26, 1873.
  5. Annual Report of the Chief of Engineers, US Army, 1873
  6. An act to provide for making a cut-off at Scopini’s Point, approved 15 March 1860
  7. Official Records, Series 1 – Volume 26 (Part II) p 322
  8. Annual Report of the Chief of Engineers, US Army, 1873
  9. “The whole question is, then, reduced to this: Shall we destroy the gun-boats or lose the services at this critical period of the war of the 20,000 men necessary to take care of them? My opinion is, of course, to destroy the boats.” General David Hunter to General Ulysses Grant, April 28, 1864

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