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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Bailey's Doomed Canal


Civil War soldier Joseph Bailey (1826 - 1867) of Columbia Co. is best-known for having saved the Union fleet on the Red River in the summer of 1864. Two years earlier, however, he supervised a wild-eyed failure when Union generals tried to divert the Mississippi River.

Northern troops had conquered New Orleans from the sea in the spring of 1862 and proceeded upriver. They intended to simultaneously cut off a Confederate transportation route and ensure they could supply their own forces from the North. Their progress was blocked, however, at Vicksburg, Mississippi, where a Confederate fort on the bluffs wreaked havoc on their fleet. Although thousands of Union soldiers surrounded the town, it would not yield. Faced with a stalemate, Union generals came up with a plan to by-pass the problem altogether.

Vicksburg was situated above a sharp bend in the Mississippi. Union generals decided that a mile-and-a-half long canal dug through the narrow stretch of land on the opposite shore would re-route the river, making the city and its fort irrelevant. They figured that once a small trench was dug, the rushing Mississippi would carve out a permanent new route. Engineer Joseph Bailey of Wisconsin was put in charge of digging the canal, with Uri Pearsall of Oconto as assistant.

Because the Union troops dropped like flies in the heat of the Southern summer, military officials rounded up 1,200 African-American refugees at gunpoint, some of them slaves and some of them fugitives, to do the digging. They were promised freedom once the canal was built and Vicksburg taken. Working 12 hours a day, the black laborers had soon excavated a trench five feet deep.

Unfortunately, the Mississippi was falling as fast as the northern soldiers in the midsummer heat, and even faster than the canal could be dug. As days passed, the ditch grew from five feet deep to seven, and then to 12. Its bottom swelled with rainwater and its sides caved in; workers and officers perished of malaria and fever; and still the digging went on. The shrinking river kept pace, however, and refused to flow uphill into the canal.

On July 11, 1862, Bailey's commanding officer finally gave up. Confederate forces were threatening to re-take New Orleans, and the northern troops who had survived the siege of Vicksburg were needed downstream. Not so lucky were the black workers and families left behind, opposite Vicksburg. Half of them -- fully 600 -- had died during the excavation; the others were greeted not by the freedom that they had been promised but by their former masters, who did not treat them kindly for aiding the enemy. The site of the canal is now part of Vicksburg National Military Park.

Bailey's later engineering efforts met with much greater success, and he is legitimately regarded as a Wisconsin Civil War hero for directing the water of the Red River and floating off the stranded Union navy in the spring of 1864, just as it was about to be captured by Confederate troops.

[Sources: Goc, Michael. Hero of the Red River: The Life and Times of Joseph Bailey. (Friendship, Wis.: New Past Press, 2007): 107-110 Doherty, Thomas. The Best Specimen of a Tyrant (Madison, Wis.: Spencer-Hoyt, 2007): 70-75.]
:: Posted in Curiosities on July 24, 2008

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