Joseph Bailey was born on May 6, 1825, near the town of Pennsville in southeastern Ohio. As a youth, he moved with his family to Illinois. On December 24, 1846, Bailey married Mary Spaulding of New York. In 1850, the Bailey’s settled in Kilbourn City (now Wisconsin Dells) in central Wisconsin. There, he worked in the lumber business and gained practical experience in large construction projects, including dams on the Wisconsin River.
When the American Civil War began, Bailey enlisted in the 4th Regiment Wisconsin Infantry. He received a commission as a captain of Company D on July 2, 1861. Bailey’s regiment served in the area around Washington, D.C., until it traveled south with the Army of the Gulf during the campaign against New Orleans in early 1862. After the fall of the Crescent City in April 1862, army officials named Bailey as the acting chief engineer of New Orleans.
Siege of Port Hudson
In the spring of 1863, Bailey took part in the Siege of Port Hudson, Louisiana (May 22-July 9). In quick succession, the army promoted him to major on May 30, and to lieutenant colonel on July 15, 1863.
Red River Campaign
In the spring of 1864, army officials detached Bailey from the 4th Wisconsin and ordered him to accompany Major General Nathaniel Banks during his Red River Campaign (March 10-May 22). Supported by Rear Admiral David Porter’s fleet of gunboats Banks traveled 150 miles up the Red River aiming to capture Shreveport, Louisiana. Following a Confederate victory at the Battle of Mansfield (April 8, 1864) Banks abandoned his goal and attempted to retrace his 150-mile journey down the Red River. However, unusually low water levels in the river prevented Rear Admiral David Porter’s fleet from passing back over the waterfalls and rapids at Alexandria.
Saving the Fleet
With the fleet in danger of being stranded, Bailey proposed raising the water level of the river by constructing a winged dam with a spillway in the center. Bailey’s design mirrored dams he had worked on in Wisconsin. Unable to find a better alternative, Union leaders authorized Bailey to try his plan. With thousands of men at his disposal, Bailey began construction on April 30. A little over one week later, the water had raised enough to allow Porter’s lighter boats to traverse the falls. By May 13, the entire fleet had moved out of danger. In his after-action report, Porter wrote,
The highest honors that the Government can bestow on Colonel Bailey can never repay him for the service he has rendered the country. He has saved the Union a valuable fleet, worth nearly two million dollars, and he has deprived the enemy of a triumph which would have emboldened them to carry on this war a year or two longer.
Thanks of Congress
A grateful Congress responded by brevetting Bailey to the rank of brigadier general and by awarding him the Thanks of Congress. Bailey was one of only fourteen men to receive the distinction during the Civil War and the only one who was not an army or corps commander. On November 10, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Bailey brigadier general of volunteers (effective November 19) and submitted the nomination to the Senate on December 12. The nomination expired on March 4, 1865, because the Senate did not act upon it. Lincoln resubmitted the nomination on March 7, but Bailey resigned from the army on July 7, 1865, before the Senate acted upon the nomination.
After resigning from the army, Bailey returned to Wisconsin. In late 1865, he moved his family to a farm in Vernon County, Missouri. The next year, voters elected Bailey to the office of county sheriff, with his office in Nevada City. Even though Bailey was out of the service, on January 13, 1866, President Andrew Johnson nominated him for promotion to brigadier general (effective November 10, 1864). The Senate finally confirmed the nomination on February 23, 1866.
In 1867, two former Confederate bushwhackers murdered Bailey as he was escorting them to jail after arresting them for rustling. Bailey’s killers, Lewis and Perry Pixley, escaped being brought to justice to justice. Bailey is buried at Evergreen Cemetery near Fort Scott, Kansas.
On March 28, 1867, President Johnson nominated Bailey posthumously for the award of the brevet grade of major general of volunteers, effective March 13, 1865. The Senate confirmed the nomination on March 30, 1867.