Just in time for last-minute Christmas gift-giving comes a highly recommended new book about an important figure in Vernon County history. Joseph Bailey, Union war hero, became one of only two local peace officers to be slain in the line of duty, when, on Mar. 26, 1867, as Vernon County sheriff, he went out to arrest two suspected hog-thieves.
Michael J. Goc, a Wisconsin writer, has produced an excellent biography, the only Bailey life story to have appeared, so far as we know. It seems to have been more-or-less self-published at Friendship, Wis., and deserves wider recognition than it likely will get. It's a high-quality hardback, well researched and lavishly illustrated. The full-color dust jacket copies a mural in the Wisconsin state capitol, showing Bailey being crowned with a laurel wreath.
Bailey was born in Ashtabula, Ohio, in 1825, but moved to Wisconsin in 1847. Eventually he settled in Kilbourn City, where he engaged in lumbering and building railroad and other bridges.
Lacking all engineer training, he soon showed an innate practical knack for engineering. Though usually called a "civil engineer," by modern standards, according to Goc, he was merely the "project manager" on a succession of engineering jobs.
His chief prewar preoccupation was a dam on the Wisconsin River, in the scenic WisconsinDells area. The dam was a failure, thanks to the corruption of the company involved. Bailey emerged from the debacle unscathed, the only honest, competent man in the crowd.
When war broke out he raised a company of lumbermen, entering Federal service as captain of Company D, 4th Wisconsin Infantry. The tides of war eventually took him to Louisiana, and in 1864 Lieutenant Colonel Bailey was chief engineer of Franklin's XIX Corps of Nathaniel Banks's army, hopelessly bogged down on the Red River.
The Red River campaign was a shambles of divided command, wrongheaded objectives, and civilian meddling. Roundly defeated, commander Banks was ready to withdraw, leaving the Navy in the lurch, its boats trapped by a sudden fall in the river's level.
Bailey repeatedly submitted a plan to get the fleet over obstructing rapids by damming the river. But the Navy wasn't interested in being lectured or rescued by a lowly Army officer. Not, at least, till the situation grew downright critical. At last commanders listened, if with only half an ear. Even as work began, most remained doubters, and openly jeered.
Included in the book are a number of illustrations, taken from major magazines, showing Bailey's dam in various stages of construction, making it easier to understand his achievement.
As the fleet moved to safety, jeers turned to cheers, Bailey's reputation took off. Soon the Army had to call on him again to rig up a boat-bridge to get troops and wagons over the swollen Atchafalaya River. He went on to other feats, notably in the siege of Mobile.
He received a promotion, the official thanks of Congress, plus a sword and golden punch bowl crafted by Tiffany's, engraved with scenes of the boats' rescue.
Out of the Army, Bailey returned to Wisconsin, but soon looked back south. He accompanied friends on a "land-looking expedition" to southwest Missouri, where he was "attracted to Bates and Vernon counties." The area was still chaotic, but Bailey didn't let that discourage him. Settled in Harrison Township, he had to haul supplies from Warrensburg.
Finding himself respected even by disfranchised ex-Confederates, in 1866 Bailey agreed to run for sheriff, and was easily elected. He'd been in office but three months when a justice of the peace forwarded the warrant for the arrest of Lewis and Perry Pixley.
According to the late GAR authority Fred L. Harriman, Bailey "had the old British idea that all people respected the law," and so he never carried a gun. Goc doesn't mention this, but he does give a likely accounting for why Bailey behaved as he did in not searching the arrested Pixleys and letting them ride behind him: "Disarming the Pixleys on their own front porch was not likely to be easy, especially for a solitary lawman without any backup. If he confronted the two brothers at gunpoint, how many other armed and hostile bushwhackers would appear?" As for his riding ahead, "Perhaps it was mere bravado."
Goc repeats the Vernon County history's account of the sheriff's body being found "face down in the water" in Scott's Branch, about half a mile off the main road.
"Scott's Branch" remains unlocated. "The Pixleys lived near Moore's Mill," according to the county history. And Moore's Mill stood near present Pumphouse Bridge. Presumably Bailey crossed the Marmaton by the road leading to the Fort Scott-Balltown road. And the only tributary anywhere in the area is so-called Green River, actually a slough or old river channel.
Goc questions the "standard version" that the Pixleys acted alone, and repeats the story supposedly told "many years later" by the sheriff's grandson, Herbert E. Bailey, to a reporter, in turn told to him by one John Jackson in the park in El Dorado Springs.
"A band of diehard Vernon County Confederates had drawn up a list of carpetbagging newcomers who, courtesy of the Drake Constitution, had taken power in the county and were to be bushwhacked. Joseph Bailey's was the first name on the list.
"Jackson said that 'Doe Walters' of Nevada City drew Bailey's name and, accompanied by the prosecuting attorney, shot him in the back of the head." Goc goes on, "If Jackson was correct, then Walters and (prosecuting attorney John T.) Birdseye were waiting on the Scott's Branch road when Bailey and the Pixleys approached. They stopped the horsemen, told Bailey to dismount, and Walters shot him. The body was dragged to the creek bottom. The Pixleys were paid off and told to get away as far and as fast as they could."
The weakest link in this story, as Goc points out, is that John Birdseye was a Union veteran who "had no reason to conspire against Joseph Bailey."
There were indeed other men, ex-Confederates, who might have hated Bailey just on general principles, but there's no evidence whatever implicating anybody. "Doe Walters" remains an unknown.
Well, but decide for yourself, after reading "Hero of the Red River: The Life and Times of Joseph Bailey," by Michael J. Goc (Friendship WI: New Past Press, 2007). It's available from the Bushwhacker Museum, 212 W. Walnut (hours 10 to 4 weekdays), for $25.