Vicksburg: The Steele’s Bayou Expedition

March 22, 1863 – Federal Rear Admiral David D. Porter conceded that yet another effort to reach Vicksburg using the vast network of waterways to the north had failed.

Rear Adm D.D. Porter | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Porter, commanding the Mississippi River Squadron, devised a plan to bypass Fort Pemberton and get to the Confederate right flank north of Vicksburg by moving up the winding Yazoo River to Steele’s Bayou, six miles upstream from the Yazoo’s mouth. Porter believed he could access other waterways from the bayou that could take his fleet behind the Confederate batteries at Haynes’s and Drumgould’s bluffs. If the vessels could land Federal troops behind the batteries, they could attack Vicksburg from the rear.

The plan called for using Steele’s Bayou to get to Black Bayou and then Deer Creek. The fleet would then turn east on Rolling Fork, which went to the Sunflower River. The Federals would move south down the Sunflower until it emptied into the Yazoo. Porter would have to navigate 200 water miles to reach a point just 20 miles northeast of where he started, but he would bypass the Confederate defenses.

Porter led four gunboats, four mortar schooners, and four tugboats into Steele’s Bayou on the 14th. Navigation proved extremely difficult due to heavy undergrowth, natural obstructions, and shallow water. Trees and other impediments had to be pulled out of the water to enable the ships to pass. They advanced just four miles in 24 hours, finally reaching Black Bayou the next day.

Federal Gen W.T. Sherman | Image Credit: collaborationnation.wikispaces.com

The fleet was supported by the 2nd Division of XV Corps, personally led by corps commander William T. Sherman. These troops marched through marshes and swamps to Hill’s Plantation, where they boarded 11 transports on the 16th. Porter, Sherman, and army commander Ulysses S. Grant conferred at Hill’s Plantation, as Sherman dispatched 50 pioneers aboard the steamer Diligent to clear obstructions from the waterway.

The Federals had not yet encountered direct enemy resistance, but Confederates began felling trees across the bayous both in front and behind the fleet. Crewmen aboard the vessels had to watch for these obstructions, along with low hanging branches of willow, cottonwood, and cypress trees that smashed into smokestacks. Wildlife such as snakes or possums fell out of the branches onto the decks. The advance averaged just about one mile per hour. By the 19th, Confederate sharpshooters had begun shooting at anyone who came out on deck.

The fleet entered Deer Creek that day, moving north and then east toward Rolling Fork. Porter expected Rolling Fork to be navigable, but Confederates had impressed slaves into felling trees to impede both that waterway and the Sunflower River beyond. The fleet speed slowed to a half-mile per day as Porter dispatched 300 sailors and pioneers to clear the obstructions.

As the Federals entered Rolling Fork, Confederates began placing obstructions behind them to trap them long enough for three Confederate regiments to come up from Haynes’s Bluff and destroy them. Sharpshooters continuously fired on the Federals trying to clear the obstructions, while Federal pilots struggled to move around the willows sprouting from the creek bed.

Meanwhile, Sherman’s troop transports were still several miles behind the fleet. Porter sent a contraband to deliver a message to Sherman: “Hurry up, for Heaven’s sake. I never knew how helpless an ironclad could be steaming around through the woods without an army to back her.” Sherman pulled his troops off the transports and directed them to march through waist-deep waters to help Porter’s flotilla, 12 miles away. They rounded up the slaves in their path to prevent them from being used to further obstruct the waterways.

The troops began arriving on the 21st, driving off the nearby Confederates and helping clear the obstructions. By the next day, Porter admitted that this effort had failed and issued orders for the fleet and Sherman’s troops to return to Hill’s Plantation. The troops protected the vessels from sporadic Confederate attacks. Federals seized or burned all property along the shorelines as they retreated, including enough cotton to buy another gunboat. They were followed by slaves, many of whom took their masters’ property before the Federals burned it.

The fleet returned to Black Bayou on 24th. The Confederates attacked the next day, but they were driven off by Porter’s naval guns. Porter sustained five casualties due to sharpshooters (one killed and four wounded). Sherman lost two killed. Porter said this expedition included “the most severe labor officers and men ever went through.” He reported to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, “With the end of this expedition ends all my hopes of getting into Vicksburg in this direction.”

Yet another Federal effort to capture Vicksburg failed. Frustration at the inability to get to Vicksburg mounted among Grant’s army, Porter’s navy, Federal politicians, and the northern public.

—–

References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 266-68; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 207; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 271-74; Korn, Jerry, War on the Mississippi: Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 80, 82-83; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 329, 331; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 586-87; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 163-64; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 716

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