The Steele’s Bayou Expedition

The Federal army-navy expedition attempting to traverse Yazoo Pass and get to the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg, Mississippi, was stalled at Fort Pemberton, near Greenwood on the Tallahatchie River. In response, Rear-Admiral David D. Porter, commanding the Federal Mississippi River Squadron, devised a plan to bypass the enemy fort, avoid the enemy guns guarding Vicksburg from the Mississippi River bluffs, and attack Vicksburg from the rear.

Porter’s plan entailed entering the Yazoo River from the Mississippi and then moving into Steele’s Bayou, six miles upstream from the Yazoo’s mouth. From there, Porter believed that he could access other waterways 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 would be at Vicksburg’s back door.

The flotilla would use Steele’s Bayou to get to Black Bayou and then Deer Creek. The fleet would then turn east on the Rolling Fork River, which went to the Big Sunflower River. The Federals would move south down the Big 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.

Maj Gen U.S. Grant and Rear Adm D.D. Porter | Image Credit:

Porter discussed his plan with Major-General Ulysses S. Grant, commanding the Federal Army of the Tennessee. Porter also took Grant on an inspection tour of part of the waterway that would be traversed. Grant’s troops had unsuccessfully tried to build canals at De Soto Point and Lake Providence that would bypass the Vicksburg guns, and the Yazoo Pass expedition was also in danger of failure. Therefore Grant, eager for any attempt at success, agreed to provide army support.

Without waiting for the army, Porter launched his expedition on March 14. His flotilla consisted of four gunboats, four mortar schooners, and four tugboats. They entered Steele’s Bayou and quickly found navigation to be 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.

Meanwhile, the army assembled in support. The force consisted of a division from Major-General William T. Sherman’s Fifteenth Corps, with Sherman himself taking command. The troops marched through marshes and swamps to Hill’s Plantation, where they boarded 11 transports on the 16th. Grant issued orders to Sherman that day:

“You will proceed as early as practicable up Steele’s Bayou, and through Black Bayou to Deer Creek, and thence with the gunboats now there by any route they may take to get into the Yazoo River, for the purpose of determining the feasibility of getting an army through that route to the east bank of that river, and at a point from which they can act advantageously against Vicksburg.”

Porter, Sherman, Grant conferred at Hill’s Plantation. So far the fleet had struggled to push through Steele’s Bayou and was now near the junction of Black Bayou and Deer Creek. Sherman dispatched 50 pioneers aboard the steamer Diligent to clear obstructions from the waterway while the rest of Sherman’s division was trying to come up on transports and join the expedition.

Confederates began felling trees across the bayous both in front and behind Porter’s 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. They also had to contend with snakes and possums falling out of the branches and onto the decks. The advance averaged no more than one mile per hour. By the 19th, Confederate sharpshooters hiding in the woods had begun shooting at anyone who came out on deck.

The fleet entered Deer Creek that day, moving north and then east toward the Rolling Fork. Porter expected the Rolling Fork to be navigable, but Confederates had impressed slaves into felling trees to impede both that waterway and the Big 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. A Confederate contingent was pulled from Fort Pemberton to meet this new threat.

Meanwhile, most of Sherman’s division was still on transports several miles behind Porter’s 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. Nearby homeowners were warned that their property would be destroyed if they helped the Confederates. Grant dispatched another division led by Major-General John A. Logan to reinforce Sherman.

The troops began arriving on the 21st, driving off the nearby Confederates and helping clear the obstructions. The Confederates did not seem to recognize the opportunity they had to strand or destroy the enemy fleet; they made no major effort to attack or trap the Federals in the treacherous waterway. They also had no navy to neutralize the Federal gunboats. Similarly, the Federals did not realize that Fort Pemberton had been weakened enough to be attacked again, and this time with the possibility of success.

By the 22nd, 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.

Lieutenant-General John C. Pemberton, the overall Confederate commander in Mississippi, reported to his superiors at Richmond that the Federals had retreated, and that the expeditions at Steele’s Bayou and Yazoo Pass had been repulsed. But Pemberton did not report the mass destruction that had taken place by the invading Federals. As a Confederate noted, “One of the richest portions of Mississippi was laid waste and made desolate.”

The Federal 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.”

Federal army troops returned to their camps at Young’s Point and the Federal gunboats returned to the Mississippi River by the end of March. Yet another Federal effort to capture Vicksburg had failed. Frustration at the inability to get to Vicksburg mounted among Grant’s army, Porter’s navy, Federal politicians, and the northern public. But Grant was not yet ready to admit defeat.


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