The Steele Bayou Expedition

1 05 2011

Despite the loss of two of his best ironclads, Admiral Porter was not giving up.  If there were no spare heavy ships for running the guns and Vicksburg then there was at least an abundance of shallow draft transports and cottonclads for turning the confederate position along the Yazoo.

Back in December, Grant had lost nearly 2000 men assaulting Haines Bluff.  This position was not only proofed against a frontal assault but its guns dominated the river itself and would have made the passing of a fleet carrying troops and supplies too expensive to be considered.  What was needed was way to go around the confederate defenses and with the Mississippi Delta flooded from the breaking of the dykes from the Yazoo Pass expedition in February many new “rivers” had bee created where only streams and swamps had been previously

Preliminary scouting revealed that Steele’s bayou, who’s mouth attached to the Yazoo just below the Haines Bluff fortification, was navigable for nearly 20 miles.  Navigable in fact until it connected to Black Bayou which jogged east and connected to Deer Creak.  Deer Creek was connected to the Rolling fork which attached to the Sunflower which in turn ran back to the Yazoo upstream of the confederate Fortifications.  It was 200 miles of meandering swamp but it appeared that Porter was in business.

Steele's Bayou

On March 16th 1863, on its assent up Steele’s bayou, Porter’s fleet picked up one of Sherman’s Divisions.  Up until very recently Sherman’s men had been trying to dig their way pass Vicksburg.  Flooding had ended this effort.  The very flooding that made this expedition possible made his men available for the work required to circumnavigate the confederates on the Yazoo.

All went well until the union fleet made its way to deer creek.  The assumption that flooding would make the waterways of the delta deep enough for navigate had proven true but the flooding had done little to move the trees lining the creek further apart.  Flooding had also moved the canopy of the forest that much closer to the surface of the water.  As with the Yazoo river expedition, navigation of the river had become perilous to man and ship alike.  River vessels had stacks and rigging destroyed by continual contact with the Delta’s flora and with each bump of a tree, the decks of the union fleet would be covered by all the bugs and critters of the swamp that had been forced to seek refuge.

In order to make Deer Creek passible to union navigation, Sherman’s men took to felling and moving trees.  A task that had them in the water and tugging on ropes for days.  In the mean time Porter’s gunboats continued ahead without infantry support.  What could possibly go wrong?

By this point Confederates had a pretty good idea of what the union fleet was up to.  At choke points in the creek cotton was stacked near the edge of the water and would be lit as the union ships approached.  This didn’t stop the fleet but it did manage to make life pretty miserable for union crews.

On the night of the 18th, when the ships stopped and made repairs the sound of axes could be heard as confederates had taken to blocking the waterway with trees.  After sending mortar rafts ahead to run off the gray woodsmen in the night, the fleet pressed ahead the next morning and nearly made the mouth of the Rolling Fork.  There they found a problem.

Near an Indian mound, the river turned on a ominous bright green.  For an extended stretch of deer creek, a pervasive patch of willow weed grew beneath the surface of the water.  Believing that steam powered river gunboats had what it took to make it through such a growth, Porter ordered his lead gunboats to go ahead at full speed.  Of course this did not work.  Porter’s fleet became completely stuck, and stuck in a really bad place.

High ground could be found in range of the river fleet and the ironclads would have difficulty shooting back given their inability to move and their relative elevation.  Porter was screwed and he knew it.  He put ashore some of his more mobile smoothbores which took up position on the nearby Indian mound.  His crew he put overboard with knives and hooks in an effort to free his ships.

No sooner had the union troops fortified the mound than confederate artillery had taken position both north and south of the fleet and opened fire.  Not just any confederate artillery either but rifles with much more accuracy and range.  Porter was desperate and had to send for Sherman.  Unable to send back some of his still mobile gunboats for help because of the guns in his rear and the felled trees they used to block the river, Porter was forced to rely on slaves to deliver messages to Sherman many miles away.

Three days later, on the 22nd, Sherman’s  men arrived, wet, muddy and disgruntled.  Forced to travel cross country due to the inability of the fleets transports to navigate Deer Creek, Sherman’s men took a full day to make it to the stranded fleet.  Once there however they had no difficulty pushing the confederates out of both of their positions and clearing the river of felled trees.  After a short discussion both Porter and Sherman agreed that they had been whooped and it was time they made their way home… in reverse.

The Seventh Failure

This phase of the Vicksburg campaign is known by historians as the “Seven Failures”. We have chronicled six failures so far including Grant’s advance through Holly springs, Sherman’s assault on the cliffs of Normandy Haynes Bluff, Grant’s canal, the Yazoo Pass expedition, the Lake Providence expedition and the Steele Bayou expedition.  For Grant’s final failure he chose another canal.

Grant’s canal across Desoto Point had been obliterated by spring floods but, with higher water, new routes for a canal were possible.  A mile or so above the original canal site, at a place improbably named Duckport, a new canal was begun.  This new canal would connect the Mississippi to the Walnut bayou, which connected to Roundaway Bayou and in turn into Bayou Vidal with reconnects to the Mississippi at New Carthage below Vicksburg.

This is not really a sexy story.  It was never thought a very good idea as only small boats could use the bayou on the far side of the canal.  This plan was only practical because of the flooding and when the flooding stopped in April the plan was abandoned.

Grant had failed to get around Vicksburg.  He had Failed seven times.  Fear not though.  Grant had one more plan… and it was a corker.