March 21, 1863 (Saturday)
With the stagnation of the Yazoo Pass Expedition, General Grant was looking for another way to outflank the Confederates at Vicksburg. Even before the Union flotilla engaged the Rebels at Fort Pemberton, Admiral David Dixon Porter had devised that other way.
The whole point of the Yazoo Pass idea was to steam down the Coldwater, Tallahatchie and Yazoo Rivers to come in behind Vicksburg. Since Fort Pemberton blocked the way, it now seemed fruitless. Storming up the Yazoo River from the Mississippi, however, seemed even more so. Rebel batteries guarded the Confederate right and made landing troops there nearly impossible.
Porter’s idea was to bypass the Confederate batteries and steer clear of Fort Pemberton. To do this, he wanted to take five ironclads up the Yazoo to Steele’s Bayou, well before the Rebel batteries. From there, they’d steam north to Deer Creek and finally past Rolling Fork to the Big Sunflower River, which they would take south. It would empty back into the Yazoo River downstream from Yazoo City, but well upstream from the batteries. The way would be twisted and far from easy, but he had faith that it could be done.
Grant held this same faith and ordered some of William Tecumseh Sherman’s troops, along with Sherman himself, to assist. Porter, however, was impatient and left on March 16th, before Sherman was ready. The Navy would be going it alone.
The slog through Steele’s Bayou was a rough one, and got worse the farther they went, but they finally reached Deer Creek. From there, they could take the narrow waterway south, and it would let them out near the Rebel batteries. The original plan, however, was to take Deer Creek north to Rolling Fork and Big Sunflower River. Sherman, sans his troops, had joined Porter to sort it out. He preferred to take it south – the quicker path towards the enemy. Porter, on the other hand, wanted to stick to the original plan. Sherman acquiesced and returned to his troops, still sloshing through the swamps and bayous towards Deer Creek.
For a time, as Porter ascended the creek, his decision made more and more sense. The farther they went, the wider and easier it got. But there was another problem.
News of Porter’s flotilla preceded it and soon reached the ears of Samuel Ferguson, Confederate cavalry commander charged with protecting the waterways north of Vicksburg. He immediately ordered his men to obstruct the rivers at Rolling Fork, blocking the Federals’ pass into Big Sunflower River. He also sent for reinforcements.
By March 20th, all five of Porter’s ironclads had made it to Rolling Fork, where they were slowed by the Confederate obstructions. Ferguson’s men arrived that same day and tried to attack, but a Federal battery and the ironclads themselves kept them at bay.
Throughout the night, Ferguson’s troopers felled trees behind the Union flotilla, trapping the ships. This is when Porter gave up the idea of pressing onward and focused all his energy into trying to escape.
Fortunately for him, by the dawn of this date, the Rebels seemed little-concerned about capturing the ships. Sherman’s men were nowhere to be seen and he repeatedly sent requests for help. Of course, if Porter wouldn’t have been so anxious to leave, Sherman’s men wouldn’t have had to catch up.
Many things were going wrong for both sides as Porter began backing his ships out of Rolling Fork and back into Deer Creek. Some of his men cleared the trees and other debris as they went, while others reinforced the ships and prepared to scuttle them and make a run for it if necessary.
Meanwhile, Porter’s messages had reached Sherman and he was pressing his men forward and across Deer Creek as quickly as he could. As they went, they rounded up slaves so that Ferguson’s men couldn’t impress them into cutting down more trees.
Back at the flotilla, Porter’s retreat turned into a series of running skirmishes as Ferguson’s men keep a close, but weirdly respectful distance. Along the way, Union troops and sailors set fire to pretty much anything they could. Houses, plantations, fields, crops – it was all put to the torch to be kept out of Rebel hands.
By 3pm, the retreating flotilla and Sherman’s men were close enough that the immediate danger was gone. It had been a hard, nearly impossible march for both sides. The roads were mostly flooded, some under hip-high water. It was probably because of this that the Rebels made no serious attempts to seize the vessels – it would have been like fighting underwater.
Nevertheless, the Rebels let slip a golden opportunity to capture five Union ironclads. Doing so could have, perhaps, greatly altered the outcome of the entire Vicksburg Campaign.
By the following day, the expedition fizzled out just as Grant’s hopes to outflank the Confederate right had fizzled. There was still some hope in the canals and maybe even a chance at Fort Pemberton. But for now, all seemed rather hopeless for the Yankees near Vicksburg.1
- Sources: Vicksburg by Michael B. Ballard; Pemberton by John C. Pemberton; Official Records, Vol. 24, Part 1, p396-398, 413-414. [↩]