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Chapter 27: expedition through Steele's Bayou and Deer Creek.

  • The naval expedition through the woods.
  • -- scenes and incidents. -- through black and Steele's Bayou. -- a hazardous journey. -- destruction of cotton and other property by the Confederates. -- a skirmish with tree cutters. -- Sherman marching to the relief of the gun-boats. -- dreadful work of the sharp-shooters. -- the Confederates attempt to capture the fleet. -- Sherman arrives. -- repulse of the Confederates. -- retreat of the Army and Navy. -- repairing damages. -- good effect of the expedition. -- loss to the Confederates. -- Grand Gulf fortified. -- a council of war. -- Grant's decision. -- the rams run the batteries -- the Lancaster sunk. -- the Switzerland joins Farragut. -- brave volunteers, etc., etc.

About the time of the Yazoo Pass expedition, Lieutenant McLeod Murphy, U. S. N., discovered a pass through the woods some ten miles above the mouth of the Yazoo, by which it was thought the gun-boats could reach the valley of Deer Creek, and, perhaps get into the Yazoo River by the Sunflower and Yallabusha, thereby reaching the rear of Vicksburg. The water in the Mississippi had risen remarkably, so much so that land usually dry for miles in the interior, now had seventeen feet of water over it. The question was, could the gun-boats get through the woods and thick underbrush which abounded in that locality. The route was examined by General Grant and Admiral Porter, and being found apparently practicable for the purpose intended, it was determined between the Army and Naval leaders that an attempt should be made to get to the rear of Vicksburg in this way.

So important was this route considered that Admiral Porter determined to go himself in charge of the naval part of the expedition, while General Sherman was to lead an army contingent of 8,000 or 10,000 men. A man who knew all about the country, and who gave his opinion that this was a favorable opportunity to get into the desired position in rear of the beleagured city, was employed to accompany the expedition as pilot; and at the start everything promised well.

On the 14th of March, Admiral Porter started with the following vessels: Cincinnati, Lieutenant-Commander Bache; Louisville, Lieutenant-Commander Owens; Carondelet, Lieutenant-Commander Murphy; Mound City, Lieutenant-Commander Byron Wilson; Pittsburgh, Lieutenant-Commander Hoel; two mortar floats and four tugs.

When the fleet came to the pass into which it was to turn, after having ascended the Yazoo, the entrance could scarcely be made out, so dense was the growth of the overhanging bushes and trees, but these the men cut away with cutlasses and axes, and a pass wide enough for three vessels abreast, showed itself, lined out by heavy trees, and through this the gun-boats followed one another in line, their leadsmen singing out in melodious song, “quarter less three.” There was no more channel here than elsewhere, as the water overflowed every place alike, but there was a long, straight pass opening through the forest, about 170 feet wide, which was, no doubt, a road cut through the woods for hauling cotton to some landing.

It was a novel scene. Thousands of crows flew from their perches, and broke the silence of the forest with their discordant notes, no doubt wondering what [304] could have caused those great “mudturtles” to invade their hitherto inaccessible abode, where for centuries they had reared their young and digested their plunder without interruption.

On went the gun-boats, officers and sailors alike, delighted with the romantic scenery, which baffled description; every heart was cheered with the hope that the long sought for road to Vicksburg had been found, and that the great prize would soon be in their hands. Now and then, a stray tree as much as three feet in diameter would be found standing in the middle of the channel as if to dispute the way. The vessels might have passed on either side, but the desire to try the strength of these outlying sentinels proved so great that the flag-ship Cincinnati would run into them with her strong, broad bow, and topple them over, a feat rendered possible by the softening action of the water upon the earth about their roots. The vessels in the rear were told to haul them out of the way. This was good practice, and came into play before the expedition had proceeded many miles. It was all fair sailing at first, but became rough work in the end.

After some ten miles of easy progress through the woods, the fleet arrived at Black Bayou, a place about four miles long, leading into Deer Creek — and here the plain sailing ended. The gun-boats, being too wide to pass between the trees, had to go to work and knock them down, and pull them up by the roots. The line of vessels was broken, and each went to work to make her way through the tangle as best she could. Saws and axes now came into use, and every means was resorted to for clearing the way. The narrow tugs and the mortar floats had no difficulty in getting along, but the wider iron-clads were, for a time, brought to a stand. The open roadway had vanished, and the pilot confessed his ignorance of this locality. There was plenty of water, and the stentorian voice of the leadsman was still heard singing out “quarter less three!”

There is nothing that will daunt the American sailor but a lee shore and no sea room. There was plenty of sea room here, but no room to pass between the tangle. The obstruction was passed, after working twenty-four hours consecutively, and that four miles overcome, leaving a good road for those coming after, but a number of trees were moved away, Titans of the forest that had reigned there for a century or more.

Sherman had arrived at Black Bayou with part of his force, another part had started to march over from a point twenty miles above the Yazoo River, on the Mississippi, following a ridge of land not inundated. The part of the Army embarked had been transported in small stern-wheel steamers, which being very narrow, succeeded in passing between the trees with only the loss of a few smoke-stacks. From Black Bayou, the gun-boats turned again into Steele's Bayou, a channel just one foot wider than the vessels, and here came the tug of war, such as no vessels ever encountered before. The keel of the skiff was the largest thing that had ever floated in waters now bearing vessels of 600 tons burthen. These had to break through bridges spanning this muddy ditch, pass through the smoke and fire of burning cotton-bales (which the enemy set in a blaze as soon as the fleet was discovered), and work on, at the rate of half a mile an hour, through lithe willows growing in the middle of the stream, which at intervals was choked up with rafts that had been there for years. The pilot proved to be a fraud, he had never seen the place before.

This bayou was bordered on both sides with overhanging trees, whose Briarean arms would cling around the passing vessels and sweep away boats and smoke-stacks, while the limbs of decayed trees would fall upon the decks, smashing skylights to pieces, and injuring the people.

It was dreadful to witness the infatuation of the Confederate Government agents, who, riding about on horseback, were setting fire to the cotton far and near. They must have imagined the expedition sent to gather cotton — a purpose never thought of.

Houses were often consumed with the cotton piles, and everything betokened a Moscow affair. It was the cotton of the Confederate government, and they were allowed to burn it. It was the Confederate sinews of war they were destroying; they were burning up their cash with which they had expected to carry on the struggle.

The leaders of the expedition soon saw they were discovered; the move was certainly known in Vicksburg, and the whole Confederacy would be at work to defeat this measure, as they had at Fort Pemberton. The expedition hurried on to get into the Rolling Fork, and thence into the Sunflower, whence it could reach the Yazoo above Haines' Bluff. It seemed insane to proceed, there were so many dreadful obstacles in the way, yet no one apparently minded them. The work was hard on the sailors, nevertheless they only made a lark of it.

Vicksburg was never so aroused as on hearing of the raid right into the heart of her preserves. The expedition had struck that city's store-house: here were the flesh-pots that would make any people glad; cattle, corn, “hog and hominy” enough to subsist a great Army.

The government agents assembled in [305] numbers, they seemed to spring from the earth: the cattle, pigs and poultry were all driven to the woods. Corn ricks were set on fire that the Federals might not have a grain. The latter were not thinking of the flesh-pots, they were too intent upon getting to the rear of Vicksburg, too intent upon clearing out the obstructions in the muddy Bayou to think of “hog and hominy.”

In the first twenty-four hours of this work, the fleet made four miles! At dark it tied up for the night that the hard worked men might rest, but there was no rest for any one there. At ten o'clock that night, lights were flitting about in the woods, and the sounds of wood chopping fell upon the ears of the watchers in the fleet, and the falling of trees satisfied them that the enemy was on the alert, cutting down trees across their path to pen in the gun-boats.

Armed landing parties were made up from each vessel, and put ashore; a tug, with a boat howitzer mounted on board, was sent up the bayou, and found two trees, two and a half feet in diameter each, cut down and lying across the stream, completely obstructing it. The tug fired after the tree cutters, and the landing party of 300 men, under Lieutenant McLeod Murphy, worked all night with axes and tackles to remove the fallen timber. The fleet moved on at night, the banks being lighted by lanterns. They were determined not to be detained by tree cutters. The tug went ahead for twelve miles, firing her gun wherever a white man and an axe could be heard of.

Twenty-five trees had been commenced upon by the cutters, but the latter were driven off by the howitzer. It was found that a large gang of negroes had been pressed into service by the Confederate agents who, with pistols at their heads, compelled them to cut the trees; but when the shrapnel from the howitzer began to rattle through the woods, government agents, woodcutters and all, left in a panic.

Slowly as the naval vessels moved, they made greater progress than the troops, and got ahead of them some twenty miles; the troops met difficulties they were not prepared for, and the fleet moved on in advance. After four days of the greatest labor one can imagine, the fleet arrived at or near the entrance to the Rolling Fork, where it was supposed all difficulties would be at an end. Here, for a distance of 600 yards, a bed of willows blocked the way. The flag-ship Cincinnati, ran into it under a full head of steam, and there she stuck; the willow wythes caught in the rough iron of her overhang, and held her as if in a vise. All the arts of seamanship could not displace this obstacle, it would have taken weeks to remove the willows.

After working a whole day and night with saws, chisels and cutlasses, the men stopped for a breathing spell, during which a steamer landed at the bank, four miles off on the Rolling Fork. Another soon came higher up, and both landed artillery, which, in two hours, opened a cross fire on the fleet with about twenty shells a minute, driving the men on the banks to seek the shelter of the iron-clads. The mortars were brought to bear on the enemy, and for a time, checked the fire. Spy-glasses, used from the top of an Indian mound — disclosed the fact that the enemy were landing a large force of infantry — the guns of the iron-clads were so far below the banks of the bayou that they were not a particle of use, the vessels themselves were so jammed up against the bank on either side that there was danger of their crews being kept prisoners on board by sharpshooters. Sherman's troops were not in sight and it became necessary to send back a messenger to the general urging him to hurry up to the assistance of the gun-boats, which were very helpless at one time.

The united efforts of the steamers astern of the Cincinnati pulled her out of the willows, but not without great trouble, the people on deck and on the banks being exposed to the artillery which kept up a sharp fire.

There was but one thing to be done under the circumstances, and that was to fall back and meet the Army, which the admiral received assurances was moving on as fast as possible. As soon as Sherman received the dispatch announcing the condition of the gun-boats, he started off his troops, though it was night, and made his way along the tortuous route by the light of pine knots. He got into swamps and cane brakes, and made but slow progress. This did not prove to any one the fair road to Vicksburg. The soldiers were as severely tried as the sailors.

As night came on, the gun-boats were ordered to unship their rudders, and drop down with the current; and, the water now running rapidly into the bayou, owing to the cut at Delta — which was overflowing the whole country — the vessels bumped along at double the rate they had ascended, bounding from tree to tree, and bringing down the dead branches on the decks, to the destruction of everything around — boats were smashed, and more or less injury done to everything.

As the gun-boats departed,the enemy appeared upon the Indian mound, and owing to the tortuous windings of the stream, kept the fleet under fire without the latter being able to return more than an occasional gun until nightfall, when it was found necessary to tie up. A watch of armed men and all [306] the howitzers were put ashore in preparation for emergencies

In the night the patrolling parties captured two of the enemy's officers and some men, who stated that two batteries had been landed, and three thousand sharpshooters, and that they were quite satisfied they would capture the gun-boats in twenty-four hours. They were not aware that an army was with the fleet; they took this for a raid of gun-boats only, and, as one of them remarked “a crazy one at that.”

At daylight the fleet started down stream again, stern foremost, hoping to meet the army by noon, but at 8 A. M., they were surrounded by sharpshooters, who kept up such a fire that it was almost impossible for any one to show himself on deck. The riflemen on board, lying behind defences, kept up a brisk fire whenever they saw a curl of smoke. The howitzers were kept at work from behind the deck-houses, and the mortars, which were fired with small charges, landed their shells in amongst the enemy, and kept them at a distance. Now and then a mortar shell, landing at the foot of a tree behind which was a sharpshooter, would overthrow the tree as it exploded — making trees unsafe as a protection. Still, the sharpshooters increased in numbers, when, suddenly, the fleet had to come to a stand. Eight or ten large trees, some three feet in diameter, had been felled right across their track, from either side of the bayou, thus completely blocking the way, and the loud cheers of the Confederates as they rang through the woods showed they thought their prey entrapped.

The officers and men of the fleet, undaunted by this state of things, went to work to surmount the difficulty and remove the trees. Five hundred armed men were put on shore, and took to the trees to meet the enemy's sharpshooters, while howitzers and mortars kept up a rapid fire which was more than the enemy cared to face.

The working party from the vessels commenced operations below the banks, out of reach of the enemy's fire, and by using hawsers, tackles, and that powerful adjunct, steam, in six hours the trees were all removed, and the fleet went on its way down rejoicing.

Sherman had heard the firing, and had pushed on to get to the aid of the gun-boats. In the meantime, the enemy had landed more infantry — there were about four thousand in all. Pemberton, at Vicksburg, was well posted in all that was going on, and was determined to leave nothing undone to capture the venturesome fleet.

Again the fleet came to a stand-still, but this time only two large trees had been felled. The crews of the vessels commenced the work of removal, when a large body of Confederate troops were seen advancing directly through the woods upon the steamers. while the sharpshooters in redoubled numbers opened fire on the fleet from behind trees not more than fifty yards distant.

The working parties were called on board to defend the vessels, but before they could get to their arms, there was a rattle of musketry in the woods, a cheering of the crews, and a rapid retreat by the Confederates. They had fallen in with the head of Sherman's column, which was a great surprise to them, and after one or two volleys, they broke and fled back to their steamers. Sherman arrived just in the nick of time. Whether the gun-boats could have held their own under the circumstances is impossible to say. They were well prepared for a brave fight, and from behind the banks they could have mown down the enemy as they rushed on, but it was better as it was, and they were not subjected to the trial.

The broadside guns of the vessels had been given their greatest elevation, and loaded with grape and cannister. The iron sides of the vessels had all been well greased, and nothing was left for assailants to hold on by. Fourteen hundred good men, with breech-loaders and howitzers, were ready to repel boarders, but there is no knowing what a desperate set of men under good leaders might have accomplished,with such a prize in view as the best vessels of the Mississippi squadron. No set of people were ever so glad to see the soldiers as the men of that fleet were to see Sherman and his Army; and, as the gallant general rode up to the gun-boats, he was received with the warmest cheers he ever had in his life.

That was the end of the Steele's Bayou expedition; the impossibility of going on again in the face of all the difficulties was conceded by all parties, and it was decided to get the fleet out of that ditch before the enemy blocked up the entrance in the rear and left it in the mud.

The impracticability of the campaign had been fully demonstrated. So much time had been consumed by the numerous obstacles the Army and Navy had to contend with that the enemy had the opportunity to produce the means of checkmating the expedition.

The point where the gun-boats would have to leave Steele's Bayou to get into the Rolling Fork was so blocked up that it would take many days to remove the obstacles, and the Confederates could throw in such a force as would prevent their opponents from working at it.

The enemy had clear, open rivers to work in; and, in two days, could transport any [307] number of troops and guns they desired. The country would not answer for a base of operations, so the Union forces returned to the woods and deep water, having gained a great deal of experience, and the know-ledge that Vicksburg could not be taken in that direction.

This expedition greatly alarmed the Vicksburg people: the Army and Navy had thereby found the way right into the store-house from which the besieged had been fed, and upon which they depended in the future.

This greatly changed their system of defence; guns were removed from prominent points along the Mississippi, while the rivers Tallahatchie, Sunflower and Yazoo were strongly fortified, and were guarded against any attack in the future. Every precaution was likewise taken to protect the flanks of the city, but the soldiers and sailors reveled in all the good things which abounded in this district, and thinking there was vastly more food there than the Confederates could possibly want, the gun-boats and transports carried off an astonishing amount of loot, which reconciled them in a measure for their disappointment in not fully succeeding in their attempt to reach the rear of Vicksburg.

The Navy carried away over a hundred thousand dollars' worth of cotton, marked “C. S. A.,” which the Confederates had collected for the use of their government, only waiting for the opportunity to carry it to the sea-board. Over three hundred thousand dollars' worth of cotton was destroyed by fire, by command of Confederate agents, who determined that it should not fall into the hands of the Federals. This was all a great loss to the enemy, but unimportant in comparison with what the combined forces had hoped to attain.

When it was decided that no more could be done on this expedition, the Army returned to their transports, and the Navy led the way out of the woods, the men at the leads singing out “quarter less three,” in cheery tones, as if everything had gone on smoothly with them, and the gun-boats had not been almost smashed to pieces while rebounding from tree to tree in Steele's Bayou.

On the 26th of March. the fleet arrived at its old anchorage on the Yazoo. All the machinists, carpenters, boatbuilders, etc., from the shops afloat were set to work to repair damages, and in a week, with the finishing touch of a new coat of paint, they looked as good as new.

This expedition, though in a measure unsuccessful, still had a good effect on the Army and Navy. While the men were kept so employed on what were really very exciting expeditions, they had no time to become disheartened by only looking at the frowning hills of Vicksburg, which they, as well as the officers, could see were not to be taken in front. It inured both services to hard work which would the better enable them to overcome like obstacles in the future; the constant employment hardened their bodies, while it benefited their minds, and kept them in good spirits. They gained a thorough knowledge of the difficulties they had to encounter, and all this prepared them to battle with others of the same kind.

These persistent attempts of the Army and Navy to overcome all the obstacles in the way of getting into Vicksburg, kept the enemy continually on the alert, and obliged them to be moving through a country filled with all kinds of obstacles, and made them doubtful where the blow would fall. On this account, Pemberton had to reduce his Army in the city, and keep a larger portion of it at points remote from the real objective point at which the Union general aimed.

The Confederate soldiers were worn out and dispirited by the numerous marches and countermarches they were obliged to make. They were compelled to live upon the country when they went to expel the invaders, and this soon exhausted the stores in the invaded district on which the people in Vicksburg depended when the hardest time should come. Besides the Confederates were raiders even among their own people. The Union soldiers did pay a little respect to private property, but the former paid no such compliment to anything that could add to their comfort, or fill their commissariat; and, on the whole, the Federal invaders were more acceptable to the people on the estates than were the Confederates.

In this invasion, the Army and Navy both inflicted serious losses on the owners of slaves, and large numbers of the latter went off either in the transports or on the gun-boats. The negroes stated that they had been employed in working on the fortifications at Vicksburg, Haines' Bluff. etc., and the fact that they had been employed to cut down the trees on Steele's Bayou, thereby to hem in the gun-boats, was a good reason for taking them away. The last and best reason was that the undeniable right of freedom was theirs, and it was the duty of every Christian officer and man to help them escape from the most miserable slavery that ever existed in any part of the world.

General Grant, though disappointed in the result of this last expedition, was not discouraged He saw that this was the last attempt that could be made in this direction, and turned his attention to other ways, believing, with the Duke of Marlborough, that though all trials might fail, there was [308] always one way left to get into a fortified city.

So evident was it to the Confederates that in both the Yazoo Pass and the Steele's Bayou expedition they had left the northern flank of Vicksburg unprotected, that they removed the depot at once. Not only that, though there was no apparent necessity for it, they went to work to strengthen their left flank also, as far down the river as Grand Gulf, thinking, perhaps, that the gun-boats might pass the batteries at Vicksburg, pass up the Black River, and gain the rear of the besieged city by arriving at Jackson, the capital of Mississippi--a thing much more easily done than getting through Steele's Bayou.

Whether they were influenced by these ideas or not, they proceeded at once to fortify Grand Gulf in such a manner that no vessel could pass up Black River, and with hope that the forts would be strong enough to prevent vessels of war from passing up and down the Mississippi itself. While the Confederates were considering these matters, Admiral Farragut arrived in the Hartford, just below Warrenton, in pursuit of coal and provisions. This was after his passage of the Port Hudson batteries. From him Grant obtained information of affairs at the latter place, and the little probability there was of General Banks making the Confederates evacuate it.

On hearing this, General Grant thought of sending an army corps to co-operate with Banks, get possession of the works at Port Hudson, and then bring all Banks' forces to operate against Vicksburg. But this idea did not exist long, the general coming to this opinion through the fact that the water had overflowed everything about the upper part of Vicksburg, and dry land could only be found on the heights. There was no foot-hold for an army, and Grant thought a better chance of turning Vicksburg might be found below, between Warrenton and Grand Gulf.

Having consulted with Admiral Porter regarding the possibility of passing the batteries at Vicksburg with a sufficient force — a point on which his mind was made easy — he called a council of war, at which all the divisional commanders,except Sherman and McClernand, were present.

The plan proposed to the council was to send the gun-boats below Vicksburg with a sufficient number of transports, well packed with cotton — to protect their boilers and machinery — to march the Army over to Carthage, and thence transport it to the Vicksburg side, as circumstances warranted.

This proposition was respectfully but strongly opposed by all the generals present. Sherman sent his objections — which were good ones — in writing; and McClernand, to whom Grant had spoken on the subject,wrote a letter. and proposed the plan of going below, as originating with himself, which was a habit this general had when anything of importance was about to be undertaken.

This plan of Grant's seemed to those around him to be full of danger, and they left no eloquence untried to persuade him not to undertake a move threatening so much peril to his Army. They urged that to move his Army below Vicksburg was to cut himself off from his base of supplies at the North, to cut his own communications, and do exactly what his enemies most desired him to do: to place himself in a position, where, if defeated, the defeat would be overwhelming. The inundated state of the country was pointed out to him, and the difficulty of moving an Army and supplies over such roads as there were. Some of the most accomplished soldiers in his Army, men who had won their way to fame, urged him, with all the power of eloquence, not to undertake the rash movement. Grant listened to them respectfully, and when the last had spoken, he said: “I am sorry to differ with you all, but my mind is made up; the Army will move to-morrow at ten o'clock.”

When Grant was asked how he would get the transports past the batteries, he replied: “That is the Admiral's affair. Where the ‘Queen of the West’ and Switzerland can go in broad daylight, the transports can pass at night.”

A few days before this council, Admiral Farragut. who had come up from Red River, as before mentioned, requested Colonel Alfred Ellet to let him have two of the Ram fleet (to run the batteries at night) for the purpose of returning with him to the blockade of the Red River — saying he would make it all right with Admiral Porter, etc. To this Colonel Ellet at once agreed. Accordingly the rams Lancaster and Switzerland were prepared to run the batteries, the former commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel John A. Ellet, the latter by Charles Rivers Ellet. These Ellets were all brave fellows, and were full of the spirit of adventure. Instead of going past the batteries with comparative ease at night, they chose a time near daylight, and by the time they got abreast of the city all the batteries opened on them. The Lancaster's boilers were exploded by a shell, and being a frail vessel, she went to pieces and sunk immediately. The Switzerland had her boilers perforated by a plunging shot, and received a number of hits, but otherwise the damage done to her was not material, and she joined Farragut, and afterward performed good service down river. [309]

If such frail boats as these could pass in open daylight, there was no reason why transports could not pass at night, under the lee of the iron-clads. A number of transports were prepared by packing them well with cotton-bales. Their crews in most cases declining to serve, their places were filled by volunteers from the Army. The pilots, as a rule, determined to stay by their vessels, and put them through, if possible. It was a hazardous task, but the pilots, a brave set of officers, got used to it after awhile, and running the batteries came to be considered by them as not much more dangerous than racing with another steamer, with the captain sitting on the safety-valve. This seemed to be the spirit which animated soldier volunteers who were, in many cases, sailors.

With these preparations the expedition was ready to move at the appointed time — the night of April 16th.

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