Overnight of Thursday/Friday March 12-13, 1863, the Federals found enough solid dry ground to land a brigade of 1,2000 infantrymen, who dragged 300 bales of cotton about 600 yards out in front of the rebel line north of the Tallahatchie River. At 11:00am on Friday, 13 March they opened fire with a single 30 pound Parrot gun, joining a renewed assault from just 600 yards by the repaired Chillicothe and the Baron De Kalib, as well as a mortar on a barge (above). They were answered by the same three rebel cannon, which had been resupplied.
Over the next 3 hours the Chillicothe fired 54 rounds, and was hit 38 times, wounding 6 of her crew. Low on ammunition she was forced to withdraw. The Baron De Kalib kept firing until dusk, and was hit six times. Most shots merely dented her armor, but her steering gear was disabled, 3 crewmen were killed and 3 wounded. The ironclad, the mortar barge and the shore battery were all, almost out of ammunition. And after all that shooting the Federal naval commander was forced to admit, "We are not able to perceive any advantage gained..."
Inside Fort Pemberton, the bombardment had killed one man and wounded 21 more, including an officer and 15 men injured when a lucky Yankee shot somehow penetrated 16 feet of earth and set off the magazine for the Whitworth cannon. That night another shipment of ammunition from Yazoo City arrived, rearming the fort.
Over Sunday, 15 March, the Federals added more guns to the shore battery, and the 2 repaired ironclads returned to the assault on Monday, 16 March, but again to no affect. And finally, the Federals had to admit they could not force their way past the 1,500 men and 3 large and 5 small cannon blockading the head of the Yazoo. Having breached the Great Levee and flooded the Coldwater and Tallahatchie to allow their ironclads to reach Fort Pemberton, they had also re-created the swamps which now prevented them from deploying their infantry to outflank the fort. Frustrated, the Yankees withdrew.
One Federal officer told his diary "...a more dissatisfied set of men I never saw...we could have taken it if our leaders would have but gave us the opportunity." The same spirit inspired a joke which made the rounds of Grant's army over the next few weeks. The story imagined a Yankee straggler captured by the rebels at Fort Pemberton. Ask a Confederate interrogator, "What the thunder did Grant expect to do down here?" The captured soldier explained, "He expects to take Vicksburg." The rebel officer snorted his derision. "Well, hasn't the old fool tried ditching and flanking 5 times already" And the Yankee prisoner responded, "Yes. But he has 37 more plans in his pocket, and one of them will get the job done." The enlisted soldiers on both sides recognized Grant's two great strengths as a commander, and neither was that he was brilliant. First, he did not waste the lives of his men. And second, he was stubborn as hell.
Well, crawling over maps on the floor of his spacious office on board his flagship, the 260 foot long, 900 ton side wheeler USS Black Hawk (above), Admiral David Dixon Porter thought he had found another plan. And on Saturday, 14 March he again entered the mouth of the Yazoo River, as he had in December, before the Chickasaw Bayou operation.
Under his immediate command were the ironclads Mound City, Louisville, Carondelet, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh and 4 mortar rafts pulled by tug boats, as well as 2 army transports filled with soldiers, commanded by General William Tecumseh Sherman himself. Just before this little fleet came within range of the big rebel guns now atop Haynes Bluff, they turned north into Steele's Bayou.
It was 30 convoluted miles up Steele's Bayou where it connected with the short Black Bayou. Then, because of the heavy rains and the destruction of the Great Levee above Moon Lake, it was possible to follow the narrow and usually shallow Black Bayou south for 3 miles until it connected with Deer Creek. Thirteen miles upstream Deer Creek was joined by The Rolling Fork Creek, coming in from the south. Four miles down The Rolling Fork, Porter's ships would reach the Big Sunflower River, which turned west and joined the Yazoo River 20 miles upstream from the mouth of Steele's Bayou - beyond the rebel fortifications around Vicksburg.
Objectively it might seem insane to travel 200 plus miles to gain 20 miles. But this was 1863, when the advantages of buoyancy far outweighed distance. A single riverboat could carry an entire infantry regiment. An entire division required just 10 such boats. An average sized riverboat could carry about 500 tons of supplies - food, forage, and ammunition. That amount alone could maintain Grant's entire army for two days.
And then there was the weight of floating cannon. Grant's army during the Vicksburg campaign dragged some 180 artillery guns with them, most of which threw 12 pound shells. Admiral Porter's mud navy had 200 guns, most firing shells twice to three times as heavy. Porter's Steele's Bayou expedition might seem like a clumsy elephant, entangled in clinging vines, trying to stamp out a mouse. But if it ever reached the upstream Yazoo River, the rebels would be facing a disaster.
Everything went as planned until the Ides of March, when Porter's ships reached Deer Creek (above). The 13 map miles upstream toward its convergence with the Rolling Fork Creek turned into 26 twisting, turning, narrow miles of swamp.
At many bends the ironclads had to be winched through turns shorter than the ironclads' lengths. A canopy blocked the sun, as overhanging branches from opposite shores intertwined, threatening to bring down the transport's 200 foot tall smoke stacks. Because of this Sherman disembarked his men at Black Bayou , ready to march overland once the gunboats had reached the Big Sunflower River.
But the ironclads were kept going, constantly clearing snags and struggling to find a channel until their progress was reduced to half a mile an hour. Only a man "‘vain, arrogant and egotistical to an extent that can neither be described nor exaggerated’ would have kept going, and that man was the impetuous imperious Admiral David Dixon Porter (above).
On Saturday, 21 March, at the junction of Deer Creek and Rolling Fork Creek (above) 2,500 rebels under Mississippian General Winfiield Scott "Old Swet" Featherston attacked the Federal gunboats. The Confederates had been defending Fort Pemberton, but the retreat of the Yazoo Pass expedition had freed them, Porter was forced to dispatch 300 sailors to act as infantry. With support from the ironclads' guns the "swabies" drove the Confederate troops back.
But at nightfall the sailors returned to their boats, and the rebels slipped behind the squadron and chopped down 20 large trees, blocking their escapee. In the morning, snipers kept most of the sailors behind their armor.
Only then, outnumbered and surrounded, did Porter realize his entire command was in danger of being lost or captured.
Luckily, General Sherman (above) had heard the fleet's cannon fire on that Saturday, and had immediately sent men by steamship up the creek. At the same time he forced marched most of his command toward the mouth of Rolling Fork Creek, 20 miles away.
The troops sent by boat arrived that evening, and on Sunday managed to hold the Confederate forces back. The larger force, which marched the entire way overland, did not reach the fight until the afternoon of Monday, 23 March.
But they arrived at the perfect moment to break up a rebel attack, catching their enemy in the rear. It was, as Wellington said about Waterloo, "A damn close thing." Porter was smart enough to know he had been checked. The infantry held off the rebels while the navy cut its way out of the trap. By Friday, 27 March, all of Porter's gunboats, and both of Sherman's regiments were back at Milliken's Bend on the Mississippi River.
And that is when Porter and Sherman discovered that things were about to change. On Tuesday, 29 March, 1863, Major General Ulysses Simpson Grant ordered Major General John Alexander McClernand to move his XIII Corps down river to New Carthage, Louisiana. And he ordered the movement to be made by road.