2015 is the final year in the sesquicentennial celebration of the Civil War. A great Sunday drive that takes you through a little known but important part of the Vicksburg Campaign of the Civil War is the Steele’s Bayou Expedition driving tour.
In 2006, Mississippi’s Lower Delta Partnership received a grant through the National Park Service’s Lower Mississippi Delta Initiative program to interpret the Steele’s Bayou Expedition of the Civil War. This project was completed in 2008 with the publication of a driving guide and installation of markers at 7 of the 11 stops in the guide.
The Steele’s Bayou Expedition was the last and most extraordinary of Major General Ulysses Grant’s unsuccessful attempts aimed at capturing the strategic city of Vicksburg during the Civil War. This plan called for a naval squadron consisting of 5 City Class ironclads and several support vessels to enter Steele’s Bayou from the Yazoo River, travel for 30 miles to Black Bayou, and go 4 miles through Black Bayou to Deer Creek, then north 30 more miles to Rolling Fork Creek. From there the gunboats would travel to the Sunflower River and into the Yazoo, outflanking the Confederate batteries at Snyder’s Bluff, thus gaining control of the Yazoo River. In theory it was a good idea, the reality of it was that these waterways had never been navigated by ships as large as the gunboats and the thick delta vegetation was a constant source of aggravation for Admiral David Porter’s gunboat crews. Porter’s naval squadron was supported in this attempt by Major General William Sherman’s infantry forces. Hill’s Plantation near Onward was the staging ground for infantry and Sherman’s headquarters throughout the expedition.
It was in Rolling Fork that a skirmish took place that eventually caused Porter to admit defeat and call for his boats to retreat. The boats were forced to back down the creek encountering obstacles such as trees felled across the creek and Confederate artillery fire along the way.
The driving tour guide and narrative provides interpretation for an important piece of south Delta history. The tour as indicated in the booklet begins in Vicksburg at the Cairo Museum where the Cairo, a sister ship to those on this expedition may be viewed. Seeing the size of the gunboats on this expedition makes one truly appreciate the efforts involved in the venture.
Guides are available locally at the Rolling Fork Visitor’s Center & Museum; they are also available at the Vicksburg National Military Park, or you may call the LDP office at 662-873-6261 to have one mailed to you.