Scouting the River
While the land component was conducting operations at Milliken’s Bend, Admiral Porter’s fleet began the reconnaissance of the Yazoo River. Porter directed Lt Commander William Gwin to take his powerful vessel, Benton, along with the timber-clad gunboats Lexington and Tyler, the tin-clads Romeo and Juliet, and the ram Lioness to sweep the river. Porter was particularly worried about torpedoes having just lost the Cairo in these same waters.
This small flotilla was met on the river by Lt Commander John G. Walker, standing in for an ill Captain Henry Walke, with the iron-clad Baron De Kalb, Signal, Queen of the West, and the tug Laurel. The two commanders exchanged on their secondary mission of establishing a debarkation point on the Yazoo for Sherman’s forces. The two patrols tied up at Johnson’s Plantation while sailors from Lexington and Baron De Kalb dragged the river in small boats for torpedoes. The work continued until dark and then halted and the entire fleet reunited at Johnson’s Plantation where the house and outbuildings were burned.
The next morning Benton, Tyler, Queen of the West, and Juliet headed up river. Near the site of the Cairo’s sinking they encountered numerous torpedoes but were unable to disarm them because of fire from snipers located on the nearby levee. They returned downstream and made their report. The effort was repeated on Christmas Day by the same boats. Using the guns to sweep the shores with canister they were able to clear the river to within a half mile of where Chickasaw Bayou empties into the Yazoo. That afternoon Porter met with Sherman aboard the Black Hawk. The admiral reported that his reconnaissance had cleared the river and had learned from an “intelligent contraband” that the most suitable place to conduct the landings would be at Johnson’s Plantation. Sherman issued orders for a December 26th landing.
BG S. D. Lee, dispatched from Vicksburg with approximately 5000 troops, arrived while the Union fleet conducted its reconnaissance. His mission was to establish a defensive along the Walnut Hills line. Lee’s initial view of the defensive possibilities was discouraging. Commenting after the war Lee stated;
“Not a spade of dirt had been thrown up along the entire line and there were no entrenchments or covered batteries. “
Lee immediately put his available troops to work supplemented by impressed slave labor. This area was one of only five access points to the main line of Confederate defense. The chosen landing point was severely terrain restricted and provided only two very narrow roads across the bayou. Lacking sufficient strength to directly challenge the landings Lee opted to defend these two roads on the far side of the bayou. Every minute wasted before the numerically superior Union forces seized the initiative worked in favor of his Confederates. Little did Sherman know he was playing into the Confederate defensive plan.Chickasaw Bayou (Campaign Series)