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Ellet and his steam-rams at Memphis.

Alfred W. Ellet, Brigadier-General, U. S. V.1

In the distance:

Price, little Rebel, Queen of the West, and monarch. Union gun-boats.
Van Dorn Jeff. Thompson. Bragg. Sumter. Beauregard (sinking). Lovell (sunk).

the battle of Memphis, June 6, 1862 (looking north). retreat of the Confederate fleet. After a sketch by rear-admiral Walke.

On the 8th of March, 1862, occurred the memorable catastrophe at Hampton Roads. The possibility of such a disaster had been repeatedly urged in warning terms by a gentleman who had vainly endeavored to avert it. I refer to the late eminent civil engineer, Charles Ellet, Jr., the inventor of the steam-ram. as a vehicle of war destruction. On the 6th of February, 1862, Mr. Ellet wrote in a pamphlet as follows:

It is not generally known that the rebels now have five steam-rams nearly ready for use. Of these five, two are on the lower Mississippi, two are at Mobile, and one is at Norfolk. The last of the five, the one at Norfolk, is doubtless the most formidable, being the United States steam-frigate Merrimac, which has been so strengthened that, in the opinion of the rebels, it may be used as a ram. But we have not yet a single vessel at sea, nor, so far as I know, in course of construction, able to cope at all with a well-built ram. If the Merrimac is permitted to escape from Elizabeth River, she will be almost certain to commit great depredations on our armed and unarmed vessels in Hampton Roads, and may even be expected to pass out under the guns of Fortress Monroe and prey upon our commerce in Chesapeake Bay. Indeed, if the alterations have been skillfully made, and she succeeds in getting to sea, she will not only be a terrible scourge to our commerce, but may prove also to be a most dangerous visitor to our blockading squadrons off the harbors of the southern coasts. I have attempted to call the attention of the Navy Department and the country so often to this subject during the last seven years, that I almost hesitate to allude to it again; and I would not do so here but that I think the danger from these tremendous engines is very imminent but not at all appreciated. Experience, [454] derived from accidental collisions, shows that a vessel struck in the waist by a steam-ram at sea will go down almost instantaneously, and involve, as has often happened, the loss of nearly all on board.

Upon the startling verification of his neglected admonitions afforded by the Merrimac, Mr. Ellet was called to the War Department, and, after a short conference with Secretary Stanton, was given authority to purchase, refit, man, and command, with the rank of colonel, any number of vessels deemed, in his judgment, necessary to meet and defeat the fleet of iron-clad rams then known to be in process of construction on the lower Mississippi River.

Colonel Charles Ellet, Jr. From a photograph.

Never was work more promptly or more effectually performed. Colonel Ellet purchased a number of steamboats at different points on the Ohio River, the best he could find in the short time at his disposal. He took some old and nearly worn-out boats, strengthened their hulls and bows with heavy timbers, raised bulkheads of timber around the boilers, and started them down the river to Cairo as fast as they could be got off the ways. They were the Dick Fulton, Lancaster, Lioness, Mingo, Monarch, Monarch, Queen of the West, Samson, Switzerland, and T. D. Horner.

While the work was progressing, and before any one of the rams was nearly completed, information was received that the Confederate fleet had come out from under the batteries of Fort Pillow, had attacked our fleet of gun-boats lying near Craighead's Point, and had disabled two of them.2 Colonel Ellet received most urgent telegrams from the Secretary of War to hurry the rams forward at the earliest possible moment. In consequence of these demands, five of them were immediately dispatched down the river under my command, work upon them being continued as they proceeded and for several days after their arrival at Fort Pillow. The other rams followed, and about the 25th of May Colonel Ellet joined the fleet on board the Switzerland, and the ram-fleet was now ready for action.

Colonel Ellet at once conferred with Flag-Officer Charles H. Davis on the propriety of passing Fort Pillow, and engaging the enemy's fleet wherever found. Flag-Officer Davis did not approve the plan suggested, but offered no objection to Colonel Ellet's trying the experiment. Accordingly, [455] immediate preparations were begun for running the batteries with the entire ramfleet. During this period of preparation, constant watch was kept upon the fort and the enemy's fleet. On the night of the 4th of June I crossed the timber point in front of the fort, and reported to the colonel commanding my conviction that the fort was being evacuated. About 2 o'clock in the morning I obtained permission, with many words of caution from Colonel Ellet, to run down opposite the fort in a yawl and, after lying off in order to become assured that the place was abandoned, to land, with the assurance that the rams would follow in case my yawl did not return before daylight.

Close of the battle of Memphis, June 6, 1862 (looking North). Sumter and Bragg (captured). Thompson (blowing up). Memphis.Benton. Cairo. Burning of unfinished Confederate ram. Louisville. St. Louis. Carondelet. After a drawing by Rear-Admiral Walke.

I landed with my little band, only to find the fort entirely deserted; and after planting the National colors upon the ruins of one of the magazines, we sat down to wait for the coming of daylight and the rams. They came, followed by the entire fleet, and after a short stop all proceeded down the river, the rams taking the lead, to Fort Randolph, where they delayed long enough to plant the National flag and to examine the abandoned fortifications, the gunboats at this point taking the advance.3

After leaving Fort Randolph the ram-fleet proceeded without incident to within about twenty-five miles of Memphis, where they all rounded to and [456] tied up for the night, with orders of sailing issued to each commander; instructions to be ready to round out at the signal from the flag-ship, and that “each boat should go into the anticipated fight in the same order they maintained in sailing.” At the first dawn of day (June 6th) the fleet moved down the river, and at sunrise the flag-ship rounded the bend at “Paddy's Hen and Chickens,” and immediately after came in sight of the Federal gun-boats anchored in line across the river, about a mile above Memphis. Colonel Ellet promptly signaled his vessels to tie up on the Arkansas shore, in the order of their sailing, as he desired to confer with Flag-Officer Davis before passing further.

The Queen of the West came to first, followed by the Monarch and other rams in regular succession. The Queen of the West had made the land, and passed out line to make fast; the Monarch was closing in just above, but had not yet touched the shore. At this moment, and as the full orb of the sun rose above the horizon, the report of a gun was heard from around the point and down the river. It was the first gun from the Confederate River Defense Fleet moving to attack us. Colonel Ellet was standing on the hurricane-deck of the Queen of the West. He immediately sprang forward, and, waving his hat to attract my attention, called out: “It is a gun from the enemy! Round out and follow me! Now is our chance!” Without a moment's delay, the Queen moved out gracefully, and the Monarch followed. By this time our gun-boats had opened their batteries, and the reports of guns on both sides were heavy and rapid.

The morning was beautifully clear and perfectly still; a heavy wall of smoke was formed across the river, so that the position of our gun-boats could only be seen by the flashes of their guns. The Queen plunged forward, under a full head of steam, right into this wall of smoke and was lost sight of, her position being known only by her tall pipes which reached above the smoke. The Monarch, following, was greeted, while passing the gun-boats, with wild huzzas from our gallant tars. When freed from the smoke, those of us who were on the Monarch could see Colonel Ellet's tall and commanding form still standing on the hurricane-deck, waving his hat to show me which one of the enemy's vessels he desired the Monarch to attack,--namely, the General Price, which was on the right wing of their advancing line. For himself he selected the General Lovell and directed the Queen straight for her, she being about the middle of the enemy's advancing line. The two vessels came toward each other in most gallant style, head to head, prow to prow; and had they met in that way, it is most likely that both vessels would have gone down. But at the critical moment the General Lovell began to turn; and that moment sealed her fate. The Queen came on and plunged straight into the Lovell's exposed broadside; the vessel was cut almost in two and disappeared under the dark waters in less time than it takes to tell the story. The Monarch next struck the General Price a glancing blow which cut her starboard wheel clean off, and completely disabled her from further participation in the fight.4 [457]

As soon as the Queen was freed from the wreck of the sinking Lovell, and before she could recover headway, she was attacked on both sides by the enemy's vessels, the Beauregard on one side and the Sumter on the other. In the melee one of the wheels of the Queen was disabled so that she could not use it, and Colonel Ellet, while still standing on the hurricane-deck to view the effects of the encounter with the General Lovell, received a pistol-ball in his knee, and, lying prone on the deck, gave orders for the Queen to be run on her one remaining wheel to the Arkansas shore, whither she was soon followed by the General Price in a sinking condition. Colonel Ellet sent an officer and squad of men to meet the General Price upon her making the shore, and received her entire crew as prisoners of war. By this time consternation had seized upon the enemy's fleet, and all had turned to escape. The fight had drifted down the river, below the city.5

The Monarch, as soon as she could recover headway after her conflict with the General Price, drove down upon the Beauregard, which vessel, after her encounter with the Queen of the West, was endeavoring to escape. She was thwarted by the Monarch coming down upon her with a well-directed blow which crushed in her side and completely disabled her from further hope of escape. Men on the deck waved a white flag in token of surrender, and the Monarch passed on down to intercept the Little Rebel, the enemy's flag-ship. She had received some injury from our gun-boats' fire, and was making for the Arkansas shore, which she reached at the moment when the Monarch, with very slight headway, pushed her hard and fast aground; her crew sprang upon shore and ran into the thick woods, making their escape. Leaving the Little Rebel fast aground, the Monarch turned her attention to the sinking Beauregard, taking the vessel in tow, and making prisoners of her crew. The Beauregard was towed by the Monarch to the bar, where she sank to her boiler-deck and finally became a total loss.

The others of the enemy's fleet were run ashore and fired by the crews before they escaped into the adjoining Arkansas swamps. The Jeff. Thompson burned and blew up with a tremendous report; the General Bragg was secured by our gun-boats before the fire gained headway, and was saved. The Van Dorn alone made her escape, and was afterward burned by the enemy at Liverpool Landing, upon the approach of two of our rams in Yazoo River, in order to prevent her from falling into our hands. Two other rebel boats were burned at the same time,--the Polk and the Livingston.

After the Monarch had towed the Beauregard into shoal water, from which, it was hoped, she might be raised, I received the first intelligence, from a [458] dispatch-boat bearing orders, that Colonel Ellet was wounded. The orders I received from him were: “Continue the pursuit as long as there is any hope of overtaking the flying enemy.”

One other episode of this day should not be omitted. Toward the close of the engagement, Colonel Ellet was informed that a white flag had been raised in Memphis, and he immediately sent his young son, Medical Cadet Charles Rivers Ellet, ashore with a party of three men and a flag of truce, to demand the surrender of the city. They landed in a row-boat and delivered Colonel Ellet's dispatch to the mayor, and received his reply; then, surrounded by an excited and threatening crowd, they proceeded to the post-office, ascended to the top of the building, and, while stoned and fired upon by the mob below, young Ellet lowered the Confederate colors and raised the National flag over the city of Memphis. This incident occurred a considerable length of time before the formal surrender of the city into the possession of the United States troops under command of Colonel G. N. Fitch.

At first, Colonel Ellet's wound was not considered necessarily dangerous, but a few days showed us all how futile was the hope that our brave commander would ever again tread the decks of his victorious fleet. He continued to send dispatches and issue necessary orders from his bed as long as he could receive the reports of his subordinates. Finally, his rapidly failing strength gave way; the Switzerland, to which he had been removed, and on board which he had been joined by his heart-broken wife and his young daughter, left Memphis on the night of the 18th of June, and as the vessel neared Cairo on the 21st, his gallant spirit passed away. He was accorded a state funeral in Independence Hall.6

The boats constituting the ram-fleet of the Mississippi River were not built for the purpose they were to serve; they were simply such river steamers as could be purchased under the urgency then pressing. Some were side-wheelers, others stern-wheel tugs, with strong machinery and great power, and were hurriedly strengthened and braced to sustain a severe headlong blow. In a letter to the Secretary of War respecting the rams, while they were being fitted out, Colonel Ellet wrote: “The boats I have purchased are illy adapted for the work I shall require of them; it is not their strength upon which I rely, but upon the audacity of our attack, for success.”

His idea of an effective “steam-ram” was not a hermaphrodite thing, half ram, half gun-boat, nor did he favor those sharp knife-like prows which, if they cut a hole in an enemy, would plug it at the same time. He wanted a vessel of medium size, easy to handle, and of great speed; she should be built very strongly, fitted with machinery of great power, and have weight sufficient when projected against an enemy to crush the side of any vessel that could float. Colonel Ellet did not rely on heavy ordnance, and did not recommend arming his rams. At the battle of Memphis there were no firearms on board the ram-fleet except a few short carbines and some pocket [459] revolvers; his reliance was upon the prow of his vessel.7 He desired, as far as possible, to protect the vulnerable parts of his ship, the boilers and engines, and with simply enough men as crew to handle the boat with certainty and dispatch, to run the gauntlet of any fire that could be precipitated upon him, and drive his ram deep into his unwieldy adversary. At the battle of Memphis the enemy concentrated their fire upon the Queen of the West and the Monarch, but their missiles passed harmlessly by. Not a splinter was raised off either of the rams, and not a man sustained the slightest injury except Colonel Ellet, whose fatal wound was received from a pistol-ball.

The battle of Memphis was, in many respects, one of the most remarkable naval victories on record. For two unarmed, frail, wooden river steamboats, with barely men enough on board to handle the machinery and keep the furnace-fires burning, to rush to the front, between two hostile fleets, and into the enemy's advancing line of eight iron-clad, heavily armed, and fully manned steam-rams, sinking one, disabling and capturing three, and carrying consternation to the others, was a sight never before witnessed.

The River Defense Fleet was composed of strong, well-built ocean steamers, well strengthened and protected with railroad iron so as to be almost invulnerable to shot when advancing. The intention was apparent to repeat at Memphis the tactics which had proved so successful at Fort Pillow,--to ram the Union gun-boats at anchor; and had the rams Queen of the West and Monarch not run through the line of gun-boats and attacked the Defense Fleet as it approached, sinking, disabling, and scattering its vessels, and thus removing the fight half a mile below, the result of the affair might have been very different. The Defense Fleet was advancing up-stream, thus exposing the strongest and best-protected portions of each vessel; the gun-boats, relying upon their guns, were at anchor, with their sterns, their most vulnerable part, pointing down-steam and consequently exposed to the tremendous attack of the enemy. Had the Confederate commanders trusted only to the strength of their vessels, ceased firing, and with every pound of steam on plunged at full speed into our anchored gun-boat fleet, who could doubt what the result would have been?

Practicing on a River picket.

1 After the death of Colonel Ellet, the command of the ram-fleet was conferred upon the writer, by order of the Secretary of War.-editors.

2 The Cincinnati and the Mound City. See page 447.-editors.

3 The advance of Halleck upon Corinth after Shiloh, and its evacuation on May 30th, gave the Union forces possession of the Memphis and Charleston railroad, broke the second line of Confederate defense, and turned all the positions on the river above Memphis. Fort Pillow and Fort Randolph were thus made untenable (just as Columbus had become untenable after the fall of Forts Henry and Donelson on the Confederate first line of defense) and hence were evacuated.-editors.

4 It is impossible to reconcile this statement with that of Admiral Walke, on page 450, q. v. The reports of the engagement are meager and conflicting, but it has always been the general impression that the Price received her disabling blow in an accidental collision with the Beauregard, as has been stated by Captain Hurt, commander of the Beauregard. The reports of Flag Officer Davis and of General M. Jeff. Thompson, commander of the Confederate troops at Memphis, agree in saying that the Price was rammed by one of her consorts,--General Thompson adding that the blow, which he states was delivered by the Beauregard, knocked off the Price's wheel and entirely disabled her.-editors.

5 The gun-boat flotilla, under Flag-Officer Davis, had weighed anchor at 4:30 A. M. and proceeded immediately to quarters. The Confederate fleet opened at 5, and at 5: 20 the gun-boats were returning the fire and steaming down the river. The higher speed of Colonel Ellet's rams enabled them to pass through the intervals in Davis's flotilla, and the latter, coming after them, completed with its batteries the work which the rams had so successfully begun. The guns of the flotilla were well served, and both the Beauregard and Little Rebel were disabled by shots in their boilers.-editors.

6 His devoted wife, stricken by grief, survived him but a few days. Both are buried at Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia.-A. W. E.

7 The Monarch had 11 sharp-shooters out of a detail of 50 from the 59th Illinois regiment, who constituted the sole armed force of the ram-fleet.-editors.

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