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Fort Pillow and Memphis

Henry W. Elson

The Confederate Ram General Price “--accidentally struck by her consort General Beauregard” at the battle of Memphis, run ashore, and captured by the Federals


There can be no denying the dash and spirit with which this attack was made. It was, however, the only service of value performed by this irregular and undisciplined force. At Memphis, a month later, and at New Orleans, the fleet proved incapable of meeting an attack and of mutual support. There were admirable materials in it, but the mistake of withdrawing them from strict military control and organization was fatal. On the other hand, although the gunboats engaged fought gallantly, the flotilla as an organization had little cause for satisfaction in the day's work.

A. T. Mahan, in The Gulf and Inland waters.

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.

Colonel Charles Ellet, Jr., in a letter to the Secretary of War.

The Western gunboat flotilla had done wonderful work in the space of two months, February to April, 1862. It had captured Fort Henry; it had made possible the taking of Fort Donelson, with its vast equipment and fourteen thousand men; it had secured to General Pope's army the surrender of Island No.10--all within the eight weeks. But there were more strongholds to conquer and the heaviest battle was still in the future. Fort Pillow with its frowning cannon lay eighty miles or more below New Madrid, and eighty miles still farther down the great river was Memphis. Fort Pillow, and Fort Randolph, just below, must now be attacked in order to open the river to Vicksburg.

A few days after the surrender of Island No.10, the gunboat fleet turned toward Fort Pillow. About this time General Pope was called with most of his army to Shiloh and Corinth, as Beauregard had been before, and the gunboats with a small portion of the land forces were left to fight their way down the [237]

Fort Pillow.

Federal Floating Mortar Battery at Fort Pillow. There would have been no engagement at Fort Pillow had it not been for the continued annoyance inflicted upon that position by the curious little craft--one of which we see tied up to the wharf in the lower picture. Secure in the knowledge that Beauregard's presence with a large force at Corinth had precluded the Federal land attack, General Villepigue awoke one morning to the sound of bursting shells which a Federal mortar boat was rapidly dropping over his ramparts. Every day thereafter, Flag-Officer Foote continued to pay compliments to Fort Pillow by sending down a mortar boat towed by a gunboat of the type seen in the picture. There was nothing for the Confederates to do but take to their bomb-proofs, so long as the Federal gunners continued the bombardment. At last General Villepigue, chafing under the damage done to his works, called urgently upon the Confederate flotilla to come up and put an end to the mortar boats. Early on the morning of May 10, 1862, the day after Flag-Officer Foote went North, leaving Captain Davis in charge of the Federal flotilla, the Cincinnati towed mortar No. 16 down to the usual position for shelling the fort, and then tied up to the edge of the stream to protect her. The mortar fired her first shot at five o'clock. One hour and a half later the eight rams of the Confederate River Defense fleet suddenly and unexpectedly appeared bearing down upon the Cincinnati. The latter quickly slipped her moorings, and opened her bow guns upon the approaching vessels. One of these, the General Bragg, passed quickly above the Federal ironclad, turned and struck her a violent blow on the starboard quarter. After that the Bragg disappeared down the river, but the General Price and the Sumter continued the attack. One struck the Cincinnati again, but the other received a shot through her boilers from the Benton, and this ended her part of the fight. The wounded Cincinnati was helped to the shore and sunk. The other Federal ironclad had now come upon the scene and the melee became general. The General Van Dorn rammed the Mound City so severely that she was compelled to run on the Arkansas shore. After that the Confederate rams returned to Fort Pillow and the half hour's thrilling fight was over.

General J. B. Villepigue, the defender of Fort Pillow

Boats that brought on the battle

[238] river alone. For two weeks the fleet bombarded Fort Pillow at long range. On May 9th, Flag-Officer Foote, whose wound received at Fort Donelson had not healed, asked to be relieved, and Captain Charles H. Davis, a man of well-known skill and bravery, was appointed in his place. The day after the retirement of Foote a Confederate fleet, known as the “River defense,” under the command of Captain J. E. Montgomery, came up and offered battle. Among them was a powerful side-wheel steam ram, the General Bragg, which made for the Cincinnati. The latter opened fire, but the shots could not drive the antagonist off. Presently the onrushing vessel struck the Cincinnati on the starboard side and penetrated the shell-room, rendering the ironclad almost helpless. Before the wounded vessel could get away she was rammed by two other Confederate boats, the General Price and the Sumter. Meanwhile the Carondelet had come to the rescue of the Cincinnati, firing as fast as she could load. At last the Sumter was struck by a 50-pound Dahlgren shot from the Carondelet and completely disabled. Her steam-chest was penetrated and the steam instantly poured out upon all parts of her casemate. The men ran for life, some leaping into the water and some falling on the deck, victims of the scalding steam. The General Van Dorn, one of the most agile of the Confederate vessels, partially disabled the Mound City by ramming her amidships with fearful force.

The smoke of battle had enveloped the whole scene in a dense cloud. There was a lull in the firing, and when the smoke cleared away the Confederate fleet was seen drifting slowly down the stream to Fort Pillow, and the battle was over.

For two or three days after this battle long-range firing was kept up, the Union fleet lying a mile or more up the river, the Confederate vessels being huddled under the guns of Fort Pillow.

On the 4th of June, great clouds of smoke were seen to arise from the fort, and terrific explosions accompanying [239]

The vessel with the armed prow. The federal ram Vindicator An excellent example of the steam rams as developed from the ideas of Charles Ellet, Jr., adding a new chapter to the history of naval warfare. As far back as the siege of Sebastopol, in 1854, Charles Ellet — being then in Europe — proposed a plan to the Russians to equip their blockaded fleet with rams. The plan was not adopted, and in 1855 he published a pamphlet outlining his idea and said, in proposing it to the United States Government, “I hold myself ready to carry it out in all its details whenever the day arrives that the United States is about to become engaged in a naval contest.” It was not until after the appearance of the Merrimac at Hampton Roads and the danger to Foote's fleet on the Mississippi from Confederate rams that Ellet was given the opportunity to try his various projects and commissioned to equip several rams at Cincinnati. The project was regarded as a perilous one. Had it not been for Ellet's extraordinary personal influence he would never have been able to obtain crews for his rams, as they were entirely unarmored with the exception of the pilot-house, but Ellet had reasoned correctly that the danger from collision was immensely against the vessel struck, while the danger from shot penetrating a vital part of the approaching ram he proved was reduced to an unappreciable fraction. He contented himself, therefore, with strengthening the hulls of the river steamers which he purchased, filling the bows with solid timbers and surrounding the boilers with a double tier of oak twenty-four inches thick. At Memphis the rams had their first trial and it resulted in complete vindication of Ellet's theories. It was a vindication, however, which cost Ellet his life. He was mortally wounded in the fight at Memphis while in command of the Queen of the West.

[240] told the story. The Confederates were evacuating the place and destroying their magazines before departing. The next morning the Federals clambered up the bluff to the site of the Fort and found only smoking ruins. Even the earthen breastworks had been torn to pieces by the fearful powder explosions. Fort Randolph was likewise abandoned. The great river, while not yet rolling “unvexed to the sea,” was now open as far as Memphis, whither the River Defense fleet had retreated, some eighty miles below Fort Pillow, and thither steered the Federal gunboats in search of their recent antagonists.

Down the glassy river the Union fleet glided on June 5th. The banners were waving. The men were as gay as if they were going to a picnic. In the evening they came within gunshot of Memphis and anchored for the night, not far from the supposed spot where, more than three hundred years before, De Soto had first cast his eyes on the rolling tide of the Mississippi.

The Federal flotilla on the Mississippi had, some days before, been reenforced by four small steam rams under the command of Colonel Charles Ellet, Jr. Ellet was not by profession a military man, but a distinguished civil engineer. He had convinced the Government of the value of the steam ram as a weapon of war, and was given a colonel's commission and authority to fit out a fleet of rams. His vessels were not armed. He cooperated with, but was not under the direction of, Flag-Officer Davis. His “flag-ship” was the Queen of the West and the next in importance was the Monarch, commanded by his younger brother, Alfred W. Ellet.

It was understood by all that a ferocious river-battle was necessary before the Federals could get control of the city on the hill. It is true that Memphis was not fortified, but it was defended by the fleet which the previous month had had its first taste of warfare at Fort Pillow and now lay at the foot of the bluffs ready to grapple with the coming foe. The vessels, eight in number, were not equal to those of the Union fleet. They [241]

Heroes of the wheel-house

Pilot W. J. Auslinty

Pilot David Heiner

Pilot Charles Ross

The unarmored conning tower


The target of the sharpshooters look into these six keen eyes which knew every current and eddy, every snag and sandbar of the Mississippi. To the hands of men like these the commanders of the Federal gunboats owed the safe conduct of their vessels. No hearts more fearless nor hands more steady under fire were brought into the fighting on either side. Standing silently at the wheel, their gaze fixed on the familiar countenance of the river before them, they guided the gunboats through showers of shell. Peering into the murky night, they felt their way through shallow channels past watchful batteries whose first shot would be aimed against the frail and unprotected pilot house.

there was no more dangerous post than the pilot house of a gunboat, standing as a target for the gunners, who knew that to disable the pilot was to render the vessel helpless to drift hither and yon or to run aground to be riddled full of holes. After the Inland fleet passed from the control of the army to that of the navy the pilots of all the gunboats except Ellet's rams were brevetted acting masters or masters' mates and wore the uniform of the navy. Their services and bravery were fully recognized by the commanders, and their intimate knowledge of the river admitted them to conferences in which the most secret and difficult naval movements were planned. A river pilot knew when he could take his vessel over sandbars and inundated shallows where soundings would have turned back any navigating officer of the navy. Such valuable men were never safe. Even when passing up and down apparently peaceful reaches of the river the singing of some sharpshooters' bullet would give sudden warning that along the banks men were lying in wait for them. The mortality among the pilots during the war speaks volumes for the simple heroism of these silent men.

[242] carried but two guns each, except one, which carried four. It was therefore a brave thing for Captain Montgomery to lay down the gage of battle to a fleet far stronger than his own. But he and his men did not falter. They moved up the swift current and opened the battle of Memphis, one of the most hotly contested naval battles ever fought in American waters.

it was the 6th of June, 1862, and one of the most charming days that nature ever gives. As the sun rose over the eastern hills the people of the city gathered along the bluff in thousands, standing in dark silhouette against the sky, to watch the contest, and one can imagine how their emotion rose and fell as the tide of battle ebbed and flowed on the river below.

it was at 5:00 A. M. That Montgomery moved up the stream and fired the first gun. At this opening Colonel Ellet sprang forward on the hurricane deck, waved his hat, and shouted to his brother: “Round out and follow me. Now is our chance.”

the Queen instantly moved toward the Confederate fleet; the Federal ironclads followed, but already both fleets were engaged in a brisk cannonade and the smoke was so dense that the Queen was soon lost to view. The daring little vessel plunged on through the waves. She was headed for the General Lovell, almost in the center of the Confederate line of battle. The Queen struck her antagonist squarely on the side and cut her almost in two. The wounded vessel groaned and lurched, and in a few minutes she sank, with many of her devoted crew, beneath the dark waters of the river.

soon after this the Queen was rammed by the General Beauregard and a little later when the Beauregard and the General Price were making for the Monarch, the Beauregard missed her aim and struck her comrade, the General Price, tearing off her wheel and putting her out of service. The Queen fought with desperation and in the melee Colonel Ellet, her commander, received a pistol shot in the knee. He fell on the deck and, unable to rise, continued to give orders to his men while lying prone on his ship. But the Queen was now disabled, [243]

A ship that fought the fever Grateful, indeed, were the Federal soldiers, in their advance from Cairo down the Mississippi, when this spacious river steamer, with its roomy cabins and wide decks, about which played the cooling breezes of the Mississippi, was added to the fleet. The Confederates were still to be encountered, but a more subtle enemy had already attacked the army. Fever and dysentery had fastened upon the unacclimated Northerners both afloat and ashore, and threatened to kill off more of them than could possibly be done by the men who strove with them for the possession of the river. When Island no.10 was abandoned by the Confederates, they sank a gunboat and six transports, which they were compelled to leave behind. General Pope soon had the transports raised and in commission on the Federal side. None of them was more highly prized than the Red Rover, which we see here converted into the hospital ship of the Mississippi Squadron, commanded by Lieutenant W. R. Wells. Such floating hospitals quickly came into use by both the army and the navy along the Mississippi. Out on the bosom of the river the fever-stricken men on the shady decks grasped that chance of life which would have been denied them tossing in tents on shore, where the beating sun by day and the miasma from the bottom-lands by night, coupled with imperfect drainage, made recovery almost impossible.

[244] after her crash with the Beauregard, and Ellet ordered that she be headed for the Arkansas shore.

the next scene in this exciting drama came when the Beauregard, after disabling the Queen, made for the Monarch with like design. But the Monarch was the more agile. She evaded the blow, and dexterously whirling about, struck the Beauregard on the bow with terrific force, tearing a great hole beneath the water line. The Beauregard, disabled also by the gunboats, began to sink and the men on her decks fluttered handkerchiefs or any white thing at hand in token of surrender.

the Monarch, however, had determined to add one more to her list of trophies. There was the little Rebel, the Confederate flag-ship, on whose deck Captain Montgomery had stood with unfaltering courage in the midst of Federal gun-shots. The Monarch now turned her prow to the little Rebel and put on full steam. The latter, conscious of her inability to stand before the little fighting monster, fled toward the Arkansas shore. The race was a hot one; the Monarch gained rapidly, but ere she could strike the little Rebel, the latter ran aground in the shallow water. Her commander and her crew leaped into the water, and they swam to shore and escaped into the forest.

the Monarch then steamed back to the middle of the river and rounded out her day's work by doing a deed of mercy. The Beauregard was still above water, but was settling rapidly, and her faithful crew, knowing that they had done all they could for the cause for which they fought, were still waving their white flags. The Monarch rescued them and towed the sinking Beauregard to shallow water, where she sank to her boiler deck.

four of the Confederate gunboats had now been destroyed and the remaining four turned down the river and made a desperate effort to escape. But the Union fleet closed in on them and three of them turned to the Arkansas shore in the hope that the crews might make their escape. In the lead was the General [245]

A ranger of the river this little “tin-clad” is typical of. The so-called Mosquito fleet, officially known as “Light Drafts,” which rendered a magnificent minor service in the river operations of the navy. Up narrow tributaries and in and out of tortuous and shallow bayous, impassable for the larger gunboats, these dauntless fighting craft pushed their way, capturing Confederate vessels twice their size, or boldly engaging the infantry and even the field-batteries of the enemy, which were always eagerly pressing the shores to annoy the invading fleet. To Flag-officer Davis, during his command on the Mississippi, the Federals owed the idea of these Light-draft stern-wheel vessels, most of which were ordinary river steamers purchased and altered to suit the purposes of the navy. Covered to a height of eleven feet above the water line with railroad iron a half to three-quarters of an inch thick, and with their boilers still further protected, they were able to stand up to the fire of even moderate-sized guns. Many a gun in the Confederate fleets and forts was silenced by the well-directed fire of the two Light bow-rifles with which some of the tin-clads were equipped.


M. Jeff. Thompson. in a few minutes she had reached the goal and her officers and men leaped from the deck and ran for the protection of the woods. A moment later a shell exploded on her deck, set her on fire and she was burned to the water's edge. Closely following the Jeff. Thompson were the Bragg and the Sumter, and the crews of both escaped in like manner to the swamps and forests of Arkansas. Of all the eight Confederate gunboats the General Van Dorn alone evaded her pursuers and made her escape down the river.

the battle of Memphis, one of the fiercest of its kind on record, lasted but an hour and a quarter. The Confederate killed and wounded were never accurately reported. On the Union side there were four wounded, and with one the wound proved fatal--Colonel Ellet. His shattered knee refused to heal, and two weeks later, in the arms of his wife and daughter, the famous engineer breathed his last. His body was carried to Philadelphia and laid to rest at Laurel Hill, after being given a state funeral at Independence Hall.

the view of the battle of Memphis from the bluffs, on which the whole population of the City had gathered, was one of indescribable grandeur. Every house in the City and for miles around quivered with the explosions of burning powder. At times the smoke of the battle was so dense that scarcely a vessel could be seen by the spectators on the Hill; but a continuous roar of artillery arose from the hidden surface of the river, while the impingement of the vessels crashing together sounded like a titanic battle of the elements.

there were a few Union sympathisers among the onlookers, but the great majority of them were Confederates, and when they saw their ships go down they broke into wails and lamentations. Sorrowfully they witnessed, before noon of that day, the Stars and Bars lowered from the City Hall and replaced by the Stars and Stripes, which floated over Memphis to the end of the war. [247]

Wisconsin's contribution.

Wisconsin sent ninety thousand of her sons into the struggle, and her infantry and Cavalry won records “East” and also in the minor, but by no means inglorious, operations west of the Mississippi. In Missouri and Arkansas they protected the inhabitants from outlaw bands and resisted the raids of the Confederates, helping the Union forces on the other side finally to gain possession of the river.

Fighting westerners — the Second Wisconsin Cavalry

General C. C. Washburn (organizer of the Second Wisconsin Cavalry) and staff


Sherman and his officers — Memphis, 1862 this photograph was taken during the summer of 1862, after Grant had made General Sherman commander of the Third Division of the Army of Tennessee, and shows the coming great marshal at Memphis, grouped with his staff and other officers. In the party are: Captain John T. Taylor; Major J. H. Hammond; Captain Lewis M. Dayton; Colonel Ezra Taylor; Captain J. Condit Smith; Captain James W. Shirk, U. S. N.; Colonel T. K. Smith; Major W. H. Hartshorn; Colonel W. H. H. Taylor; Major W. D. Sanger, and Captain James C. McCoy. Sherman had little to do at Memphis during the summer and autumn of 1862. on December 20th he left the city for the Yazoo River to take part in Grant's first movement against Vicksburg.


The city only a siege could take--Vicksburg, Mississippi the evacuation of Fort Pillow and Fort Randolph and the capture of New Orleans by Farragut left Vicksburg the main point on the Mississippi strongly defended by the Confederates, after the spring of 1862. the Federal government was most anxious for its possession. It is eight hundred miles from Memphis to New Orleans; and Vicksburg, about half way between the two, is the strongest natural position on the river. The batteries which the Confederate engineers placed on the bluffs were too high above the stream for the guns of the Federal fleet to reach them. The little Mississippi city remained the chief hope of the Confederates in holding its eastern and western territory together. With Vicksburg last, the Confederacy would be definitely parted.

on June 28, 1862, Farragut, who had arrived with war vessels and a mortar fleet about ten days before, started to run the Vicksburg batteries with twelve ships, covered by the guns of the mortar flotilla. All but three got past with a loss of fifteen killed and thirty wounded. Above the town Farragut found some of the Ellet rams, and on the 1st of July Flag-officer Davis and the river gunboats arrived. The Federal forces of the upper and lower Mississippi had joined hands. But Farragut was convinced that Vicksburg could not be taken without help of the army. Therefore orders on July 20th to return down the river were very welcome. Davis returned to Helena. Vicksburg's danger of Federal capture was reduced to a nullity, for the time being.


The Federal defense of Baton Rouge.

on July 24th the fleet under Farragut and the troops that had occupied the position on the river bank opposite Vicksburg under the command of General Thomas Williams went down the river, Farragut proceeding to New Orleans and Williams once more to Baton Rouge. The latter had withdrawn from his work of cutting the canal in front of Vicksburg, and a few days after his arrival at Baton Rouge the Confederate General Van Dorn sent General J. C. Breckinridge to seize the post. On the morning of August 5, 1862, the Federal forces were attacked. Williams, who had with him only about twenty-five hundred men, soon found that a much larger force was opposed to him, Breckinridge having between five and six thousand men. The brunt of the early morning attack fell upon the Indiana and Michigan troops, who slowly fell back before the fierce rushes of the bravely led men in gray. At once, Williams ordered Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Wisconsin regiments to go to their relief, sending at the same time two sections of artillery to his right wing. The Federal gunboats Katahdin and Kineo opened fire on Breckinridge's lines at a signal from General Williams, who indicated their position. For almost two hours the battle raged fiercely, the firing being at short range and the fighting in some cases hand-to-hand. The twenty-first Indiana regiment having lost all its field officers, General Williams placed himself at its head, exposing himself repeatedly, and refusing all pleadings to go to the rear. As he was bravely leading his men, he was killed almost instantly by a bullet that passed through his chest; and the Federal forces, concentrating, fell back on the outskirts of the town. The Confederates, who had also suffered heavily, fell back also, retreating to their camp. The action was a drawn fight, but in the loss of the brave veteran of the Mexican War who had led them the land forces of the lower Mississippi sustained a severe blow. General Williams' body was sent to New Orleans on an artillery transport which was sunk in collision with the Oneida off Donaldsonville, Louisiana, a few days after the battle. Baton Rouge was abandoned by the Federals on August 20th. Breckinridge had previously retired to Port Hudson.

The Federal defender of Baton Rouge

the artillery transport that was sunk off Donaldsonville, Louisiana, with General Williams' body on board.--August, 1862


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