After capturing Fort Pillow, the Federal Western Flotilla immediately targeted Memphis, the Confederacy’s fifth largest city, further down the Mississippi River. The flotilla consisted of five ironclad gunboats led by Flag Officer Charles H. Davis (the U.S.S. Cairo, Carondelet, Louisville, St. Louis, and Davis’s flagship the U.S.S. Benton), and four rams led by Colonel Charles R. Ellet (featuring the U.S.S. Queen of the West and Monarch). Bearing 68 total guns, the fleet pulled out of Island Number 45, two miles north of Memphis, at 4:20 a.m. on June 6 to take the city.
Memphis residents held a mass meeting to gather support for the city’s defenses, which were very weak. Most Confederate troops had already abandoned the city, but the eight “cotton-clad” steamers of the Confederate River Defense Fleet remained. Bearing 28 guns, they were jointly commanded by Commodore James E. Montgomery and Brigadier General M. Jeff Thompson.
When a picket boat notified Montgomery of the Federal advance, he opted to move his fleet up the Mississippi to preemptively attack the enemy vessels before they could get to Memphis. Thompson’s army troops boarded the steamers to man the guns and lend small arms support.
Montgomery invited Memphis residents to “come down at sunrise” to watch him “sink the Yankee fleet.” He proclaimed, “I have come here that you may see Lincoln’s gunboats sent to the bottom by the fleet which you have built and manned.” Thousands of people answered his call, gathering on the bluffs overlooking the river to watch the action. They hoped to see a repeat of the Battle of Plum Run Bend the previous month, but an important change since then was that the Federals now had rams.
As a precaution, the Confederates sent one of their ironclads under construction at Memphis, the C.S.S. Arkansas, down the Mississippi to the Yazoo River. Another ironclad, the C.S.S. Tennessee, was destroyed to avoid capture.
Davis spotted the Confederate steamers approaching and ordered his flotilla to advance and meet them. Separated by two miles, the fleets formed battle lines on the water and began firing at each other in front of Memphis at around 5:40 a.m. The exchange lasted about 15 minutes until Ellet, heading the Queen of the West, shouted to his brother Alfred, commanding the Monarch, “Round out and follow me! Now is our chance!” The two rams steamed through the line of five ironclads at 13 knots to engage the Confederates.
A wild fight ensued in which ships fired and rammed from all directions. The Queen slammed into the C.S.S. Colonel Lovell and nearly cut her in two; the collision’s vibration could be felt by the spectators on the bluffs. The Lovell quickly sank, killing 68 of the 86 men on board.
The Queen was then disabled by the C.S.S. General Beauregard. The Beauregard and the C.S.S. General Price then tried to run into the Monarch, but the faster Federal ram slipped between them and they collided with each other, knocking off the Price’s wheel. The Monarch then rammed the Beauregard and sent her limping to the Arkansas shore.
The Federal gunboats then joined the fray, exploding the Beauregard’s boilers with a shot. The Monarch grounded Montgomery’s flagship, the C.S.S. Little Rebel, and the gunboats fired on her until Montgomery and his crew abandoned ship on the Arkansas shore. They fled into the woods.
The five remaining Confederate vessels then turned and tried to escape in what became a running, 10-mile fight. As the ships drew closer to each other, the troops on board exchanged small arms fire. Nobody was hit except for Ellet aboard the Queen; he was shot through the kneecap.
The gunboats bombarded the C.S.S. Sumter and General Bragg until they both ran aground. The Benton pounded the C.S.S. General Thompson with artillery fire until she exploded. The Beauregard, disabled from earlier fighting, drifted downriver and sank. Only the C.S.S. General Van Dorn was fast enough to get away, making it to the Yazoo River ahead of her pursuers. But damage to the Van Dorn was so extensive that she was later scuttled.
By 7:30 a.m., the entire Confederate Defense Fleet had been virtually destroyed, as the converted steamboats proved no match for the powerful Federal ironclads and rams. The Federals took over 70 prisoners, as well as several transports and other vessels under construction on the Memphis docks. Four of the eight Confederate ships were later repaired and added to the Federal fleet.
Although Davis had a tense rivalry with Ellet and his rams, he credited the victory to Ellet’s “bold and successful attack on the enemy rams” and called him “conspicuous for his gallantry.” In what became the war’s last “fleet action” on the rivers, Ellet was the only Federal casualty. His leg wound was considered superficial, but he died of blood poisoning 12 days later. His brother Alfred replaced him as commander of the Ellet-class ram fleet.
Spectators on the bluffs were dejected after seeing their River Defense Fleet annihilated, with some openly weeping. Thompson, watching the action from the shore, called it “one of the grandest, yet saddest scenes of my life.” He reported that “the enemy’s rams did most of the execution and were handled more adroitly than ours.” Thompson rode off with his remaining army troops to avoid capture. He later disbanded the fleet and reassigned the survivors to other posts.
The mayor of Memphis, who had also watched the destruction, raised a white flag. Charles Ellet’s son, Lieutenant Charles R. Ellet, and two others went ashore, walked through the angry and heartbroken crowd, and accepted the surrender of Memphis at 11 a.m. An enraged mob surrounded them as they hauled down the Confederate flag from City Hall and raised the U.S. flag over the post office, but they came away unharmed.
Two infantry regiments arrived later on the 6th to formally occupy the city. The next day, Federal forces toured Memphis, particularly the saloons and brothels below the bluffs along the river. Residents deeply resented the new military occupation. The owner and staff of the Memphis Appeal, one of Tennessee’s most influential papers, refused to surrender. They escaped the city with their printing press and resumed publication from Grenada, Mississippi. One of its editorials declared that the owner would rather dump the equipment into the Mississippi “than continue publication under Union occupation.”
The loss of Memphis was a devastating blow to the Confederacy. The city became a supply base for the Federal armies moving into the Deep South. It not only had facilities to receive supplies from the river, but it had a railhead on the important Memphis & Charleston Railroad as well. The Federals now controlled the Mobile & Ohio Railroad from Columbus, Kentucky, to Corinth, Mississippi; Forts Henry and Donelson, Nashville, Clarksville, and all points on the Tennessee River up to Eastport, Mississippi.
Federals also controlled the entire Mississippi River except for the powerful Confederate strongholds at Vicksburg, Mississippi, and Port Hudson, Louisiana. Vicksburg would be the next target, as Davis began planning to move his fleet downriver and Flag Officer David G. Farragut’s fleet would try to come upriver from New Orleans.
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