Tag Archives: Charles R. Ellet

Confederates Confront the Indianola

February 15, 1863 – The steam ram C.S.S. William H. Webb hurried into action after Confederates learned of the Federal attack on Fort Taylor on the Red River, joining a fleet to confront the U.S.S. Indianola.

Lieutenant Colonel William S. Lovell, commanding the Webb, hurried his vessel into action from Alexandria to take on the enemy, even though his ship was not entirely ready for combat. Lovell learned of the Federal retreat and steamed down the Red River to the Mississippi, stopping there for the night.

Colonel Charles R. Ellet, whose steam ram U.S.S. Queen of the West had been captured by Confederates, struggled up the Mississippi aboard his damaged Confederate prize, the New Era No. 5. Meanwhile, the U.S.S. Indianola under Lieutenant Commander George Brown moved downstream, and the two ships met near Natchez, Mississippi. As Ellet used the Indianola’s coal barges to refuel, the two commanders resolved to destroy the Webb and try taking Fort Taylor again.

The U.S.S. Indianola | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Lovell learned from the prisoners taken from the Queen of the West that another Federal warship was coming downriver to support Ellet. Lovell hoped to destroy the New Era before this new ship arrived. However, he soon found both the New Era and the Indianola coming toward him and pulled back. The Federals pursued the Confederates to the mouth of the Red River, where the Indianola took up blockading duty between Vicksburg and Port Hudson.

Brown kept the Indianola anchored at the mouth of the Red from the 17th to the 21st. During that time, Ellet and the New Era returned to Vicksburg, and Brown learned the Webb was planning to return with support from the captured Queen of the West and two “cotton-clad” vessels.

On the morning of the 22nd, the Indianola continued up the Mississippi, slowed by two coal barges lashed to her sides. A Confederate flotilla led by Major Joseph L. Brent began its pursuit 90 miles from the plantation landing that the Indianola had left from. Brent’s fleet included the Webb, Grand Era, and newly repaired Queen. They picked up the Dr. Beatty on the way. The Grand Era and Beatty were loaded with Confederate infantry to board the enemy ships.

After receiving Ellet’s official report, Acting Rear Admiral David D. Porter informed Navy Secretary Gideon Welles that his plans had been “disarranged by the capture of the Queen of the West.” Porter blamed Ellet, who “foolishly engaged” the batteries at Fort Taylor. Porter complained that Ellet offered no explanation as to why he went up the Red River against orders, and, “Had the commander of the Queen of the West waited patiently, he would, in less than 24 hours, have been joined by the Indianola, which he knew.”

Porter called the Queen’s capture “a loss without any excuse, and if not destroyed by the Indianola she will fall into rebel hands.” He told Welles, “We are sadly in want of a good class of fast ironclad rams on this river,” as the vessels currently operating were “fit for nothing but tow boats.” Until he could get better ships, he would have to depend on the Indianola “alone for carrying out my cherished plan of cutting off supplies from Port Hudson and Vicksburg.”

Porter concluded, “My plans were well laid, only badly executed. I can give orders, but I can not give officers good judgment. Whether the commander (of the Indianola) will have the good sense not to be surprised, remains to be seen. He should return for the present.”

Brent’s Confederate fleet caught up to the Indianola just below Vicksburg on the 24th. Brent waited to attack at night to offset the Indianola’s superior firepower. The Queen tried ramming the Indianola but rammed one of her accompanying coal barges instead. The Queen and the Webb then rammed the Indianola, with the Queen flooding both the Indianola’s starboard engines and the Webb hitting the port wheelhouse. The Queen and the Webb sustained heavy damage, but the Indianola suffered worse.

As the other two Confederate ships neared, Brown ran the Indianola into the west bank and lowered his colors. The “partially sunken vessel” had sustained seven collisions. He allowed the ship to fill with water and directed his men to hurry ashore. Once there, Brown surrendered to Colonel Frederick B. Brand, commanding the Beatty. The Confederates eagerly prepared to raise the Indianola and attach her to their growing fleet.

The Indianola grounded | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

With the loss of his most valuable ship, Porter wrote Welles, “There is no use to conceal the fact, but this has… been the most humiliating affair that has occurred during this rebellion.” Porter decided not to try sending individual vessels past Vicksburg to intercept supplies headed for Port Hudson. Soon the Port Hudson campaign became separate from that of Vicksburg, handled by Major General Nathaniel P. Banks and Admiral David G. Farragut while Major General Ulysses S. Grant and Porter focused solely on Vicksburg.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 15881-90; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 262-63; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 196-99; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 264-66; Jones, Virgil Carrington (Pat), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 607; Korn, Jerry, War on the Mississippi: Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 78; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 321-23; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 159; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: C.B. Richardson, 1866; revised version New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 572-73

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The Queen of the West on the Red

February 12, 1863 – The U.S.S. Queen of the West continued raiding Confederate shipping on the Red River before encountering a Confederate naval squadron.

Col C.R. Ellet | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

The Queen, Colonel Charles R. Ellet’s steam ram, moved up to the Atchafalaya River, a tributary of the Red, accompanied by the U.S.S. De Soto. Ellet spotted a 12-wagon supply train moving along a riverside road and forced it to surrender. The wagons held large quantities of grain and salt pork on their way to collection depots. The Federals burned the wagons, which they learned had come from Simmesport, Louisiana.

Ellet led the Queen and the De Soto to Simmesport, where the Federals found and destroyed 70 barrels of beef. They then pursued another supply train but captured just one of the wagons, filled with ammunition. They burned this wagon as well. The Federals also burned at least three plantations as Confederates fired at them from the riverbanks.

Acting Rear Admiral David D. Porter, commanding the Mississippi River Squadron, dispatched the ironclad U.S.S. Indianola under Lieutenant Commander George Brown to join the Queen on her raid between Vicksburg and Port Hudson. Porter wanted the Indianola to “make matters doubly sure” that the Confederate steam ram C.S.S. William H. Webb would not attack. Porter also ordered Brown to “go to Jeff Davis’s plantation (about 20 miles south of Vicksburg) and his brother Joe’s and load up said steamer with all the cotton you can find and the best single male negroes.”

On the 13th, Ellet took revenge on the Confederate riverbank snipers by burning three more plantation houses and their outbuildings. His Federals also destroyed all public and private property from Simmesport to the mouth of the Atchafalaya River.

Meanwhile, Confederates worked to prepare the C.S.S. William H. Webb and Grand Duke to take on the Queen and De Soto. However, the task proved hard, as Lieutenant Colonel William S. Lovell, commanding the Webb, reported:

“I had the greatest difficulty in getting carpenters to work on the vessels, although I offered them every inducement. I had the same difficulty with negroes. The committee who were building a raft in Red River furnished me with thirty; they lent twenty more, but would not allow them to go on board the Grand Duke, the other vessel being fitted out, she having had a case of smallpox on board some days previous.”

That night, the Indianola headed out with two coal barges to refuel the Federal vessels. The night was dark, and she passed the Vicksburg batteries without the Confederates scoring any hits. The Indianola and the barges anchored about four miles downriver until next morning.

Ellet exceeded orders on the 14th by passing Natchez and heading up the Red River; Porter had directed Ellet to only go to the Red’s mouth. Ellet planned to attack Fort Taylor, a small work about 40 miles upriver. En route, the Federals forced the Confederate ship New Era No. 5 to surrender. This was Ellet’s greatest prize to date, as the ship carried several soldiers and civilians, about 4,500 bushels of corn, and $35,000 in Confederate money.

Ellet sent the prisoners ashore and left the captured ship behind as he forced the Confederate pilot to take the Queen’s helm and navigate farther upriver. The Federals soon approached Fort Taylor’s shore batteries. Ellet ordered the pilot to back out of range, but he instead grounded the Queen on a sandbar near Gordon’s Landing, under direct enemy fire.

A correspondent aboard the Queen reported, “The pilots tried in vain to back her off, but she would not budge an inch. Shot were flying, shells were bursting, and, worse than all, we could not reply. The enemy had our exact range, and every explosion told worth fearful effect.” He continued:

“The air was filled with fragments and exploding shells, which flew before, behind, and all about us. Soon we heard a crash among the machinery below. Word was passed up that the lever which regulates the engines was shot away. Another crash, and we learned the escape-pipe was gone. Still another, and the steam-chest was fractured. The whole boat shook with the rush of the escaping steam which penetrated every nook and cranny. The engine-room was crowded with engineers, firemen, negroes, and prisoners, who had sought that place under the impression that it was the safest. All this time, while we supposed we were blown up, and looked every moment to be launched into eternity, the batteries played upon the unfortunate vessel, and pierced her through and through. Men crowded to the after-part of the vessel.”

The guns rendered the Queen inoperable. Ellet could not destroy the vessel because wounded men were aboard, so he abandoned her. The Federals pushed the cotton bales they had used for armor overboard and floated downriver on them to try getting to the De Soto, about a mile away. The Confederates seized the Queen.

Confederates capture the Queen of the West | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

The De Soto then ran aground and broke her rudder. She floated along the current up to the abandoned New Era No. 5, which the Federals ultimately used to escape. This ended Ellet’s 12-day raid on Confederate shipping between Vicksburg and Port Hudson. Ellet accused the captured Confederate pilot of deliberately sabotaging the Queen.

The Federals struggled to navigate back down the treacherous Red River on a stormy night. By next morning, they had reached the Mississippi, and the Confederates began converting the Queen of the West into a ram of their own.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 260-61; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 195-97; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 263-64; Jones, Virgil Carrington (Pat), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 607; Korn, Jerry, War on the Mississippi: Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 78; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 320; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 158-59; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: C.B. Richardson, 1866; revised version New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 571-72

The Queen of the West on the Mississippi

February 3, 1863 – The U.S.S. Queen of the West continued down the Mississippi River on her mission to stop the flow of Confederate supplies from the Red River between Vicksburg and Port Hudson.

The Queen of the West | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

The day after running the Vicksburg batteries and mortally damaging the C.S.S. City of Vicksburg, the U.S.S. Queen of the West, commanded by 19-year-old Colonel Charles R. Ellet, chugged down to below the mouth of the Red. There she seized the Confederate steamer A.W. Baker, which had just delivered supplies to the Port Hudson garrison about 30 miles south. The Federals captured several Confederate officers and their passengers, including the ladies.

The Queen next captured the steamer Moro, which carried over 100,000 pounds of pork, nearly 500 hogs, and a large quantity of salt. When the Queen turned away to get more coal, Ellet burned nearly 25,000 pounds of cornmeal at a nearby landing. He docked at a plantation and released the civilians from the A.W. Baker as another Confederate steamer approached.

The approaching steamer was the Berwick Bay, carrying about 30,000 pounds of flour, 40 bales of cotton, 10 hogsheads of sugar, and 200 barrels of molasses. After capturing this steamer, Ellet burned all the ships; the property destroyed had an estimated worth of $200,000. Ellet then ran out of coal and docked at Gordon’s Point, about 85 miles up the Red River.

During this time, Major General William T. Sherman visited Ellet and congratulated him on his successful mission. Ellet explained that he planned to have Acting Rear Admiral David D. Porter send a coal barge downstream, past the Vicksburg batteries at night, to refuel the Queen. Ellet claimed the De Soto, captured at Fort Pillow and renamed the General Lyon, could tow the barge, since the De Soto was “very small, tolerably fast, and of little intrinsic value.” Ellet would then send part of his crew to attach the barge to the Queen. Ellet said, “I will only take eight or nine men, and if sunk, we can all escape in a boat.”

Sherman encouraged Ellet to share the plan with Porter. Ellet told Porter, “The De Soto is worth nothing anyhow, and the importance of getting coal at once to the Queen justifies, I think, the risk.” Porter replied, “You can do as you like about the De Soto, though I fear a failure.”

On the night of the 6th, Porter sent the De Soto and a barge filled with 20,000 bushels of coal down the Mississippi undetected by the Confederates manning the Vicksburg batteries. Porter notified Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, “This gives the ram (Queen of the West) nearly coal enough to last a month, in which time she can commit great havoc, if no accident happens to her.”

The De Soto and the coal barge made it past the Vicksburg batteries and reached Ellet on the 7th. Porter directed Ellet to take the Queen and the De Soto to a point just north of the Red River’s mouth to “destroy all small boats… met with on the river; also wharf boats and barges.”

Porter wrote, “When you capture them, do not burn them until you have broken all the machinery, then let go the anchors and let them burn, under your own eye, at their anchors. There will be no danger then of any part of them floating down to the enemy.”

Porter also warned Ellet that a formidable Confederate steam ram named the C.S.S. William H. Webb may be nearby: “If you get the first crack at her, you will sink her, and if she gets the first crack at you she will sink you.” If boarded by Confederates, “do not open any doors or ports to board in return, but act on the defensive, giving the enemy steam and shell. Do not forget to wet your cotton before going into action.”

The De Soto, which Porter and Ellet considered expendable, was not to fall into enemy hands. If it appeared that she might, Ellet was to “destroy her at once.” But since she was a “government vessel,” Porter stated that she “should be brought back if possible.” Porter also directed Ellet to observe Port Hudson from a safe distance.

On the night of the 10th, the Queen and the De Soto steamed past the batteries at Warrenton, Mississippi, undetected and destroyed Confederate skiffs and flatboats on the banks of both the Mississippi and the Red rivers. Meanwhile, Porter worked to alleviate his chronic coal shortage by writing the Federal commander at Cairo, Illinois:

“As circumstances occur I have to change the quantity of coal required here… I want a stock of 160,000 bushels sent to the Yazoo River, besides the monthly allowance already required, viz, 70,000 bushels here, 40,000 at White River, and 20,000 at Memphis… You will also have the Abraham filled up with three months’ provisions and stores for the squadron, or as much as she can carry, and keep her ready at all times… to move at a moment’s notice to such point as I may designate.”

Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton, commanding the Confederate Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana, could not figure out the Queen’s intentions. He wrote, “Unless the enemy designs landing below Vicksburg and a protracted investment, I can see no purpose in his arrangements.”

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 259-60; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 195-96; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 263; Jones, Virgil Carrington (Pat), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 607; Korn, Jerry, War on the Mississippi: Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 77-78; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 318-19; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 158

Naval Operations Between Vicksburg and Port Hudson

February 2, 1863 – Acting Rear Admiral David D. Porter directed Federal naval forces to stop the flow of supplies on the Red River in the continuing Federal effort to capture both Vicksburg and Port Hudson.

Porter, commanding the Mississippi River Squadron, selected Colonel Charles R. Ellet to head this mission. Ellet was the 19-year-old son of Charles Ellet, who had created the fleet of Federal rams on the Mississippi. Porter explained to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles why he chose the young Ellet to lead:

“I can not speak too highly of this gallant and daring officer. The only trouble I have is to hold him in and keep him out of danger. He will undertake anything I wish him to without asking questions, and these are the kind of men I like to command.”

Col C.R. Ellet | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Ellet was to command the U.S.S. Queen of the West, a sidewheel ram once commanded by his father, who died in the attack on Memphis last June. The vessel had undergone extensive repairs after sustaining heavy damage from the Confederate ironclad C.S.S. Arkansas. A New York Tribune correspondent reported that the Queen had a “most dismantled and forlorn appearance.”

Porter directed Ellet to take the Queen downriver and attack the C.S.S. City of Vicksburg. Hoping to avenge the Federal naval defeat at Galveston last month, Porter instructed:

“It will not be part of your duty to save the lives of those on board; they must look out for themselves, and may think themselves lucky if they do not meet the same fate meted out to the Harriet Lane. Then think of the fate of that vessel while performing your duty, and shout ‘Harriet Lane’ into the ears of the rebels. If you can fire turpentine balls from your bow field pieces into the light upper works, it will make a fine finish to the sinking part.”

Ellet was then to “proceed down as low as Red River to capture and destroy all the rebel property she may meet with.” Porter would reinforce Ellet in forcing the enemy “to evacuate its other points on the river for want of supplies and transportation.” The Queen was to serve as a sort of blockading vessel, disrupting the flow of supplies from the Red River between Vicksburg and Port Hudson.

Early on the 2nd, Ellet loaded the Queen’s decks with cotton to absorb enemy fire and covered the paddle wheels with protective planks. Although the work took longer than expected and the Queen would be visible in the daylight, Ellet proceeded anyway. The vessel steamed into Confederate gun range and sustained three hits before reaching the City of Vicksburg. Ellet reported:

“Her position was such that if we had run obliquely into her as we came down, the bow of the Queen would inevitably have glanced. We were compelled to partially round to in order to strike. The consequence was that at the very moment of collision the current, very strong and rapid at this point, caught the stern of my boat, and, acting on her bow as a pivot, swung her around so rapidly that nearly all momentum was lost.”

The Federals set the City of Vicksburg on fire with the turpentine balls, but the Confederates quickly put out the flames. They responded by firing into the Queen and setting her cotton bales on fire, which forced Ellet to stop his ramming efforts and move downriver, out of enemy gun range, to push the bales overboard.

The Queen took 12 hits but did not sustain any substantial damage before continuing to the Red River. The City of Vicksburg suffered too much damage to be salvaged, and Confederates later sunk her.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 259; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 195; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 260-61; Jones, Virgil Carrington (Pat), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 607; Korn, Jerry, War on the Mississippi: Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 77; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 318; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 158

The Fall of Memphis

June 6, 1862 – 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 Ellet (featuring the U.S.S. Queen of the West and Monarch). Bearing 68 total guns, the fleet pulled out of Island No. 45, two miles north of Memphis, at 4:20 a.m. to take the city.

At 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 approach 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 last 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.

The Battle of Memphis | Image Credit: Flickr.com

The Battle of Memphis | Image Credit: Flickr.com

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 overlooking the fight. 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 ramming 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 the Van Dorn’s damage was so extensive that Confederates later scuttled her.

By 7:30 a.m., the entire Confederate Defense Fleet had been 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 returned to their homes in tears after seeing their River Defense Fleet annihilated. 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 incensed crowd, and accepted the surrender of Memphis at 11 a.m. An angry 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 stronghold of Vicksburg, Mississippi. This would be the next target, as Davis began planning to move his fleet downriver and Flag Officer David G. Farragut’s fleet tried coming upriver from New Orleans.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com (6 Jun 1862); Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 612, 635; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 180-81; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 388; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 163-64; Grant, Ulysses S., Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (New York: Da Capo Press, 1982 [original 1885, republication of 1952 edition]), p. 198-99; Jones, Virgil Carrington (Pat), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 607; Korn, Jerry, War on the Mississippi: Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 20; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 221-23; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 417-18; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 88-89; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 428-29; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 156-57, 486-87

The Fall of Fort Pillow

June 5, 1862 – Confederates abandoned an important garrison on the Mississippi River, opening a path for Federal naval forces to move downstream and threaten Memphis, Tennessee.

General P.G.T. Beauregard’s withdrawal from Corinth, Mississippi, doomed many Confederates stationed on the Mississippi west of that town. First in line from north to south were the 3,600 men at Fort Pillow, Tennessee. These troops had been under bombardment from the Federal Western Flotilla since April 13. But with Corinth abandoned, their supply line on the Memphis & Charleston Railroad was lost, leaving them isolated and vulnerable.

Fort Pillow | Image Credit: FortWiki.com

Fort Pillow | Image Credit: FortWiki.com

General John B. Villepigue, commanding at Fort Pillow, received orders from Beauregard to “immediately evacuate Fort Pillow for Grenada (150 miles south in Mississippi) by the best and shortest route. Whenever you shall be about to abandon the fort you will telegraph the commanding officer at Memphis to burn all the cotton, sugar, &c, in the vicinity of that city.” The troops were to leave behind anything they could not carry; “arms will be furnished you from the depot at Columbus, Miss., should there be any there.”

Despite protests from Memphis residents and Brigadier General M. Jeff Thompson, Villepigue’s Confederates began withdrawing from Fort Pillow and arriving at Memphis on June 3. It was a foregone conclusion among many that without the fort’s protection, Memphis would soon fall. The last of the troops and ammunition were taken by steamer to Vicksburg; the ship fired off one last shot at the Federal vessels before abandoning Fort Pillow. Villepigue reported:

“First we set fire to the quartermaster’s stores; next, the commissary, and then every ‘shanty’ on the ‘hill.’ We blew up all the guns, except two which would not burst. It was a terrific sight–the rain pouring down, the thunder rolling midst the lightning flashes, while the Yankees were pouring a stream of fire, making the sight sublime, though terrible.”

The Federal commanders, Commodore Charles H. Davis leading the gunboats and Colonel Charles R. Ellet leading the rams, had planned to attack Fort Pillow on the 4th, unaware it had been abandoned earlier that morning. Colonel Graham Fitch, commanding 1,000 Federal infantry slated to land and attack, wanted to launch his assault on this day, “but a foolish movement of Colonel Ellet prevented it in a way that could not be foreseen.” So it was scheduled to take place tomorrow.

That afternoon, massive explosions could be heard from the fort, and that night the Federals could see intense fires burning. The fires revealed that the Confederates were gone. Fort Randolph, about 12 miles below Fort Pillow, was abandoned by that evening. Confederates had held firm against Federal bombardment for nearly two months before withdrawing.

Fitch called off his assault and prepared to land and take the works the next day. Federal troops went ashore on the 5th and confirmed Fort Pillow was empty. Ellet came ashore and raised the U.S. flag over the fort. Davis did not acknowledge this in his report due to the heated rivalry between his gunboats and Ellet’s rams within the fleet.

The explosions from yesterday had been casemates and magazines “blown to atoms.” Fitch reported that the Confederates “had destroyed or carried away nearly all the property of the fort; the gun-carriages were burned and burning, and many of the guns that could not be removed were burst.” He did not consider the works valuable enough to occupy, so he left a company behind while Davis left a gunboat, and both men began planning to take Memphis.

The fall of Fort Pillow exposed Memphis as a virtually defenseless city, ripe for Federal conquest. The inadequate Confederate River Defense Fleet on the Mississippi under Captain James E. Montgomery and Thompson’s small force at Memphis were now all that stood between the powerful Federal Western Flotilla and the vital river city. News of the Confederate withdrawal panicked cotton planters along the Mississippi, and they began burning their crops to prevent them from falling into Federal hands.

Davis pledged to advance on the city “with the least possible delay.” The two Federal naval commands began moving down the Mississippi toward Memphis, 40 miles away. Davis commanded the ironclads and mortar boats, and even though they were manned by naval personnel, Davis reported to Major General Henry W. Halleck. Colonel Ellet commanded the rams and reported to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, with army soldiers comprising his crews. The fleet also escorted transports for Fitch’s troops.

The Federals chased down a Confederate transport steamer, capturing her before the crew could burn her. The ships spent the night assembling north of Memphis, preparing to attack the next day.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 13298; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 180; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 162; Korn, Jerry, War on the Mississippi: Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 20; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 221-22; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 417; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 87; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 486