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  • Writer's pictureMike at SBS

Ellet Rams

Updated: Dec 28, 2021

Admittedly, when I started working on Ironclads all I thought about were the coastal ironclads like USS Monitor and CSS Virginia. Therefore, I saw this project as a small series of dueling ironclads, maybe 10 ships in total. I had barely scratched the surface when I discovered how wrongly I had interpreted the naval battles of the American Civil War.

While the Union "blue water" fleet kept the rebel ports closed, the riverine "brown water" navy fought long and bloody fight for the Mississippi River Valley. It's this fascinating campaign where one will find a multitude of riverboats, gunboats, ironclads, and more.

So after completing the Battle of Hampton Roads, I turned my attention to Memphis 1862.

The Union fleet consisted of a half-dozen large ironclads, nicknamed "Pook's Turtles", based on their flat appearance. These ironclads were reinforced by the US Ram Fleet, a collection of former civilian shallow-draft steamboats converted into military ram ships. The boats were procured by Charles Ellet Jr in 1862 and quickly modified. Ellet recognized the value in ramming when he witnessed a collision of steamboats in the antebellum years. The damage was significant and decisive, sinking one of the victims.

Used as an offensive weapon commonly in ancient times and in Mediterranean galley combat, ramming was fairly uncommon in the age of sail. The ships could rarely pick up enough speed to catch their quarry, so gunnery took over as the primary destructive tool of naval warfare. Ellet realized that steampowered engines changed everything. A steam ship could charge inexorably and directly against a target and hit it with tremendous force.

When the war broke out, Ellet floated (heh) his ram idea across the Navy, which sided with tradition and rejected the concept. Not taking no for an answer, Ellet approached the US Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton who liked the idea and authorized Ellet to form the United States Ram Fleet, and in so doing, created a navy that was not under the command of the actual US Navy.

Ellet procured the civilian boats and heavily modified them with reinforced bow rams, bulkheads to protect against raking fire, and additional protection for the steam machinery. Initially, the boats were not armed as it was thought the added weight would lower the boat's draft and also require more hands to maintain and fire the weapons. Later after Memphis, they would be armed with at least one or two 12-pdr howitzers, which were effective for the close-in fighting the rams were built to get into.

The US Ram Fleet included the following:

  • USS Monarch

  • USS Queen of the West

  • USS Lancaster

  • USS Switzerland

  • USS Samson

  • USS Mingo

  • USS T. D. Horner

  • USS Lioness

  • USS Dick Fulton

The US Ram Fleet joined the Mississippi River Squadron under the nominal command of Rear-Admiral Foote, but maintained a separate chain of command directly to Secretary Stanton (in Washington DC). The result was a somewhat disjointed command and cooperation between the river ironclads and the rams. Nevertheless, the force charged into battle at Memphis on 6 June 1862.

Ellet's rams steamed behind the ironclads, which were moving toward Memphis in reverse to bring their long-ranged rifled guns to bear on the Confederate fleet (a collection of 8 modestly armed ram boats). When the enemy came within range of the ironclads' smoothboores, they spin around and charged forward, armor plating facing the enemy. While they were turning, Ellet's rams overtook the slower boats and charged the rebel rams at full speed. The result was a mess of ram collisions all along the river, with Ellet's rams getting the advantage over their confederate counterparts.

The ironclads entered the melee, firing devastating volleys of heavy artillery, disabling enemy ships and making them targets for the Ellet rams. When the action settled, only one Confederate ram managed to escape, leaving behind seven smashed hulks. A few would be salvaged and put into Union service. None of the Union ships were lost in the battle.

Ellet's rams had been a resounding success, however Ellet himself was badly wounded and would later die of complications with malaria and his injuries. His brother, Lieutenant Colonel Alfred W. Ellet, took command of the unit. The US Ram Fleet would later become the naval component of the Mississippi Marine Brigade (no relation to the USMC) and go on to fight important battles around Vicksburg.

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