Aug 27

Spotlight on Civil War Engineers

Friday, August 27, 2010 9:22 AM

Charles Ellet, Jr.

Charles Ellet, Jr. gained early fame as a civil engineer and designer of suspension bridges in West Virginia and Pennsylvania. The Navy Department initially mocked the frail engineer for his design of an unarmed steam vessel used for breaking blockades in the 1850s. Determined, Ellet went so far as to submit plans to Imperial Russia during the Crimean War. Seeing the success of the CSS Virginia’s ramming blows at Hampton Roads, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton grew convinced and offered Ellet a commission as an Army Colonel and money to construct the United States Ram Fleet for operations on the Mississippi River in coordination with the Western Gunboat Flotilla. Each steam-powered ram was braced with iron bars along the bow, creating a powerful and centralized force utilizing the weight of the vessel and flow of the fast-moving Mississippi River. His design quickly proved adequate at the June 1862 Battle of Memphis, where Ellet’s Ram Fleet decimated the Confederate River Defense Fleet. Fortune did not smile for Ellet, however, as he died two weeks later from a leg wound received during the melee.

James Eads

Indiana native James Eads made a name for himself in St. Louis, Missouri as a civil engineer, boat builder, and salvager. At the beginning of the war, the government contracted him to quickly construct seven shallow-draft gunboats for riverine warfare. These ships, with flat-bottoms, wide-beams, and 2.5 inch armor plating, became known as the “City” class ironclads. City class ships were a revolution in design, as the casemates constructed by naval constructor Samuel Pook helped earn their nickname “Pook’s Turtles.” These ships became some of the more famous Union ships during the war, including the St. Louis, Carondelet, and Cairo, which was sunk by a naval mine during the first attempt to take Vicksburg, Mississippi in 1862. Eads would earn greater fame after the war for his construction of the Mississippi River bridge, also known as the Eads Bridge, in St. Louis. Eads held more than fifty patents at the time of his death in 1887.

For more information on Charles Ellet, Jr. and his rams, please go here.

For more information on James Eads, please go here.

 
 
 
  • Jim Valle

    It’s interesting that the Navy turned to “civilian” engineers to build unconventional craft dedicated to new and unusual challenges posed by the Civil War like riverine warfare. Its own “in house” engineers like Alban Stimers and Benjamin Franklin Isherwood concentrated on more orthodox warships and feuding with each other over the best way to design steam engines. In the end, Ishewood’s theories about how to time valve events and employ “strong steam” prevailed over Stimers resulting in the steam frigate USS Wampanoag, the fastest warship in the World circa 1866.