Oct 27

Battle Report: Ramming Speed

Tuesday, October 27, 2015 10:22 AM

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In the foreground the Union ram Monarch crashes into the General Beauregard during the confusing, lopsided Battle of Memphis.

In the foreground the Union ram Monarch crashes into the General Beauregard during the confusing, lopsided Battle of Memphis.

 

During the Civil War, the idea of Army and Navy forces operating jointly under a single commander was virtually unheard of. But an operation’s lack of “jointness” did not always spell defeat. In fact, the result could be spectacular victory. Such was the case on 6 June 1862 when Union Army and Navy forces afloat operated independently of each other at the only pure naval battle on the Mississippi. What follows is the Battle of Memphis report of Colonel Charles Ellet Jr., commander of the Army’s Ram Fleet, to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.1

 

I left the shore at daybreak on the morning of the 6th, keeping four of my strongest steamers in the advance prepared for any emergency. On approaching Memphis I found the gunboats under Commodore Davis anchored across the channel.2 I accordingly rounded to with the Queen of the West, my flagship, and made fast on the Arkansas side, with the intention of conferring with Commodore Davis and collecting information preparatory to the next movement. But my flagship had been just a few minutes secured to the bank before a shot, which seemed to pass over her, announced the presence of the enemy.

I immediately ordered the lines to be cast off, signified to Lieutenant-Colonel Ellet on the Monarch, whose place was next in order, to follow, hoisted the flag, which was the signal I had prescribed for going into action, rounded to with head downstream, and passing between the gunboats, which were then returning the enemy’s fire with considerable vivacity, bore down upon the enemy, expecting to be followed by the Monarch, the Lancaster, and the Switzerland in order.3 I found the rebel gunboats, all of which were rams armed with guns, heading boldly up stream toward our fleet, while the levee at Memphis was crowded with spectators.4

I directed my attack upon two rebel rams which were about the middle of the river, very close together, and supported by a third, a little in their rear and a little nearer to the Memphis shore. These two rams held their way so steadily, pointing their stems directly upon the stem of the Queen, that it was impossible for me to direct the pilots, between whom I had taken my stand, upon which to direct our shock; but as the distance between us and the enemy, short at first, became dangerously small, the two rebel boats, apparently quailing before the approaching collision, began first to back water and then to turn, thus presenting their broadsides to my attack.

It was impossible to choose between these boats which to attack, for there was still a third ram within supporting distance to which I would be exposed if I struck the second, while the second would be sure to reach me if I selected the first. My speed was high, time was short, and the forward vessel presented rather the fairer mark. I selected her.5 The pilots, now animated by the deep interest of the scene, brought the prepared bow of the Queen of the West against the broadside of the rebel ram just forward of the wheelhouse. The crash was terrific; everything loose about the Queen, some tables, pantryware, and a half-eaten breakfast, were overthrown and broken by the shock.

In order to convert side- and stern-wheel steamers into rams, prewar civil engineer Charles Ellet Jr. had their hulls reinforced and bows filled with timbers. Initially the vessels (above) were unarmed. (Harper’s Weekly)

In order to convert side- and stern-wheel steamers into rams, prewar civil engineer Charles Ellet Jr. had their hulls reinforced and bows filled with timbers. Initially the vessels (above) were unarmed. (Harper’s Weekly)

The hull of the rebel steamer was crushed in, [and] her chimneys surged over as if they were going to fall over on the bow of the Queen. Many of her crew, I have been told, leaped overboard, yet the rebel wreck, in consequence of the continued motion of the Queen, still clung to her bow. Before the collision the rebel made a feeble effort to use her guns, and succeeded in firing a charge of grape and canister, which was lost in the water.

In less than half a minute from the moment of collision, and before the Queen could clear herself from the wreck, she was herself struck by another rebel steamer on her larboard wheelhouse.6 This blow broke her tiller rope, crushed in her wheel and a portion of her hull, and left her nearly helpless. All this, from the time of leaving the shore and passing the gunboats to the sinking of the rebel gunboat and the disabling of the flagship, I do not think occupied over seven or eight minutes.

The moment the Queen was herself struck I left the pilot house and went out on deck, when I was instantly disabled by one of a number of shots from a rebel steamer which seemed to have come into accidental collision with the Queen, and was at that moment drifting by her but still in contact with her. From the moment of the collision of the Queen with the rebel steamer to the time when I was brought to her deck could not have exceeded one minute, yet I saw from the deck the surface of the Mississippi strewn with the fragments of the sunken vessel.

While these things were occurring, the Monarch, Lieutenant-Colonel Ellet commanding, and Captain Dryden, master, having followed the Queen and passed below our own gunboats, directed her shock (extreme) upon the rebel ram immediately following the one that struck the Queen, and sank her.7 The blow of the Monarch was so severe that piles of furniture were precipitated from the rebel steamer upon the forecastle of the Monarch, and were found there in large quantities after the action.

Many versions differing from each other entirely have been given by eyewitnesses of these occurrences, who stood in plain view on the levee at Memphis, in our own gunboats, and on the Arkansas shore. These discrepancies are attributed to the fact that there were three rebel rams and but two of our own mingled together and crashing against each other, and two other rebel steamers coming up and close at hand. In this confusion the different boats were mistaken for others, and the steamer struck by the Queen disappeared from view beneath the surface of the river.8 . . .

After being disabled the Queen worked herself to the Arkansas shore with only one wheel and without a rudder. The disabled rebel which had come in collision with the Queen worked herself into shore near the same place and I sent a portion of the crew of the Queen at their own solicitation to take the rebel and secure her crew as prisoners.9 Our hope at first was to save this rebel gunboat, which is represented to be a very fire vessel, but she soon settled; but though Commodore Davis has sent a force to raise her, success, I understand, is regarded as doubtful.

 

When the battle’s smoke cleared, only one Rebel vessel had escaped. Colonel Ellet’s charge had been the turning point of what historian Spencer Tucker termed “perhaps the most lopsided Union naval victory of the war.”10 Ellet, however, did not have long to enjoy the triumph. On 21 June, he died of blood poisoning resulting from the bullet wound he had received during the fight.

 

  1. Colonel Charles Ellet Jr. to E. M. Stanton, Secretary of War, 11 June 1862, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion (ORN), ser. 1, vol. 23 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1910), 132–34.
  2. These vessels, part of Navy Flag Officer Charles H. Davis’ Western Flotilla, included formidable City-class ironclads.
  3. Lieutenant-Colonel Alfred W. Ellet was Colonel Ellet’s younger brother. The rams Lancaster and Switzerland would not participate in the battle. The former mistakenly backed ashore and disabled her rudder, and the commander of the latter strictly followed his orders to stay a half mile behind the Lancaster. The Ram Fleet’s other steamers were busy towing barges. Colonel Charles Ellet Jr. to E. M. Stanton, 8 June 1862, ORN, ser. 1, vol. 23, 129.
  4. The Confederate force consisted of the eight gunboat-rams of the River Defense Fleet.
  5. This was the Colonel Lovell. Chester G. Hearn, Ellet’s Brigade (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000), 34.
  6. The General Beauregard rammed the Queen of the West. Ibid.
  7. The Monarch collided with the General Price. Ibid., 35.
  8. Colonel Ellet could have counted himself among the mistaken eyewitnesses. See below.
  9. The disabled Confederate vessel was actually the General Price. Instead of sinking her, the Monarch had sheared off her starboard wheel. Alfred W. Ellet, “Ellet and His Steam-Rams at Memphis,” Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, vol. 1, (New York, The Century Company, 1887), 456–57.
  10. Spencer C. Tucker, “First Battle of Memphis,” in Spencer C. Tucker, ed., The Civil War Naval Encyclopedia, vol. 1, 390.

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