The Union Ram Fleet and the Mississippi Marine Brigade

The Union Ram Fleet and the Mississippi Marine Brigade

In March 1862, the US Army authorised the noted civil engineer Charles Rivers Ellet to establish a flotilla of steam –powered ram ships for employment on the Western Rivers. Ellet converted several powerful river towboats, heavily reinforcing their hulls for ramming. These ships had light protection for their boilers, engines and upper works and the upper works were protected with wood and cotton bales. They were not originally equipped with artillery, but later most were fitted with guns. With the rank of colonel, Ellet led his force in action during the Battle of Memphis on June 6, 1862, where rams played an important role in the Union victory against the Confederate River Defence Fleet. However, Colonel Ellet died several days later of a wound received at that action.

The Ram Fleet included the following ships at different times: Lancaster, Monarch, Queen of the West, Switzerland, Lioness, Mingo, Samson, Fulton, T D Horner

After the death of Colonel Charles Rivers Ellet at Memphis in 1862, his younger brother Alfred Washington Ellet took command of the US Ram Fleet. The US Ram Fleet was reorganised and renamed the Mississippi Marine Brigade in early 1863.

By the summer of 1862, Confederate guerrillas regularly harassed Union shipping and soldiers along the Mississippi and its tributaries. To counter the threat, Commander David Dixon Porter and Colonel Alfred Ellet proposed forming a special unit of soldiers to protect the Mississippi Valley from such bushwhackers. The War Department approved the idea and created the Mississippi Marine Brigade, with Ellet commanding as a Brigadier-General of US Volunteers

The brigade was formally mustered into service in November 1862, composed of the 1st Battalion Mississippi Marine Brigade Infantry, the 1st Battalion Mississippi Marine Brigade Cavalry, and Walling’s Light Artillery Battery. The first two units were raised in Missouri, while the artillery battery was organized in Ellet’s home state of Pennsylvania. Like the Ellet ram fleet, which would be used to transport the brigade along the river systems, the Mississippi Marine Brigade answered only to Secretary Stanton. In fact, there even was confusion as to which branch of service it belonged. The Army’s judge advocate general declared the brigade was a “special contingent of the Army and not the Navy,” but Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, who commanded the Mississippi Valley, wrote that the officers and men of the Marine Brigade “are not subject to my orders.

The Marine Brigade first saw action when it accompanied Gen. William T. Sherman in December 1862 down the Mississippi River to attack Vicksburg’s defences at Chickasaw Bluffs. Sherman’s advance up the Yazoo River was hampered by Confederates mines, one of which sank the ironclad Cairo. To clear the way, Ellet placed a large rake that protruded 45 feet from the bow of one of his rams and used it to break the cables holding the torpedoes to the bottom. When the torpedoes popped to the surface, his men were able to detonate them safely. Ellet’s ingenious idea was for naught, however, because the Confederates repulsed Sherman when he attacked the bluffs.

Over the next several months, the Mississippi Marine Brigade participated in several operations along the river. In March 1863, 200 Confederate guerrillas from Missouri attacked a fortification in Tensas Parish, La., that was manned by 400 marines. After being driven back to their boats, Ellet’s men tried for several days to drive off the enemy, but the Confederates finally withdrew on their own after capturing supplies and a number of wagons. The marines remained in the area through April but spent most of their time raiding nearby plantations for cotton rather than fighting rebels.

One of the more controversial members of the Marine Brigade was Charles Rivers Ellet, the 19-year-old son of Charles and nephew of Alfred. Young Charles commanded the Ellet ram Queen of the West and ran it past Vicksburg in February 1863 to make a raid up the Red River. When Confederates fired on his ship from the riverbank and mortally wounded one man, Ellet exacted revenge by burning plantations in the area. A reporter from the Chicago Tribune was onboard the Queen of the West and wrote how one Southern girl stood her ground and berated Ellet and the other Yankees as flames leapt up around her. “When she discovered that her abuse failed to move Colonel Ellet, just as the flames began to curl around the housetop, like a brave and gallant girl, as she was, she sang, in a ringing, defiant tone, the ‘Bonnie Blue Flag,’ until forest and river echoed and re-echoed with sweet melody.

Charles managed to capture four Confederate ships on his Red River expedition, but the Queen of the West finally ran aground and was captured by the South. Ellet escaped by floating downstream on a cotton bale.

Just weeks later, Rear Admiral David Farragut requested the use of two of the Ellet rams to assist him in operations below Vicksburg. Porter was away, so Colonel Ellet took advantage of his independent status and allowed Charles to take the vessels past Vicksburg during the daylight hours. Confederate batteries on the bluffs sank one of the ships and badly damaged the other. When Porter returned and learned of the fiasco, he furiously demanded of Alfred Ellet, “Will you please inform me by what authority you sent the rams … past the batteries at Vicksburg, in open day, and without taking any precautions to guard their hulls?” Ellet took full responsibility for the foolhardy mission, and Farragut was apologetic to Porter. Ellet continued in command of the damaged ram and remained with Farragut for operations against Port Hudson, Louisiana. Porter, however, warned Farragut to keep a close eye on the teenager or “he will go off on a cruise somewhere before you know it, and then get the ship into trouble.” Charles Rivers Ellet’s loss of the Queen of the West and a second ram within a matter of weeks did not endear the Mississippi Marine Brigade to the Navy.

The Marine Brigade participated in several operations associated with the 1863 Vicksburg Campaign, including the attack on Fort Hindman, Ark.; the Yazoo Pass Expedition; and the Battle of Port Gibson, Miss.

During that time, another controversial incident occurred in May when Confederate cavalry in Austin, Miss., fired on some of the brigade’s boats on the Mississippi. A few days later, Ellet landed his men near the town and began skirmishing with the rebels. Losses were light on both sides, but Ellet managed to drive the enemy from Austin. Ellet suspected the Confederates had stockpiled arms and ammunition in the town, but a search turned up nothing. When the residents failed to provide him useful information, Ellet decided to make an example of Austin for harbouring the rebels.

In his after-action report, he wrote, “I burned the town of Austin, having first searched every building…. As the fire progressed, the discharge of loaded fire arms was like volleys of musketry as the fire reached their hiding places, and two heavy explosions of powder also occurred.” One of the marines wrote, “Ellet sent the torchbearers ahead to burn the school, where books still lay open, and where problems in arithmetic, scratched upon blackboards, still waited to be solved. As the boats shoved off from the smouldering town, the academy burst into flames, belching smoke from every door and window.” One of Ellet’s own officers condemned the burning and claimed he never forgot “the sad scene of women and children left alone with their burning houses slowly eating away all hope.”

Within weeks the Mississippi Marine Brigade was involved in the burning of another town. In June 1863, the unit participated in a raid on Richmond, La., the seat of government for Madison Parish. A small detachment of Confederates contested the Yankees’ advance just outside town, but it was quickly brushed aside. The Union retaliated for the skirmish by burning down the town.

After the capture of Vicksburg, the Marine Brigade stayed busy in northeast Louisiana protecting leased plantations from marauding Confederate cavalry and guerrillas. Among the rebels they frequently encountered were two companies of the famous Confederate bushwhacker William Quantrill’s command that were sent to the area after being driven out of Missouri.

The brigade’s burning of private homes and towns earned it the undying hatred of Confederate soldiers and civilians. One marine wrote, “the Rebels swear vengeance on this Brigade, they hate us more than any other Regt. out, for they know well that we are determined to keep the Mississippi River open.

The rebels were not the only ones who held the Marine Brigade in low regard. David Porter had little respect for any of the Ellets, and the feeling was mutual. Porter claimed that the brigade’s “robberies and house burning are shameful.” He also had a personal grudge against the Ellets. He accused them of being “guilty of some very dirty, underhand[ed] work toward myself … were guilty of gross falsehoods in making malicious statements, and lied deliberately after making them.

Porter requested that the brigade be transferred to serve under General Grant, but Grant was not keen on that idea. Instead, Grant wanted to break up the brigade by converting the rams to transport vessels and reassigning the officers and men. The only problem was that no one could find the Mississippi Marine Brigade. The assistant secretary of the Navy, Gustavus Fox, wrote to Porter that “Stanton will transfer them if you will only tell us where they are.” Porter replied that he would find them but informed Fox that the Marine Brigade had been “the most expensive affair, for the little done, ever got up in the country.” “If it should be permitted to operate independently,” he said, “the Navy would bear all the odium of its doings.” The brigade was finally located, but it was allowed to remain intact and joined Porter and Major-General Nathaniel Prentiss Banks for the 1864 Red River Campaign.

The Marine Brigade lived up to its lawless reputation that year when it burned, looted and vandalized homes from the mouth of the Red River all the way to Alexandria, La. Banks and Porter could do nothing to rein in the unit because technically it was under neither officer’s command. The two were greatly relieved when they received word that the Marine Brigade was needed to patrol the Mississippi River because most of the region’s naval vessels were with Porter on the Red River. The brigade departed Alexandria on March 27 and destroyed every village and settlement along the Red River from there to the Mississippi.

About two months later, on June 6, 1864, the brigade participated in the last major Civil War battle fought in Arkansas. Confederate cavalry and artillery under Col. Colton Greene had been inflicting serious damage on Union shipping on the Mississippi River, and Major-General Gen Andrew Jackson Smith, with the Mississippi Marine Brigade, was sent to run them off. Smith’s men attacked the rebels at Ditch Bayou, near the town of Lake Village. The Yankees eventually forced the enemy to retreat, but not before more than 100 Northerners were killed or wounded.

Afterward Union troops occupied Lake Village. Before they left, the marines and possibly other soldiers burned the newspaper office and other buildings, looted homes and shot livestock. The next day, the Yankees marched to Columbia, burned that town, and re-boarded their vessels.

By then, the Mississippi Marine Brigade was a pariah to both the Army and Navy. Personal feuds within the Ellet family (which provided not only the commander but also three other officers) and the inability of military officials to control its lawless activities made the brigade ineffective in actually fighting rebels. By August 1864, War Department officials decided the brigade was not worth its trouble and disbanded it. Having lost both his ram fleet and his marine brigade, Gen. Alfred Ellet resigned his commission in December and returned to engineering.

The Mississippi Marine Brigade and the ram fleet remained under the command of the US Army even after the transfer of the Western Gunboat Flotilla to the navy on 15th October 1862. It usually operated independently of navy command, providing the army with an amphibious force. It included artillery, cavalry and infantrymen aboard a fleet of boats equipped for combat and transportation.

On May 29 1863: The Mississippi Marine Brigade joined the fleet above Vicksburg.

There was often uncertainty about the status of the Mississippi Marine Brigade. A ruling of the Judge-Advocate General, dated 11 June 1863, seems to make the brigade a “special contingent of the army and not the navy,” but as late as 23 July 1863, Major-General Ulysses Simpson Grant wrote: “The officers and men of the Marine Brigade are not subject to my orders.” By order of the Secretary of War the army assumed full jurisdiction over the brigade in October 1863.

On 14 June 1863, the unit joined Brigadier-General Joseph Anthony Mower’s expedition to Richmond, Louisiana, and skirmished with the Confederates, losing 3 men wounded.

On 20 June 1863, David Dixon Porter reported that two 10-pounder Parrott rifles placed by the Mississippi Marine Brigade on the Louisiana side of the Mississippi River had much annoyed the Confederates for two or three days.

On 19 June 1863, Brigadier-General Alfred Washington Ellet ordered work to begin on a casemate fort on the point opposite the city of Vicksburg. The fortification was completed in four days by the Mississippi Marine Brigade and was covered with a protective covering of railroad iron. The fort was erected and one 20-pounder rifled Parrott gun was emplaced under the direction of Colonel George E Currie; the gun was commanded and sighted by Thomas C Groshon. The Brigade also placed a small brass Dahlgren gun in a casemate near the Parrott. The Parrott gun was opened fire on Vicksburg early on 23rd June 1863. The Confederates responded by firing 17 rounds from five different guns. Fire from the Parrott gun in the fort was maintained until the end of the siege with a total of 98 rounds being expended. Considerable annoyance to the Confederate defenders was accomplished, especially by stopping work at the foundry and machine shop. The fort was repeatedly struck but without material damage and without loss of life.

25–30 June 1863, a detachment of the Mississippi Marine Brigade aboard the steamer John Rains joined an expedition to Greenville, Mississippi under the command of Colonel Samuel J Nasmith of the 25th Wisconsin Infantry.

30 June 1863: At Goodrich’s Landing, Louisiana, the Mississippi Marine Brigade lost one man killed.

The Ellet fleet was disestablished in August 1864, and its remaining ships were transferred to other duties.

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