In the early morning hours, hundreds of Memphis citizens assembled high on the bluffs to observe the battle. But there were no surging ranks of blue and gray in the valley below, just the Big Muddy rolling broad and inexorable toward the sea. This would be a purely naval affair in the heart of the continent.
Two separate Union commands, the unprecedented Western Gunboat Flotilla and the ad-hoc United States Ram Fleet, confronted the equally strange Confederate River Defense Fleet; the most modern technology engaged the most ancient weapons, and civilians with no military experience commanded warships in combat.
Looking to their right, the anxious watchers saw five squat, black shapes emerging from the mist upriver, belching smoke from their stacks. Four of them were hastily designed and constructed river ironclads: the USS Louisville, Carondelet, St. Louis, and Cairo. The fifth was the USS Benton, a huge center-paddlewheel catamaran snag boat converted to a gunboat and armored.
James B. Eads, a wealthy St. Louis industrialist and self-taught civil engineer, obtained an army contract and risked his fortune to build the new ironclads. Noted naval constructor Samuel Pook designed these innovative gunboats with shallow, wooden river hulls, armored decks, an armored, slope-sided shed or “casemate” mounting 13 to 16 guns, and a steam engine driving a covered paddlewheel.
Named after river cities, they represented the first uniform class of river warships and the first U. S. ironclads to enter combat, which were called “city-class ironclads” or “Eads gunboats” or for their appearance, “Pook Turtles.” They were decisive factors in Brig. Gen. U. S. Grant’s victories in Tennessee at Forts Henry and Donelson in February 1862, and again in March supporting Brig. Gen. John Pope at Island No. 10 near New Madrid, Missouri.
Eads gunboats combined firepower, protection, and mobility in a manner achieved by few contemporaries, but with defects. The armor was suboptimal. Maneuverability was restricted. They had no watertight compartments to isolate flooding. They were vulnerable to torpedoes, which later would sink two of them (including Cairo), and to ramming, which would sink (if only briefly) two others. The seven city-class ironclads became the backbone of the river forces taking part in every significant action on the upper Mississippi and its tributaries.
Flotilla commander, Flag Officer Charles H. Davis, worried that his clumsy and underpowered vessels might descend the river into fierce opposition only to be trapped, damaged, possibly captured, and turned against friendly river cities. Going down with the current was a whole lot easier than coming back up.
Because the vessels had more power going ahead than astern—and thus better odds of withdrawing if needed—he turned the four Pook Turtles around, formed them into line abreast, and backed down the river toward Memphis to engage with rear-facing guns.
An even more unique Union squadron followed close behind the ironclads. The United States Ram Fleet was a wholly civilian, volunteer navy commanded by a family of rivermen operating improvised vessels employing a weapon not seen since Mediterranean rowing galleys disappeared three centuries before. Noted civil engineer and riverman Charles Ellet, Jr. was convinced that—with steam power—ramming was again a viable naval tactic.
In March 1862, Ellet persuaded Secretary of War Stanton to appoint him an army colonel of engineers with authority to build his own flotilla of rams. Ellet converted several powerful river towboats, heavily reinforcing their hulls. Boilers, engines, and upper works were lightly protected with wood and cotton bales. Other than small arms, they had no guns.
In confusing chains of command, Colonel Ellet with his self-named United States Ram Fleet, reported directly to the secretary of war, operating independently of the department commander, Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck, and only voluntarily cooperating with local army and navy commanders. Ellet had engaged in no tactical planning with Flag Officer Davis as they descended the Mississippi beyond a general understanding to assist.
Davis reported to Gen. Halleck. His Western Gunboat Flotilla was under army control constituting the first joint army-navy command in U. S. history. The little army-navy included a few other ironclads, wooden gunboats, and numerous transport and supply vessels. The two Union squadrons had no common commander below the commander-in-chief.
Memphis citizens cheered as eight vessels of their River Defense Fleet steamed out to defend the city against the five ironclads and four rams. Numbers were about equal, but not fighting quality. Confederates had seized a motley collection of wooden passenger, cargo, and tow boats for the defense of New Orleans, converting them to rams with heavily reinforced prows, and armed them with one or two light-caliber guns.
Carpenters fitted additional protection around engines and interior spaces consisting of double, heavy-timber bulkheads overlaid with railroad iron. The 22-inch space between bulkheads was packed with cotton, so they became known as “cottonclads.” Like Ellet’s squadron, the Rebel rams were captained and crewed by civilian rivermen, nominally under army command, but each operating independently and with no command structure or coordination.
Eight of the rams were sent from New Orleans up to Memphis to defend the northern flank, nominally under the command of riverboat captain James E. Montgomery. The six other rams of the River Defense Fleet remained near New Orleans, but in April 1862, offered no significant resistance to Flag Officer David G. Farragut’s deep-water warships of the Gulf Blockading Squadron when it blasted by Forts Jackson and St. Philip to take the city.
Back upriver, five of the Confederate rams did succeed on May 10 in surprising and ramming the Eads gunboats Cincinnati and Mound City at Plum Point Bend above Memphis. Both Union vessels were grounded and sunk in shallow water but soon were raised and placed back in service.
On this morning of June 6, Louisville, Carondelet, St. Louis, and Cairo slid downriver backwards—using their big paddlewheels more to hold against the current than to advance—and opened an inconclusive, long-range gunnery duel with the Rebels. The impatient Colonel Ellet, without instructions or notice, opened his steam throttles, charged through the ironclad line in his ram Queen of the West, and struck the first Rebel vessel encountered, sinking it immediately, only to be rammed himself by another.
Other Ellet rams followed while the turtles closed to deadly range. A raging melee erupted with no coordination on either side. The Rebel squadron, unarmored and outgunned, was destroyed, marking the near eradication of Confederate naval presence on the river. Colonel Ellet received a mortal wound, the only Union casualty. Command of the ram fleet passed to his younger brother, Alfred, and to his son, Colonel Charles R. Ellet.
The Battle of Memphis was the only solely naval engagement on the rivers. It also was the last in which ramming was a primary tactic, and the last time civilians commanded ships in combat. The loss of Memphis, the Confederacy’s fifth-largest city and a key industrial center, opened the Mississippi all the way south to Vicksburg and opened West Tennessee to Union occupation.
Following the battle, a major reorganization transferred the Western Gunboat Flotilla from army to navy command and re-designated it the Mississippi River Squadron. Ellet’s ram fleet was renamed the Mississippi Marine Brigade (no connection to U. S. Marines) under navy direction. The rams were employed primarily for amphibious raiding and support tasks, but never again in the type of naval combat for which they were designed.
President Lincoln’s strategy called for simultaneous thrusts up the river from New Orleans with Farragut’s Gulf Blockading Squadron and down it with the Western Gunboat Flotilla, meeting in the middle. That summer of 1862 after the Battle of Memphis, the two squadrons joined up at Vicksburg.
Despite valiant efforts, this impressive U. S. Navy armada could not take the “Gibraltar of the West” from the water without army help. General Halleck, occupied with the messy politics of western command, the aftermath of the Battle of Shiloh, and his differences with U. S. Grant, missed a strategic opportunity and provided no support.
Falling water levels compelled Farragut to withdraw his deep-draft vessels from the river in July. It would be another year before Grant, with the able assistance of Admiral David D. Porter commanding the Mississippi River Squadron, conquered Vicksburg in the greatest joint campaign of the conflict.