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Farragut & Our Naval Commanders

By J. T. Headley
Comprising the early life and public services of the prominent naval commanders who, with Grant and Sherman and their generals, brought to a triumphant close the great rebellion of 1861-1865. (First edition 1867)

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AMERICAN ingenuity is proverbial; and, though it is often wasted on worthless objects and impracticable schemes, yet, in great exigencies, it is sure to originate something to meet them. And often what in ordinary times seems useless or impracticable, then becomes of immense value. The inventor may find no encouragement from his countrymen, and the Government decline to furnish means to test his proposed experiments, so that he frequently dies with but seeing his plans tried—comforted only by the belief that the time will arrive when they will be adopted with gladness.

Of these inventors, Charles Ellet was one who bid fair to die without seeing his favorite scheme carried out. The war however into which we were precipitated, gave to his applications a force that in times of peace they did not possess, and he saw the "Ram" finally adopted as a war vessel by his Government.

Charles Ellet was born at Perry Manor, on the Delaware, about twenty-five miles above Philadelphia. His boyhood was passed on his father's farm, but at sixteen he was sent to Bristol school, where he at once developed his love for mathematics, and indicated clearly his future profession. At eighteen, he became assistant surveyor of Maryland. Here he husbanded his earnings so that he might finish his education in Europe, and at twenty-one he went to Paris, where he remained for two years. Returning to Maryland he was appointed assistant engineer on the James River and Kanawha Canal, which was then being built, and eventually became engineer-in-chief.  He proposed to build a wire suspension bridge across the Potomac, but his proposition was declined.

Being now fairly launched in his profession, he married the daughter of Judge Daniel, of Lynchburg, Virginia.

In 1837, he published a book on "The Laws of Trade in Reference to Works of Internal Improvement," which showed great study of the various methods of inland communication. In 1840, he made to the authorities of St. Louis the bold proposition to build a wire bridge across the Mississippi, at that point, but it was rejected. The next year, however, he constructed the wire suspension bridge across the Schuylkill, at Fairmount, the first erected in America. He was now extensively employed and consulted on the great public works going on throughout the country. In 1847, he began the suspension bridge at Wheeling, for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, and also threw a temporary bridge over the Niagara River, just below the Falls. In the intervals of his labors he visited Europe several times, to enlarge his experience, and was received there as a distinguished man in his profession. In 1846 and 1847 he was president of the Schuylkill Navigation Company. In 1848 and 1849 he devoted himself a part of the time to making observations and calculations on the Ohio River, for the purpose of devising some method of improving its navigation. Though his plan was not adopted, the results of his labors were published in the Transactions of the Smithsonian Institute.

Soon after, though not belonging to the army, he was selected by the War Department to survey the Lower Mississippi, in consequence of complaints being made to Congress, that the spring floods of the river were injuring the State, and destroying a vast amount of property. He performed the work assigned him with great ability, and published his report, together with the observations he had made on the Ohio, in a book form, entitled, "Ellet on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers." This is not the place to go into the details of his plan, which was on a gigantic scale, for the improvement of those rivers. By many it was thought chimerical, though he fully believed it would eventually be carried out.

In 1854, Mr. Ellet was in Lausanne, and there being much discussion at the time respecting the siege of Sebastopol, and the blockade of the harbor by British vessels, his scheming mind was directed to war vessels, and then and there was born in his brain the new and famous ram, which hereafter is to bear such an important part in river and harbor defence. He submitted his plan to the Russian Emperor, declaring that with such vessels the Russians might sink the fleet of the allies. It was well received, though never acted on. The next spring he submitted it to John T. Mason, then our Minister at Paris. Ellet forwarded it to the Navy Department, but he received no encouragement, and in 1855 published his plan, together with the correspondence with the Government, in a pamphlet form.

The grand idea on which his invention was based, is thus given in the preface of this book: "People are accustomed to regard the art of naval warfare as the art of maneuvering cannon, and throwing shot and shell. I wish them to reflect upon the power of a moving steamboat driven against the enemy, who has no means of resistance but his batteries, and to decide which is the more certain warfare." Again he says: "My plan is simply to convert the steamer into a battering-ram, and enable her to fight, not with her guns, but with her momentum." He proposed to strengthen it, so that it "could run head into the enemy, or burst in his ribs, or drive a hole into his hull below the water line." "This," he said, "would make the combat a short one; for," he added, "a hole only two feet square, four feet under water, will sink an ordinary frigate in sixteen minutes. The pamphlet goes into all the details of his plan, shows how vessels could be converted into rams, and says: "I hold myself ready to carry it out, whenever the day arrives that the United States is about to become engaged in a naval contest."

To Ellet’s proposition, Mr. Welch, then acting Secretary of the Navy, said, that " the suggestion to convert steamers into battering-rams, and by the momentum make them a means of sinking an enemy’s ships, was proposed as long ago as 1832, and has been renewed many times since by various officers of the Navy." He added that no practical test had been undertaken, but acknowledged that, "with the necessary speed, strength, and weight, a large steamer on the plan proposed would introduce an entire change in naval warfare." Ellet subsequently urged his plan afresh, but Mr. Dobbin, Secretary of the Navy, said that the Department had no power to build vessels for such experiments, except by special vote of Congress. Mr. Ellet did not go on mere theory—he cited numerous cases of accidental collision at sea-some where merely a sailing vessel had sunk large ships, to show what deadly work might be done with a vessel built on purpose to run down an antagonist. He cannot claim originality for his invention, for it had been discussed both here and abroad for years; but it differed from all others in that he did not believe as they did, that great weight was necessary in order to make a ram efficient; he insisted that the momentum required could be obtained by speed, and that river steamers, steam-tugs, and even ferryboats might easily be converted into formidable engines of destruction, and sufficiently strong to sink the heaviest vessels of war that England might send against us.

He was living at Washington at the time of the breaking out of the rebellion, devoting much time to the perfecting of his plans, and urging their adoption. The commencement of war, of course, increased his desire to have them tested, and he vehemently pressed on the Government and Congress the importance of putting them into practical operation. When he learned that the rebels along the coast and on the Mississippi were turning steamers into iron-clad rams, his excitement over the inaction of our Government made his friends almost dread his presence, for his importunity knew no bounds. He printed a memorial to Congress, and laid it on the tables of the members. In it he stated what the rebels were doing, while the Navy Department had not taken the first step to meet this new and threatening evil. In speaking of the Merrimac, then in course of construction, he uses the following remarkable words: "If the Merrimac is permitted to escape from the Elizabeth River, she will be almost certain to commit great depredations on our armed or unarmed vessels in Hampton Roads, and may be even expected to pass out under the guns of Fortress Monroe and prey upon our commerce in Chesapeake Bay. Indeed, if the alterations have been skillfully made, and she succeeds in getting to sea, she will not only be a terrible scourge to our commerce, but also may prove to be a most dangerous visitor to our squadron off the harbors of our southern coast."

Mr. Ellet’s active mind, not content with its legitimate work, also undertook to direct the war, and he formed a plan -for cutting off the rebel army at Manassas, and submitted it to McClellan for adoption. The latter treating it as he did numerous similar plans which he received, Ellet was very indignant, and wrote two pamphlets against him, in which he spoke in harsh and severe terms of the general-in-chief.

The sinking of the Cumberland and Congress by the Merrimac, finally woke up the Government to the importance of Mr. Ellet’s project and propositions, respecting the building of iron-clad rams. Still, the Navy Department had its hands full, and was spending the appropriation made by Congress for the increase of the Navy, in the building and purchasing of vessels of a different kind. But when Foote reported from Island No. 10 that the rebels had several gunboats on the Mississippi that could be used as rams, the Secretary of War took the responsibility of commissioning Ellet as Colonel of Engineers, and sending him west to buy and convert into rams such vessels as he could find there fit for his purpose. He set out in the latter part of March, and at Pittsburg purchased five heavy tow-boats, and at Cincinnati four side-wheel steamers. The bows of these he strengthened with heavy timbers, and sheathed with iron bars, and built strong bulkheads of oak around the machinery and boilers. The pilot-houses of each were also plated sufficiently thick to protect the pilots from musketry. But though he was able to get his boats in a proper condition, he found it very difficult to obtain crews and officers for them. Neither engineers nor pilots liked to serve on such kind of craft, destined for such new and hazardous work. He finally obtained permission to recruit from the army, and, his brother Alfred being a captain of volunteers, he sent for him. The latter came, bringing his own and another company with him. Ellet’s energy and perseverance obtained also pilots and engineers, and he was at last in a condition to test his theory practically.

In the mean time, before he had brought down his rams to join the fleet, commanded by Davis before Fort Pillow, the rebel flotilla attacked our gunboats, and seriously damaged the Cincinnati and Mound City with their rams. What further mischief might be done no one could foretell; and Ellet hastened forward some of his vessels, under the charge of his brother Alfred, and a few days after followed himself with the rest of them. The rebel fleet lay at this time below the fort, and under easy range of its fire, so that Davis could not attack it without at the same time encountering the batteries on shore. Ellet, on his arrival, asked Davis to give him the aid of a couple of gunboats, and he would steam past the fort, and attack the whole rebel flotilla of the enemy. This was a bold proposition, for at this time he had nota single cannon on board of his rams. The fighting force consisted of twenty-three sharpshooters, who were to fire through loopholes.

Soon after, the rebels evacuated Fort Pillow and retired to Memphis, followed by their fleet. Davis now advanced with his gunboats, and when near Memphis was attacked by the latter. Ellet had been detained up the river, but at this time was coming down under a full head of steam, with his ram fleet, each one of which was painted black, to make it look as formidable as possible. The Queen of the West was his flagship, and, standing on her deck as the heavy cannonading from below broke on his ear, he stretched out his arm towards the Monarch, which his brother commanded, and shouted out: "Follow me and attack the enemy." Crowding on all steam that the boilers would bear, he swept like an arrow past the fleet, and, steering for the nearest rebel boat, named the General Lovell, struck her with such awful force, that her sides were crushed in like an eggshell, and in five minutes she went to the bottom with most of her crew. The Queen of the West staggered back like a drunken man from the shock—her chimneys reeling almost to the water-while the splinters and shivered timbers of her upper works made her deck appear like a wreck. Before she could recover herself and once more get under headway, two rebel rams came full upon her—determined to send her to the bottom after the General Lovell. One struck her near the wheel-house, but inflicted only a glancing blow, and in turn received from her own consort, which ran into her, one which so disabled her that she was compelled to run ashore, when she sunk. The sharpshooters, in the mean time, were busy, while the heavy broadsides of the gunboats shook the shores of the stream. Alfred, in the Monarch, following his brother, struck the Beauregard, but inflicted no serious damage, though the latter soon after blew up, the shot of the gunboats having pierced her boiler.

The combined attack proving too strong for the rebel fleet, it turned and fled. The Monarch and Lancaster gave the Van Dorn a hot chase, but the latter finally got off.

In this sharp encounter, not a man on board the rams was injured but Colonel Ellet. After he struck the General Lovell, he stepped forward to see the amount of injury he had done her, when he was hit in the knee by a bullet, which lodged in the bone. The wound proved to be a dangerous one, for inflammation set in, and the only chance of saving his life was amputation of the limb. This he would not consent to, declaring that he would rather die; at all events, he preferred to take his chances.

His experiment, as far as it went, was successful, but he determined it should have a fuller, more complete trial, and, though suffering intensely, prepared to move down with the fleet to Vicksburg. But even his strong will could not resist the inroads the wound had made on his delicate, nervous frame, and he was compelled to abandon his project. Finding himself rapidly sinking, he sent for his family, by whom he was nursed with the greatest care, but he continued to grow worse.

In the mean time, the fleet moved down the river to win new laurels, leaving him behind, to mourn the fate that had laid him aside just as he was on the threshold of his great enterprise.

The command of the ram-fleet now devolved on his brother Alfred, and he told the latter, as he came to bid him farewell before he started, to carry out his plans, saying, as they parted forever: "Alfred, stand to your post." He was now placed on board the Switzerland, and carried to Cairo, but just as the boat reached the -wharf he expired, breathing out his gallant spirit in serene composure. Thus, on the 21st of June, 1862, at the age of fifty-two, this ardent, enthusiastic man passed away, leaving to others what he had fondly hoped to do himself.

His broken-hearted wife soon followed him to the grave, leaving a gallant son, only nineteen years of age, to uphold his fame and carry out his project.



The son followed in the daring footsteps of his father, in command of one of the rams built by the latter, and followed him too, alas! to the grave. Born in Georgetown, District of Columbia, in 1843, he was but eighteen years old when the war broke out. He had formerly accompanied his father to Europe, and remained two years in school at Paris. He was studying medicine when the first battle of Bull Run took place, and volunteered to act as assistant surgeon and nurse to the wounded that came pouring in from that disastrous battle-field.

When his father had just completed at the West the first of his rams, he joined him, and was given a place on board as medical cadet. He was in the battle before Memphis, and witnessed the first triumph of the rams. After it was over, he was sent by his father to demand the surrender of that city.

When the fleet commenced its movement down the river towards Vicksburg, Charles reluctantly left the side of his wounded father, to accompany it. Selected by Davis to carry a dispatch to Farragut, anchored below the place, he made his way through swamps and stagnant pools in the darkness, and, after a night of incessant peril and labor, at length in the morning stood on the shore opposite the Hartford. Firing his pistol to attract attention, he was taken on board, where he delivered his message.

While on duty with his uncle Alfred up the Yazoo, he received on the 10th of July the melancholy tidings of the death of both father and mother, and the sickness of his only sister. He, however, felt it his duty to remain with the fleet, and, on the 5th of 1November, was placed in command of the rams, his uncle Alfred being given the command of the marine brigade.

When Admiral Porter determined to force the Yazoo River at Haines Bluff, he directed young Ellet to destroy a raft of timber that obstructed the stream. Fitting a torpedo-raft of his own invention to the Lioness, the latter, after getting everything ready, reported himself to Porter saying, that he had two tons of powder in the bow of his boat and asked for directions. Porter replied, that he must steam directly up to the raft, which lay right under the enemy’s guns, and blow it up. "But," said young Ellet, "don’t you expect that the enemy will be firing as I do so, into my two tons of powder?" "Oh yes!" replied the Admiral, "but you mustn’t mind bullets and shells, you know." Ellet, a little piqued at the answer, replied that he was not afraid of them—he desired only to know how he wished him to proceed. A more desperate undertaking could not well be imagined, yet Ellet was ready for it and would doubtless have performed it or been blown up, had not a dense fog set in as he was about to start, compelling the. expedition to be abandoned. Porter was delighted with the pluck of the youth, for he saw in him a spirit kindred to his own, and wrote to the Department: "I have great confidence in the commander of the rams and those under him, and take this opportunity to state to the Department how highly I appreciate the commander and his associates." This was very extraordinary praise to bestow on a youth only nineteen years old.

The next February, young Ellet was sent down with the ram Queen of the West, to sink, if possible, the "City of Vicksburg," that lay under the guns of the batteries. One of his guns was loaded with turpentine balls, designed to set the rebel vessel on fire. He boldly steamed down into the enemy’s fire, and laid his vessel alongside of the City of Vicksburg, and opened on it with his guns, while the batteries on shore played furiously upon him. Although he set the rebel craft on fire, his own vessel also caught fire, and it was with great difficulty that the flames were extinguished.

He did not succeed in destroying the ram, but the manner in which he handled and fought his vessel astonished those who served under him.

Soon after, he was sent down to the mouth of Red River, to destroy rebel transports there, and in three days captured and destroyed three large steamers, valued at nearly half a million of dollars.

On the 15th, he started again for the Red River, accompanied by the De Soto, and, learning that three steamers were lying under the guns of a battery stationed where soon after Fort De Russy was erected, he determined to capture them. But as he came within range of the guns, their fire was so destructive that he ordered the pilot to back the Queen of the West out of it. But in doing so he ran her aground, where she lay a helpless target. The rebels had the exact range, so that nearly every shot struck the doomed vessel. A frightful scene now followed. Ellet was unable to bring a gun to bear, and he could therefore only stand and see his vessel torn into fragments. On every side shells were bursting—three thirty-two-pound ones exploded one after another on the smoking deck, while one crashed through the machinery below, and another carried away the lever of the engine. The steam-pipe went next, and last, the steam chest was fractured, letting out a cloud of steam, and prisoners, crew, and engineers, who had crowded into the engine-room for safety, now rushed aft and began to tumble overboard cotton bales, on which they leaped, hoping to float down to the De Soto, a mile below. The Negroes with loud cries jumped overboard and were drowned. Some ran for the yawl that was tied to the stern, but a man stood on the bow with a loaded pistol, and threatened to shoot the first man that attempted to enter it. The De Soto steamed up as near as she dared and then sent her yawl to take off those who remained—but the fire of the batteries was so terrific that she had to drop down stream again, before the boat returned. Ellet escaped on a cotton bale, and sorrowfully made his way back to the squadron, blamed by some for his rashness, for the rebels captured the Queen of the West, and soon had her repaired and at work in the Confederate service.

He was soon after put in command of the Switzerland, which, with the Lancaster, commanded by his cousin John A. Ellet, was sent below Vicksburg to cooperate with Farragut. In passing the batteries, the boiler of the Switzerland, just as she got opposite the city, was pierced by two shots. In an instant the vessel was enveloped in a cloud of steam. Ellet’s first care was for the crew when they were safe in the boats he drew his pistol and fired into the cotton bales, for the purpose of setting the vessel on fire, so that she might not, like the Queen of the West, fall into the enemy’s hands. He then stepped into the boat and rowed to the Lancaster. The Switzerland however escaped, and, being repaired, acted afterwards as a dispatch boat between Generals Grant and Banks.

The exposure and excitement, together with the hot summer, at length proved too much for the constitution of young Ellet, and, obtaining leave of absence to recruit his shattered health, he retired to the residence of his uncle Dr. Ellet, at Bunker Hill, Illinois. He suffered severely from neuralgia in the face, for which he was in the habit of taking some opiate.

On the night of the 16th of October, he complained of feeling very unwell, and said to his aunt as he retired, that he thought he would take something to relieve the pain in his face. In the morning he was found dead in his bed. He had probably taken an overdose of morphine and fallen into a sleep from which he never awoke.

Thus at the early age of twenty, this youth of so much promise closed his labors for his country. Gentle and tender as a woman, he was nevertheless bold and fearless as a lion. His countenance was full of poetic sentiment, to which his large brilliant eyes and long black hair gave additional expression.

Though the career of father and son was so brief, it was glorious, and their names will go down to posterity linked with the navy, and embraced in the same halo of glory that encircles its brave commanders.

Chapter XI

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