Born in Bucks County, Pennsylvania in 1810, Charles Ellet briefly studied at the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris, France, and embarked on a career as a civil engineer, designing several suspension bridges and surveying the Mississippi Delta for ways to increase the water’s depth. Ellet dabbled in the railroad business, working for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and the Central Railroad of Virginia. With the outbreak of the Civil War, Ellet appealed to the United States government to build a fleet of ramming ships that, he believed, could obtain overwhelming victories. When the Confederate Navy successfully deployed the Merrimac, based on one of Ellet’s prewar plans, U. S. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton took Ellet seriously. By March 1862, Federal forces controlled the upper Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers, but had not been able to push past the Confederates at Island Number 10 on the Mississippi. Faced with the daunting task of opening the Mississippi to supply Federal forces pushing South, Stanton ordered Ellet to create the ram fleet in only 20 days. Ellet purchased, reinforced, and outfitted four side-wheelers and three stern-wheelers. By the time the fleet was ready, Flag Officer Andrew Foote had defeated the Confederates at Island No. 10. Stanton deployed Ellet’s fleet down the Mississippi with hopes of capturing Memphis. Without support from seasoned Federal Naval, Ellet struck out alone and rammed the Confederate Lovell on June 6, 1862, initiating the Battle of Memphis. Lovell instantly began to sink, but Ellet’s ship had become entangled with it. While assessing the situation, a shot from the Lovell struck Ellet above the knee. Ellet’s rams soundly won the battle, and he sent his son, Charles, to raise the U.S. flag. Fighting through a mob, the mayor led Ellet’s son and three men to the post office where they raised the flag, a full two hours before the city’s official surrender. The elder Ellet’s wound, seeming minor at first, worsened in the days following. Blood poisoning soon set in, and Ellet died en route for home on June 21, the sole Federal casualty of the Battle of Memphis.
- Civil engineer who conceived and designed ramming ships for Federal navy
- Initiated Battle of Memphis when he rammed the Confederate ship Lovell
- Only Federal casualty of the Battle of Memphis