Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Ellet's Brigade

Ellet's Brigade: The Strangest Outfit of All by Chester G. Hearn

After reading the book Timberclads in the Civil War I was intrigued to read more about the naval war on the Western rivers. Ellet's Brigade has been sitting on my shelf for awhile so I picked it up and was immediately hooked. Honestly I did not know much about the Ellets or the Mississippi Marine Brigade. I had heard of them as they pop up in the story of the Vicksburg campaign but I knew very little.

Charles Ellet Jr conceived the idea of building fast rams (with no cannons) to defeat the Confederate navy on the Western rivers. His idea was that his boats would be so fast and strong that they would be on top of the enemy before he could fire too many rounds and they would suceed that way. He also was realistic enough that he knew his rams would not survive the war, they might only last a battle but they were cheap enough and in greater numbers than the Confederate navy so they were expendable. He approached Edwin Stanton, Secretary of War, about his plan and Stanton agreed. For most of the war there was great confusion about who the Ram Fleet reported to. Stanton held onto them for quite awhile as his own force that not even Halleck could give orders to. Eventually the naval commander on the Mississippi was given control of the units but it was always a hazy proposition.

The other problem that arose was how to recruit men for the boats. It wasn't really an army unit, nor a navy unit. Its men didn't count towards the state quotas. Even when men were recruited there was a problem with discipline as normal military protocols didn't apply. Ellet couldn't courtmartial men for desertion. This was a problem early on but was never truly fixed. Ellet solved some of his manpower issues by having nearly every member of his family in the fleet.

The Ram Fleet's first action was the Battle of Memphis and they turned in a great effort. Had they coordinated with the Union navy fleet the destruction of the Confederate fleet might have been more complete, as it was several boats were sunk. Charles Ellet was mortally wounded during the battle. Alfred W. Ellet, Charles's brother, took over the fleet and would be promoted to brigadier general.

In early 1863 the Mississippi Marine Brigade was formed. The idea was that the rams would also transport a small force of cavalry, infantry and artillery. The "brigade" never numbered more than about 800-900. When Confederate guerrillas hit Union shipping, which was a constant hassle, this unit could be quickly dispatched to deal with it. It was a great idea but the men didn't really accomplish too much. When this idea does yield success later in the war it is because more men are involved.

The other Ellet to have a major impact on the Ram Fleet was Charles Rivers Ellet, Charles's son. Charles Rivers was a daring young man who often times got into bigger fights than he should have. He commanded the Queen of the West during her dramatic foray south of Vicksburg, but lost the ship when he tried to do too much. He could have attacked Fort DeRussy the next day with a Union gunboat's assistance but he forged ahead, got the boat stuck and had to abandon it. David D. Porter, commanding the Mississippi fleet near Vicksburg, liked the young man's courage but often was confounded by his lack of judgement.

My only drawback to the book is that it took me about 9 years to get around to reading it (I haven't owned it that whole time but it came out in 2000). Its an interesting book about a unit that got into a fair share of fights but did little to shorten the war.

1 comment:

Slamdunk said...

Interesting--i had no idea that rams were used by the Union.