During the Civil War, the idea of Army and Navy forces operating jointly under a single commander was virtually unheard of. But an operation’s lack of “jointness” did not always spell defeat. In fact, the result could be spectacular victory. Such was the case on 6 June 1862 when Union Army and Navy forces afloat operated independently of each other at the only pure naval battle on the Mississippi. What follows is the Battle of Memphis report of Colonel Charles Ellet Jr., commander of the Army’s Ram Fleet, to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.1
I left the shore at daybreak on the morning of the 6th, keeping four of my strongest steamers in the advance prepared for any emergency. On approaching Memphis I found the gunboats under Commodore Davis anchored across the channel.2 I accordingly rounded to with the Queen of the West, my flagship, and made fast on the Arkansas side, with the intention of conferring with Commodore Davis and collecting information preparatory to the next movement. But my flagship had been just a few minutes secured to the bank before a shot, which seemed to pass over her, announced the presence of the enemy.
1. Colonel Charles Ellet Jr. to E. M. Stanton, Secretary of War, 11 June 1862, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion (ORN), ser. 1, vol. 23 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1910), 132–34.
2. These vessels, part of Navy Flag Officer Charles H. Davis’ Western Flotilla, included formidable City-class ironclads.
3. Lieutenant-Colonel Alfred W. Ellet was Colonel Ellet’s younger brother. The rams Lancaster and Switzerland would not participate in the battle. The former mistakenly backed ashore and disabled her rudder, and the commander of the latter strictly followed his orders to stay a half mile behind the Lancaster. The Ram Fleet’s other steamers were busy towing barges. Colonel Charles Ellet Jr. to E. M. Stanton, 8 June 1862, ORN, ser. 1, vol. 23, 129.
4. The Confederate force consisted of the eight gunboat-rams of the River Defense Fleet.
5. This was the Colonel Lovell. Chester G. Hearn, Ellet’s Brigade (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000), 34.
6. The General Beauregard rammed the Queen of the West. Ibid.
7. The Monarch collided with the General Price. Ibid., 35.
8. Colonel Ellet could have counted himself among the mistaken eyewitnesses. See below.
9. The disabled Confederate vessel was actually the General Price. Instead of sinking her, the Monarch had sheared off her starboard wheel. Alfred W. Ellet, “Ellet and His Steam-Rams at Memphis,” Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, vol. 1, (New York, The Century Company, 1887), 456–57.
10. Spencer C. Tucker, “First Battle of Memphis,” in Spencer C. Tucker, ed., The Civil War Naval Encyclopedia, vol. 1, 390.