Today, when failure to appreciate the imperative necessity of unity of command is regarded as a cardinal sin, it is interesting to note how lightly this fundamental principle of joint operations was regarded as recently as during our Civil War.
By April of 1862 the actions at Forts Henry and Donelson, Columbus, and lsland No. 10 had been fought. The upper Mississippi and its tributaries were under the control of the western flotilla, commanded by Flag Officer A. H. Foote. Farragut was advancing from the south and was soon to open the lower river as far north as Vicksburg.
There remained in the hands of the Confederates that portion of the river between Fort Pillow, located on the Tennessee shore about eighty miles above Memphis, and Vicksburg in the south, and it was imperative that both strongholds be taken in order that the entire river might be opened and the trans-Mississippi states be cut off from the Confederacy.
It was Commodore Foote’s task to take Fort Pillow and, on April 13, 1862, he arrived above the fort with seven ironclads, one wooden gunboat, and sixteen mortar boats which were useless for defense but valuable for long-range bombardment of shore fortifications, and a fleet of transports carrying a force of 20,000 troops under General Pope.
The fortifications consisted of a line of breastworks three to five miles long located on top of steep bluffs along the river, mounting at least forty heavy guns and garrisoned by a force of 6,000 troops. In addition ten rebel gunboats were reported to be at the fort and ten more en route to Memphis from the south.
The plan called for a joint army and navy action and both Flag Officer Foote and General Pope felt that they would have possession of the stronghold in less than six days, and of Memphis a day or two later. But to their great dismay, on the eve of the proposed attack, General Pope’s army was suddenly ordered withdrawn to operate in another area, leaving behind only two volunteer regiments barely sufficient to garrison the fort if evacuated, but insufficient for a successful assault.
Commodore Foote felt that a direct attack on the fort by the forces afloat was extremely hazardous even though it might be successful, as a disaster, or a serious reduction of his limited force, might place the Mississippi at the mercy of the rebel fleet and undo all that had been accomplished at Island No. 10 and elsewhere.
Although he greatly deplored the enforced delay, he decided to besiege the place by shelling it daily with his mortars, and use the small force of troops in an attempt to find weak points in the defenses where a land attack might be launched with some prospect of success.
Unfortunately Commodore Foote was compelled to relinquish command because of ill health resulting from a wound received at Fort Donelson. He was relieved on May 9 by Captain Charles H. Davis, U. S. Navy, who thoroughly approved of the plan of campaign and proceeded to carry it into execution. The siege was progressing slowly but satisfactorily when, on May 25, there joined the besiegers a force destined to increase materially the complexities of the campaign and the problems confronting the Commodore. This was the ram fleet commanded by Colonel Charles Ellet, Jr., U. S. Army.
Just about two months before this momentous meeting Mr. Charles Ellet, Jr., a prominent civil engineer, had called upon Secretary of War Stanton with the suggestion that the enemy’s fleet on the western rivers might be destroyed by the use of rams for which Mr. Ellet had designs. Mr. Stanton approved, commissioned Mr. Ellet a colonel in the Army, and ordered him to proceed immediately to Pittsburg, Cincinnati, and New Albany to select, purchase, and convert such suitable steamboats as he could find.
Colonel Ellet carried out his orders with gratifying celerity and with the efficiency which characterized his activities during his all too brief war career. In less than a month he had secured seven steamers, two small towboats, and three large coal barges, and had practically completed the work necessary to convert his steamers into rams. This work consisted of running three heavy, solid timber bulkheads from twelve to sixteen inches thick, fore and aft from stem to stern. These bulkheads were braced one against the other, the outer ones against the hull, and all against the deck and floor timbers. The hull was stayed from side to side by iron rods and screw bolts. In addition the boilers and machinery were held by iron stays, the pilot-house was protected against musketry and the engines and boilers were shielded by oak timbers two feet thick well bolted together.
The original orders issued to Colonel Ellet by the Secretary of War contained the following instructions:
It is unnecessary to say, except to guard against misapprehension, that the expedition must move upon the enemy with the concurrence of the naval commander on the Mississippi River, for there must be no conflicting authorities in the prosecution of war.
This would seem to indicate that the principle of unity of command was not unknown, however lightly it may have been regarded as indicated by subsequent events.
To Colonel Ellet the idea that his freedom of action might be restricted was abhorrent. He objected to being subject to the orders of the naval commander and did not hesitate to inform the Secretary of War. He wrote:
The clause in your Instructions requiring the concurrence of the naval commander on the Mississippi might embarrass me much. That officer might not have confidence in my mode of warfare. My purpose has not been to remain with the gunboats, or even to show my fleet there until ready to push on, pass the batteries, drive my rams against the enemy’s armed vessels and transports wherever they may be found, relying much on the suddenness and audacity of the attack for its success.
I trust that you may think proper to reconsider this limitation of my authority and leave me free to act on my own judgment, but of course with respectful deference to the gallant officer in command on the Mississippi, by whose good advice I certainly shall not fail to profit.
To this communication the Secretary of War gave respectful ear and apologized for having allowed the unimportant theory of unity of command to influence his better judgment. He replied,
The peculiarity of the enterprise which you have undertaken induced the expression, “concurrence,” instead of placing you distinctly under the command of the naval commander. There ought not to be two commanders on the same element in war operations. But as the service you are engaged in is peculiar, the naval commander will be so advised and will be desired not to exercise direct control over your movements, unless they shall manifestly expose the general operations on the Mississippi to some unpardonable influence, which is not however anticipated.
This was dated April 26, 1862, and two days later the Secretary of War sent a telegram to Major General Halleck in which he said,
The steam rams constructed by Colonel Charles Ellet at Pittsburg and Cincinnati are reported to be completed. . . . They are under the command of Colonel Ellet, specially assigned to that duty. He will be subject to the orders of Commodore Foote and will join him immediately ....
A widely read news magazine of today would call the above a classical example of “weasling.”
As soon as Colonel Ellet arrived before Fort Pillow he visited Commodore Davis and proposed that the rams and gunboats run past the batteries and attack the enemy’s gunboats and transports. This the Commodore declined to do. He was attacking the fort daily with his mortar boats and causing the enemy much annoyance. Moreover he was working in co-operation with Colonel Fitch, commander of the Army force, on a plan for a joint land and water attack which both felt would succeed. He was convinced that he could not at that time afford to risk serious damage to his small force, scarcely adequate for the task of opening and keeping open the great river and its tributaries. He preferred his own slower and less spectacular plan, confident that in the end he would achieve greater success at less cost.
Colonel Ellet, however, was most impatient. He was without doubt a forceful and daring leader, impetuous and brave to foolhardiness. No student of warfare, his own enterprise loomed so large in his foreground that he could not see beyond it. Srategy in the larger sense was not in his vocabulary. He demanded action and when his repeated suggestions met with quiet opposition from the Commodore he determined to act independently and so announced.
This announcement elicited a definite reply from the Commodore, whose patience was apparently wearing thin.
Sir: I have received your letter of yesterday, I decline taking any part in the expedition which you inform me you are preparing to set on foot tomorrow morning at early dawn. I would thank you to inform me how far you consider yourself under my authority, and I would esteem it a favor to receive from you a copy of the orders under which you are acting.
To which Colonel Ellet replied, “I do not consider myself at all under your authority ...”
He also complied with the Commodore’s request for a copy of his orders by quoting his original instructions, his protest, and the Secretary’s approval of his independent action. The Commodore concluded that the vessels of the ram fleet were not under his control and that he was not responsible for their movements or undertakings. He so advised Colonel Ellet and stated:
On your arrival here I communicated to you a general outline of the plan of operations agreed upon between General Quimby and myself, and when the time arrives for putting it into execution I shall have the pleasure to make you acquainted with all the details and to invite your cooperation. In the meantime I have no desire to oppose or circumscribe your movements. My opinion is unfavorable to your attack. . . .
Notwithstanding the Commodore’s unfavorable opinion Colonel Ellet, on June 3, took some of his rams down river for an independent attack on an enemy steamer lying under the guns of Fort Pillow. The expedition accomplished nothing of value, but had a most unfortunate effect on the plans of the Commodore and Colonel Fitch. Colonel Fitch’s report states:
On June 1 a laborious reconnaissance was made which developed the fact that ... an approach to Fort Pillow could be made by infantry to Cold Creek within thirty yards of the enemy’s outer works ....
The following morning this reconnaissance was renewed and its results verified, and it was also ascertained that at the point where Cold Creek could be crossed not a gun from the batteries could be brought to bear, while the ridges in rear of and overlooking the fortifications would enable our infantry to approach and command them.
On the third morning three companies of this command were ordered to open a road ... secreted from observation by the timber .... Unfortunately four of Colonel Ellet’s rams, not knowing this detail, had been sent forward . . . and were fired upon by the enemy and the shot, overreaching the boats, fell in the vicinity of the working party in the woods, whereupon the major commanding deemed it prudent to retire and abandon the work.
Commodore Davis’ diary for June 5 contains this entry:
Colonel Fitch discovered several days ago a weak and assailable point by which he proposed to attack the enemy’s works by land while I encountered the batteries in front. It was agreed between us that this should come off yesterday morning, but a foolish movement by Colonel Ellet prevented it in a way that could not have been foreseen.
The loss of a day in making the joint attack on Fort Pillow enabled the enemy to evacuate in safety after having destroyed large quantities of stores and munitions and spiked the guns. Colonel Ellet’s little excursion probably frustrated a carefully prepared plan which might have resulted in the capture of a large body of enemy troops and quantities of military supplies.
However the evacuation of Fort Pillow cleared the way to Memphis and the Commodore immediately dropped down the river, anchoring for the night about a mile and a half above the city. Colonel Ellet and his rams moved independently, stopping for the night about eighteen miles above Memphis but dropping down at daylight the following morning to the vicinity of the gunboats.
Daylight disclosed to the Commodore the enemy fleet lying at the Memphis levee. It consisted of eight rams and gunboats which immediately got under way and headed down stream but soon turned and advanced to give battle. Commodore Davis’s five gunboats hove up, stood down stream toward the enemy, and opened fire.
Colonel Ellet had not expected the enemy to make a stand before Memphis where there were no supporting fortifications, and his flagship was tied up to the bank on the Arkansas side of the river. His first intimation that the battle was joined was a shot from a Confederate gunboat which passed over his ship. He at once cast off, made the prearranged signal to the rest of his rams, and headed down stream at full speed. He expected to be followed by three other rams but unfortunately one ran aground and another, through a misunderstanding of signals, failed to enter the engagement. The flagship, however, and one other, commanded by Colonel Ellet’s brother, passed through the line of slower gunboats and charged recklessly at the advancing enemy.
It must be remembered that the rams were entirely unarmed. Their sole function was to charge the enemy at high speed and ram him, hoping to do so and inflict mortal damage before being themselves disabled by gunfire.
This Colonel Ellet and his equally intrepid brother did most handsomely, and shortly after passing through the line of advancing federal gunboats, he crashed with terrific force into the leading enemy vessel and sank her. Close behind followed his brother in the second ram which immediately put another enemy steamer out of action. The battle now became a mêlée in which the enemy suffered severely as a result of collisions with friend and foe, as well as from the gunfire of the federal gunboats. In less than an hour all but one of the enemy’s ships were sunk or captured, that one having superior speed and being able to escape down river.
Most unfortunately the gallant Colonel Ellet received a pistol shot wound in the knee which was to result in his death some two weeks after the battle.
As an aftermath of this engagement there were a number of incidents which serve to illustrate the difficulties which arise when two independent commands are engaged in the same operation. Commodore Davis and Colonel Ellet each, without reference to the other, sent representatives ashore to the mayor of Memphis and demanded the surrender of the city. A certain amount of somewhat acrimonious correspondence passed between the two and we have the unpleasant spectacle of two able and gallant leaders rapidly becoming entirely antagonistic because the responsible superiors in Washington did not realize the necessity for unity of command.