The Battle of Memphis
After the bloodless victory at Corinth, Mississippi, in late May, the Union army turned its attention to Memphis, Tennessee, the Confederacy's fifth largest city and a key port along the Mississippi River. But before Henry Halleck had a chance to invade, the city fell during one of the war's most impressive naval engagements.
Steaming past Island No. 10, the Union army and navy confronted Fort Pillow fifty miles above Memphis. It was armed with forty guns, and Confederates had hedged their bets with a fleet of eight steamboats converted into armed rams, a throwback to the days of the Roman galley. These rams surprised the Union fleet with a hit-and-run attack at Plum Run Bend, located just above Fort Pillow, and disabled two Union ironclads by punching holes in them just below the waterline.
The Union navy vowed never to be caught unprepared again and fitted several steamboats of its own with sturdy rams. The brains behind the operation was Charles Ellet, a fifty-seven-year-old civil engineer from Pennsylvania who, having failed to convince the Union navy of the value of ram power, found a believer in Secretary of War Stanton. Ellet supervised the construction of nine steamboats, developing his own calculations for maximum strength. Ellet commanded the fleet's flagship and placed eight relatives aboard the others.
Ellet was eager to take on the Confederate fleet at Fort Pillow, but his plans changed when Confederate general Beauregard ordered the fort's evacuation; Beauregard had determined the location was too far north with Corinth in the hands of the Federals. Instead, the Confederates decided to make a stand at Memphis, and early on June 6, the Southern ram fleet sailed out to take on five Union ironclads and four of Ellet's self-designed ram ships. Thousands of Memphis residents lined the bluffs above the river to cheer the Rebels.
“We propose a powerful movement down the Mississippi to the ocean, with a cordon of posts… the object being to clear out… this great line of communication in connection with the strict blockade of the seaboard, so as to envelop the insurgent States and bring them to terms with less bloodshed than by any other plan.” — Winfield Scott, in a letter describing the Anaconda Plan to General George B. McClellan
There turned out to be little for them to cheer about. It took the Union ships less than two hours to reduce the Confederate vessels to driftwood. Only one Confederate boat escaped the battle. It was a devastating defeat for the Confederate river force, and it opened the door for the Union to capture Memphis. The residents who had so loudly cheered during the early minutes of the river battle stood silent as a four-man detachment led by Ellet's son, Charles Ellet Jr., raised the American flag over the Memphis post office. Charles Ellet Sr. was wounded in the fighting and died two weeks later. Charles Ellet Jr. was promoted to colonel — at nineteen, he was the youngest person to hold that rank — and took command of his father's ram fleet. He was killed in combat a year later.