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American Civil War: Battle of Memphis

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American Civil War: Battle of Memphis

The Battle of Memphis, June 6, 1862

Photograph Courtesy of the US Naval Historical Center

Battle of Memphis - Conflict:

The Battle of Memphis occurred during the American Civil War.

Battle of Memphis - Date:

The Confederate fleet was destroyed on June 6, 1862.

Fleets & Commanders:

Union

  • Flag Officer Charles H. Davis
  • Colonel Charles Ellet
  • 5 ironclad gunboats, 6 rams

Confederate

  • James E. Montgomery
  • Brigadier General Jeff M. Thompson
  • 8 rams

Battle of Memphis - Background:

In early June 1862, Flag Officer Charles H. Davis moved down the Mississippi River with a squadron of consisting of the ironclad gunboats USS Benton, USS St. Louis, USS Cairo, USS Louisville, and USS Carondelet. Accompanying him were six rams commanded by Colonel Charles Ellet. Operating in support of the Union advance, Davis sought to eliminate the Confederate naval presence near Memphis, TN, opening the city to capture. In Memphis, Confederate troops manning the city's defenses prepared to withdraw south as Union forces had cut the rail links to the north and east.

Battle of Memphis - Confederate Plans:

As the soldiers departed, the commander of the Confederate River Defense Fleet, James E. Montgomery, began making plans to take his eight cottonclad rams south to Vicksburg. These plans quickly collapsed when he was notified that there was not enough coal in the city to fuel his ships for the voyage. Montgomery was also plagued by a disjointed command system within his fleet. While he technically commanded the fleet, each ship retained its pre-war captain who was empowered to act independently once they left port.

This was compounded by the fact that the vessel's gun crews were provided by the army and served under their own officers. On June 6, when the Federal fleet appeared above the city, Montgomery called a meeting of his captains to discuss their options. The group decided to stand and fight rather than scuttling their ships and fleeing. Approaching Memphis, Davis ordered his gunboats to form a line of battle across the river, with Ellet's rams in the rear.

Battle of Memphis - The Union Attacks:

Opening fire on Montgomery's lightly armed rams, the Union gunboats fired for around fifteen minutes before Ellet and his brother Lt. Colonel Alfred Ellet moved through the line with the rams Queen of the West and Monarch. As Queen of the West struck CSS General Lovell, Ellet was wounded in the leg. With the battle engaged at close quarters, Davis closed and the fighting deteriorated into a wild melee. As the ships battled, the heavy Union ironclads made their presence felt and succeeded in sinking all but one of Montgomery's ships.

Aftermath of the Battle of Memphis:

With the River Defense Fleet eliminated, Davis approached the city and demanded its surrender. This was agreed to and Col. Ellet's son Charles was sent ashore to officially take possession of the city. The fall of Memphis opened the Mississippi River to Union shipping and warships as far south a Vicksburg, MS. For the remainder of the war, Memphis would serve as a principal Union supply base. In the fighting on June 6, Union casualties were limited to Col. Charles Ellet. The colonel later died of measles which he contracted while recovering from his wound.

Precise Confederate casualties are not known but most likely numbered between 180-200. The destruction of the River Defense Fleet effectively eliminated any significant Confederate naval presence on the Mississippi.

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