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Exploring the Technical and Tactical Legacy of Charles Ellet, Jr.

Exploring the technical and tactical legacy of Charles Ellet, Jr in Chester Hearn’s “Ellet’s Brigade: The Strangest Outfit of All”.

Charles Ellet, Jr. left a complex legacy of service during the American Civil War. An innovative engineer, Ellet not only proposed a squadron of ram equipped steamboats be deployed to the Western rivers, he went on to lead those ships into combat in the Battle of Memphis. An ambitious man, Ellet’s persistence in testing his rams in battle cost him his life – but the work he set in motion lasted to the end of the war.

In “Ellet’s Brigade: The Strangest Outfit of All”, Chester G. Hearn presents a solid history of not just the involvement of Charles Ellet Jr. in creating the ram fleet, but also how from his actions flowed the creation of a unique military unit that often appeared to operate as a family run business. Hearn details the development of the ram squadron, it’s initial employment on the Mississippi River and the unique nature as a formation that stood apart from both the Army and the Navy and initially reported directly to the Secretary of War.

The ram was a weapon retrieved from history. Both the Union and Confederacy fielded squadrons of steamboat rams in the Western theater. Ellet envisioned his rams as disposable steeds intended to destroy an opposing ship. In a way, these were proto-torpedoes, albeit torpedoes with crews that faced more risk than their counterparts on the US Navy gunboats. The battle of Memphis was the high point for both Ellet and the ram, driving the Confederate squadron down the river and securing the city of Memphis. It came at the cost of a mortal wound to Charles Ellet Jr.

In the wake of Ellet’s death, his brother Alfred took command of the rams. Hearn does a solid job in telling the tale of how Alfred Ellet was able to cajole and connive his command into a formation referred to as the ‘Marine Brigade’. A unit that was ‘neither fish nor fowl’, the Marine Brigade consisted of Ellet’s original rams, as well as transport steamboats, plus the addition of infantry, cavalry and light field artillery. This amphibious strike force was highly innovative in its ability to land and recover their troops for action ashore. I found the description reminiscent of the modern airmobile formation. The Marine Brigade was envisioned as a rapid response force that could swiftly traverse rivers, depositing their troops into action and just as swiftly recover them and steam away. The ships were the base of operations with quarters for all troops and stables for the equine component.

In many ways the brigade represented both technical and tactical innovation. Charles Ellet, Jr. is deservedly remembered for his vision and energy in transforming steamboats into a powerful offensive weapon. But when the rams forte of ship-to-ship actions receded with the Confederacy’s ship-building abilities, Alfred Ellet was just as innovative in creating a tactical formation that emphasized the mobility the steam engine made possible. The capture of a Confederate payroll of over one million Confederate dollars by elements of the brigade clearly shows that the brigade added value.

But the history of the brigade also tells a tale of greed and ambition. For every opportunity to act as a rapid response force, there were as many opportunities wasted by poor coordination with the Army and Navy or in pursuing the loot posed by the ‘white gold’ of accumulated cotton awaiting export. Hearn provides a great level of details here. The lure of easy prize money was a distraction that repeatedly diverted the focus of the brigade and contributed to the perception that these ‘Pirates of the Mississippi’ were more interested in gold than glory.

The impact of the Ellet clan spanned much of the war in the Western Theater. It’s an important story that’s woven into many of the major actions all the rivers. Chester Hearn succeeds in documenting the victories, challenges, successes and failures that the Ellet’s and the men under their command experienced during the war.

“Ellet’s Brigade: The Strangest Outfit of All”. Louisiana State University Press. Baton Rouge, La. 2000.

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