The varied career––building canals, spanning rivers, laying railroads over mountains, and planning vast projects of flood control and river navigation––of Charles Ellet, Jr. earned him comparison with the famous English civil engineer Brunel.
At Philadelphia, in 1842, Ellet built the first important suspension bridge in America, and at Wheeling, in 1849, the longest single span bridge in the world. In 1852, and again in 1854, Charles Ellet presented plans to the mayor and city council of Georgetown for a suspension railroad bridge to span the Potomac above that city.
In the Battle of Memphis, in 1862, two ram ships commanded by Col. Charles Ellet, Jr. engaged eight Confederate ironclads, sinking one, disabling and capturing three, and scattering the rest. Col. Ellet, who had taken a bullet in his leg, died two weeks later. His body was taken to Independence Hall in Philadelphia, and lay in state beneath the Liberty Bell.
In 1857 Ellet bought a farm on Georgetown Heights, and built the house he called Clifton. The ground was poor and stony, but farming was never his intention. Ellet had ideas for grand engineering projects, and had established himself in Washington to lobby for them. When the Civil War broke out, Ellet had ideas about that, as well.
Ellet knew the South. Despite his somewhat unusual heritage––Quaker and Jewish––Ellet had married the daughter of a prominent Virginian while he was serving as chief engineer on the James River and Kanawha Canal, and Virginia was the scene of his most celebrated achievement, the construction of the Virginia Central R.R. over the Blue Ridge at Rock Fish Gap.
Indeed, having worked on the Baltimore & Ohio R.R., drawn plans to control the Mississippi River, and generally been on the lookout for engineering projects to match his ambitions, Ellet had made himself intimately familiar with the topography, transportation lines, and points of strength and vulnerability, of both the North and the South, the engineer concluded that the Union would win the war. Moreover, Ellet did not share the common assumption that few lives would be lost; when Virginia seceded, he sat down and wrote out his will.
A very considerable portion of Col. ELLETT’s professional career had been spent in Virginia; and at the commencement of the rebellion there were few persons better acquainted with the general conformation and peculiar features of the interior of the State than he, or who could be more relied upon for topographical information concerning it. At an early day he placed both himself and all the knowledge he possessed at the disposal of the Government.
(“The Colonels Ellet”, New York Times, November 29, 1863)
Then he turned his pen to criticizing the North. In pamphlets and in open letters he harangued the Lincoln administration about everything it was doing wrong. At a time when General McClellan still enjoyed great popularity, Ellet advised that he be kept in Washington to review parades, while a more energetic commander took on Lee (The Army Of The Potomac, And Its Mismanagement, 1861). Although time would prove him right, the main effect of Ellet’s pamphleteering was to gain him a reputation as a know-it-all and crank.
It will be remembered that he did not hesitate to attack publicly and in no measured terms the character and conduct of the Commanding General. Of the justice of these military criticisms it is not our purpose now to speak.
(“The Colonels Ellet”, New York Times, November 29, 1863)
Before the war Ellet had published a scheme for a fleet of cheap, armored steamships, fitted with rams, that could absorb a broadside from an enemy ship, then plow into its wooden side at full speed, and send it to the bottom (Coast and Harbor Defenses, 1855). The Navy had not been interested; still worse, one of the few people who had taken Ellet seriously was now in Richmond: Jefferson Davis. Rumors began to reach Washington that a Confederate ram was nearing completion. Languishing at Clifton, Ellet could do little but issue another pamphlet ––Military Incapacity, And What It Costs The Country, 1862––in which, among other things, he foretold that the Navy was about to have a truly bad day.
In the ensuing Spring, and after the fatal demonstration made by the Merrimac upon our ships at James River, Col. ELLET was authorized by the War Department to superintend the construction of a ram fleet in the Mississippi, and (what would not always have been as welcome an addition) to command it in its coup d’essai. It is a singular fact, in relation to this new mode of naval warfare, that more than thirty years ago it had been strongly recommended and urged upon the consideration of the Government by two officers standing high in the naval service, and had at that time been with great unanimity consigned to a place among the class of inventions known as humbugs. The Merrimac has proved herself a bug of an entirely different species, and operated a proportional change in public opinion.
(“The Colonels Ellet”, New York Times, November 29, 1863)
Ellet had spent years trying to persuade the Navy to build armored rams; now he warned that the Confederacy had adopted his ideas, and was building one. Fortunately, the Union had more than one annoying inventor at its disposal, so when the Southern ironclad made its debut by ramming and sinking two Union warships, and was preparing to do the same to a third, John Ericsson’s Monitor arrived in time to prevent further damage.
Suddenly Ellet’s services were in demand. Secretary of War Stanton commissioned him a Colonel––answerable only to Stanton––in the Army Corps of Engineers, and ordered him to build a fleet of Union rams to operate on the Mississippi River. Ellet went west and purchased nine civilian side-wheel steamers and tugboats, which he reinforced and fitted with iron bows. His son, a medical student at Georgetown College, soon joined him, as did his brother and two nephews, and the Mississippi Ram Fleet began to resemble a family business.
In June of 1862, Ellet’s fleet joined a Navy squadron of gunboats to challenge the Confederate fleet defending Memphis. As the combined Union force prepared to attack, Ellet’s eagerness to prove himself and his ideas could no longer be held in check; his rams quickly outdistanced the lumbering gunboats and closed with the enemy, immediately sinking several ships, disabling others, and throwing the rest into disarray. By the time the Navy arrived on the scene, the Army fleet had already won.
To the mayor of the suddenly defenseless city, Ellet sent a brief note. “I understand that Memphis has surrendered. I therefore send my son, with two United States flags, with instructions to raise one upon the custom-house, and the other upon the court-house, as evidence of the return of your city to the care and protection of the Constitution.“ All Memphis had flocked to the riverbank to see the battle, had witnessed the rout, and made its displeasure known. Amid stones and curses, Medical Cadet Charlie Ellet lowered the Confederate flag on the custom-house, and raised the Stars and Stripes.
However, there is no reason to doubt the Navy’s Civil War Chronology, which maintains that a naval officer, Charles H. Davis, accepted the surrender of Memphis (which had no choice but to surrender twice).
In the Battle of Memphis, June 6, 1862, two unarmed ram ships commanded by Col. Charles Ellet, Jr. of Washington, D.C., engaged eight heavily-armed Confederate ironclads, sank one, disabled and captured three, and scattered the rest. On the Union side only one man had been hurt: Col. Ellet had taken a bullet in his leg.
Secretary of War Edwin Stanton came to Clifton personally to bring the news to Ellet’s wife, who joined her husband on the ram Switzerland as it carried him up the Mississippi to convalesce. His wound appeared at first to be minor, but Ellet died two weeks later. His body was taken to Independence Hall in Philadelphia, and lay in state under the Liberty Bell. His wife survived him by eight days, and was placed in the same grave as her husband.
It was not the least excellent or deserving part of this last service of Col. ELLET, that in rendering it to the country, he necessarily disregarded the dearest and strongest ties of domestic life. Mrs. ELLET, whose death had followed so closely upon that of her husband, was by birth a Virginian, possessing among her other kind and womanly excellencies a deep-rooted attachment to her kindred, to the place of her birth, and the hitherto glorious annals and legends of the Old Dominion. All these dear and long-cherished memories were now at once to be sequestered and hidden, or hoarded deep in the heart of hearts as things contraband and unholy.
It is now but little more than a year since [Ellet] received a mortal wound on the deck of his own ship, in a successful attack made upon the rebel gunboats on the Mississippi, with a fleet of steam rams, constructed and equipped under his immediate superintendence, and commanded by himself. His death was followed almost immediately by that of his wife, who, after a long journey, had been able to reach her husband only a few hours before he breathed his last; and died herself the day after his funeral.
(“The Colonels Ellet”, New York Times, November 29, 1863)
The Ellets never returned to the house that connects them to the history of this neighborhood.
“Residence on the Heights of Georgetown for rent. Clifton, recently the residence of the late Col. Charles Ellet, Jr.” (National Intelligencer, September 18, 1862)
In the years that followed the Navy did its best to forget Ellet’s Ram Fleet, and insisted on giving its gunboats the credit for the surrender of Memphis, and until her death in 1930, Ellet’s daughter, Mary Virginia Ellet Cabell––a founding member of Daughters of the American Revolution––wrote a half dozen letters a year to newspapers regarding her father’s and her brothers’ forgotten achievements.
In 1937 the Navy at last relented, and Elvira Daniel Cabell, Charles Ellet’s granddaughter, was given the honor of sponsoring the destroyer Ellet, then under construction, which was to be named for five members of her family who had rendered service to the Union during the Civil War: Colonel Charles Ellet, Jr., Brigadier General Alfred W. Ellet, Colonel Charles Rivers Ellet, Lieutenant Colonel John A. Ellet, and Edward C. Ellet. (“Kinswoman to Sponsor Craft Named for Ellets”, Washington Post, August 1, 1937, p.A11)
Gene Dale Lewis, Charles Ellet, Jr.: The Engineer as Individualist, 1810-1862, University of Illinois Press
Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Vol.1, p.453: Ellet And His Steam Rams, by Alfred W. Ellet, Brigadier-General, U.S.V.(Alfred Washington Ellet (1820-1895)
“Col. Charles Rivers Ellet”, Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Vol.3, p.554
Crandall, W.D., Newell, I.D., History of the Ram Fleet: The Ellets and Their Men (St. Louis 1907)
Civil War Chronology 1861-1865, Department of the Navy, 1971
Ellet Family Papers, 1839-1968, Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries
Kemp, Emory L. and Fluty, Beverly B., The Wheeling Suspension Bridge: A Pictorial Heritage, Charleston, West Virginia: Pictorial Histories Publishing Company, 1999
Hawkins,Don, “The Three Sisters Bridge Georgetowners Wanted”, Washington History, Spring 2016, pp.84-85
Biographical Sketch of Charles Ellet by Jeannette Cabell Coley, a Descendant
Ellet was born in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, January 1, 1810, the son of shopkeeper Charles Ellet and Mary Israel Ellet, a highly educated woman for her day. They soon moved to a farm 25 miles from Philadelphia. This proved to be a hardship for Mary, but it instilled in her a determination to do the best she could for her children. This was especially true for Charles, as it was abundantly clear that he was not cut out to be a farmer. With little formal schooling, Ellet was a voracious reader and showed an early aptitude for math. Mary encouraged those abilities and supported him as he followed his dreams into a world far different from the one where he had spent his childhood.
Ellet’s career and the timing of the Erie Canal in 1825 were fortuitous. The completion of the canal launched a national mania for more inland waterways. Until then, Americans had only read about the infrastructure that already crisscrossed Europe. It was at this time that Ellet left the family farm at age 17 and immediately found work surveying the North Branch of the Susquehanna River. Work on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal followed, where Judge Benjamin Wright of Erie Canal fame was appointed chief engineer.
Ellet soon began to realize that getting off the riverbank, literally and figuratively, would require something beyond his ingenuity. In 1830, with a letter of introduction to the Marquis de Lafayette, Ellet sailed to Paris. Lafayette and the American Ambassador to France pulled strings for Ellet to attend lectures at the Ecole des Ponts et Chausses with other French engineering students. He also took the opportunity to examine public works in the vicinity. While touring southern France the next spring, Ellet observed reservoir and suspension bridge construction with special interest. By observing a suspension bridge under construction over the Loire River, he grasped the concepts behind how the wire cables for these bridges were utilized. His application of these techniques became two of his most outstanding contributions to American civil engineering.
When Ellet returned to the United States, he made several suspension bridge proposals but was repeatedly turned down. His youth, inexperience, and his novel ideas were the rational reasons. Instead, Judge Wright put him to work surveying the western end of the New York and Erie Railroad. In 1835, Wright was appointed chief engineer of the James River and Kanawha Canal Company (JRKCC) in Lynchburg, Virginia. The project was intended to connect the Tidewater to the Ohio River. Wright hired his son and Ellet as assistants. Ellet was put in charge of the segment between Lynchburg and the Tye River.
The move to Lynchburg brought romance into the life of the engineer, who had previously never sought it. Ellet was not a sociable man and small talk bored him. However, he was forced to attend a formal occasion with JRKCC president Joseph Carrington Cabell, Judge William Daniel, Sr., and other Lynchburg elite. Daniel’s youngest daughter Elvira, known as Ellie, observed Ellet standing in the foyer. The frail, but lovely, dark-eyed brunette whispered to her sister that the six foot two, slender framed engineer, with dark, thick hair and discerning eyes was the handsomest man she had ever seen. He was smitten with her as well. Ellet and Ellie married October 31, 1837 at Point of Honor, her childhood home. Their first child, Mary Virginia, was born there two years later.
During the next decade, Ellet concentrated on building the first important wire suspension bridges in the United States. The first over the Schuylkill River at Fairmount, in Philadelphia, 1842; another at Niagara Falls, 1848; and a third over the Ohio River at Wheeling, in 1849. The bridge at Wheeling, which connected the National Road, was his crown jewel. At 1,010 feet, it was then the longest suspension bridge in the world. The town turned out for a grand celebration and the builder was revered. Ellet and his family lived in Wheeling longer than at any other location during his career.
Ellet’s work was often plagued with controversy and the Wheeling Bridge project was no exception. Four months before the structure was completed, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania sued the Wheeling and Belmont Bridge Company on behalf of steamboat interests in Pittsburgh. The litigation introduced Ellet to the opposition’s counsel, Edwin M. Stanton. In the final analysis, Congress sided with the bridge company, and the President signed into law a bill that declared the bridge a portion of a post road and therefore not subject to the decree of the Supreme Court. Nevertheless, bitter seeds had been sown between the bridge engineer and the future Secretary of War.
At this point, Ellet’s attention turned to the extensive overflows of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. No better example exists of his fascination with the nation’s waterways than when he changed his oldest son’s name to Charles (Charlie) Rivers Ellet. In 1850, Congress commissioned a survey of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers that would lead to a practical plan to combat inundation. Ellet conducted his work simultaneously and independently of topographical engineers Colonel Stephen H. Long and Captain Andrew A. Humphreys. Ellet finished first, on October 31, 1851. He argued for stronger and higher levees and recommended the creation of artificial reservoirs on tributary streams in order to control discharge into the Mississippi. His plan was considered controversial and the Corps of Engineers rejected it.
This study was originally published as a Senate document in 1852, and later elaborated in Ellet’s Report on the Overflows of the Delta of the Mississippi (Washington, 1852) and The Mississippi and Ohio Rivers (Philadelphia, 1853); Physical Geography of the Mississippi Valley was published by the Smithsonian Institution in1849. Not until 1928 would a comparably comprehensive flood control plan be published by the federal government.
From 1850 to 1853 Ellet was chief engineer of the Hempfield Railroad and the Virginia Central Railroad, in addition to other mentioned projects. A second daughter, Nina, had been born in1849, and son Willie was born in the summer of 1854. Ellie was spending winters in Washington DC. Although a growing family and Ellet’s mounting list of projects and responsibilities were taking their toll, he could not refuse a third trip to Europe when the ailing railroad companies asked him to go in an effort to secure credit and supplies.
In Europe, eleven-year-old Charlie was sent to a boarding school in Paris. Ellie remained in Frankfurt with Mary Virginia, Nina, and Willie, while Ellet crossed the continent taking care of business. The Crimean War was in progress, and it was during this time that the engineer conceived the idea of a steam battering ram. It was not a complicated design. Simply put, he wanted to strengthen the boat’s hull and send them with “force against the sides of other vessels.” In 1855 he wrote a pamphlet outlining his ram ideas, which marked the beginning of a seven-year campaign to convince the United States government to use them for national defense.
On their return from Europe, the family settled for good in the Washington DC area on a small farm they called Clifton, in what is now Georgetown. Children Nina and Willie were still young and remained at home, but Charlie was the rambunctious one. He was soon enrolled in Georgetown College and later Virginia Military Institute, from which he was expelled for getting into mischief. Charlie was then sent to live with Uncle Edward Ellet in Illinois where he began to train for the medical profession and was introduced to the 1860’s version of “tough love.”
Daughter Mary Virginia was never a problem. She, like her father, was largely self-taught. She learned French on her own while in Europe. She read a great deal. She helped her mother with the younger children. She made occasional trips to Virginia to spend time with her relatives. She wrote more letters to her father during the war years than anyone else.
Life changed drastically after Fort Sumter, when Ellet offered his services as an engineer to the President and the Secretary of the Navy. He was prepared to argue, persuade, and harangue for a position to assist the war effort. After all, no one knew the topography of Virginia better than he did. He had strategies to cut off Confederate supplies by rail, build floating bridges on the Potomac, and he was even willing to lead a Pennsylvania infantry. Additionally, he had never let up on his steam ram plan for national defense. His offers were ignored with an insulting silence, even by General George B. McClellan.
Initially, Ellet thought his overtures to “Little Mac” would be well received. Both men were engineers, both had held high positions with railroad companies, both were from Pennsylvania, and both had observed war strategies during the Crimean War. Ellet’s efforts to contribute to the war effort were to no avail. The General’s disregard of a senior engineer sent Ellet into a tailspin. He wrote a highly critical letter to the editor of the New York Times about McClellan’s procrastination. Ellet’s views were later published in a pamphlet titled, The Army of the Potomac and Its Mismanagement.
Ellet observed that the Army of the Potomac enjoyed being a daily parade brigade while the Southern troops regularly received food, ammunition, and additional troops from the Orange and Alexandria Railroad. He simply proposed that a strategic destruction of Virginia’s rail lines would stop the war and save lives. But he determined the General was apparently “unconscious” about where the enemy was and what they were doing, especially after they stole the Baltimore and Ohio engines away, within view of Federal campfires.
McClellan’s dawdling included the consistent call for more men. Ellet wrote “You have more men and equipment here now than Napoleon had when he prostrated Prussia in a three weeks campaign. You have more men here on the Potomac than he moved when he marched to the heart of Austria, occupied Vienna, and dictated laws to the sovereigns of Europe.” The New York Times eventually cast its approval for Ellet’s critique, but the federal government continued to ignore him until March 9, 1862. The overture from the politicians had nothing to do with McClellan. The ironclad ram Merrimac had destroyed a fleet of Union boats at the Battle of Hampton Roads. This battle did more for Ellet’s ram proposal than anything he said or could have said.
Strategically, Stanton decided that the Union must take control of the Mississippi River. If the North hoped to put down the rebellion, it must cut off the Confederate source of trade and transportation. Putting together a fleet of steam battering rams became an emergency and Charles Ellet, Jr. was their man. Stanton told his cohorts that he didn’t know of anyone else to whom he could entrust the mission. Obviously, at this point, Stanton was over their Wheeling discord.
Ellet oversaw the conversion of nine steamboats into speedier, less cumbersome ramming vessels than the ironclads. Stanton commissioned the engineer a colonel, so that he could command the fleet. Ellet requested that his youngest brother, Lieutenant Colonel Alfred W. Ellet, be allowed to join him as second in command. The crew consisted of fifty soldiers from Alfred’s Illinois unit, ordinary river boatmen, and other Ellet relatives, including son Charlie.
On the Mississippi River at Memphis, June 6, 1862, Colonel Ellet, aboard Queen of the West, and Alfred, aboard Monarch, joined forces with Captain Charles H. Davis’s gunboats. Union ram Switzerland ran aground and the others coming from behind, obeying orders, did not get out of formation, thus leaving the ramming to Charles and Alfred. Nevertheless, all the Rebel rams but one were sunk, burned, or run into the Arkansas side. The Battle of Memphis barely lasted an hour.
Ellet was shot in the knee. The wound was not considered life threatening at first. He penned a letter to Mary Virginia saying little about the battle, but giving accolades to Charlie for removing the Confederate flag from atop the Memphis Post Office and raising the National banner. “One man drew a pistol and proclaimed himself an officer of the Confederate Army, and would tear that flag down. Charles told him that if he advanced his foot to the steps he would kill him… The whole bearing of the boy was manly in extreme… I enclose you a piece of the cord from the wounded leg side of my pantaloons for Nina… My dear daughter you have no need to be ashamed of your kindred today.”
Writing to Ellie, Ellet said, “after the doctor removed the ball from near my knee, my anxiety is now for you, and Mary and our dear little ones. Join me here my dear Wife and let us study out the future and talk over the past… Forever yours, Charles Ellet, Jr.”
Stanton sent the “thanks of the Department” to Ellet and his men. But as the days went by, Ellet’s condition deteriorated. Stanton soon had the heartbreaking task of informing Ellie that her seriously ill husband was being brought to Cairo. She and daughter Mary Virginia rushed to meet him there. But when the boat docked on June 21, Ellet was dead.
His body was taken to Independence Hall where he lay in state until he was interred June 27 at Laurel Hill Cemetery. Ellie died the next day from exhaustion and a broken heart. Charlie had remained to serve with Uncle Alfred and they ran reconnaissance missions during the months preceding the Battle at Vicksburg. Charlie became sick and went home to Uncle Edward in Illinois. Within a few days, Charlie died at the age of 21.
Their oldest daughter, Mary Virginia, was left to raise her two young siblings, Nina and Willie. Willie later died of unknown causes at age 20. Nina died in childbirth at 24. Mary Virginia had married her widowed cousin, William Daniel Cabell, in 1867. He ran a school for boys, initially those returning home from war, out of his Norwood, Virginia, estate until about 1880.
The couple and their children moved to Washington DC and opened another school called the Norwood Institute. In 1890, Mary Virginia became an organizing member of the Daughters of the American Revolution. She spent her later years perpetuating the memory of her father, until her death in 1930.
Charles Ellet, Jr., was like a one-man American band when it came to introducing public works to an infant nation in the mid-19th Century. Building canals, bridges, railroads, surveying rivers to control inundation, commanding a steam ram fleet of his design, and writing pamphlets about all of his enterprises was what he did from 1832-1862. As his story shows, he did it with style and impeccable courtesy, but often became impatient with those who did not agree with him. Still, he was highly acclaimed during his lifetime. And, he always demonstrated love and tenderness towards his wife and children. Although Ellet’s mass applause has grown silent, notable engineers sing his praises, and descendants beat the drum. The eminent engineer made history in his day. He deserves this page today.
Smithsonian Associates Civil War E-Mail Newsletter, Volume 5, Number 5, 2002
The citation and acknowledgement of my research is greatly appreciated.
All rights reserved.
Questions and corrections may be directed to
The support of the Advisory Neighborhood Council (3B) is gratefully acknowledged.