In 1862 the former Georgetown College medical student Charles Rivers Ellet succeeded his dying father in command of the Mississippi Ram Fleet, and was dead a little more than a year later.
Charles Rivers Ellet (June 1, 1843–October 29, 1863) was the only son of the American civil engineer Charles Ellet, Jr.; his middle name reflects his father’s lifelong passion to improve the control and navigation of America’s mid-western rivers.
At fourteen Ellet attended preparatory classes at Georgetown College; and at sixteen he was expelled from the Virginia Military Institute, apparently for a prank. The outbreak of the Civil War found him at Georgetown College again, studying medicine. Ellet’s first choice was to enlist in the Potomac Light Infantry, but that Georgetown organization––“invincible in peace, invisible in war”–– had disbanded. Ellet volunteered instead as a Medical Cadet. (Medical Cadets were a corps of fifty enrolled medical students, created by Congress in August 1861, to assist military surgeons. Guy R. Hasegawa, “The Civil War’s Medical Cadets: Medical Students Serving the Union”, Journal of the American College of Surgeons, Vol.193, No.1, July 2001, pp. 81-89.)
In 1862 Ellet’s father was given a colonelcy in the Union army, and set about the creation of the U.S. Ram Fleet. His son was allowed to join him as his second in command. The Mississippi Ram Fleet –– more a family enterprise than a military unit, and answerable only to the Secretary of War –– was locked in rivalry with the Union navy. Although marred by a lack of coordination between the two services, the river battle for Memphis, where the Ellet rams went into action, was a Union victory (June 6, 1862).
To the mayor of the suddenly defenseless city, Ellet’s father 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 was now making its displeasure known. Amid stones and curses, Medical Cadet Charlie Ellet pulled down the Confederate flag on the custom-house, and raised the Stars and Stripes. According to Ellet’s uncle, Lt. Col. Alfred Ellet––also a member of the “family navy”––this was “a considerable time before formal surrender of city to troops commanded by Col. G.N. Fitch”.
Two weeks later Charles Rivers Ellet succeeded his dying father in command of the ram fleet. At nineteen quite possibly the youngest colonel in the army, Ellet was either brave or reckless; his ship ran the guns of Vicksburg several times, and when he took the Queen of the West onto the Red River without waiting for support, the ship ran aground and had to be abandoned. Clinging to cotton bales in frigid water, Ellet and his men narrowly escaped. The USS Queen of the West briefly became the CSS Queen of the West, before being destroyed by Union ships. The loss only exacerbated the Navy’s war with the Ellet family.
Given a medical discharge, Ellet wrote his sister that he was suffering from neuralgia of the face, for which he was taking an anodyne. He died in his sleep, apparently by accidental overdose. His remains were sent East to be interred with those of his mother and father.
Col. CHARLES RIVERS ELLET… was, at the time of his death a little more than twenty years of age, and had received the best education the public seminaries of the country could give; to which had been added, though at an early age, a brief course of foreign travel and a short residence in Paris. All these advantages in his case had been matured and perfected by a home education of infinitely greater value. To him had not been wanting the never-failing fund of knowledge always gleaned about the family hearth, where the presiding divinities are both wise, prudent and affectionate, and where the hoarded treasures of age and experience are to be garnered up in younger hearts for future use and guidance. Many of those who have partaken of the hospitalities of his father’s residence in Georgetown, where the full and genial plenty of a Pennsylvania farm-house, was gratefully blended with the not less hearty kindness of a Southern plantation, will remember him not many years since as a sedate, pensive and rather quiet boy. He had made choice of medicine as a profession, and at the outbreak of the rebellion was quietly engaged in pursuing the requisite studies, in which he had already made such progress as to fill competently the place of assistant surgeon in one of the military hospitals. He followed his father westward in the spring of 1862, and commanded one of the rams in the action at Memphis, in which his father lost his life. On the organization of the Marine brigade he received the appointment of Colonel, being perhaps the youngest who had ever filled so high a grade in any active campaign. His subsequent service on the Mississippi fully justified the wisdom of the selection, while his firm but modest and equitable demeanor saved him from the envy and detraction which usually follows in the wake of a rapid promotion.
It is not, however, of his military life and history which we intend to speak, but of the kindlier and more homely part of his character as a citizen and a brother. His last visit made here some time in September, and for which he had received his first furlough from active service, was undertaken solely for the purpose of aiding his now doubly-orphaned sister, in some necessary domestic arrangements. At that time, though evidently suffering with the relics of disease contracted among the brakes and fens of the Mississippi, there was as yet visible no dangerous or alarming symptom, and he had the promise of a long and useful life before him. But it was not to be so. He had all his life been subject to severe attacks of neuralgia in the head, and his death, which occurred suddenly during a visit to his uncle in Illinois, is supposed to have resulted either from that cause, or from an injudicious though usual remedy taken to alleviate the pain.
It is now but little more than a year since the father of this young soldier 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. To this double affliction in the same family is now added the loss of the eldest son, who had accompanied his father to the West, and after his death continued in the service, first as a cadet and volunteer, and finally as a Colonel in the Marine brigade, commanded by his uncle, Gen. A.W. ELLET, under whose direction this branch of the service had been first equipped and organized.
(“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 itself the credit for the surrender of Memphis. Until her death in 1930, Charles Rivers Ellet’s sister, 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 brother’s forgotten achievements.
In 1938 the Navy at last relented, and Charles Ellet’s granddaughter was given the honor of christening the destroyer Ellet. The Navy nevertheless maintains that it was a naval officer, Charles H. Davis, who took the surrender of Memphis. (Civil War Chronology, 1861-1865 (1971)
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
Images of Charles Rivers Ellet:
Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Vol.3, p.554
Francis T. Miller, The Photographic History of the Civil War, 1911, vol.6, p.151
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