The Battle of Memphis

One of the oddest incidents of the Civil War ended up being the largest fleet-on-fleet naval battle of the war. It didn’t take place in the Atlantic Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico, or the Pacific Ocean. Surprisingly, it took place on the Mississippi River near Memphis, Tennessee on June 6, 1862. Eight Confederate vessels faced off against nine Union vessels. In many ways, this battle was an embarrassment to both sides and is typically ignored though there are some important results and changes brought on by the battle.

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With the losses of Forts Henry and Donelson and coupled with the defeat at the Battle of Shiloh, the Confederacy lost control of the Tennessee River, which cut deep in the heartland of the South. The Mississippi River remained vitally important, but control of this river was slipping away. April 1862 saw the fall of New Orleans and the loss of Island No. 10 near New Madrid, Missouri meant that the anaconda was beginning to squeeze. Much of the Mississippi River lay open to attack from north and south. The Confederates were already in the process of abandoning Memphis as the Federal fleet drifted downstream.

What was left of Confederate forces included a number of converted riverboats. All except one of these vessels were named for army officers, such as the General Bragg and the General Beauregard. Heavy timbers reinforced areas around the engine rooms and other sensitive areas of the upper part of the vessels. A layer of railroad iron was then attached to the exterior of these bulkheads. Then, on the inside of the bulkhead cotton bales were stuffed in place to help soften the blows of striking projectiles, thus the nickname “cottonclad.”

This odd assortment of vessels fell under the command of Captain James E. Montgomery, more of a riverboat captain than a naval officer. Montgomery was forced to fight as there was not enough coal in Memphis to supply this motley collection of gunboats to quickly escape. The second biggest problem for Montgomery was that each of the vessels were captained by civilians. To further complicate matters, the gunners were soldiers under the command of M. Jeff Thompson of the Missouri State Guard. They did not follow the orders of the boat captains, but only to their army officers. In what can only be called a “miscellaneous” command, each captain carried out their own plans as events unfolded with little or no cooperation from the army gunners arrayed on the decks. But, the captains had agreed to fight instead of simply scuttling their vessels upon the approach of the Federal fleet.

 

Arrayed against the Confederates was an odd assortment of riverine ironclads and unarmed “rams.” The ironclads were the city-class and included the St. Louis, Cairo, and Carondelet. These vessels created an imposing figure on the river. Accompanying the ironclads were unarmed rams converted from civilian vessels. They were just as varied in appearance as their Southern counterparts

 

Union forces were just as divided in its command structure as the Confederates. The ironclads were under the command of Flag Officer Charles H. Davis, who interestingly reported to General Henry Halleck, the district army commander in St. Louis. The rams were under the command of Colonel Charles Ellet, who reported directly to the Secretary of War in Washington, D.C. Confusion reigned supreme. It is no small miracle that they arrived above Memphis ready to fight in the pre-dawn hours of June 6.

 

About 5:30 AM that morning, the ironclads were anchored and began to fire at the cottonclads. After several salvos, the rams made their way between the ironclads and made speed to run into the Confederate fleet. What happened over the next hour and a half is a confused mess, but the Confederates lost all but one of their vessels and suffered about 180 casualties. The Union suffered some light damage to their vessels and only Col. Ellet received a bullet wound to the leg. He later died after contracting measles in a Memphis hospital, thus became the only Union casualty of the battle. Historian James Robertson once described the First Battle of Manassas as “a fight between two armed mobs.” Memphis is the maritime equivalent.

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As a result of the battle, a major Southern city now lay in Union hands, the railroads crossing the Mississippi River at Memphis were cut, and the river lay open to the Union all the way to Vicksburg. The Federals would not take advantage of the opportunity for another six months. Though the battle tends to be ignored, the confused mess of the battle proved to be an important lesson to the US Navy about command and control.

Jeff Seymour

Director of History & Collections