A Radical Idea: Charles Ellet’s Rams

By Savannah Labbe ’19

Photo credit: Special Collections at Musselman Library. https://gettysburg.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p4016coll2/id/1703/rec/15.

The political cartoon above shows an engineer named Charles Ellet attempting to get a meeting with General George McClellan. Ellet contacted many government officials and important men to try to get his ideas recognized and implemented. Ellet was born in Pennsylvania in 1810 and was inspired to become an engineer when he watched the opening of the Erie Canal. At age 20, he went to Paris to learn his craft, attending lectures for civil engineers and examining bridges, railroads, and other structures. He returned to the United States afterwards and in 1835 went to work as an assistant engineer for the James River and Kanawha Canal Company. This company was working to connect the Virginia tidewater region to the Ohio River. In 1854, his family went on a vacation touring Europe. The Crimean War was going on at that time, and Ellet witnessed two warships collide accidentally, causing immense damage to one of the ships. This was when Ellet’s passion was born. Because of this event, he came up with the idea of building a steam-powered ship to be used specially for ramming. He would promote this idea to anyone who would listen, which is how he came to be knocking on McClellan’s door.

Ellet was fairly well known before the war, as he had done congressional surveys of the Mississippi and Ohio River Valleys and had built the first suspension bridges in the United States. At the beginning of the war, he wrote to President Abraham Lincoln to ask if he could raise a corps of civil engineers to make a survey of the terrain of the border states to help familiarize the army with them. Lincoln approved of the idea, but said it was ultimately up to McClellan, which is why Ellet sent dozens of requests for an interview with McClellan. They were all ignored, which angered Ellet, so he decided to publish a pamphlet criticizing McClellan, saying that he was too busy with parades to actually fight the war and that he never knew where the enemy was or what they were doing. The political cartoon above is about Ellet’s quest to get McClellan to listen to him.

One thing the cartoon portrays very accurately is Ellet’s persistence. In the pamphlet about McClellan’s leadership, he also took the chance to advertise his idea about steam rams, even though it was quite off topic. He sent letters to various members of Congress, the President, and Cabinet members to convince them to buy into his steam ram idea. No one really listened or took him seriously until March 9, 1862 when, for the first time, two ironclads faced off. The contest between the CSS Virginia and the USS Monitor showed Secretary of War Edwin Stanton that something needed to be done to stop the Confederate ironclads. While the Union also had ironclads, it was clear from the battle between the Virginia and the Monitor that ended in a draw that just one ironclad would not be able to defeat another. So, either a fleet of ironclads was needed to go up against one enemy ironclad, which would be expensive and time consuming to create, or a fleet of rams that could accomplish the same goal much quicker and by using less money. And, of course, right after this happened, Ellet sent another pamphlet on his steam rams to Stanton, which led Stanton to invite the eager engineer to his office. Stanton had Ellet go to Hampton Roads and figure out how to stop the Virginia. As it turned out, the Federal commander there, John Wool, had already figured out how to defeat the Virginia, and Ellet was not really needed there. Wool’s idea was much the same as Ellet’s. He commissioned a fleet of fast steamboats that could ram the Virginia. Instead, Stanton sent Ellet to the Mississippi River Valley to convert river steamers into rams.

Ellet left for the valley immediately and began working on his project. He was commissioned as a Colonel and given money to buy the necessary ships and equipment. He was also given the authority to recruit civilians and requisition local military units to help him and serve on his ships when they were completed. He ended up buying seven steamers. He reinforced the ships with extra timber but only put iron on the front of them to reinforce the ramming prow. He wanted the ship to be as lightweight as possible, so it could move fast enough to damage an enemy ship before the enemy could get too many shots off. He put no cannons on the ships, in the interest of keeping it light but also because he felt that naval cannons were useless and fast becoming obsolete because of iron plating and the fact that ships could now move much faster while it still took the cannons a long time to get off a shot. So, Ellet believed the future of naval warfare was in ramming.  In many ways he was right at the time, as the cannons took a long time to load and were not very accurate. However, future improvements in naval armament technology, such as rifled breech-loading cannons, proved Ellet’s prediction to be false.

Ellet’s steamers would see their first action on June 6, 1862. Five Federal ironclads were anchored in the Mississippi near Memphis, and some Confederate “cottonclad” ships, which were reinforced with extra timber, iron rails, and lined with cotton to protect from enemy fire, had spotted them and moved to engage them. As the first shot was fired at the First Battle of Memphis, Ellet and his steamers arrived. Ellet used his rams to disable a few of the Confederate ships and helped win the battle for the Union. When used correctly, rams would move fast against an enemy ship, hit it hard and do a lot of damage and then retreat into safety. Of course, sometimes the rams would get stuck or be equally damaged by the blow. However, this did not happen to Ellet.  Ellet’s son, who had been an assistant surgeon in the Union Army before the war and quickly transferred to his father’s unit when it was created,  then went into the city of Memphis, took down the Confederate flag and raised the stars and stripes. This was one of the first steps in an important campaign to take control of the Mississippi River and divide the Confederacy in two. Unfortunately for Ellet, this would be the only time he would see his steamers at work. During the battle, he went out to inspect the front of the ram that he was on, exposing himself to the enemy. He was shot just below the knee, and while this was not a grave injury, it was complicated by the fact that he had both dysentery and measles, which prevented him from recovering adequately. He died on June 21, 1862 and was later buried with full military honors.


While Ellet’s persistence is satirized in the cartoon, it was an important aspect of his character that helped him get his idea recognized. His persistence was much like that of Christopher Spencer, who worked tirelessly to get the Union to use Spencer repeating rifles. The persistence of these men was a good thing for the Union, because without it, the Union would have completely missed out on technology that could have helped win the war. Ironclads were a new technology introduced in the Civil War, and the Union Navy had to find a way to neutralize them. Ellet’s method was fit for the technology of the time. Ships could not really get off many shots before a ram could get close enough to disable them. The Mississippi River campaign was very important to the Union war effort, and Ellet helped that campaign succeed. Ellet’s story also serves as a greater lesson, which is that it is important to be open to new ideas and technologies, especially in times of war. These technologies can be decisive, and while they may seem unnecessary or too radical at the time, it is better to give them a chance than to dismiss them without even hearing them out.


Coley, Jeannette Cabell. “Charles Ellet Jr.’s Unique Fleet of Rams Helped the Union Gain Control of the Mississippi River.” America’s Civil War 16, no. 4 (September 2003): 16. Accessed April 1, 2018.

Milligan, John D. “Charles Ellet and His Naval Steam Ram.” no. 2 (2013): 121. Accessed April 1, 2018.

Stephens, H.L. December 28, 1861. GettDigital: Civil War Era Collection, Special Collections and College Archives, Gettysburg College, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Accessed April 1, 2018. https://gettysburg.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p4016coll2/id/1703/rec/15.

“This Is War”: The Construction of the Laird Rams

By Hannah Christensen ‘17

By the spring of 1863, American ambassador to England Charles Francis Adams had a much bigger problem than the activities of British-built Confederate raiders on his hands: the construction of two 230-foot long ironclad rams in the Laird shipyard at Birkenhead that evidence suggested were destined for the Confederacy. At 230 feet long and 40 feet wide, with 6-7 foot iron spears at the front, rotating turret batteries, full iron plating, and a top speed of 10 knots, these ships were the Americans’ worst nightmare. Lincoln’s cabinet even considered blatantly ignoring Britain’s “neutrality” and sending a U.S. Navy squadron to destroy the rams, which had been under construction since the previous summer.

In the summer of 1862, Confederate Navy Secretary Stephen Russell Mallory sent orders to one of the Confederacy’s agents in England, James Bulloch, to go ahead with plans to have two large ironclads built for the Confederate Navy. Identified as Nos. 294 and 295, the ships were supposed to be completed by the Laird firm by March and April of 1863, respectively, and delivered to Liverpool for pickup. Bulloch had originally decided that both ships should be built in the same yard to cut cost, decrease potential Union interest in their construction, and hopefully speed up production. However, any hope of reduced Union interest disappeared quickly. Union spies, informants, and agents were everywhere, and their activities only increased, particularly in spring 1863, as the ships were nearing completion.

The HMS Wivern, originally built for the Confederate Navy. Courtesy of U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command.

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Black Servicemen on the Seas: African Americans in the Union Navy

By Hannah Christensen ’17

This post comes from the exhibit catalog for “Right to Serve, Right to Lead:  Lives and Legacies of the USCT,” an exhibition in Special Collections and College Archives at Musselman Library, Gettysburg College. During the spring of 2017, we asked the CWI Fellows to select a item on exhibit and discuss its history and context. The resulting exhibit catalog is available at Special Collections, where the exhibit will run through December 18, 2017.

Unknown sailor. Tintype. Approximately 19,000 black men served in the Navy, a much smaller number than the 180,000 who served in on land. The entire Union military totaled 2,000,000; one in ten Union soldiers was a black man. Courtesy of Special Collections and College Archives, Gettysburg College.

When the Civil War began, the United States Navy’s Atlantic Squadron, commanded by Commodore Silas H. Stringham, sought to blockade the entire Eastern Seaboard of the Confederacy. It faced two major problems: a shortage of manpower and an abundance of fugitive slaves flocking to the Union fleet. The commander of one vessel, Commander O.S. Glisson, had fifteen refugees on his ship, none of whom he intended to return to their owners. Glisson wrote to Commodore Stringham asking for advice, and Stringham wrote to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles with an idea. Arguing that “if Negroes are to be used in this contest . . . they should be used to preserve the Government,” Stringham asked permission to recruit these fugitive slaves. Secretary Welles knew the Navy needed men, so he approved the request.

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King Cotton and the Rising Sun: The Japanese Navy’s Confederate Ironclad

By Alex Andrioli ’18

When the American Civil War ended in 1865, the United States government sold off naval vessels as the country transitioned to Reconstruction. One of those vessels, the CSS Stonewall, traveled to countless and unexpected locations. The CSS Stonewall never fought in the American Civil War as it was intended to do, but instead was destined to fight in the civil war between the Japanese shogunate and emperor as the first ironclad warship of the Imperial Japanese Navy.

The CSS Stonewall in the Washington Naval Yard in 1865. Via Wikimedia Commons.

In 1868, the Tokugawa Shogun—the military leader of Japan—relinquished his power to the Meiji Emperor during Japan’s civil war, known as the Boshin War. The Tokugawa family had ruled as Japan’s shogunate since 1603 and oversaw the country’s peace time and isolation from the outside world for over 260 years. Japanese isolation would not last forever. In 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry of the United States forcefully opened Japan to the outside world with an “open-door policy.” The shogunate was impressed by Perry’s modern “tools of war” and was determined to upgrade their navy to fit the modern world. The CSS Stonewall would eventually become the ship that would help Japan accelerate toward modernization and end the Japanese civil war. However, the Stonewall was originally intended to aid the Confederate States of America in missions such as attacking William T. Sherman’s base at Port Royal, breaking the Wilmington blockade, or striking New England ports.

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Richard D. Dunphy: A Frank Request to Gideon Welles

By Kevin Lavery ’16

By January 1866, the war had concluded and the country’s divisions had begun to heal. Richard Dunphy, meanwhile, devoted himself to claiming his pension and his medal. When the Medal of Honor he had earned during the Battle of Mobile Bay was lost amidst the naval bureaucracy, Dunphy took it upon himself to write a letter directly to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles. He believed that Welles, who had been involved in the creation of the award, would be able to help obtain his well-deserved medal. This letter, owned by the Gilder Lehrman Institute, provides unique insight directly into Dunphy’s mentality during the years immediately following the war.

The letter begins with an apology for Dunphy’s audacity in addressing Gideon Welles directly, rather than filing his request through the Navy. He explains that Admiral Farragut had planned to send the medal through a mutual acquaintance, but that it had never arrived. “I place a great value on it and I believe I am justly entitled to it,” he writes. The medal had been awarded for the same action during which Dunphy lost both of his arms, and so it was an important memento of his experience and a reward for his gallant sacrifice that warranted a direct appeal to the highest authority.
LOC -- Gideon Welles

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Richard D. Dunphy and The Prices and Prizes of War

By Kevin Lavery ’16

Like many immigrants during the mid-nineteenth century, Irishman Richard D. Dunphy served his new country in the Civil War, albeit not entirely willingly. The wounds he sustained during the war were grave, including the loss of both arms. He received some reward for his sacrifice from his country: a monthly pension, a Medal of Honor, and a notability lacked by other faceless coal heavers. As with other great conflicts, the war played a pivotal role in the lives of its participants, especially in the case of Richard Dunphy.

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Tales from a Boston Customs House: Lewis Augustine Horton

By Sarah Johnson ’15

One morning as he was preparing the morning paper, Boston-based Washington dispatch examiner Joseph O’Hare’s eye caught a dispatch noting the Medal of Honor was being awarded to a Lewis Horton for courageous acts while rescuing crew members of the U.S.S. Monitor off the coast of Cape Hatteras in 1862. O’Hare was particularly struck by the name of the man, since a double arm amputee veteran named Lewis Augustine Horton worked at the local customs house. O’Hare related the dispatch to Horton, noting the similar name, to which Horton reportedly responded in genuine surprise, “By Jove! It may be for me. I was one of the volunteers that went out in the Rhode Island’s cutter and saved the crew of the Monitor.”

Rhode Island and Monitor
In December of 1862, Horton was an ordinary seaman aboard the U.S.S. Rhode Island. On the night of December 30, the Rhode Island was towing the Monitor of Hampton Roads fame when a terrible storm started. In the storm the Monitor sprung a leak and began to sink. Horton and six other seamen volunteered to undertake a rowboat rescue mission to save the crew. All but four officers and twelve men were rescued. After two successful trips, on the third trip the men found the Monitor had completely sunk. After waiting for a period of time for potential survivors, the men turned the cutter about and began to make for the Rhode Island. The Rhode Island appeared to be about two miles away, but the rain and fog from the storm severely reduced visibility and the men lost sight of her. The men chose to row northwest in hopes of coming across another vessel patrolling the coast and continued to row all night long to keep them out of the strong northeast current that threatened to send them deep into the Atlantic Ocean. Continue reading “Tales from a Boston Customs House: Lewis Augustine Horton”

“A Very Brutal Man”: Lewis Horton, David Todd, and Prisoner Torture

By Sarah Johnson ’15

In the late summer of 1861, just after the battle of Bull Run, Union seaman Lewis Horton was captured while serving on the U.S.S. Massachusetts and taken to Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia. In transport, Horton would recall being shackled to his comrades and marched through the streets for people to jeer at and being forced to spend a night in a building used for convict slaves. Hobnails, Horton remembered, had been hammered partly into the walls and floors of the building, making it too torturous to lie down or lean against the walls. Once he arrived in Richmond, Horton would meet the commandant of the prison, Lieutenant David Todd. Todd was none other than the half-brother of Mary Todd Lincoln, one of several of her siblings to swear loyalty to the Confederacy.

As commandant of Libby Prison, Todd would make a name for himself because of his shocking cruelty to prisoners. Prisoners were given rotten food, nearly no medical treatment, and lived in filth. In addition to this, Horton would recall he was “…a very brutal man. I saw him saber a poor fellow one day because the prisoner had a small bit of lighted candle in order to see to dress his wound. He cut him to the bone. On the least provocation Todd would inflict cruelties on the poor fellow.” Horton and others would also recall that Todd ordered several men to be executed just for trying to look out a window.

libby prison
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