Ellet's Mississippi Marine Rams


Switzerland (front) and Lancaster (rear, being hit by a shell) running the blockade at Vicksburg
I believe this picture was originally published in Harper's Weekly.

Switzerland and Lancaster pass Vicksburg

If you have read the 101st histories, you know that after the Holly Springs disaster, about half of the 101st Infantry was assigned to other units while the half that were captured awaited parole at Benton Barracks, near St. Louis. At this point in the war, that took about six months. Company K was assigned to provost duty at Gen. Grant's headquarters, the rest were assigned to the Mississippi Marine Rams under Brig. Gen. Alfred Ellet. Company A was assigned to the General Bragg, Co. D to the Rattler and Cricket, Co. G to the Switzerland, and Co. H to the Lafayette.

The Mississippi Marine Rams were the idea of Charles  Ellet, Jr., an engineer and bridge builder who had the idea of reinforcing the framework of big, old heavy steamboats and using them as rams. The ships usually had the deck lined with cotton bales for added protection and sometimes were lashed to a barge filled with cotton or coal in an attempt to protect themselves from cannon fire.They were for the most part, unarmed, and when participating in their intended use, were quite effective. They were also used to carry supplies, soldiers, prisoners, etc. Ellet had assembled "fleet" of nine old river boats and proved his theory at the battle of Memphis in June of 1862 by the destruction of the Confederate fleet there and the surrender of the city to the Union forces. The only casualty was Ellet himself, who was wounded by enemy small arms fire. He died two weeks later, and command of the fleet was turned over to his brother, Alfred. Of the twelve officers in the brigade, four were of the Ellet family. Colonel  Ellett, below, is  Col. Charles Rivers Ellet, age 19, son of Charles Ellet, Jr.. John Ellet was the son of  Gen. Alfred Ellet.  Col. Charles Rivers Ellet took over the command of the Switzerland after his father died.

In early March of 1863, most of the ram fleet was above Vicksburg, the river there being very effectively controlled by the many guns on the bluffs overlooking it. Admiral Farragut had requested two rams and an ironclad to assist him blockade the Red River below Vicksburg. The ironclad was never furnished but the Switzerland and Lancaster were ordered to go under the guns and report to Farragut. The accounts below, found in the Official Records, written by the participants, give an extremely graphic picture of the events that followed.

Order of Brigadier-General Ellet, U.S. Army, to Colonel Ellet, U.S. 
Army to report to Rear-Admiral Farragut with the rams Lancaster and Switzerland.

Flagship Autocrat, above Vicksburg, Mar 24, 1863.

COLONEL: You will proceed in command of the rams Switzerlandand Lancaster to pass the batteries above Vicksburg to-night and report to Admiral Farragut below.

Take every precaution to prevent lights being seen on your boats during the passage down. Take only men enough to run the boats. Have the yawls on the starboard guards for instant use in case of necessity, and hang knotted ropes from either side to the water's edge, to which men could hang to avoid steam.

You will not, in the event that either boat is disabled, attempt, under fire of the batteries, to help her off with the other boat, but will run on down, it being of primary importance that one boat at least should get safely by.

The purpose for which you are sent below is to assist in keeping possession of the river between Vicksburg and Port Hudson, and cutting off the enemy's communication with and supplies from Red River and its tributaries, and to aid in repelling the rebel rams and cotton-clad steamers if they should attack Admiral Farragut's vessels. You will afford all the aid in your power to the military force which will attack Warrenton tomorrow. Report to me by every convenient opportunity.
Very respectfully,
Brigadier-General, Commanding.

Commanding Ram Fleet.

Report of Colonel Ellet, U. S. Army, commanding the rams Switzerlandand Lancaster regarding the passage of Vicksburg.

Below Vicksburg, March 25, 1863.

GENERAL: I have the honor to report to you that in compliance with your instructions I started before daybreak this morning with the rams Switzerland and Lancaster to pass the Vicksburg batteries. The short time which I was allowed for preparations, and the necessity of taking in large quantities of stores and provisions, delayed our departure until it was nearly light. The wind was extremely unfavorable, and not withstanding the caution with which the boats put out into the middle of the stream, the puff of their escape pipes could be heard with fatal distinctness below. The flashing of the enemy's signal lights from battery to battery as we neared the city showed me that concealment was useless. The morning, too was beginning to break, and I saw that if we were to pass at all, it was to be done at once. I ordered my pilots to give the Switzerlandfull headway, and we went round the point under 160 pounds of steam. The rebels opened fire at once, but the first fifteen or twenty shots were badly aimed. As we got nearer to the guns however, the fire became both accurate and rapid. Shot after shot struck my boat, tearing everything to pieces before them. A few hundred yards behind us the Lancaster, under command of Lieutenant-Colonel John A. Ellet, still steamed steadily down, but I could see the splinters fly from her at every discharge. When about three-quarters of a mile below the point, and full in front of the enemy's heaviest guns, a 10 inch shell plunged through the boiler deck of the Switzerlandand into her center boiler. The explosion of steam which ensued was very severe, and was welcomed by the traitors with shouts of exultation. The engines stopped at once,, and even the pilot house was filled to suffocation with the hot steam, but the pilots stood to their posts like men, and by my order kept her out in the stream, where she floated down with the current. The enemy never relaxed their fire, and the steam had scarcely cleared away from the Switzerland when I saw the Lancaster blown up. She commenced to sink rapidly, and in a few moments went down, bow foremost. I ordered the crew of the Switzerland into as secure a position as possible, and floated past the remaining batteries without any loss of life or material damage to the boat. A few moments after your arrival on board with Adjutant-General Crandall, and when opposite the mouth of the canal, Lieutenant-Colonel Ellet came along-side in a yawl, having rowed down to us through a fire of grape and shell to offer us any assistance in his power. He had previously set ashore his own crew and wounded men, and fired the upper works of his boat. When out of range the Switzerland was met by the Albatross and towed into shore.

I can not conclude this report without referring to the heroic conduct of the officers and crew of the Switzerland. No fear of lack of discipline was exhibited by any person on board, and although we were within pistol shot of shore, not a man attempted to desert the boat or to leave his post without orders. Among those who especially distinguished themselves by their resolution and courage were Major John W. Laurence, Pilot Alexander McKay, Lieutenant Edward C. Ellet, and Third Engineer Granville Roberts. This is the second time that the last three named officers have passed the batteries at Vicksburg. The damage tho the Switzerland's boilers is considerable, but will be repaired in a few days by the machinists now on board. Her engines and hull are in good condition. Her loss comprises only 3 negros badly scalded; 1 man on the Lancaster was drowned, another severely scalded, and Pilot T. W. L. Kitson lost a foot. The very limited loss of life on both boats is due to the extremely small number of men who were selected to run the boats through. The remainder of the crews was sent across by land.

I enclose Lieutenant-Colonel Ellet's report of the loss of the Lancaster.

Very respectfully,
Colonel, Commanding.
To:Brigidier-General A.W. ELLET.
Commanding Mississippi Marine Brigade.

Report of Lieutenant-Colonel Ellet, U. S. Army, commanding U.S. ram Lancaster, regarding the loss of that vessel.

Flagship Autocrat, above Vicksburg, March 25, 1863.

COLONEL: I have the honor to report that in obedience to your instructions I left my anchorage above the mouth of the canal at half past 4 o'clock this morning on board the U. S. steam ram Lancaster, for the purpose of running the enemy's batteries at Vicksburg. The lights were all extinguished and every precaution taken to prevent giving any knowledge of our approach. I endeavored to conduct the movements of my vessel as silently as possible, allowing her to float part of the time, and occasionally righting her up by going ahead on the slow bell. Unfortunately, the escape of steam from her smokestacks was very loud. In addition to this, the night was clear, calm and starlight, with a slight breeze setting from us directly toward the rebel batteries. From the character of the night and the warmth of our reception, I am led to believe that our very first movements were heard by the enemy. Keeping the distance of about 200 yards between my vessel and the Switzerland, I approached about half a mile of the point of the peninsula very slowly, when the sudden flashes of signals along the whole line of the enemy's works gave unmistakable evidence that our movements were apprehended. I then ordered a full head of steam, expecting every moment to receive the enemy's fire. When within about 400 yards of the point of the peninsula the enemy opened upon me with a brisk fire from the upper batteries, but the shot fell wide of the mark.

Rounding the point I ordered the pilot to steer well to the starboard, to prevent following immediately in the wake of the Switzerland. When just abreast of the upper batteries the first shot struck my vessel, passing through both smokestacks. The fire continued almost incessantly, but without serious damage, for about five minutes after this time, when a heavy shot passed through the vessel immediately under the pilot house, carrying away the steps which led from the cabin into the pilot house, and wounding Mr. T. W. L. Kitson, steersman, whom I had placed at the foot of the steps to be in readiness to take the wheel should my other pilot be disabled. We were now just opposite the water batteries, and they poured a very active fire upon us, striking the vessel in every part but a vital one. At this time I entertained the most sanguine expectations of getting my vessel past in safety; this thought, however, was speedily dispelled by heavy shot which exploded the steam drum and enveloped the entire vessel in a terrible cloud of steam, driving the engineers and firemen from their posts and compelling every one upon the lower and gun deck to seek the bow of the boat outside of the wooden bulkhead, where a friendly breeze shielded them from the excruciating tortures of the hot steam. About this time a heavy plunging shot struck her in the frailest part of her stern, passing longitudinally through her and piercing the hull in the center near the bow, causing an enormous leak in the vessel. The pilot, Mr. Andrew J. Dennis, remained at the wheel, giving direction to the helpless vessel, until the wheel was demolished by a shot, from the effects of which he miraculously escaped. He reported the damage to me, and I sent him below to control the tiller ropes by hand, and then went down myself to ascertain the condition of the hull. I found her sinking very fast, and partly turned around by an eddy, so that her starboard side was subjected to the hottest fire. I therefore ordered the two yawls to be brought from the starboard side to the larboard quarter of the bow, where the hull of the vessel afforded them the greatest protection, and then ordered my men to take to their boats, first providing for the wounded and the scalded.

The water was by this time running over the decks, and I found it would be impossible to secure her to the shore. I therefore set her upper works on fire by discharging my pistols into the cotton.

This was superfluous, however, for in a few minutes afterward she plunged into the flood bow foremost.

I had an abundance of room in my two yawls for every soul on board, but unfortunately some of my men attempted to swim ashore. In so doing, Orderly Sergeant William McDonald was drowned. While in our yawls making our escape from the sinking wreck, we were subjected to a galling fire of shot and shell. As soon as the yawls reached the shore the men sought shelter in the neighboring woods. I expressed my determination to go to the Switzerland, and two faithful negros rowed me to her.

The recapitulation of the casualties is as follows: Mr. Brown, chief engineer, slightly scalded; George Zimmerman, deck hand, very badly scalded; T. W. L. Kitson, steersman, lost a foot; Sergeant William H. McDonald, drowned.

My officers, soldiers, and boatmen behaved with the utmost coolness and courage. There are some instances of heroic daring which deserve special mention. Among these were George W. Lindsey, first master; Henry S. Brown, chief engineer, Andrew J. Dennis, pilot; T.W.L. Kitson, steersman; George W. Andrews, carpenter; Samuel Weaver, engineer. The two latter gentlemen passed the Vicksburg batteries on a former occasion on board the Queen of the West. It is extremely difficult to designate individuals when all did so nobly without doing injustice; but these men came under my own personal observation and challenged my admiration by their great gallantry.

I am, colonel, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
Lieutenant-Colonel, Commanding Lancaster.
Commanding Ram Fleet.

The soldiers aboard the Switzerland included my great-grandfather, James M. Wood, of Waverly and other Company G troops from Morgan Co. making up the military contingent aboard. In his initial application for pension he recounted his "run past Vicksburg" and only mentioned in a later application that he was wounded at Resaca, permanently losing the use of his arm.  His pension, $8 per month, was eventually approved.