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Charles Ellet Jr.
Colonel Charles Ellet, Jr., Civil and Military Engineer (cropped).jpg
Born (1810-01-01)January 1, 1810
Bucks County, Pennsylvania, US
Died June 21, 1862(1862-06-21) (aged 52)
Cairo, Illinois, US
Allegiance United States of America
Service/branch Union Army
Years of service 1862
Rank Union Army colonel rank insignia.png Colonel
Commands held United States Ram Fleet
Battles/wars American Civil War
Relations Mary Virginia Ellet Cabell (daughter)
Charles R. Ellet (son)
Alfred W. Ellet (brother)
John A. Ellet (nephew)

Charles Ellet Jr. (1 January 1810 – 21 June 1862) was an American civil engineer from Pennsylvania who designed and constructed major canals, suspension bridges and railroads. He built the Wheeling Suspension Bridge, the longest suspension bridge in the world from 1849 to 1851. He conducted the first ever Federal survey of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers as part of the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers.

He published multiple books and essays on wide ranging topics including macroeconomic theory, suspension bridge construction, railroad construction, river flood control and steam powered battery rams.

During the American Civil War, he received a commission as colonel and created and commanded the United States Ram Fleet, a Union Army unit of ram ships converted from commercial steamers. His ram ships played a critical role in the Union naval victory at the First Battle of Memphis. He was wounded during the battle (the only casualty on the Union side) and died soon after.

Early life and education

Charles Ellet Jr Daguerreotype
Daguerreotype of Charles Ellet, Jr.

Ellet was born at Penn's Manor in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. He was the sixth child of fourteen born to Charles Ellet Sr. and Mary Israel. He studied at the Bristol school and worked as a rodman, measuring for the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and making drawings. Benjamin Wright promoted him to Assistant Engineer of the Fifth Residency, but in 1830, he resigned to continue his studies in Paris. He studied civil engineering at École nationale des Ponts et Chaussées in Paris.


Both his maternal and paternal grandfathers served in the American Revolutionary War. His father was a Quaker and a descendant of Samuel Carpenter who served as Deputy Governor of colonial Pennsylvania.

His maternal grandfather, Israel Israel, descended from a family of Jewish diamond cutters from Holland and was a member of Pennsylvania's Committee of Safety and a recognized active patriot. His maternal grandmother, Hannah Erwin, was from a Quaker family.

Ellet married Elvira Augusta Stuart Daniel on November 7, 1837 in Lynchburg, Virginia. Her father was Virginia lawyer and soon-to-be judge William Daniel and her mother was Margaret Baldwin. She could trace her descent among the First Families of Virginia and owned enslaved persons, although Ellet would not. Judge Daniel's father (also a lawyer and judge of the same name William Daniel Sr.) had served as an ensign during the Revolutionary war under Captain Arda Allen, and his wife's maternal grandfather Dr. Cornelius Baldwin had served as a surgeon for the patriot cause throughout the conflict. The Ellets' son, Alfred W. Ellet served as a brigadier general in the Union Army during the Civil War. Their son Charles Rivers Ellet also served as a colonel in the Union Army and commander of the United States Ram Fleet. Their daughter Mary Virginia Ellet Cabell (1839-1930) would become the second wife of William Daniel Cabell in 1867 and became a founding member of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Engineering career

After returning from Europe, he worked on the Utica and Schenectady Railroad and was appointed to conduct a survey of the Western New York section of the New York and Erie Railroad. In 1832 he submitted a proposal to Congress for a suspension bridge across the Potomac River but it was rejected. In 1842, he designed and built the first major wire-cable suspension bridge in the United States, spanning 358 feet over the Schuylkill River at Fairmount, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was elected as a member to the American Philosophical Society in 1843. In 1848, he built the record-breaking Wheeling suspension bridge over the Ohio River at Wheeling, West Virginia with a span over 1,000 feet. In the same year, he erected the first ever suspension bridge over the Niagara Gorge with a 770-foot span.

His supervised construction of the James River and Kanawha Canal in Virginia. From 1846 to 1847, he worked as president of the Schuylkill Navigation Company in Pennsylvania and led improvements to the canal used for transporting anthracite coal. He also constructed railroads in those states. Ellet developed theories for improving flood control and navigation of mid-western rivers. In 1849 he had advocated the use of reservoirs, built in the upper reaches of drainage basins, to retain water from the wet season that could be released during periods of low water to improve navigation; to some degree this also would tend to lessen the level of flooding during high flow.

In 1850, the Secretary of War, conforming to an Act of Congress, directed Ellet to make surveys and reports on the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers with a view to the preparation of adequate plans for flood prevention and navigation improvement. His detailed report had considerable influence on later engineering thought and navigation improvements. His Report of the Overflows of the Delta of the Mississippi River helped to reshape New Orlean's waterfront. George Perkins Marsh published Man and Nature fourteen years later, but it was Ellet who first noted in writing that the artificial embankments created an overflowing delta. However, only decades later would his assertions be taken seriously and used in flood control decisions.

United States Ram Fleet

Ellet rams h59007
An engraving from Harper's Weekly depicting the United States Ram Fleet ships USS Monarch, USS Queen of the West, USS Lioness and USS Switzerland

In September 1854, while travelling overseas, Ellet learned that the 250-ton SS Vesta accidentally rammed and sank the 2,794-ton SS Arctic. This incident convinced Ellet that with the development of steam propulsion, ramming could be a very effective form of naval combat. The Crimean War was underway and Ellet offered his services to Russian government to build a fleet of ram ships to help them defeat the naval blockade in the Black Sea during the Siege of Sebastopol. He received interest from the Russian government but the plans were scrapped after the Russian Czar was assassinated. Ellet became enthusiastic about the possibility of a ram fleet and wrote to the U.S. Navy with his plan but was unable to persuade them of the benefit. He published the pamphlet Coast and Harbor Defenses, or the Substitution of Steam Battering Rams for Ships of War in late 1855, hoping to gain the interest of the public.

When the Civil War broke out, Ellet renewed his advocacy especially in light of the Confederate build up of ram ships. The Confederate forces captured the USS Merrimack at the Norfolk Navy Yard and converted her to a ram ship. Despite being bulky and slow-moving, the Union forces became convinced of the possibility of ram ships when the Merrimack, renamed CSS Virginia, sank the USS Cumberland and USS Congress at Hampton Roads. The Navy still ignored him, but in March 1862, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, familiar with his work on the Wheeling Suspension Bridge among other projects appointed Ellet colonel of engineers, and authorized him to form the United States Ram Fleet on the Mississippi River. The Union Navy's Mississippi River Squadron and the Confederate River Defense Fleet were battling for control of the Mississippi and Stanton believed the Union Navy would benefit from the addition of ram ships. Ellet and the ram fleet were outside of the naval command and reported directly to Stanton.

Ellet purchased the nine fastest river steamboats available on the Ohio River and converted them to rams. Ellet assigned family members as captains of the other rams, including his brother Alfred W. Ellet, his nephew John A. Ellet, and his son Charles Rivers Ellet.

On May 25, Ellet and the ram fleet joined the Mississippi River Squadron, led by Charles H. Davis, on the Mississippi River north of Fort Pillow. Davis had little faith in the effectiveness of the rams but allowed the fleet to accompany his gunboats down the river to Memphis.

Memphis h42367
Ellet's ram ships helped the Union achieve a decisive victory at the First Battle of Memphis

On June 6, Colonel Ellet led the rams in the Battle of Memphis as captain of USS Queen of the West with his brother Alfred W. in command of the USS Monarch. The Ellets had not coordinated a plan of attack with Davis and when the flotilla approached Confederate forces, the two rams steamed ahead of Davis' gunboats. The Queen of the West rammed and sank the Confederate flagship CSS Colonel Lovell. After the collision, the Queen of the West came under attack from the CSS Sumter and the CSS Beauregard. The attack sheared off one of the paddle wheels from the Queen of the West and forced her to ground on the riverbank. The Monarch rammed and disabled the CSS General Price and forced her to ground on the riverbank also. Ellet sent a boarding party and captured the General Price. Ellet was wounded in the knee by a Confederate sharpshooter during the battle. His wound was the only serious casualty received on the Union side during the battle.

The Confederate forces suffered a severe loss at the Battle of Memphis with heavy casualties and the loss of seven of their eight ships.

Death and legacy

Charles Ellet Jr Gravestone
Charles Ellet, Jr. gravestone in Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia

Ellet refused to consider amputation for his injury. His wound became infected and he died 15 days later of a blood infection in Cairo, Illinois. His body was taken to Independence Hall in Philadelphia, he was given a state funeral and interred at Laurel Hill Cemetery. Command of the ram fleet went to his brother Alfred W. Ellet.

The U.S. Navy named a destroyer to honor the Ellet family. USS Ellet (DD-398) was in service in 1939-46 during World War II.

In 1994, Stanford University received a gift of Ellet's Civil War letters from Elizabeth Ellet Nitz and Frances Ellet Ward. The papers are housed in the Department of Special Collections at Stanford University Library.

On November 6, 1999, the Wheeling, West Virginia chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution placed a commemorative plaque on the western abutment of the Wheeling Suspension Bridge recognizing Ellet's accomplishments and his daughter, Mary Virginia Ellet Cabell's, role in founding the Daughters of the American Revolution.

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