The Rams

In 1861 Charles Rivers Ellet, Jr., was a civil engineer with experience in the building of bridges and dams. During the Crimean War (1854—56), he traveled to Russia as an observer, and had become convinced that the ram used by (he warships of antiquity could be adapted. By using steam power, it could become a viable modern naval weapon. He convinced the Union War Department of the worth of his idea and, in early 1862, he was made a colonel, with orders to create a ram flotilla, which would join the tiinberclads on the Mississippi. During April he purchased nine vessels, both sidewheelers and sternwheelers, at various ports on the Ohio River, and began the work of converting them into warships. This work took place in several yards: the (¿iu>rn of the West and Lancaster were converted in Cincinnati, Ohio, the Switzerland in Madison, Indiana, the Monarch in New Albany, Indiana, and the Mingo, l.ioness, and Sampson in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. When they became ready for final fitting out they were taken to New Albany or Mound City for completion. Another ram, the I.D. Homer, was deemed unsuitable, and used as a tug instead, while a ninth vessel was used as transport.

These vessels varied in size, appearance, and propulsion system, but all shared two characteristics. They were designed primarily as rams, and they were commanded by Colonel Ellet, whose enthusiasm for ram tactics had led to their creation. They mostly possessed little in the way of armament (usually one or two 12-pounder howitzers or 24-pounder smoothbores), but they had their bows reinforced by timber, and their hulls strengthened to absorb the shock of a collision. They were also faster than the tiinberclads, having an average speed of 12 knots. On May 26, 1862, the first of these ships joined the tiinberclads above Fort Pillow. Although an independent unit, the ram flotilla formed part of the Western Gunboat Flotilla, as the tiinberclads were now designated. When the rest of the river ileet came under the control of the US Navy in August 1862, the rams remained under orders of the War Department. Some critics considered them to be "brown paper rams," but Filet's vessels would demonstrate their worth in action.

Although the need for the rams passed, as Confederate naval forces were swept from the Mississippi, the notion of the ram as a weapon remained in vogue. Two other rams were built for the War Department during 1863 and on

Colonel Charles Ellet was a staunch advocate of the wooden ram, and his flotilla of "Ellet rams" helped turn the tide of the war on the upper Mississippi River. He was mortally wounded at the Battle of Memphis in June 1862.

Conestoga was not similarly up-gunned. The effectiveness of rifled guns against shore positions had been demonstrated on both the Mississippi and the Eastern seaboard, so this re-equipping reflected a change in the perceived role of the gunboats, from vessels designed to fight other warships to ones capable <>l suppressing lire from Confederate shore positions.

Uss Vindicator
The late-war ram USS Vindicator photographed moored to a riverbank on the Mississippi in late 1864. She fought the CSS Webb when the Confederate ram made a dash from the Red River down the Mississippi in April 1865. (US Navy)

completion they were transferred to (lie Navy. The first of these to enter service was the Avenger; built ¡11 New Albany, Indiana, and completed in February 1804. Three months later the same yard completed the gunboat Vindicator, which was duly taken to Mound City and converted into a ram. Both joined the Mississippi Squadron in the summer of 1864, and participated in patrols around Vicksburg, and on the Yazoo River. They were not particularly successful, although they were formidable gunboats, combining their ram with a powerful armament, including a 100-pounder Parrott bow rifle mounted in a wooden casemate. The Vindicator engaged the Confederate ram Webb off the mouth of the Red River in April 1865, but otherwise they saw no active service.

After 1862, clashes with Confederate warships were almost unknown, and the rams became less useful. While the Queen oj the West carried a respectable armament of four guns (accounts van,', but the most probable suite was one 20- or HO-pounder Parrott rifle and three 12-pounder howitzers), other rams had a limited armament. The Switzerland was converted into a gunboat in late 1862 and, although her exact armament is unknown, photographs and sketches suggest she carried eight guns, probably a mixed suite of 12-pounder howitzers and 24-pounder rifles or smoothbores, split between two broadsides. As other rams were used in shore bombardments from late 1862 011, it seems probable that the remaining ships of Ellet's fleet were converted shortly after they were transferred into naval service in August 1862. These fast, useful vessels clearly had their role redefined as the war progressed, although they still retained their ramming capability.

LEFT The Eilet ram USS Switzerland was an ungainly, slab-sided vessel, but her roomy casemate permitted the addition of extra armament following the destruction of the Confederate River Defense Fleet in June 1862.

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