Charles Ellet Jr.

Charles Ellet Jr.
Born (1810-01-01)January 1, 1810
Bucks County, Pennsylvania
Died June 21, 1862(1862-06-21) (aged 52)
Battle of Memphis
Occupation Engineer
Known for Championing suspension bridges and other engineering endeavors in United States

Charles Ellet Jr. (1 January 1810 21 June 1862) was a civil engineer and a colonel during the American Civil War, mortally wounded at the Battle of Memphis.


Ellet was born in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, son of Charles Ellet Sr. and Mary Israel, and brother of Alfred W. Ellet, also a civil engineer and a brigadier general in the Union Army during the war.[1]

He worked as a rodman, measuring for the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, making drawings. Benjamin Wright promoted him to Assistant Engineer of the Fifth Residency, but in 1830, he resigned to continue his studies in Paris.[2]

Charles studied civil engineering at École nationale des Ponts et Chaussées in Paris, France, and in 1832 submitted proposals for a suspension bridge across the Potomac River.[3] 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.[4] He designed the record-breaking Wheeling suspension bridge over the Ohio River at Wheeling, West Virginia in 1848, and a 770-foot suspension footbridge at Niagara Falls at the same time.[5]

His other civil engineering accomplishments include supervising both the James River and Kanawha Canal in Virginia and the Schuylkill Navigation improvements in Pennsylvania (1846–47),[6] and also constructing railroads in those states. Ellet developed theories for improving flood control and navigation of mid-western rivers.[7] 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;[8] 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 report was very complete, and it exercised considerable influence on later engineering thought and navigation improvements.[9]

In September 1854, 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 would be a very effective form of naval combat. He was unable to persuade the U.S. Navy of this, so 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.[10]

When the Civil War broke out, he renewed his advocacy. The Navy still ignored him, but in March 1862, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton appointed him colonel of engineers, and authorized him to form the United States Ram Fleet on the Mississippi River. Ellis converted several river steamers to rams, and by June his fleet was ready. (As captains of the rams, he appointed his brothers, his nephews, and his son.)

On June 6, he led the rams in the Battle of Memphis as captain of USS Queen of the West. During this complete Union victory, Queen of the West and Monarch rammed and sank the Confederate flagship CSS Colonel Lovell. Ellet was wounded during the battle (the only Union casualty), dying fifteen days later.[11]

Ellet published a Report of the Overflows of the Delta of the Mississippi River, which 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. It would be decades later that his assertions were taken seriously and used in flood control decisions.[12]

Colonel Charles Rivers Ellet

His son Charles Rivers Ellet was a colonel in the Union Army.


USS Ellet (DD-398), which was in service in 1939-46, was named in honor of Charles Ellet Jr. and other members of his family.


  1. Eicher, John H.; Eicher, David J. (2001). Civil War High Commands. Stanford University Press. p. 224. ISBN 0-8047-3641-3.
  2. Unrau, Harlan D. (2007). Historic Resource Study: Chesapeake & Ohio Canal (PDF). Hagerstown, Md.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park. p. 16. LCCN 2007473571. Retrieved 2013-05-02.
  3. Lewis, Gene D. (1968). Charles Ellet Jr.: The Engineer as Individualist. University of Illinois Press. p. 20.
  4. Steinman, D. B. & S. R. Watson. 1957. Bridges and their builders. New York, Dover Publications. p.210
  5. Steinman & Watson, p. 211
  6. Appletons' annual cyclopaedia and register of important events of the year: 1862. New York: D. Appleton & Company. 1863. p. 412.
  7. Lewis, Gene D. (1968). Charles Ellet Jr.: The Engineer as Individualist. University of Illinois Press. pp. 36, 92.
  8. Timeline: Development of US Inland Waterways System from Coosa-Alabama River Improvement Association, Inc.
  9. Federal Participation in Waterways Development Archived December 30, 2011, at the Wayback Machine.
  10. Howard Pervear Nash (1972). A naval history of the Civil War. A. S. Barnes. p. 28. ISBN 9780498078415. Retrieved 2012-06-16. Ellet suggested reviving this device after the 250-ton SS Vesta accidentally rammed and sank the 2794-ton SS Arctic in 1854. Unable to interest the Navy Department in this idea he attempted to call it to the attention of the public by publishing (in December 1855) a pamphlet entitled Coast and Harbor Defenses, or the Substitution of Steam Battering Rams for Ships of War, in which he argued that steamers could be strengthened enough to make them capable of sinking war vessels blockading a harbor.
  11. Eicher, David J. (2001). The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War. Simon & Schuster. p. 253. ISBN 0-684-84944-5.
  12. Kelman, Ari (2003). A River and Its City: The Nature of Landscape in New Orleans. University of California Press. p. 162. ISBN 0-520-23432-4.

Additional reading

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