No, Old Army Records has not gone to sea. This article discusses the interaction of the army with river vessels. Watercraft of various sizes and classes aided the Union Army in securing victory during the Civil War. Gunboats, steamers, and barges assisted the Union ground forces. Often soldiers served on board boats, such as those used by U.S. Ram Fleet.
U.S. Ram Fleet
The U.S. Ram Fleet was developed by Pennsylvania-born engineer Charles Ellet, Jr in early 1862. With the blessing of the Secretary of War, Ellet set about building his fleet. He purchased powerful and sturdy vessels already steaming up and down eastern rivers. The core of the fleet consisted of three stern-wheel towboats (boats used to push barges), the Queen of the West, Switzerland, and Monarch. The government purchased the Monarch in April 1862 for $14,000 (about $348,000 today).
Ellet quickly retrofitted the vessels to meet his task, ramming and sinking enemy boats. The key to building an effective ram was to put the whole weight of the boat at the central bulkhead so that, at the moment of collision, the weight and momentum carried through to the target boat. To accomplish this, Ellet instructed that three heavy solid timber bulkheads, from 12 to 16 inches thick, ran fore and aft, from stem to stern, placing the central one directly over the keel. In addition, iron stays held the boilers and machinery firmly in place. Also, oak timbers, bolted together in layers 2 feet thick helped protect the machinery and pilot house from small arms fire.
Soldiers Protected the Ram Fleet
Although supporting army operations, the Monarch fell under the immediate command of naval officers throughout most of its wartime service. However, from the onset, all of Ellet’s rams had army security details assigned to each vessel. Men from Company I, 59th Illinois Infantry served on the Monarch. The men included 1st Sergeant Edward W. Bartlett and privates John Holland and Gilbert C. Hamilton. However, service for some of the men was short. Private Holland, for example, took violently ill in the streets of Tuscumbia, Alabama in September 1862 and died shortly thereafter.
Getting Into Action
Just months after setting out on his mission, Ellet, now with the rank of Colonel, steamed the tiny fleet south on the Mississippi River. Contact with Confederate vessels occurred soon after. In what is known as the Naval Battle of Memphis (June 6, 1862), the Monarch helped sink or incapacitate several vessels, including the Little Rebel, Lovell, Price, and General Beauregard. Serving on the bridge of the Monarch during the Memphis engagement was David M. Dryden, a 1st Lieutenant from Company F, 1st Kentucky Infantry. Dryden fought with his infantry unit in Virginia in 1861 before taking a leave of absence for health reasons. His experience as steamboat captain caught the attention of Ellet, who secured Dryden’s transfer to the Ram Fleet.
With the surrender of Vicksburg in July 1863, Union forces held unrestricted access to the Mississippi River. It effectively ended the mission of the ram fleet. For the next year, the Monarch and the other rams, steamed up and down the Mississippi River and tributaries on a variety of excursions. These ranged from expeditions involved in removing obstructions, such as torpedoes, and reconnaissances in force. Occasionally, the Monarch served as the flagship for the Ram Fleet.
By fall 1864, the Ram Fleet was no longer serving the Navy and was scattered up and down the Mississippi River Valley in charge of army quartermasters. The Monarch was anchored in New Orleans. While in army service the Monarch served primarily as a transport hauling mail, freight, soldiers, and refugees.
Monarch’s Final Military Service
Until recently, the end of the military service history of the Ram Monarch are sketchy. For instance, the Wikipedia entry for the Monarch, which relies heavily on Encyclopedia of Civil War Shipwrecks, simply states that the boat “…was dropped from the naval list in 1864, but remained in reserve, ready for recall to active service. She was sunk by ice in December 1864, but was refloated and taken to Mound City, Illinois for dismantling in July 1865.” The final two months of government service of the Monarch were memorialized in a journal kept by Captain Charles Bogy (Master) and/or H. Carrigan (Clerk). During our recent trip to the National Archives, Old Army Records digitized the journal. The log documents rather mundane, yet important duties as they relate to the 19th century military personnel and their dependents.
Death Highlights the Monarch’s Final Trips
By October 1864, army quartermasters assigned various duties to the Monarch. The vessel carried destitute refugees, black and white, from devastated southern states northward. Many of these passengers were in poor health and died in route. For instance, at 2 a.m. on November 2, 1864, Irene Fitzgerald “wife of a soldier of the 6th Mississippi Heavy Artillery” died on board. The boat crew then went into Vicksburg, procured a coffin and buried her. She left a young child, William, who was left in a dying condition at the refugee home operated by the Western Sanitary Commission in Vicksburg.
Just two days later another refugee, Matilda Cotton, died of “chronic diarrhea and general debility” at Skipwith Landing. Intestinal distress soon claimed a third victim. Private Ezekiel J. Bailey of Battery G, 6th Michigan Heavy Artillery passed away in the evening of November 5th. Bailey was on his way home on furlough.
An Inglorious End to the Ram Monarch
The run of bad luck continued nine days later when the Monarch struck a rock near Thebes, Illinois and took on water. Ironically, the addition of timber to hull, in order to make the boat an effective ram, prevented the crew from making repairs. Captain Bogy steered the wounded boat to shallower waters near the shore. The boat eventually came to rest in water 4-12 feet deep “…very much listed over to the port.” Over the next several weeks, crews pumped out and repaired the Monarch. Finally, on the morning of December 9, 1864, the Monarch was once again under steam and headed to St. Louis.
By December 20th, the boat was at Harlow’s Landing about 25 miles south of St. Louis. The last entry in the log was ominous. It read “Main channel [b]locked up with ice it will nearly take all night for [the steamer] to take in the wood[.] Weather might be called very pleasant for this portion of the country[,] very little ice ram[m]ing Stmrs [steamers].” Did ice finally defeat one of Charles Ellet, Jr. prized rams?
Elaborating on 19th Century Military Service Records
As the history and log of the Ram Monarch illustrates, Old Army soldiers interacted with a variety of military branches and departments. Old Army Records will continue to locate, digitize, and index these documents to help flesh out the military service history of a 19th century U.S. Army soldier.
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Unpublished Sources (Old Army Records)
David M. Dryden, Military Service Records (RG 94)
John V. Holland, Pension Record (RG 15)
Journal of Events on the U.S.S. Monarch, October-December 1864 (RG 393)
Published Sources (in Old Army Records digital library)
History of the Mississippi River Ram Fleet and Marine Brigade (Crandall 1907).
Outline of the Forthcoming History of the Mississippi River Ram Fleet and Marine Brigade (Crandall ca. 1906).
The Military and Naval History of the Rebellion in the United States (1865)
The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series 1, Volumes 13 (1885), 15 (1886), 17 (1886 and 1887), 24 (1889), 41 (1893), and 52 (1898)
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion. Series 1, Volumes 25 (1912) and 26 (1914)