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2002 Jeannette Cabell Coley

The Smithsonian Associates Civil War E-Mail Newsletter, Volume 5, Number 5

Last month's trivia question drew a response from Mrs. Coley of West Memphis, Arkansas, who generously provided us with this very personal and poignant account of the life and career of her eminent ancestor.

Ellet was born in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, January 1, 1810, the son of shopkeeper Charles Ellet and Mary Israel Ellet, a highly educated woman for her day. They soon moved to a farm 25 miles from Philadelphia. This proved to be a hardship for Mary, but it instilled in her a determination to do the best she could for her children. This was especially true for Charles, as it was abundantly clear that he was not cut out to be a farmer. With little formal schooling, Ellet was a voracious reader and showed an early aptitude for math. Mary encouraged those abilities and supported him as he followed his dreams into a world far different from the one where he had spent his childhood.

Ellet's career and the timing of the Erie Canal in 1825 were fortuitous. The completion of the canal launched a national mania for more inland waterways. Until then, Americans had only read about the infrastructure that already crisscrossed Europe. It was at this time that Ellet left the family farm at age 17 and immediately found work surveying the North Branch of the Susquehanna River. Work on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal followed, where Judge Benjamin Wright of Erie Canal fame was appointed chief engineer.

Ellet soon began to realize that getting off the riverbank, literally and figuratively, would require something beyond his ingenuity. In 1830, with a letter of introduction to the Marquis de Lafayette, Ellet sailed to Paris. Lafayette and the American Ambassador to France pulled strings for Ellet to attend lectures at the Ecole des Ponts et Chausses with other French engineering students. He also took the opportunity to examine public works in the vicinity. While touring southern France the next spring, Ellet observed reservoir and suspension bridge construction with special interest. By observing a suspension bridge under construction over the Loire River, he grasped the concepts behind how the wire cables for these bridges were utilized. His application of these techniques became two of his most outstanding contributions to American civil engineering.

When Ellet returned to the United States, he made several suspension bridge proposals but was repeatedly turned down. His youth, inexperience, and his novel ideas were the rational reasons. Instead, Judge Wright put him to work surveying the western end of the New York and Erie Railroad. In 1835, Wright was appointed chief engineer of the James River and Kanawha Canal Company (JRKCC) in Lynchburg, Virginia. The project was intended to connect the Tidewater to the Ohio River. Wright hired his son and Ellet as assistants. Ellet was put in charge of the segment between Lynchburg and the Tye River.

The move to Lynchburg brought romance into the life of the engineer, who had previously never sought it. Ellet was not a sociable man and small talk bored him. However, he was forced to attend a formal occasion with JRKCC president Joseph Carrington Cabell, Judge William Daniel, Sr., and other Lynchburg elite. Daniel's youngest daughter Elvira, known as Ellie, observed Ellet standing in the foyer. The frail, but lovely, dark-eyed brunette whispered to her sister that the six foot two, slender framed engineer, with dark, thick hair and discerning eyes was the handsomest man she had ever seen. He was smitten with her as well. Ellet and Ellie married October 31, 1837 at Point of Honor, her childhood home. Their first child, Mary Virginia, was born there two years later.

During the next decade, Ellet concentrated on building the first important wire suspension bridges in the United States. The first over the Schuylkill River at Fairmount, in Philadelphia, 1842; another at Niagara Falls, 1848; and a third over the Ohio River at Wheeling, in 1849. The bridge at Wheeling, which connected the National Road, was his crown jewel. At 1,010 feet, it was then the longest suspension bridge in the world. The town turned out for a grand celebration and the builder was revered. Ellet and his family lived in Wheeling longer than at any other location during his career.

Ellet's work was often plagued with controversy and the Wheeling Bridge project was no exception. Four months before the structure was completed, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania sued the Wheeling and Belmont Bridge Company on behalf of steamboat interests in Pittsburgh. The litigation introduced Ellet to the opposition's counsel, Edwin M. Stanton. In the final analysis, Congress sided with the bridge company, and the President signed into law a bill that declared the bridge a portion of a post road and therefore not subject to the decree of the Supreme Court. Nevertheless, bitter seeds had been sown between the bridge engineer and the future Secretary of War.

At this point, Ellet's attention turned to the extensive overflows of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. No better example exists of his fascination with the nation's waterways than when he changed his oldest son's name to Charles (Charlie) Rivers Ellet. In 1850, Congress commissioned a survey of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers that would lead to a practical plan to combat inundation. Ellet conducted his work simultaneously and independently of topographical engineers Colonel Stephen H. Long and Captain Andrew A. Humphreys. Ellet finished first, on October 31, 1851. He argued for stronger and higher levees and recommended the creation of artificial reservoirs on tributary streams in order to control discharge into the Mississippi. His plan was considered controversial and the Corps of Engineers rejected it.

This study was originally published as a Senate document in 1852, and later elaborated in Ellet's Report on the Overflows of the Delta of the Mississippi (Washington, 1852) and The Mississippi and Ohio Rivers (Philadelphia, 1853); Physical Geography of the Mississippi Valley was published by the Smithsonian Institution in1849. Not until 1928 would a comparably comprehensive flood control plan be published by the federal government.

From 1850 to 1853 Ellet was chief engineer of the Hempfield Railroad and the Virginia Central Railroad, in addition to other mentioned projects. A second daughter, Nina, had been born in1849, and son Willie was born in the summer of 1854. Ellie was spending winters in Washington DC. Although a growing family and Ellet's mounting list of projects and responsibilities were taking their toll, he could not refuse a third trip to Europe when the ailing railroad companies asked him to go in an effort to secure credit and supplies.

In Europe, eleven-year-old Charlie was sent to a boarding school in Paris. Ellie remained in Frankfurt with Mary Virginia, Nina, and Willie, while Ellet crossed the continent taking care of business. The Crimean War was in progress, and it was during this time that the engineer conceived the idea of a steam battering ram. It was not a complicated design. Simply put, he wanted to strengthen the boat's hull and send them with "force against the sides of other vessels." In 1855 he wrote a pamphlet outlining his ram ideas, which marked the beginning of a seven-year campaign to convince the United States government to use them for national defense.

On their return from Europe, the family settled for good in the Washington DC area on a small farm they called Clifton, in what is now Georgetown. Children Nina and Willie were still young and remained at home, but Charlie was the rambunctious one. He was soon enrolled in Georgetown College and later Virginia Military Institute, from which he was expelled for getting into mischief. Charlie was then sent to live with Uncle Edward Ellet in Illinois where he began to train for the medical profession and was introduced to the 1860's version of "tough love."

Daughter Mary Virginia was never a problem. She, like her father, was largely self-taught. She learned French on her own while in Europe. She read a great deal. She helped her mother with the younger children. She made occasional trips to Virginia to spend time with her relatives. She wrote more letters to her father during the war years than anyone else.

Life changed drastically after Fort Sumter, when Ellet offered his services as an engineer to the President and the Secretary of the Navy. He was prepared to argue, persuade, and harangue for a position to assist the war effort. After all, no one knew the topography of Virginia better than he did. He had strategies to cut off Confederate supplies by rail, build floating bridges on the Potomac, and he was even willing to lead a Pennsylvania infantry. Additionally, he had never let up on his steam ram plan for national defense. His offers were ignored with an insulting silence, even by General George B. McClellan.

Initially, Ellet thought his overtures to "Little Mac" would be well received. Both men were engineers, both had held high positions with railroad companies, both were from Pennsylvania, and both had observed war strategies during the Crimean War. Ellet's efforts to contribute to the war effort were to no avail. The General's disregard of a senior engineer sent Ellet into a tailspin. He wrote a highly critical letter to the editor of the New York Times about McClellan's procrastination. Ellet's views were later published in a pamphlet titled, The Army of the Potomac and Its Mismanagement.

Ellet observed that the Army of the Potomac enjoyed being a daily parade brigade while the Southern troops regularly received food, ammunition, and additional troops from the Orange and Alexandria Railroad. He simply proposed that a strategic destruction of Virginia's rail lines would stop the war and save lives. But he determined the General was apparently "unconscious" about where the enemy was and what they were doing, especially after they stole the Baltimore and Ohio engines away, within view of Federal campfires.

McClellan's dawdling included the consistent call for more men. Ellet wrote "You have more men and equipment here now than Napoleon had when he prostrated Prussia in a three weeks campaign. You have more men here on the Potomac than he moved when he marched to the heart of Austria, occupied Vienna, and dictated laws to the sovereigns of Europe." The New York Times eventually cast its approval for Ellet's critique, but the federal government continued to ignore him until March 9, 1862. The overture from the politicians had nothing to do with McClellan. The ironclad ram Merrimac had destroyed a fleet of Union boats at the Battle of Hampton Roads. This battle did more for Ellet's ram proposal than anything he said or could have said.

Strategically, Stanton decided that the Union must take control of the Mississippi River. If the North hoped to put down the rebellion, it must cut off the Confederate source of trade and transportation. Putting together a fleet of steam battering rams became an emergency and Charles Ellet, Jr. was their man. Stanton told his cohorts that he didn't know of anyone else to whom he could entrust the mission. Obviously, at this point, Stanton was over their Wheeling discord.

Ellet oversaw the conversion of nine steamboats into speedier, less cumbersome ramming vessels than the ironclads. Stanton commissioned the engineer a colonel, so that he could command the fleet. Ellet requested that his youngest brother, Lieutenant Colonel Alfred W. Ellet, be allowed to join him as second in command. The crew consisted of fifty soldiers from Alfred's Illinois unit, ordinary river boatmen, and other Ellet relatives, including son Charlie.

On the Mississippi River at Memphis, June 6, 1862, Colonel Ellet, aboard Queen of the West, and Alfred, aboard Monarch, joined forces with Captain Charles H. Davis's gunboats. Union ram Switzerland ran aground and the others coming from behind, obeying orders, did not get out of formation, thus leaving the ramming to Charles and Alfred. Nevertheless, all the Rebel rams but one were sunk, burned, or run into the Arkansas side. The Battle of Memphis barely lasted an hour.

Ellet was shot in the knee. The wound was not considered life threatening at first. He penned a letter to Mary Virginia saying little about the battle, but giving accolades to Charlie for removing the Confederate flag from atop the Memphis Post Office and raising the National banner. "One man drew a pistol and proclaimed himself an officer of the Confederate Army, and would tear that flag down. Charles told him that if he advanced his foot to the steps he would kill him... The whole bearing of the boy was manly in extreme... I enclose you a piece of the cord from the wounded leg side of my pantaloons for Nina... My dear daughter you have no need to be ashamed of your kindred today."

Writing to Ellie, Ellet said, "after the doctor removed the ball from near my knee, my anxiety is now for you, and Mary and our dear little ones. Join me here my dear Wife and let us study out the future and talk over the past... Forever yours, Charles Ellet, Jr."

Stanton sent the "thanks of the Department" to Ellet and his men. But as the days went by, Ellet's condition deteriorated. Stanton soon had the heartbreaking task of informing Ellie that her seriously ill husband was being brought to Cairo. She and daughter Mary Virginia rushed to meet him there. But when the boat docked on June 21, Ellet was dead.

His body was taken to Independence Hall where he lay in state until he was interred June 27 at Laurel Hill Cemetery. Ellie died the next day from exhaustion and a broken heart. Charlie had remained to serve with Uncle Alfred and they ran reconnaissance missions during the months preceding the Battle at Vicksburg. Charlie became sick and went home to Uncle Edward in Illinois. Within a few days, Charlie died at the age of 21.

Their oldest daughter, Mary Virginia, was left to raise her two young siblings, Nina and Willie. Willie later died of unknown causes at age 20. Nina died in childbirth at 24. Mary Virginia had married her widowed cousin, William Daniel Cabell, in 1867. He ran a school for boys, initially those returning home from war, out of his Norwood, Virginia, estate until about 1880.

The couple and their children moved to Washington DC and opened another school called the Norwood Institute. In 1890, Mary Virginia became an organizing member of the Daughters of the American Revolution. She spent her later years perpetuating the memory of her father, until her death in 1930.

Charles Ellet, Jr., was like a one-man American band when it came to introducing public works to an infant nation in the mid-19th Century. Building canals, bridges, railroads, surveying rivers to control inundation, commanding a steam ram fleet of his design, and writing pamphlets about all of his enterprises was what he did from 1832-1862. As his story shows, he did it with style and impeccable courtesy, but often became impatient with those who did not agree with him. Still, he was highly acclaimed during his lifetime. And, he always demonstrated love and tenderness towards his wife and children. Although Ellet's mass applause has grown silent, notable engineers sing his praises, and descendants beat the drum. The eminent engineer made history in his day. He deserves this page today.