The First Battle of Memphis was a naval battle fought on the Mississippi River immediately above the city of Memphis on June 6, 1862, during the American Civil War. The engagement was witnessed by many of the citizens of Memphis. It resulted in a crushing defeat for the Rebels, and marked the virtual eradication of a Confederate naval presence on the river. Despite the lopsided outcome, the Union Army failed to grasp its strategic significance. Its primary historical importance is that it was the last time civilians with no prior military experience were permitted to command ships in combat. As such, it is a milestone in the development of professionalism in the United States Navy.

First Battle of Memphis Background

The defending Confederates closely matched the advancing Federal force in raw numbers, with eight Rebel vessels opposing nine Union gunboats and rams, but the fighting qualities of the former were far inferior. Each was armed with only one or two guns, of a light caliber that would be ineffective against the armor of the gunboats. The primary weapon of each was its reinforced prow, which was intended to be used in ramming opponents.

The Confederate rams were distinguished by a unique feature of their defense against enemy shot. Their engines and other interior spaces were protected by a double bulkhead of heavy timbers, covered on the outer surface by a layer of railroad iron. The gap between the bulkheads, a space of 22 in (56 cm), was packed with cotton. Although the cotton was the least important part of the armor, it caught the public's attention, and the boats came to be called "cottonclads". (Later in the war, ships' crews were often protected from small-arms fire by bales of cotton placed in exposed positions, and these vessels were also referred to as cottonclads. They differed, however, from the originals of the category.)

The Federal force consisted of five gunboats, four of which were known semi-officially as 'Eads gunboats,' after their builder, James Buchanan Eads, but more commonly as 'Pook Turtles', after their designer, Samuel M. Pook, and their strange appearance. The fifth gunboat, flagship Benton, was also a product of the Eads shipyards, but was converted from a civilian craft. Each of these vessels carried 13-16 guns. The other four vessels were rams, with no armament whatever, aside from small arms carried by the officers. All of the rams had been converted from civilian riverboats, and had no common design.


As a result of the Federal victory at Corinth, the railroads that linked Memphis with the eastern part of the Confederacy had been cut, severely reducing the strategic importance of the city. Therefore, in early June Memphis and its nearby forts were abandoned by the Rebel army. Most of the garrison were sent to join units elsewhere, including Vicksburg, and only a small rear guard was left to make a token resistance. The River Defense Fleet would also have retreated to Vicksburg, but they could not get enough coal in Memphis. Unable to flee when the Federal fleet appeared on June 6, Montgomery and his captains had to decide whether to fight or scuttle their boats. They chose to fight, steaming out in the early morning to meet the advancing flotilla and the rams trailing behind it.

The battle started with an exchange of gunfire at long range, the Federal gunboats setting up a line of battle across the river and firing their stern guns at the cottonclads coming up to meet them. Two of the four rams advanced beyond the line of the gunboats and rammed or otherwise disrupted the movements of their opponents; the other rams misinterpreted their orders and did not enter the battle at all. With the Federal rams and gunboats not coordinating their movements and the Confederate vessels operating independently, the battle soon was reduced to a melee. It is agreed by all that the ram flagship, Queen of the West, drew first blood by ramming CSS Colonel Lovell. She was then rammed in turn by one or more of the remaining cottonclads. Col. Ellet was at this time wounded by a pistol shot in his knee, thereby becoming the only casualty on the Union side. (In the hospital, he contracted measles, the childhood disease that killed some 5,000 soldiers during the war. The combination of the disease and the debilitation caused by his wound was too great, and he died on June 21.) The remainder of the battle is obscured by more than the fog of war. Several eyewitness accounts are available; unfortunately, they are mutually contradictory to a greater degree than usual. All that is certain is that at the end of the battle, all but one of the cottonclads were either destroyed or captured, and one Yankee boat, Queen of the West, was disabled. The sole boat to escape, CSS General Earl Van Dorn, fled to the protection of the Yazoo River, just north of Vicksburg. Personnel losses among the Confederates cannot be estimated reliably.

First Battle of Memphis Aftermath

The battle of Memphis was, aside from the later appearance of the ironclad CSS Arkansas, the final challenge to the Federal thrust down the Mississippi River against Vicksburg. The river was now open down to that city, which was already besieged by Farragut's ships, but the Federal Army authorities did not grasp the strategic importance of the fact for nearly another six months. Not until November would the Union Army under Ulysses S. Grant attempt to complete the opening of the river.

The poor performance of the River Defense Fleet, both at Memphis and at the earlier Battle of New Orleans, was the final demonstration that naval operations had to be commanded by trained professionals subject to military discipline. The Ellet Rams remained in the Federal service, but they had no opportunity for combat of the sort for which they were intended. They were soon transformed to an amphibious raiding body, the Mississippi Marine Brigade (with no connection to the United States Marine Corps), led by Col. Ellet's brother, Lieutenant Colonel (later Brigadier General) Alfred W. Ellet. The demand for increased professionalism has also resulted in the elimination of privateering, although the River Defense Fleet were not privateers in the usual meaning of the term.

The battle remains a cautionary tale, demonstrating the ill effects of poor command structure. It is also interesting in that it is one of only two purely naval battles of the war, excluding single-ship actions, and took place 500 mi (800 km) from the nearest open water. (The other was the Battle of Plum Point Bend, also on the Mississippi.)

Another Civil War military engagement also took place in Memphis, the Second Battle of Memphis in April 1864, when Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest led a nighttime cavalry raid on his hometown of Memphis with the intent of freeing Confederate prisoners and capturing Union generals encamped in Memphis. The raid failed in both goals, but forced the Union Army to guard the area more diligently.

First Battle of Memphis
Part of American Civil War
Date June 6, 1862
Location Mississippi River near Memphis, Tennessee
Result Union victory
United States United States (Union) Confederate States of America CSA (Confederacy)
Commanders and leaders
Charles Henry Davis
Charles Ellet, Jr.
James E. Montgomery
M. Jeff Thompson
U.S. Ironclads Benton, Louisville, Carondelet, Cairo, and St. Louis, and U.S. Army Rams Queen of the West and Monarch C.S. Army Rams
CSS General Beauregard,
CSS General Bragg,
CSS General Sterling Price,
CSS General Earl Van Dorn,
CSS General M. Jeff Thompson,
CSS Colonel Lovell,
CSS General Sumter, and
CSS Little Rebel
Casualties and losses
1 180 (unreliable)