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Naval Battle of Memphis

Naval Battle of Memphis

US Civil War

The First Battle of Memphis, CSS Little Rebel it is to the left of the rammed vessel.

The naval battle off Memphis, Tennessee on June 6, 1862 was a Federal victory nearly as quick as it was bloodless. A combined fleet of nine vessels, five ironclads and four rams, under Captain Charles Henry Davis approached the city from the north that morning intending to wrest control of the Mississippi River from the Confederate River Defense Fleet of eight cottonclad ships led by James Edward Montgomery.

Charles H. Davis.jpg
Charles Henry Davis (1807 – 1877), U.S. naval officer.

Under the watchful guise of hundreds of citizens from Memphis, the battle lasted less than an hour. As described below by Chief Engineer William G. McFarland of the gunboat U.S.S. Cincinnati, the Federal rams waded in amongst the Confederates and disabled one while the heavy guns of the gunboats blasted the remainder. By the end of the engagement, four of the cottonclads had become sunk. Three were in Federal hands. And only the C.S.S. Earl Van Dorn escaped sinking or capture. Federals then quickly seized control of Memphis.

CSS General Earl Van Dorn stands alongside CSS General Sterling Price

Today’s blog post will focus on two aspects of this engagement. The first portion looks at the battle itself from the perspective of Engineer McFarland. The second portion focuses on what could be termed the prizes of war: two captured Confederate battle flags retrieved from the captured cottonclads that Lieutenant Seth Ledyard Phelps sent home to Ohio in June 1862.

Gunboat Cincinnati, off Memphis, Tennessee

June 8, 1862[1]

Here we are anchored off the city of Memphis, the great seat of learning and the fine arts, but to look at it at this time, it has no indications that would entitle it to that claim. On last Friday morning the 6th at 7 o’clock, the battle commenced. It lasted just three quarters of an hour. Our fleet came to anchor just one mile above the main wharf. Captain Charles H. Davis, the brave successor of the noble commander Andrew H. Foote, sent a challenge to Commodore [James] Edward Montgomery of New Albany, Indiana to come one mile above town, or if he declined to do so, that he, Davis, would go one mile below the city and fight him there.

The object of this was to prevent any danger from befalling the citizens on shore, but the Rebel commodore sent a reply to the invitation that he, Davis, dare not come down another inch. We had just five boats of ironclads and four rams. The Rebels had eight boats. It will be remembered that the Rebels have combined the qualities of their steamers so as to have them act both as batteries and rams and was able to bring either into requisition at a moment’s time. In this, they certainly have excelled us. Their steamers are likewise double engine, with each independent of the other, while ours are connected to a single wheel, rendering them hard to handle at all times and especially so in places where room was very limited.

U.S.S. Cincinnati

But Captain Davis ordered them to get in line of battle immediately and move down in as solid a body as possible. The order was obeyed with alacrity, and in ten minutes from its issue the contending vessels were briskly engaged. Our gunboats kept close down the left shore of the Tennessee side and as the Rebels crossed over to meet them, they left the right side on the Arkansas shore clear. Our rams were then signaled to run down the right shore and get in below or the rear of the Rebel fleet, and thus cut off their retreat. This was also accomplished in a very handsome manner.

City Class Ironclads in Illinois

In this engagement the Rebel gunboats Colonel LovellGeneral Sterling Price, and General Beauregard were sunk, the Beauregard and Lovell entirely out of sight. The General BraggGeneral Sumter, and the Little Rebel, a large propeller built at Pittsburg some two years ago, and then named the R.J. Watson, and the Van Doran and Colonel M. Jeff Thompson composed their entire fleet. The Little Rebel was used as the flagship of Commodore Montgomery as she was the fastest of them all. When the villains discovered how the game was going, they undertook to put into execution their favorite games of skedaddling, but it is now too late in the day.

Battle of Memphis; Little Rebel third from the left

The Van Dorn was the only one that succeeded.

She and the Colonel Thompson and Little Rebel, the flagship, started full jump, but a well-directed Parrott 22-pound shot from one of the guns of the gallant Carondelet sent whizzing through her- the flagship’s boiler- soon put a stop to further progress.

Parrott gun No. 107 (USS Kanawha), a 3.67-in (20-lb) Naval Parrott. Image source: Daderot 

Many of her crew who one hour before had though themselves highly honored by being permitted to bask in the shadow of the fat Commodore Montgomery, were soon nearly all scalded to death, but a few, among whom may be numbered fat Ed, made their escape to shore, and it is said by those who witnessed the fun, that the fat commodore threw sand higher and faster than ever before, excelling that renowned individual, the “Arkansaw Traveler.” Ed has made his escape but will soon be caught.

Former C.S.S. General Bragg after she was taken into the U.S. Navy. The vessel was shorn of its ‘cottonclad’ armor of heavy timbers, railroad iron, and cotton bales. 

The General Bragg and Sumter became captured by being surrounded by our rams and gunboats.

The General Bragg was formerly the steamship Mexico, a New Orleans and Galveston packet. The Sumter was formerly the Mary Kingsland, a powerful towboat, one which I had the honor of engineering during the Mexican War and the very boat that was chartered by the city council of New Orleans to go down to the Gulf and receive old “Rough and Ready” on his arrival at Belize on his return from the hard fought fields of Mexico to be elevated to the highest gift, the power of a grateful people.

USS Monarch
USS Monarch

The Monarch, after sinking the Lovell, went in pursuit of the fleeing steamers Van Doran and Colonel Thompson at the foot of President’s Island. She overwhelmed the Thompson and brought her back, the Van Dorn making her escape. The Champion is now pumping out the General Price. She is a noble vessel and will be worth, when repaired, $150,000; the Sumter worth $75,000; the General Bragg worth $150,000, and the Little Rebel worth $10,000. Thus $385,000 has been captured in this battle, and an equal amount destroyed. Their whole fleet, except the Van Dorn, is gone and lost forever.

Seth Ledyard Phelps of Chardon, Ohio

Following the engagement, Lieutenant Seth Ledyard Phelps, skipper of the gunboat U.S.S. Benton, gathered the spoils of war. The Benton had played a key role in cutting off the escape of the C.S.S. General Bragg, and when Federal forces boarded her, they cut down the flag waving from her main mast and presented it to Lieutenant Phelps. The skipper, a native of Chardon, Ohio, decided to send the flag to Governor David Tod of Ohio. “I have sent to you for presentation to my native state the flag which was flying from the peak of the Rebel gunboat and ram General Bragg when captured in the naval action off this city yesterday morning,” Phelps wrote the governor on June 7, 1862. “I feel great satisfaction in being able to present to the state of Ohio this trophy taken in an action which terminated so disastrously for the Rebel cause.” [2]

Phelps letter to Governor David Tod

Governor Tod replied on June 11th, thanking Phelps for the flag. “I have the proud satisfaction of receiving with your appropriate autograph letter of the 7th a flag with three bars and 13 stars taken from the Rebel gunboat and ram General Bragg, so gallantly captured in the brilliant engagement of the 6th instant off Memphis,” Tod wrote. “The flag with the enclosed inscription and the letter attached shall be placed in the trophy museum of our Capitol as a proud memento of your most successful achievement. Ohio, your native state, received the news of your great and crowning success in clearing the “Father of Waters” of traitorous obstructions with a thrill of intense delight.”[3] 

The flag resided in Columbus for a number of years, but a survey performed by the Columbus branch of the Daughters of the Confederacy in the 1890s did not show the General Bragg flag as being held by the state. The open question remains where the General Bragg’s banner currently resides; is it in private hands or in those of an institution?

Governor Tod’s letter to Phelps

Interestingly, a week later, Lieutenant Phelps sent another flag back to Ohio, this time he sent the captured banner to his hometown of Chardon in Geauga County. “I desire to present, through you, to the village of Chardon, a Rebel flag captured in the late engagement before this place,” Phelps wrote to the mayor of Chardon on June 14, 1862:

“In the confusion of battle, this flag came into our possession without a mark to note from which one of the Rebel fleet it was taken. It was once a Union flag and has been altered to a Rebel one by painting over some of the stars and sewing together the red and white stripes as to form the bars. I now feel much pleasure in being able to send to the village where my home ties are, where my warmly cherished child and boy associations all cluster, this trophy from an action so disastrous to the traitors.”[4]

Geauga County Courthouse in Chardon, Ohio

A public presentation ceremony was held on Friday June 20, 1862 at the county courthouse in Chardon over which Mayor C.L. Canfield, an intimate childhood friend of Lieutenant Phelps presided. Also, in the audience was Lieutenant Phelps father Judge Alfred Phelps and the lieutenant’s wife. A resolution read by Mayor Canfield directed “that this flag with a suitable inscription with the accompanying autograph letter of Capt. Phelps be deposited in the office of the Town Recorder and carefully treasured as a trophy won by a gallant donor, to whom with the brave men under his command, we award the highest praise for those brilliant efforts which both merited and won success.”  

J.O. Converse commented that “this flag is a fit emblem of the Southern Confederacy- soiled, defaced, and polluted, marred as you see by the traitors. It was made from a United States flag by changing its stars and stripes to the inglorious stars and bars of a traitor government.”[5]

The fate of this second flag is also unknown. The office of the town recorder resided in the Geauga County courthouse but in 1868, that structure along with most of Main Street in Chardon burned down. Its possible that the Phelps’ flag was lost in the fire.

Written by Dan Masters

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My personal journey of discovering the Civil War began with the receipt of my great-great-great grandfather’s discharge certificate more than 20 years ago. Private James Morrow of Co. H, 1st Ohio Volunteer Cavalry served three years with the Army of the Cumberland- the more I learned about his service, the more I became intrigued about how it was that the ordinary foot soldiers of the Civil War actually fought the war. Generals and admirals may direct battles, but it is upon the extraordinary endurance and courage of the men in the ranks that battles and wars are won. My work centers on the lives of the men and women in the ranks.

Dan Masters’ Civil War Chronicles (

[1] “From the Flotilla,” Clermont Courier, June 25, 1862, pg. 1

[2] “A Trophy for Ohio,” Cleveland Morning Leader, June 13, 1862, pg. 2

[3] Ibid.

[4] “Presentation of a Rebel Flag by Lieut. S.L. Phelps to his Native Village,” Jeffersonian Democrat (Chardon, Ohio), June 27, 1862, pg. 3

[5] Ibid.

Naval Battle of Memphis