Charles Ellet, Jr.

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Charles Ellet, Jr.
Charles Ellet.jpg
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, 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]

According to A Naval History of the Civil War, Ellet was inspired by the accidental ramming of the SS Arctic by the SS Vesta, in 1854.[10] In that disaster the Arctic was sunk by a vessel more than ten times smaller. He thought the accident demonstrated that steam power made it practical to re-introduce the naval ram as a weapon. When his proposal was rejected by the United States Navy he published a pamphlet Coast and Harbor Defenses, or the Substitution of Steam Battering Rams for Ships of War in late 1855.

In March 1861, the Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton appointed him colonel of engineers and tasked him with developing the United States Ram Fleet.

He was mortally wounded during the Battle of Memphis (in which he was the only Union casualty) while commanding Queen of the West, 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]

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.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Eicher, John H.; Eicher, David J. (2001). Civil War High Commands. Stanford University Press. p. 224. ISBN 0-8047-3641-3. 
  2. ^ Unrau, Harland D. "Historical Resource Study: Chesapeake & Ohio Canal" (PDF). [US Department of the Interior, National Park Service]. Retrieved 2013-05-02.  p. 16
  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
  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 September 1854. Unable to interest the Navy Department in this idea he attempted to call it ot 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[edit]

  • Fowler, William M. 1990. Under Two Flags: The American Navy in the Civil War. Norton and Company. ISBN 0-393-02859-3

External links[edit]