The Ellets

Picture of General A.W. Ellet
Picture of Columbia Pioneer Cemetery
Picture of John A. Ellet's Headstone
Picture of Richard S. Ellet's Military Marker
Picture of Richard S. Ellet's Monument
Picture of Richard S. Ellet's Monument (Up-Close)

            A. W. Ellet, one-time resident of Bunker Hill, was a general in the Civil War and his nephew was a colonel. Both played important parts in that conflict, but the general’s brother, a colonel who was killed in action, was the more famous Ellet. Another brother, E. C. Ellet, a doctor, practiced in Bunker Hill for many years, so the Ellets should be treated as a family rather than as an individual. A nephew who also served in the same riverboat ram fleet as the colonel and general, was also a colonel. 

            Charles Ellet was the most famous of the Ellets, having gained an international reputation as an engineer. He was sixth of the 14 children of Charles and Mary Ellet. His mother was Mary Isreal, a daughter of Israel Israel, high sheriff of Philadelphia who had become wealthy in Barbados before 1776.

            Charles left home at age 17, working as a rodman and finally as an engineer assistant for surveyors. His mother later helped him financially and he went to France in 1830 to study engineering.

            He became quite successful as an engineer, specializing in railroad bridges. In 1842 he built the first important suspension railroad bridge in the United States, a bridge over the Ohio River at Wheeling in what is now West Virginia. At the time it was the longest and highest bridge of its kind in the world.

            Prior to the Civil War, all ships were wooden. Charles took an interest in iron-clad boats and while visiting Russia during the Crimean war, urged Russia to employ iron-clad “ram-boats.” When Russia wasn’t interested, he tried to peddle the idea to England and France. They weren’t interested either. Back home he urged the secretary of the navy to build them but was ignored until 1862 when the Merrimac demonstrated the efficiency of the ram. Two weeks later Ellet was preparing a ram fleet to clear the Mississippi River. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton commissioned him a colonel, subject only to himself. Colonel was the highest rank Stanton could offer without congressional approval.

            The ramboats were usually old heavy wooden steamboats reinforced with iron and the deck lined with cotton bales for added protection. They were unarmed and used only for ramming and carrying troops and supplies.

            The confederates had ramboats too, but the ram was not their primary weapon. And their boats were slower.

            Charles Ellet, in March 1862, began work and immediately remodeled nine river boats and with a volunteer crew, on June 6, after sinking four confederate boats before Memphis, received the surrender of that city.

            Col. Charles Ellet was the only union man injured in that engagement and he died as his boat touched shore at Cairo, Ill. on June 21. He was buried from Independence Hall in Philadelphia.

But that was not the end of the Ellets. Although Charles Ellet may never have been in Macoupin County, he had a tremendous impact here.

            Col. Ellet’s son, Charles Rivers Ellet, became a colonel and his brother, Alfred Washington Ellet, a Lieutenant Colonel at the time, succeeded his dead brother as commander of the ram fleet and was promoted to general.

            When Charles Ellet was commissioned colonel, he requested of Secretary Stanton that his brother, Alfred, then a captain of the 59th Illinois Infantry Regiment, be appointed his second-in-command. His son, Charles Rivers Ellet, was a Medical Cadet. Another brother, John A. Ellet, commanded one of the rams. Later Charles Rivers Ellet and John A. Ellet, as well as Alfred Ellet, commanded the ram fleet.

            Lt. Col. Alfred Ellet proved equal to the task. Within three weeks of assuming command of the ram fleet, on June 25, 1862, his small fleet combined with navy gunboats, army infantry and cavalry, and went up the Yazoo River to cut rebel communications with Vicksburg and search for rebel gunboats. The rebels saw them coming and burned their own three boats.

            This so impressed Secretary of War Stanton that A. W. Ellet was promoted to Brigadier General.

            Young Ellet also showed great courage and military ability. Gen. William T. Sherman described Charles Rivers Ellet, the colonel’s son, as “full of energy and resources” when the 19-year-old colonel prepared to run two of his rams past Vicksburg to support Admiral Farragut below the city. During the same month, Charles Rivers Ellet was specifically commended in a report to the Secretary of the Navy.

            This young hero died in 1863 of an overdose of morphine while recuperating from disease at his aunt’s  home in Bunker Hill. On his death, command of the Ram Fleet went to his uncle, John A. Ellet, who then became the fourth Ellet to serve in that position. I assume the aunt was the wife of Dr. E. C. Ellet of Bunker Hill.

            In November, 1862 Gen. Ellet was ordered to organize the Mississippi Marine Brigade. He appointed his nephew, Charles Rivers Ellet, colonel and commanding officer of the Ram Fleet. The Marine Brigade was to include a regiment of infantry, two squadrons of cavalry and a battery of artillery in addition to the Ram Fleet. He accomplished this task by February, despite difficulty in recruiting. He finally was allowed to recruit veterans from other units to fill his units. Many were from his old infantry company, the 59th Illinois.

            Neither General Grant nor Commodore Porter, under whom the Ram Fleet operated, had much use for Gen. Ellet, who served directly under the command of Secretary of War Stanton and was answerable to neither the army nor the navy. But due to Grant’s success at Vicksburg and pressure on Stanton from both Grant and Porter, by August 1863, the Marine Brigade was placed under Grant’s command.

            There were allegations of profiteering against Gen. Ellet, particularly for cotton speculation, but nothing came of it.  Stanton has since been suspected of the same mischief. In August, 1864 irregularities in the fleet’s accounting were noted and soon thereafter, Stanton decided to disband the Marine Brigade and disperse its boats to wherever needed along the river. As soon as the Marine Brigade was disbanded, Gen. Ellet resigned from service and returned to business in Illinois.

            This outline of their military service is from published accounts of the Civil War. F. Y. Hedley, editor of the Bunker Hill Gazette and a long-time friend of the general, wrote an account of the general and his ram fleet on Ellet’s death in January, 1895.

            He wrote, “Alfred Washington Ellet was a native of Pennsylvania, born Oct. 11th, 1820, out of a family distinguished for patriotism and courage in revolutionary times. His early years were passed on his father's farm. He left school when fifteen years old, coming to Illinois. In 1839 he came to his brother, Dr. E. C. Ellet, then living on Dry Fork, north of this place, and engaged in stockraising, and in management of a country store. (Dr. Ellet corrected this statement the following week, maintaining that the two brothers had come to Illinois together.) In 1849 he left the farm and came to Bunker Hill and carried on a store. Later he moved to his farm east of town. About 1868 he removed; the greater part of the time since then, he made his home in Kansas. 

            “In 1843, Gen. Ellet married Miss Sarah J. Robarts, a companion of his childhood, long deceased...”

            The 1879 History of Macoupin County noted that the first post office in Hilyard Township was established in 1846 and that Alfred Ellet was post master.

            The Bunker Hill Gazette followed his career in Kansas with interest, often commenting on his fine farms there and his other interests.

            On Feb. 24, 1892 the Gazette noted, “Gen. A. W. Ellet resides in El Dorado, Kansas; he is interested in banking and stock raising, and looking after several fine farms of which he is owner. He is one of the early and most respected residents of that beautiful town, in whose development he has aided greatly...”  Bunker Hill was quite proud of its Soldiers’ Monument, erected in the local cemetery in 1866 at a cost of $2,500. W. O. Jencks, a veteran and Bunker Hill businessman, in the June 29, 1892 issue of the Gazette remembered, “The most patriotic and in every way successful celebration ever held in Bunker Hill was in 1866, when the corner-stone of the Soldiers’ Monument was laid. The procession, headed by Gen. A. W. Ellet, was the finest ever seen in this place.”

            On Jan. 16, 1895 the Gazette, upon the death of the general, quoted an ‘old citizen’: “Gen. Ellet was Grand Marshal of the procession at the laying of the corner stone of the Soldiers' Monument, July 4th, 1866. He was in full uniform, and made a splendid appearance.”

            In the same issue appeared the following: “The death of Gen. A. W. Ellet recalls interest in the bell in the Congregational Church, which was sent to this place by him. The circumstances are known to but few of our older citizens.

            “In war days, the confederate authorities called upon churches and plantations to turn over their bells to the ordnance officers for conversion into artillery, and the response was all but unanimous. Gen. Ellet's Marine Brigade found the bell in question on the river bank, awaiting shipment, and took possession of it.  The General turned it over to the Quarter­master's Department, with other captured property, and on its being appraised he bought it and presented it to the Bunker Hill Academy. The bell was found to be too heavy for the tower of that building and the trustees exchanged it for the bell then in the Congregational Church belfry.”

            In 1874 Kansas suffered a severe drought and grasshopper invasion. The settlers there suffered greatly. A great many of the citizens from the El Dorado area were from Macoupin County, and the local people still remembered them and sympathized with them in their plight. Subscription drives were held and money and supplies were raised and sent to Kansas. They were sent there in care of Gen. Ellet, as were shipments from Pennsylvania, birthplace of General Ellet and home of his family.

            On March 25, 1875, The Gazette noted: “Gen. Ellet, who is now here, informs us that the money and supplies collected by him for the Kansas sufferers will aggregate in value nearly $5000. Truly he has done a good work.”

            And on June 3, 1875 the newspaper noted: “Some time ago we wrote Gen. A. W. Ellet, of El Dorado, Kansas, asking as to the disposition to be made of the funds secured here by the Kansas Relief Committee.” The general replied that relief was no longer needed, the grasshoppers had gone. He expected them to be in Missouri the following year and in old Macoupin by the next. They weren’t.

            In 1883 Editor Hedley took a trip to Kansas and wrote extensively of his activities and observations, some of which were of Gen. Ellet and the Ellet family. On April 26,1883 he wrote: “Among the places visited by the writer were several magnificent bottom farms owned by Gen. Ellet, formerly of this place (Bunker Hill). On these there was a remarkably fine stand of wheat, and the owner congratulated himself in advance upon the excellent prospect for duplicating a yield of forty bushels per acre which he realized in some previous years. …”

            Gen. Ellet became quite wealthy after his move to Kansas, although the family was anything but poor to begin with, thanks to the mother’s family. Hints of this could be observed by items that appeared in the paper from time to time.

            The June 26, 1884 issue noted, “We learn from The El Dorado (Kansas) Times that Gen. Ellet is the principal mover in a public hall to be known as "Ellet's Hall." Gen. Ellet is one of that class of citizens a people should be always glad to keep and sorry to lose. He would have been a Hillite to-day, had it not been for the courthouse swindle. He protested against the fraud, and when he found that the swindlers were successful in their scheme he shook the dirt of this county off his feet. What has been our loss has been El Dorado's gain; and, we are glad to say, the General's too.

            On Oct. 31, 1884 the paper noted, “The El Dorado (Kansas) Times, speaking of the new opera house in that place, says: "Gen. Ellet ought to be the proudest man in town over the building of such a useful and beautiful structure."

            An April 29, 1886 item noted, “In its report on the monied men of Kansas, The Globe Democrat estimates Gen. A. W. Ellet, of El Dorado, as worth $200,000…

            The Bunker Hill people were proud of their general, even though he had moved away many years before. Upon his death  nearly 30 years after his departure, they had pleasant things to say. Not the least of them was Editor Hedley himself, who wrote a glowing obituary and followed it up with an interesting personal column about the dismantling of a civil war ship on which both he and Gen., Ellet had served, at separate times, concluding with:

                “I find that some curious coincidences come to me in my newspaper work. My article this week owed its being to my reading of the breaking up of an old salt-water war vessel I saw at Vicksburg in 1863, and with it came to my mind my old friend Gen. Ellet, whose vessel I visited at the same time, though he was not aboard. The General's physical condition followed in my thought, and I was writing of him, as I have since learned, while his life was ebbing out.