One of two naval battles that resulted in the capture of important Confederate cities on the Mississippi in 1862 (the other was New Orleans). The capture of Island No. 10 on 7 April had left Fort Pillow as the last significant Confederate stronghold before Memphis. Fort Pillow could only be held while a strong Confederate army remained at Corinth, inland to the east. However, in the aftermath of their victory at Shiloh (6-7 April), a strong Union army had been slowly advancing towards Corinth. On 25 May General Beauregard evacuated Corinth, saving his army but forcing the abandonment of Fort Pillow.
The Confederate defenders of Memphis were still confident. Their defence was based not on fixed fortifications, but on a fleet of ironclad rams, a new type of warship made possible by the advent of iron ships with steam engines. On 10 May 1862 that fleet had launched a surprise attack on the Union fleet at Fort Pillow, causing some chaos and damaging two ironclads before retreating back to the safety of Fort Pillow. Now those same ships were waiting at Memphis, confident that they could see off any Union attack.
That confidence was based on a misjudgement of Union strength on the river. The Confederates had a fleet of eight gunboats and armed rams at Memphis. To the best of their knowledge they outnumbered the Union gunboat fleet. When the battle came, they did indeed outnumber the five Union gunboats. However, unknown to them, the Union fleet now also contained three rams. These had been constructed almost entirely as result of the efforts of Charles Ellet, Jr, a civil engineer, who had convinced the army of the value of his rams. This was very much a family venture. Charles captained one ram, his brother Alfred Ellet another, and his son Charles was to take the surrender of Memphis.
The battle at Memphis began with a conventional artillery duel between the two lines of gun boats. However, the Confederates were soon to be surprised by the Ellets. Fifteen minutes after the firing began Charles Ellet in the Queen of the West and Alfred Ellet in the Monarch swept through gaps in the Union line, and plunged into the Confederate ships, sinking one and badly damaging another. The rest of the Union fleet took advantage of the ensuing chaos to inflict a crushing defeat on the Confederate fleet. Only one ship, the General Earl van Dorn escaped. Three were destroyed and the remaining four captured. Union losses were tiny (4 wounded), but one of the wounded was Charles Ellet, who later died of his wounds.
With the destruction of their fleet, the citizens of Memphis had no choice but to surrender. Charles Ellet the son was sent into the town to accept her surrender. The loss of Memphis opened the Mississippi to Union ships all the way to Vicksburg, Mississippi. Memphis had been a key Confederate supply depot and ship building centre. Following only a month after the capture of New Orleans, the battle of Memphis marked the end of any effective Confederate command of the Mississippi River.