Thursday, July 9, 2015
[This is a recent article I wrote for a publication.]
A Hoosier Riverman in the Mississippi Marine Brigade
By Ron Darrah
A collateral relative of mine, my 2nd great grand-uncle Alexander O'Neill, although born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and raised in Monroe County, Ohio, had lived and died at New Albany in Floyd County, Indiana. I had researched his life and family some time ago and thought I had a pretty good handle on him. One item, though, remained an oddity.
While volunteering at the Indiana State Archives, I had come across a filmed card file of veterans with his name included. Since Alexander was born in 1811 and had been documented in New Albany continuously since about 1830, I couldn't figure what kind of military service he might have performed. For a long while I thought the card might be a mistake.
Then, while researching in the Fold3 website database, I found the answer: Alexander served in the Civil War as a steamboat engineer in the Mississippi Marine Brigade.
Since he was close to 50 years old, this fact seemed a bit strange, but I sent for his pension file and it was indeed true. Then I had to find out what exactly was this Marine Brigade. That story was intriguing, to say the least.
If you have studied the American Civil War for any time at all, you will have realized that the conflict was the king of the wildcat military industry. Nearly any bizarre and unorthodox plan for winning the war could get funding and manpower from either side. Submarines, observation balloons, metal ships, machine guns, and railroad cannons were only a few of the new ideas developed during the war.
The Mississippi Marine Brigade was in the same category, a steamboat-based military strike force that could be quickly transported to many parts of the Confederacy and could attack multiple targets in a very short time. A study of the American conduct of the Second World War bring up many parallels to this system.
In 1862 Colonel Charles Ellet, Jr., an Army engineer developed the Union Ram Fleet, to test his unpopular theory that the enemy ships could be sunk by steamboats designed to collide with them and sink them with a large iron bow attachment. His theory was successful at the Battle of Memphis, but Colonel Ellet was killed in that engagement, ending his involvement.
In early 1863 his brother, Brigadier General Alfred W. Ellet, created a hybrid unit for raiding operations against the Confederacy. It was a water-borne force that was not part of the Navy; it was an Army force and not part of the Marines; it operated on a number of southern rivers, not just the Mississippi. The two commanders and their men were essentially a form of early Special Forces and often reported directly to the Secretary of War and not the Army or Navy field officers.
Both Ellet brothers, operating in a freewheeling manner, had trouble recruiting men for their boats. They frequently resorted to unorthodox methods by signing up convalescent soldiers out of hospitals in St. Louis and by hiring African-Americans who often had good experience as steamboat crewmen on southern rivers prior to the war.
The MMB operated for little more than a year and managed to enrage both sides of the Civil War with its lack of discipline and aggressive pillaging tactics. Many of their steamboats were originally part of Charles Ellet’s Union Ram Fleet, and both groups often operated as little more than Ellet’s privateers and personal raiders.
New Albany’s Alexander O’Neill entered into this bizarre military adventure in the spring of 1863 and served until the spring of 1864. He was initially First Engineer on the steamboat USS Fulton and later the same on the USS Horner.
The Fulton was a 123-ton stern-wheel steamer that served as a support ship for the transports and rams. Typically this would involve making repairs, supplying parts, and carrying supplies and ammunition. Both the Fulton and the Horner were towboats, used as tenders and dispatch boats. They often moved barges of coal to keep the combat ships supplied.
[As a child growing up along the upper Ohio River in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, I would still occasionally see a stern-wheel steamboat pushing barges up and down the river.]
A steamboat engineer managed all the mechanical systems of the vessel, especially the engine and the paddlewheels. He and his crew had to keep the fire burning and water supplied to produce enough steam to turn the paddlewheel, singular on a stern-wheeler. Civil War-era steamers were notorious for exploding their boilers and burning to the waterline, so Alexander may not have had an easy job, especially under stressful wartime conditions.
Surviving records of the MMB are sketchy and many were reportedly deliberately destroyed when the unit disbanded. I have not been able to find Alexander’s name on any of the available rosters or books.
Alexander had been an engineer in civilian life for many years, based out of New Albany. The city of New Albany in the 1840’s, 50’s, and 60’s was one of the largest ship building locations in the United States. Alexander for a time in 1848 even owned a steamboat, the Yazoo Belle.
Alexander’s two sons, William and Andrew, were also engineers on river boats. During the Civil War, William was in the 23rd Indiana Infantry and Andrew was in the 9th Kentucky Cavalry, also a Union unit.
Alexander had arrived in New Albany around 1836 from Ohio, and married the former Margaret Louisa Kain in July of 1837. The couple, in addition to William and Andrew, had a third son Charles and two daughters Sarah and Emily. Sarah married Norman Campbell and Emily married Joseph McPherson. Alexander died in New Albany on March 16, 1897, and is buried in the Fairview Cemetery there.
One other sign of the oddity of the Mississippi Marine Brigade is that, when Alexander applied for a Civil War pension in 1890, he was initially approved for pension 922376 and paid $12.00 per month, but was dropped in 1894 because he was “not in Federal service.”
I wonder if that was taken into account by the Confederacy when they were shooting at all the steamboat crewmen?
1. MMB Overview: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mississippi_Marine_Brigade
2. Manuscript Collection at Central Michigan University:
cmich.edu > Clarke Historical Library > Library Material & Reference > Bibliographies > Civil War > Unpublished > Mississippi Marine Brigade, 1863-1865
Sample Collection: Currie, George E. Papers, 1861, 1960. 3 folders. Papers include: typed transcriptions of 12 of Currie's Civil War letters, Dec. 20, 1861-Aug. 17, 1864, from his service in the Federal Mississippi Ram Fleet and the Mississippi Marine Brigade. His letters discuss the fleet; various battles; the suffering of the wounded; marches; the death of Col. Charles Ellet (June 20, 1862); various towns and barracks; his black servant, Bill; southern blacks (Nov. 28, 1862); composition of the brigade; grounds of Benton barracks; black boat hands (June 30, 1863); U.S. Colored Troops (July 6, 1864); the wounded on board, including civilians and women; and the nursing of federal troops by Southern women (Aug. 16, 1864). There is a 1960 typed draft of "Guerrilla warfare along western waters: being chiefly the experiences of George E. Currie in the Mississippi Ram Fleet and Marine Brigade, 1861-1864" by Norman E. Clarke, Sr. See also, the book, "Warfare along the Mississippi." Lastly, there is a 497 page volume of typed letters, Sept. 10, 1863-July 6, 1864, describing the Battle of Pea Ridge (Ark.) and being on the U.S. Steamers Diana and Ram Dingo. Bio: Currie was a Capt. in the 59th Illinois Volunteers, Co. F, and joined the Federal Mississippi Ram Fleet in Dec. 1861. He served as commander of the U.S. Steamers
3. Crandall, Warren Daniel, 1838-. History of the Ram Fleet And the Mississippi Marine Brigade In the War for the Union On the Mississippi And Its Tributaries: The Story of the Ellets And Their Men. St. Louis: [Press of Buschart Brothers], 1907. [Digitized by Google; available on the HathiTrust site]
4. Hearn, Chester G., Ellet’s Brigade: The Strangest Outfit Of All, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, 2000.
5. Pension File #922376, Alexander O’Neill, National Archives.