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  • Writer's pictureGordon Thorsby

Economy of Force by Ellet's Mississippi Marine Brigade

by Gordon Thorsby

Economy of Force- one of the nine Principles of War of Carl von Clausewitz's approach to warfare. The principle of employing all available combat power to achieve the maximum desired results while allocating a minimum of essential combat power for the efforts.

Today we see organizations like the Navy Seals. We saw the economy of force in the First Gulf War in 1991 and it was heavily demonstrated in Viet Nam with the Brown Water Navy. There are many examples. It also happened beginning in 1863, along the Mississippi

In mid 1862, the Union Navy needed boats, of every kind, of any kind. The back rivers needed to be controlled and a brown water fleet was critical to shutting the Mississippi.

One idea was resurrected to take river steamers and convert them into armed rams. These became known as Charles Ellet’s Ram Fleet. They were clumsy looking and required to much draft for some rivers. They were given more power to increase their lethality against Confederate shipping, gunboats and the ironclads the South was producing. Seven were converted along with support vessels.

Next, Ellet needed sharpshooters since Confederates on riverbanks could pick away at sailors or ward off Confederate boarding of the rivercraft. He received a company of infantry

from the 59th Illinois and another company attached from the 63rd Illinois. There was a shortage of sailors for the rams and the transports so they recruited escaped slaves and these were employed above and below deck. He wanted more infantry and took the next step.

Ellet posted a notice in convalescent Hospitals in the rear areas of Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky for:

Needed Men for “Ellet’s Scouts”

The Ellet scouts should expect to see plenty of service.

All scouts should expect:

Furnished with good quarters fitted out expressly for them

No long hard marches

No trenches to dig

No rebel houses to guard

No picket duty

No camps in mud

No chance of short rations

No camping without tents or food or carrying heavy knapsacks

The Command will be kept together

Good facilities for cooking at all times. ( all boats had cooks and bedding.)

You are expected to act promptly and with the rams and gunboats with “secrecy and dispatch”.

The notice was placed in Cincinnati to raise additional recruits.

To a soldier in the Union army, it was not possible!

By February 1863 and with the old Company of the 59th Illinois, the Brigade consisted of 527 infantry, 368 cavalry and 140 artillerists manning 6 light field guns along with troop transports to move the soldiers. Highly trained, a tight knit group, it was involved in many riverine operations up and down the Mississippi and the tributaries that drained into the great river.

By definition, it was a rapid deployment force.

In April 1863, they hit several places on the Tennessee up to Eastport Mississippi, For the next year and more, commanders employed the force in quick strikes at Cerro Gordo Landing to burn mills producing supplies for the Southern forces. They struck at Confederate resistance spots in the Yazoo Delta region. At the confluence of the Tennessee and the Duck Rivers they responded to attack 600 troopers the 6th Texas Rangers who had been firing on troop transports. They landed at Austin on the Mississippi, deployed the cavalry, and advanced infantry against a force of 1000, and drove off the enemy at the battle of Beaver Dam Lake. They found munitions in the town and fired the town holding Confederate guns, ammunition and supplies. On May 23rd, Grant requested that Porter direct the Mississippi Marine Brigade to Haines’ Bluff where they successfully secured and held the it until larger numbers of troops arrived.

The Mississippi Marine Brigade with its combination of rams, transports, infantry cavalry and artillery joined an expedition on June 14, 1863 where the force commanded by Brig. Gen Joseph Mower advanced on a Confedersate buildup at Richmond LA. On June 29, Ellet’s Brigade responded to a Confederate attack at The Mounds, LA where Confederate forces were burning buildings and crops belonging to slaves. The Brigade engaged the Southern force and drove them off. Other skirmishes and battles proved the Brigades worth. On July 3 and 4, 1864, they arrived at Coleman’s Crossroads and camped on the Plantation. With the entire Brigade moved three moiles when the cavalry advance ran into Confederate infantry. Fighting ensued and two regiments of Colored Infantry (the 48th and 52nd USCT) fought continuing pressure until they withdrew to safety. The identity of that force is unknown.

The value of this army-navy force offered new tools for commanders and targets of opportunity. Washington perceived the potential advantages and ordered Grant to develop it further.

Though Grant complained about the costs of the force, he approved of their results, took his administrative action and placed the Brigade under the authority of his army effective August 27, 1863. Grant utilized the Brigade for same needs of today; activity-based intelligence, interdiction of the enemy and to break up guerilla bands. It became a special operations force in every way. A ruling of the Judge-Advocate General made the brigade a "special contingent of the army and not the navy.

The idea of the deployment of a mobile, riverine force to counter unknown Confederate strikes was spot on. The Marines and the rams effectively countered the use of the Confederate ironclads on the inland rivers. Unfortunately, Ellet made some bad decisions that initiated investigations of possible irregularities in the Ellet Brigade. The Mississippi Marine Brigade was officially discharged December 5,1864 by order of President Abraham Lincoln. They raised some eyebrows regarding their motives. However, one cannot question concept and application of economy of force in a military unit in the Civil War and a standard for modern military tactics.


Abbott, John S.C., "Heroic Deeds of heroic Men: Charles Ellet and His Naval Steam Rams." Harpers New Monthly Magazine, February 1866.

Crandall, J.R. , Recruiting Handbill for the Mississippi Marine Brigade, posted at Union Hospital Units: privately published, 1862.

Grant, Ulysses S. The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, Konecky & Konecky, 1888.

Hearn, Chester G., Ellet's Brigade: The Strangest Outfit of All, Louisiana State University Press, 2000.

Official Records, Series 1, Volume 23.

United States Mississippi Marine Brigade - Vicksburg National Military Park, U.S. National Park Service, 2015

Mangrum, Robert G. Mr. Stanton's Navy: The U. S. Army Ram Fleet and Mississippi Marine Brigade, 1862-1864, thesis, May 1975; Denton, University of North Texas.

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