That Most Uncivil War
An illustration from Harper's Weekly shows the chaos of the 90-minute Battle of Memphis.
Image courtesy Memphis and Shelby County Room, Benjamin Hooks Central Library
One hundred and fifty years ago this month, a one-sided skirmish that barely deserves its name — the Battle of Memphis — was fought by naval gunboats on the Mississippi River alongside our city. But anybody who thinks that the issues involved are now ancient history is perhaps just whistlin’ Dixie.
Atlanta was burned. Vicksburg was besieged. And Memphis? Memphis was, to use a sports term, a blowout.
No matter how you look at it, the Battle of Memphis, fought 150 years ago this June 6th, isn’t so much the epic fodder of Civil War narratives as it is a cautionary tale for overconfident underdogs.
As the naval battle on the Mississippi came to a woefully lopsided end, a cry described as “something between a wail and a curse” arose from the thousands of spectators on the Memphis bluff. It brings to mind the moan that ached from every local sports bar last month when the Grizzlies lost Game Seven of their NBA playoff series with the Los Angeles Clippers.
Less than two hours long (between 5 and 7 a.m.), the Battle of Memphis was a textbook rout. The Federal flotilla that had set out to capture Memphis and then head south to Vicksburg bore down on the city with five ironclad gunboats and several rams. The Confederate “River Defense Fleet” had eight boats with just two guns apiece.
Only one Confederate boat escaped, while just one Union boat was damaged. A single Union “casualty” had been shot in the leg, though he actually died weeks later of measles while in the hopital. The Confederate death toll, while low, was estimated at closer to a hundred. This crushing defeat cut off Memphis from New Orleans, giving Union forces control of the river all the way to Vicksburg.
Then, as now, what really happened here in 1862 is a storyteller’s narrative, a compilation of often contradictory eyewitness accounts shaped as much by the observers — and the sons and daughters of the observers — as it is by the official record. It springs from the imaginations of those who woke early that morning to see the predawn sky filled with the smoke of the approaching Union fleet. Residents hurried to the bluffs to watch their heroic but outgunned and outclassed Confederate defenders fight what one spectator called “the battle of the pygmies and the giants.”
With the Rebel fleet positioned between the city and the Yankee gunboats, thousands of onlookers were treated to a show made more exciting by errant cannonballs flying into downtown Memphis. One landed near the crowds of people watching from the Gayoso Hotel. A 64-pound ball smashed into a house on Tennessee Street. Other cannonballs were picked up as souvenirs.
A Chicago Tribune reporter’s account of the explosion of the Confederate ram, the General M. Jeff Thompson, rivals in play-by-play the crash of the airship Hindenburg: “A mighty pillar of fire sprang from the burning hulk, lifted itself four hundred feet, spread out into an umbrella-like form of rolling, sulfuric clouds, folding in and rolling over and over in thick, heavy, creamy masses, filled with timbers, planks, bars of iron, fragments of charred timbers and coals of fire, cannon, shot and shell — all commingled — all raining down upon forest, field, and river, as if an avalanche or meteors of vast proportions had fallen from heaven through a cloudless sky to earth.”
Shortly after that explosion, the gods of war provided an even bigger surprise for spectators: a minor earthquake. It caused no damage, but it did give the editors of a Chicago newspaper license to quip that its cause was “the falling in of that misshapen structure called the Southern Confederacy.”
For the throngs of observers, then, this one-sided battle had thunder, spectacle, and earth-shaking excitement; the only thing missing was the Memphis Symphony Orchestra playing the “1812 Overture” and drunken crowds singing “Ol’ Man River.”
That would all come later. Much later.
Echoes of the Civil War remain scattered throughout this city. More than a thousand Confederate veterans, for example, are buried in Elmwood Cemetery, including at least 20 Confederate generals who had fought the good fight in what those officers and their immediate descendants always called “The War of Northern Aggression.” Today, a carriage tour of downtown Memphis can leave the false impression that Memphis was some kind of stronghold of the Confederacy. We never were, of course; the city was occupied immediately after the Battle of Memphis and played no further meaningful part in the war except as a Union logistics center.
But this doesn’t stop carriage drivers from steering their horse-drawn Cinderella coaches into Confederate Park, where they loop around the statue of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America, whose bronze head now wears a seasonal caul of bird droppings. (President Davis did live here for several years after the war, until the insurance company he headed went bankrupt in the Panic of 1873.)
Down the road a bit, in front of what are now the Gayoso House Apartments, formerly the site of the grand Gayoso Hotel which burned to the ground in 1899, the guides tell the inaccurate legend of General Nathan Bedford Forrest riding his horse into the hotel’s lobby in 1864, when his cavalry raided the city during what is sometimes called the Second Battle of Memphis. This was even less of a real “battle” than the first one — a guerrilla raid designed to free prisoners and capture Union officers. Forrest’s bold action succeeded in neither, and was not repeated. (It was Forrest’s brother, William Forrest, by the way, who supposedly rode into the hotel.)
The dramatic mental image of a swashbuckling general on his noble steed is reinforced by his bronze likeness — also on horseback — a few blocks east on Union Avenue, in Forrest Park, where the Rebel leader eternally threatens to charge into the Office Depot now across the street. Fittingly, perhaps, this statue has become a touchstone of how this city feels about its Civil War heritage. And how, 150 years after the Battle of Memphis, the issues of that age still percolate just below the surface.
Lee Millar, a local historian and event coordinator with the Blue-Gray Alliance, an umbrella group for Civil War re-enactors, knows the kind of impact hands-on experience can have in instilling a love of history. He helped organize the recent 150th Anniversary re-enactment of the Battle of Shiloh.
“I’m interested in educating the spectators,” he says. “They’re going to get an idea that this is pretty close to what it was like in the actual battle. Why would they stand there, in a wide-open field, and get shot at? It had to be something deep down and intense, for what they believed in.”
More than 50,000 people showed up this past April to see the war pageant. Wearing earplugs and taking countless photos, they were herded to various observation points on the periphery of a large field just outside the Shiloh National Military Park (off-limits, as all federal battle monuments are, to war re-enactments). Some watched a cavalry charge; others got a close-up of infantry lines firing rifles at each other like moving walls of death.
Thousands more people — I was among them — stood behind scores of Confederate cannons, whose discharges shook the ground and belched plumes of smoke that shrouded the field. As I left the area, nerves rattled from the noise and shocks, I felt as though I had a basic grasp of what Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder must be like.
The horror of mass carnage, however, is a key feature of Civil War battles that can’t be duplicated by even the most artistic of re-creations. As astonishing as the 8,000 re-enactors looked on the field of battle (none of whom lost so much as an arm to a lead ball), it took a huge stretch of the imagination to conceptualize more than 111,000 soldiers shooting, bayoneting, and blowing each other to bits for those two days when the battle raged in April 1862. More than 23,000 people were killed, wounded, or captured. Bodies littered the field like stepping stones across a river.
The spectators at the re-enactment, much like those on the bluff watching the Battle of Memphis two months to the day after Shiloh, were spared a grisly, gory aftermath. Not a single life was lost at Shiloh in 2012. Would that war would always be bloodless family entertainment.
In eighth grade, while studying the Civil War in history class, Lee Millar learned he had a relative who fought for the Confederacy. His father later took him to a Veterans Day parade, and he saw soldiers in gray uniforms. He became fascinated by military history. After finishing a stint in the U.S. Army, Millar got involved with Civil War reenactments. Now, both Union and Confederate uniforms hang in his closet. Though he has a Rebel heart, he doesn’t hesitate to take the field in blue. He recently played Union General Don Carlos Buell in a new documentary about the battle that can be seen at the Shiloh National Military Park’s visitor center.
If locals who get involved in reliving history tend to have a preservationist — some might say conservative — attitude about how the Civil War is remembered in today’s Memphis, that’s at least partly because they’ve sampled the hardships that their forefathers endured, be it the discomfort of marching in oppressive Southern heat in woolen jackets and trousers, or having hundreds of Springfield rifles simultaneously fired at them from the opposite side of a field.
That sense of sympathy, patriotism, and ancestor worship that today’s re-enactors feel for their subject matter helps explain the Civil War tributes still standing in Memphis today. Both Confederate Park and Forrest Park were created in the early 1900s as memorials, by people who felt strongly about the people they honored.
“A lot of Civil War veterans were still alive in the early 1900s,” Millar says. “There were two great affections at the time. First, they still considered themselves the underdogs. Second, they wanted to honor those old veterans.”
As Memphis grew and its demographics changed, however, those monuments have become, in some circles at least, negatively attached to Jim Crow, segregation, and Gone With The Wind-style antebellum nostalgia. Today, more than just the pigeons take umbrage with those statues of Nathan Bedford Forrest and Jefferson Davis that evoke such divided memories in our community.
Members of the Shelby County Historical Commission and Memphis Heritage eternally lament the lack of sympathy their city has for old or aesthetic properties that have no immediate economic value to the community. Memphis routinely entrusts the preservation of its landmarks to bulldozers and bronze plaques, regardless of what era of history they represent.
Most recently, an architecturally significant 89-year-old church on the corner of Cooper and Union was torn down and replaced with a drugstore. By the time enough locals fully appreciated the value of Memphis soul music from the 1960s, the original Stax Recording Studio on McLemore Avenue had been demolished by its owners. At the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, the visitor stands not in the room where history was made, but instead in a replica that honors the original room.
Other older buildings are on the endangered list. The Nineteenth Century Club on Union Avenue, the Chisca Hotel on South Front, and the Tennessee Brewery overlooking the river have all fallen on hard times, and their survival is by no means certain. In 2000, the contents of the best-preserved relic of Civil War history in Memphis were scattered to the winds. The antebellum Hunt-Phelan Home on Beale Street had been passed down in the same family for five generations. General Ulysses S. Grant used it briefly as his headquarters during the war. In 1996, Bill Day, a descendant of the Phelans, tried opening the property as a tourist attraction. When that didn’t pay the bills, he was forced to auction off its historic artifacts, build condominiums on the grounds, and turn the house into a restaurant and bed-and-breakfast, to the chagrin of preservationists who tried, but failed, to raise funds to keep it all together. For a time, the elegant restaurant thrived, but it closed in 2011 after a storm damaged the roof. The building now awaits the next chapter of its long history, or, possibly, the wrecking ball.
For people like Audrey Rainey, the remaining vestiges of the Civil War in Memphis like the Hunt-Phelan Home should be better defended. “Generally, I’m not a political person,” Rainey says. “My interest is in seeing things preserved as a tourist attraction. If I go to Boston or Philadelphia, I’d be disappointed if I didn’t see Revolutionary War sights. We keep these things around to learn from them.”
Rainey, an ad salesperson for AM 560 Sports 56 WHBQ, whose great-grandfather fought in the war, is a member of both the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Daughters of the Confederacy. The latter group, along with the Sons of Confederate Veterans, helped bring about the monuments, park names, and statues now standing in Memphis. The fact that their family members put up these memorials deepens this generation’s interest in preserving the landmarks. Prominent historians, as well, agonize over perceptions of the Civil War, and occasionally find themselves balancing progressive social attitudes with academic ideals.
According to Shelby Foote’s biographer C. Stuart Chapman, when the famed Civil War historian and Memphis resident finished his novel September, September in 1977, he was concerned about its depiction of African-Americans. He sent a copy of his book to the lawyer, and later circuit court judge, D’Army Bailey, whose columns he’d read in the newspaper, to make sure he “represented blacks properly.” Bailey voiced his approval.
Though they became friends, Foote and Bailey later disagreed on the racial overtones that enshroud Confederate history. Foote, who died in 2005 at age 88, never viewed the Confederate flag as a racial affront and defended its appearance in state flags, such as Mississippi’s. Bailey, however, sees only divisiveness in Rebel mementos, including local Confederate statues and parks.
“I think those are abominations that need to be removed,” Bailey says today. “They deify and salute some of the most awful and inhuman characters in history when it comes to decent treatment of blacks as human beings.”
It would be hard to characterize Bailey, who helped saved the Lorraine Motel from demolition and founded the National Civil Rights Museum within its walls, as anti-preservationist. But for him and other African-Americans, Confederate Park and Forrest Park represent what he calls the “social and cultural isolationism of white Memphis society.”
“I think we can still be respectful of the important history we share as Americans and still take a more decent and progressive view and stop idolizing that war,” he says.
Years ago, Bailey passed by a large group of people in Forrest Park wearing Confederate uniforms.
“I walked right up in the middle of them, quite frankly, to see how they were going to react,” Bailey recalls. “Right there was an old friend of mine, Shelby Foote, a man for whom I obviously have great admiration. I sat down and started talking to them. I recognize that we can still have a friendship so long as they recognize that I’m as firm in my beliefs as they are in theirs. We all have to live in this community together. I think the winds of time are in our favor. It’s more likely that they will have to change.”
The Battle of Memphis was over before breakfast. But the remainder of that day provides a ridiculously tragicomic epilogue involving angry citizens, the mayor, and the imposition of outsiders that seems to foreshadow just how the next 150 years of Civil War history in this city might evolve.
After the fighting stopped and the smoke cleared, two Union naval cadets and two sharpshooters under cover of a truce were sent ashore to raise a couple of Federal flags over the surrendered city. Some in the large crowd that met them on the cobblestones at the river’s edge threatened to kill the Yankees; others begged them to go back to their boats.
The foursome was directed to the mayor’s office, where again they were begged not to raise their flag over the city until they could be protected by Union troops. As Navy men, however, the delegation didn’t want the Army taking credit for winning the fifth-largest city of the Confederacy, so they marched toward the post office.
Showing considerable courage and restraint, the men were taunted and accosted by a mob the entire way. One of their flags was snatched away and shredded on the spot.
The mayor and police finally got the Union men to the post office, where they broke open the doors and climbed through a hatch to the roof, only to discover that there was no flagpole on top of the building. They fashioned one from two pieces of wood flooring, spliced together with bandages that one of the men — a medical cadet — had in his pocket.
As they raised the American flag, the mob below hurled rocks. From an adjacent building, a man shot at them with a pistol. Then the crowd surged into the building, but couldn’t get through the hatchway to the roof with two hefty local police officers standing on top of it.
When the Union men came down to the fourth floor, the rabble refused to let them leave, saying they were going to climb up and tear down the flag. One of the cadets pulled out a pistol and informed the mob’s spokesman that he was about to be shot. The man backed down.
The mayor pleaded with the crowd to go away, warning them that if the Union sailors were not released, the Federal fleet (which had been hit by exactly one Confederate cannonball during the battle) would bombard the city. Before his speech was finished, however, the ground rumbled with an aftershock from the aforementioned earthquake. The crowd dispersed, conflict was averted, and Memphis was successfully occupied.
Today, in Confederate Park, the bronze effigy of Jefferson Davis looks out upon a city that bears little resemblance to the Memphis of 1862. For decades his upward gaze has been permanently fixed toward the Stars and Stripes flying atop a gleaming building that is the namesake of his nemesis, the Lincoln American Tower. Perhaps it’s worth noting that the Tower, a beautifully-restored 1926 architectural jewel, stands on the site of the Irving Block, converted into a prison used by the occupying Yankees to house Confederate sympathizers after the fall of the city in 1862.
Perhaps it’s just as fitting to recall that despite Nathan Bedford Forrest’s famous 1864 foray into the city, his raid did not succeed in rescuing any of those Irving Block prisoners, and the Union general he tried to take hostage got away — a failure memorialized by the aptly named General Washburn’s Escape Alley, between Front Street and South Main.
In Forrest Park, where the controversial general and his wife are entombed under his embattled statue, the United States flag flutters perpetually over his grave.
In an era when so much of the remaining controversy over the Civil War is about flags, symbols, and perceptions, we need always remember that the outcome of that war is no longer in doubt, and that sometimes the past can be a capricious guide to a harmonious future.
Arts and culture journalist Christopher Blank is a USC Annenberg/Getty Arts Journalism Fellow, and frequent contributor to newspapers, magazines, and public radio in Memphis and beyond.