That Most Uncivil War

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In Forrest Park, where the controversial general and his wife are entombed, a U.S. flag flutters perpetually over his grave.

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.

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."

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.


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