That Most Uncivil War



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Another Harper's Weekly illustration shows the dramatic scene when Union forces raised the U.S. Flag over the downtown post office, much to the dismay of the crowds below.

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.

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