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

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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.

 

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