That Most Uncivil War



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For decades, Jefferson Davis' gaze has been fixed toward the Stars and Stripes atop a gleaming building that is the namesake of his nemesis.

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.

Both Confederate Park and Forrest Park were created in the early 1900s as memorials, by people who felt strongly about the people they honored.

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.”

 

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