Honored Fallen Comrade
- Aug 20, 2008
Battle of Memphis destroyed Confederate river navy but spared city
By Michael Lollar
Tuesday, June 5, 2012
Courtesy Chicago Historical Society
The Battle of Memphis was a river duel fought on June 6, 1862, depicted in a painting by Alexander Simplot. Thousands of Memphians made an outing of the early-morning battle, gathering on the bluffs to witness what turned out to be a rout of the Confederate navy.
Illustration by Alexander Simplot/Courtesy Special Collections University of Memphis Libraries
On June 6, 1862, after the battle, Union troops raised the U.S. flag over the courthouse in Memphis, marking the beginning of Union occupation of the city. Memphis became a troop and supply point as well as a medical center.
About 10,000 Memphians gathered on the river bluff at dawn on June 6, 1862, to cheer on the Confederate navy as it steamed from the harbor to defend the city against attacking Union warships.
Like a dark version of the modern Sunset Symphony, the Battle of Memphis not only drew a huge crowd -- almost half the city -- but stirred them to pack picnic lunches and spread blankets for a comfortable view of the hostilities.
The preparations were in vain. By 7 a.m. it was over. The battle, which lasted only 90 minutes, would go down in history as the biggest inland naval battle in history. In its wake, Memphis went from a bastion of the Confederacy to a headquarters of the Union army. By the end of the Civil War, freed slaves migrating to the city helped quadruple the black population to about 39 percent of the city.
"In the present, people think of Memphis as a mostly black city, but that doesn't really start to happen until the Battle of Memphis and the aftermath," says Dr. Beverly Bond, director of African and African-American Studies at the University of Memphis. "So the whole character of the city changes."
The battle will be commemorated Wednesday -- the 150th anniversary -- when the river bluff again will be the gathering spot with cannons firing and re-enactors appearing in period clothing from military uniforms to hoop skirts.
Memphis had almost no Confederate ground troops to defend the city during the 1862 attack. Most of the troops had been withdrawn to Mississippi prior to the Union invasion. The river assault was part of the Union's strategy to divide the Confederacy and use captured rivers and rail lines to control the war's western theater of operations. Controlling the river also meant splitting Arkansas and Texas from the rest of the Confederacy and cutting off supplies, including food, from those states to Confederate troops east of the river.
The brief battle early in the war actually helped the city survive, says Shelby County historian Ed Williams. "The capture probably saved Memphis from a lot of destruction. The last few cities the Yankees captured they pretty much burned to the ground -- Atlanta; Columbia, South Carolina; and Richmond. Memphis became a center for troop disbursements and a shipping center for supplies."
The battle also earned the city its status as a major medical center in the Mid-South. Wounded prisoners came by boat and wagon to be treated at hospitals that began to specialize as the war progressed. Prior to the war the city had one hospital. By the end, there were 15, says Patricia LaPointe McFarland, historian and former curator of collections for the Memphis Room of the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library.
Gen. U.S. Grant set up a tent on the lawn of Hunt-Phelan Home on Beale Street as his headquarters. He used the home's library as his office, but slept in the tent as a bond with his men.
The river battle itself was anticlimactic for Memphis. The Confederate navy -- the River Defense Fleet -- knew the Union was headed downriver. The South thought it was ready for them. The exact number of warships in each fleet is a matter of debate.
"It's been tangled up for 150 years, and there's no way to sort it out," says West Tennessee Historical Society president John Harkins. "Eyewitnesses gave conflicting reports."
Former Shelby County archivist John Dougan says the South had seven "cottonclads,"
steamboats reinforced with cotton bales between inner and outer wooden hulls. The North had seven "ironclads," wooden steamboats with iron plates over the hulls to deflect attacks, he says.
But Lee Millar, past chairman of the Shelby County Historical Commission, says the U.S. Navy Archive counts eight Confederate cottonclads, six Union ironclads and two Union rams. The rams were like harpoons on the end of long beams running the length of the boats. The rams and an arsenal of bigger guns and cannons on the Union boats made the difference in the battle. "The cotton did absorb shots," says Millar, but compared to the iron hulls of the Union fleet the South's assault must have been "like being attacked by a giant marshmallow."
Seven of the Confederate boats were quickly sunk or disabled, with one retreating downriver. In all there were about 80 Confederate deaths and only one Union death. That one death occurred when a sharpshooter hit the commander of the Union ram fleet.
Union soldiers then marched to the Post Office and lowered the Confederate flag, replacing it with the U.S. flag. When Confederate sympathizers closed a trap door, locking the Union soldiers on the Post Office roof, the Union threatened to shell the city.
The soldiers were allowed to descend, and, within hours, Memphis was occupied.
Re-enacting the fall of Memphis
Confederate Park becomes the vantage point for the Battle of Memphis Wednesday with a re-enactment ceremony representing the fall of Memphis to the Union when it was occupied June 6, 1862.
The ceremony will dedicate two of four Civil War cannons being restored to replace the park's original Civil War cannons, which were sacrificed during a World War II scrap metal drive.
Those original cannons later were replaced by some from World War II, but the Shelby County Historical Commission raised $72,000 to buy replica Civil War cannons. Eventually all four replicas will be placed in the park on carriages acquired from the National Park Service. The carriages now are being restored, said Lee Millar, former Historical Commission chairman.
Two cannons will be fired Wednesday as part of the dedication. At noon, Shelby County historian Ed Williams will portray former Memphis Mayor John Park, who gave up the city after a 90-minute battle between Confederate "cottonclad" boats and Union "ironclads."
Millar will portray Union naval commander Charles Ellet Jr., who climbed to the top of the old Post Office at Third and Jefferson to lower the Confederate Flag and replace it with the U.S. flag.
A temporary pole in Confederate Park will serve as the Post Office flagpole.