First Battle of Memphis / Sesquicentennial

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If I told you that there were 10,000 Memphians, with blankets and picnic baskets, sitting on the bluff, you would assume I was referring to a local, minor league Redbirds’ game or young whippersnappers jamming out at Memphis in May’s Music Festival; however, in this instance, I am not. On this day, one hundred and fifty years ago, in Memphis, Tennessee, 10,000 Confederate-supporting Memphians gathered on the banks along the Mississippi River to cheer for an upcoming battle. It was known that the Union’s offensive strategy was to take control of the Mississippi River, in doing so effectively alienating Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas from the rest of the Confederate states. This would also stop all incoming goods coming into the CSA, as the Union was already pressuring the Confederates from the north, had an operative blockade on the east coast, and David Farragut had just recently stormed the gulf and taken control of New Orleans, Louisiana, on their south. The Battle of Memphis would prove pivotal for the Union in vanquishing the Confederate stronghold along the Mississippi River.

As far as battles go, this one was fairly short-lived. The fact that it lasted roughly ninety minutes and that it was exceptionally hard to see because of heavy fog, the onlookers were very disappointed. Of course, it probably wasn’t very enjoyable either since the ‘home team’ lost. Yes, the Confederate’s River Defense Fleet was no match for the skillfully trained crews onboard the Union’s ships. While the specifics, as far as the number of boats (roughly seven or eight for each side), the casualties (ranging from ~80 to ~180 for the Confederates and only 1 for the Union), and the actual events which took place on the river, are unbeknownst to us due to the fog, it was clearly a Union victory. As the Confederate ships were all commanded by civilian boat captains, they were not properly trained for battle and were quickly overpowered. This complete annihilation paired with the defeat at the earlier mentioned Battle of New Orleans, proved–and continues to prove to this day–that naval operations must be commanded by trained professionals subject to military discipline. This battle serves as a milestone in the development of professionalism in today’s United States Navy.

As Union ships ported in Memphis, Tennessee, they removed the Confederate flag hanging from the Post Office, replaced it with an American flag, and quickly occupied the city.

As a result of the Battle of Memphis, the largest inland battle in naval history, Memphis would be affected several way, some instantly, others down the line. Immediately, General Ulysses S. Grant set up base (his tent was on the front lawn of the Hunt-Phelan Home on Beale Street) and would use the city as one of the Union’s major headquarters. Taking over the fifth largest city in the Confederate’s territory was a devastating blow to morale. Without a doubt–as far as strategical tactics go–this was the most important battle for the Union that would take place in the first two years of the war. As the war progressed, there was need for more and more hospitals. Being located on the Mississippi River and an army headquarters in the middle of Confederate territory, Memphis proved to be an ideal place for the much-needed additional hospitals. On June 6th, 1862, the day of the Battle of Memphis, there was only one hospital in the city. By the end of the Civil War, only three years later, there would be fifteen hospitals in Memphis! This has led to Memphis being the major medical city that it is today.

Another result was a substantial increase in the black population. Today–and historically–Memphis and the surrounding areas is viewed as a predominantly black city. This was not always the case. As Memphis was a safe haven controlled by Union forces, slaves that became freed because of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, journeyed to Memphis to start their new lives. By the end of the Civil War, the black population had quadrupled in Memphis.

While the Battle of Memphis was not good for the Confederate States of America, it proved fruitful for the city. Memphis is now a medical powerhouse, not only in the south, but nationwide, and the Battle of Memphis was completely fought on the water so the city itself was spared from destruction, which cannot be said for most of the cities involved in war. Most cities, such as Atlanta, Georgia; and Richmond Virginia; were not so lucky and all but burned to the ground.

Today, the city of Memphis unveiled two cannons at a dedication ceremony to commemorate this day, 150 years ago. And I took pictures… 🙂 This weekend they are having a few events to celebrate the anniversary. The largest one will take place on Mud Island on Saturday and Sunday. Click here for more information on that!

5 COMMENTS

  1. Very nice post. I appreciate it. I was born in Memphis, and used to play on the Indian mounds in Confederate Park when my Dad took me down town. What part did the mounds play in the defense of Memphis during the civil war?

        • Not only that but he’s the same re-enactor. Too funny. The Battle of Collierville was interesting too because they almost caught Sherman by mistake. Still a mystery as to exactly where the encampment was located.

          • (1) Many things led up to the war, but the south’s ssecseion is the direct cause. Obviously, the war ended slavery but it also ended the concept of federalism.(2) Most of the union soldiers were fighting to preserve the union. They certainly were not fighting to free any slaves.(3) The confederate soldiers were fighting for their independence. They saw their fight as something similar to the American revolution.(4) There will always be an argument between the power of the federal government versus the power and rights of the individual states.

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