Memphis And The Civil War

Posted: February 7, 2013 in Nitegator

MemphisCivilWarWhen the State of Tennessee was admitted to the Union in 1796 as the sixteenth state, its status was that of being in the “far west” of the land. This was a very strategic outpost as our infant nation expanded slowly to the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean in the 19th century. Through the first half of the 19th century, the founders and developers were able to steer all settlement and development towards their first planned community west of the Allegheny Mountains – a 1,300-acre tract known as “Memphis.” This tract had 362 lots laid out for sale including four public squares (Court, Market, Exchange and Auction)

Memphis was out on the frontier and was a very lawless town. Order was finally established in 1842 when the local mayor with Memphis militia quelled the lawlessness of the flatboatmen on the wharf. By 1844, the federal government had built a shipyard in Memphis to be closer to the materials needed for building vessels and to establish further military presence in the area. Two Confederate vessels (the Tennessee and the Arkansas) were later built at another shipyard further south on the bluffs, Ft. Pickering Boat Yard. By the 1850s, Memphis had outlasted all other competition from other river ports in the area to be “capital” of the mid-south. In 1860, the city’s population was 22,243 and Memphis was one of the fastest growing cities in the nation. In 1861 South Carolina was the first state to begin the Confederate States of America. Tennessee was the eleventh and final state to join the Confederacy on June 8, 1861. By that time, the citizens of Memphis were largely pro-Confederacy. Upon the completion of the Civil War, Tennessee was the first Confederate state to re-enter the Union.

The Union had captured Nashville in February, 1862 and the state capitol and archives were moved to Memphis for one month (February 20 – March 20, 1862) in a building at the northeast intersection of Second Street and Madison Avenue.

The Battle of Memphis occurred in the early morning hours of June 6, 1862 as a naval skirmish just off shore from today’s Confederate Park location. Confederate Park opened in 1908 and is the site of the Jefferson Davis statue which was erected in 1964. On the west side of the park is a granite bench dedicated to the 154th Tennessee Infantry of the Confederate army. On the north side of the park are two State of Tennessee historical markers commemorating the contributions of Virginia Moon and Elizabeth Meriwether of the Confederacy. In the south you can see a bust of Confederate Captain J. Harvey Mathes. On the south side of the park is a large 100-year-old plaque commemorating the 1862 Battle of Memphis, Forrest’s 1864 Raid and the 1865 Sultana tragedy.

scshiloh09_APP_t607On June 6, 1862, the anticipation by the citizens was high as tens of thousands of Memphians lined the bluffs to watch the naval Battle of Memphis. The Union Fleet was well stocked with 80 guns on 18 ironclad gunboats and ram boats while the cotton clad Confederate Fleet had only 8 gunboats and 18 guns. The Union Fleet also had the advantage of the river current while approaching the battle scene from the north. The battle began at 5:30 a.m. and lasted only 90 minutes with the Confederate Fleet being destroyed except for one vessel. Oddly, the lone casualty of the Union was Col. Charles Ellet, Jr., developer of the ram boat concept. Col. Ellet was wounded in the knee, weakened and died 15 days after the battle. A detachment of Union soldiers in a rowboat brought a Union Flag to shore and raised it over the Post Office building at the southeast intersection of Third Street and Adams Avenue.

The Union used the hotels and warehouses of Memphis as a “hospital town” with over 5,000 wounded Union troops being brought for recovery. The Union established Fort Pickering on the South Bluffs stretching from Vance Avenue and more than a mile south to DeSoto Park (now Chickasaw Heritage Park). Union Generals William Tecumseh Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant were stationed in Memphis while planning and beginning further military pursuits. Sherman planned his “March to the Sea” and Grant the “Battle of Vicksburg” in the quarters of the Hunt-Phelan Home.  While serving as a hospital town, Memphis also became a center of contraband for both sides of the conflict, thus the infrastructure of Memphis buildings received no damage from land battles, cannon fire or looting. At the close of the war in 1865, Memphis was able to prosper more rapidly than other Southern communities that had been ravaged by war.

On the night of August 21, 1864, Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest sent a telegram to the Oxford telegraph office stating that “Forrest Had Captured Memphis in Surprise Raid” as Union forces were approaching the town. His intent was to divert the Union troops from the imminent destruction of Oxford thus diverting Union troops back to Memphis – while at the same time – kidnapping three Union generals (Washburn, Blackburn, and Hurlburt), releasing Confederate prisoners-of-war in the Irving Block prison and capturing over 600 horses from the Union. The three generals were alerted in time to escape capture. An alley in Downtown Memphis has been named “Gen. Washburn’s Escape Alley”.

Many victims of the Civil War are buried in Elmwood Cemetery. It has 1,000 Confederate soldiers buried at a section known as Confederate Soldiers Rest. Many victims (Union soldiers) of the Sultana tragedy were originally buried here, but when the Memphis National Cemetery was established in 1868, these soldiers were re-interred there. Unfortunately, the wooden caskets were identified by chalk but upon their removal that identification was lost due to a rain in route to the cemetery. Thus, the Memphis National Cemetery has the second largest population of Unknown Soldiers in America, second to Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, DC.

300px-Memphis-naval-battleMemphis Civil War Areas of Note

Jefferson Davis Park on Riverside Drive. Developed in 1930 and named for the President of the Confederate States of America and Memphis citizen for several years following the end of the Civil War.

Woolen Building at 47 Union Avenue. The present home office of the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau and the oldest (circa 1848) commercial building standing in use in present day Memphis. Formerly in a section of buildings called Howard’s Row, the basement was used as a Union hospital ward during the Civil War.

Ft. Pickering Boat Yard was located at the foot of Illinois Avenue below Ft. Pickering on the high bluff above. A private yard was established in 1861 at the ferry landing. It was under contract for constructing Ironclads for the Confederate Navy (the C.S.S. Arkansas and the C.S.S. Tennessee). The uncompleted Tennessee was burned on the stocks when the city fell in the Battle of Memphis on June 6, 1862.

Gayoso House at Front Street and Peabody Place was built in 1844 and was the grand hotel of the community known as South Memphis. Many Union generals and command stayed here during the occupation by the Union forces. On August 21, 1864, Confederate Gen. N.B. Forrest led a daring raid into Memphis with the purposes of slowing down Gen. Sherman’s march on Oxford, Mississippi. The original Gayoso House burned in 1899 and the current apartment building named the Gayoso House was re-built as a fine hotel in 1902.

Court Square is bounded by North and South Court Avenues, Main Street and Second Street. The largest of the four public squares laid out in the original town plan of 1819, Court Square has been a central meeting place for almost two centuries. In 1859, the sculpted bust of President Andrew Jackson was placed on display prior to the existing Hebe Fountain in the center of the park. You can see the bust (A) today in the Shelby County Courthouse. Afternoon concerts by the Union band during its occupation from 1862 – 1865 were so popular that a permanent band shell was erected on the north side of the park at the close of the Civil War.

Thomas Edison Historical Marker is located at North Court Avenue between Main and Second Streets. Memphis was one of the fastest growing cities in the nation before and after the Civil War, and many young entrepreneurs like Thomas Edison were attracted here. In 1865 – 1866, Edison worked at the Military Telegraph Company and developed the telegraph relay while in Memphis. He was fired by his boss out of jealousy. Edison resided at a building at 372 Court Avenue four blocks east of the market at Danny Thomas Boulevard. That residence no longer exists and is now the eastern grounds of the Downtown Elementary School.

Jefferson Davis Home was located on the north side of Court Avenue between Third and Fourth Streets. For seven years after the Civil War ended, Confederate President Jefferson Davis lived in a residence here while being president of the Carolina Life Insurance Company beginning in 1869.

Nathan Bedford Forrest Early Historical Home is on the south side of Christopher Columbus Park at the southwest corner of Adams Avenue and Third Street.

The First Railroad in West Tennessee – The LaGrange and Memphis Railroad Historical Marker is located at 495 Union Avenue in front of The Commercial Appeal building. “Short line” local railroads were springing up all over the country in the middle of the 19th century. This is also the same route of the Memphis and Charleston Railroad which in 1857 was the first railroad to connect the Atlantic Ocean with the Mississippi River. It was one of the most strategic railway arteries in the nation at the time of the Civil War.

Nathan Bedford Forrest Home Historical Marker is at 685 Union Avenue marks the location where Nathan Bedford Forrest died in 1877. It is located across from the present day Sun Studio. Forrest and his wife were buried in Elmwood Cemetery but were exhumed in 1904 and reburied in Forrest Park. A new Memphis parked was named in his honor two blocks east of this site.

The Mississippi River Museum on Mud Island River Park houses five galleries of exhibits about the importance of the battles on the Mississippi River during the Civil War. A simulated battle between a Confederate river battery and a replica Union Ironclad gunboat is a feature of the galleries. Various boat models, uniforms, weapons and medical supplies from both Union and Confederate sources are on display.

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