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VOL. 127 | NO. 112 | Friday, June 8, 2012

150 Years Later: City’s Role Remembered

By Bill Dries

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The 150th anniversary of the Civil War arrived in Memphis this week with plans to return cannons to Confederate Park and lots of contemporary views about the battle of Memphis in which no cannons were fired from land.

Though during the Civil War Memphians resisted surrendering their city, it eventually fell into Union hands. Here, the “Stars and Stripes” are being raised over the post office.

(Photo: Memphis/Shelby County Room)

The city fell to Union forces on June 7, 1862, the day after a 90-minute naval battle on the city’s riverfront. The Union fleet destroyed all but one of the Confederate vessels. A total of 88 Confederate soldiers were killed or wounded and 75 were taken prisoner.

Col. Charles Ellet, the commander of the Union ram boats, was shot in the leg and infection from the wound was fatal. He was the only Union fatality.

Some of the details beyond that vary as well as contemporary judgments.

The Goodspeed history of the city from 1887 recounts: “A singular feature of the battle was that it was witnessed by almost the entire population of the city, at that time estimated at 5,000.”

Contemporary historian John E. Harkins puts the crowd at closer to 10,000 in his city history, “Metropolis of the American Nile.”

University of Memphis historian Dr. Douglas Cupples leans to the Harkins estimate in terms of size. But Cupples doubts those on land could see much because of all of the smoke from the artillery being fired on board the boats and the explosions of the steamboats.

The lunchtime crowd of about 200 in Confederate Park Wednesday, June 6, for the anniversary got an idea of just how much smoke when several cannons from re-enactor groups were fired.

“It is one of the major battles fought for control of the Mississippi River especially when you consider it is an exclusively naval battle,” Cupples said.

The war, he argued, would have been very different without the navies of both sides and the amphibious operations including Memphis.

“Historians call that counterfactual,” he said. “But you’ve got to realize that without that this would have been entirely different.”

Cupples will be among 11 historians talking about the Civil War at Mud Island’s Mississippi River Museum Saturday, June 9, and Sunday, June 10.

The museum features five galleries of Civil War memorabilia and dioramas including a mock up of the inside of a Civil War-era gunboat. The park’s scale model of the lower Mississippi River will also highlight other key Civil War battles on the Mississippi River.

Meanwhile, the Sons of Confederate Veterans has raised approximately $72,000 so far in a campaign with the Riverfront Development Corp. to bring four Civil War-era replica cannons to Confederate Park. The park had the real thing until they were turned in for a World War II scrap drive. After World War II, artillery from that war was used in the park until the most recent renovation of Confederate Park several years ago.

Most histories of the city agree that then-Mayor John Park told Union forces via a written message that, “As civil authorities have no means of defense, by the force of circumstances the city is in your hands.”

Park’s words were read again Wednesday in Confederate Park.

And some of those at the observance have dwelled on the specific omission of the word “surrender.”

When Confederate Park got a new marker in 2008 telling the story of the battle of Memphis, some historians objected to a first draft of the wording that referred to the surrender of the city. The new wording that became the wording on the plaque does not say that the city was surrendered.

“Mayor John Park refused to surrender but conceded that he was powerless to stop the city’s fall,” it reads.

Such distinctions have been a regular feature of how the city’s historical community has interpreted the events of the war.

At the 2008 ceremony, a musical group of re-enactors played one battle song for each side in the war and then decided to add “Dixie” as an encore.

Lee Millar of the local Sons of Confederate Veterans was part of a group of Union re-enactors this week in the park until changing into Confederate gear to speak.

“Now I get to switch colors and be one of the good guys,” he said and later he referred to the Civil War as “the war for Southern independence” and the “war of Northern aggression.”

Dr. E.C. Fields stayed in character as Union General Ulysses S. Grant for much of the Wednesday observance.

“It’s good to be back,” he told the crowd, some of whom later snapped pictures with him. “You are the future of our past.”

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