The Battle of Memphis, June 6, 1862
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"Roundheads and Ramblings"

The Battle of Memphis, June 6, 1862

I know that June 6h is D-Day and an almost sacred day for the veterans of that invasion and their families. I don't want to take away from that commemoration. But it was not the only American battle to occur on that date. 

The front page of today's Commercial Appeal tells the following story: 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 Most of the troops had been withdrawn to Mississippi prior to the Union invasion.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, Oklahoma 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.