… A few more thoughts that didn’t make it into our story on the 150th anniversary of the Civil War Battle of Memphis …
We wrote about the impact of the 90-minute naval battle at the city’s river doorstep.
Part of the impact was stories – real and imagined – with compelling entries in both categories.
When Mud Island established itself after the dawn of the 20th century on the Memphis riverfront, tales began of a sunken gunboat from the 1862 battle that supposedly became the basis for the formation of the sandbar that became Mud Island. The story isn’t true.
“It was not,” said University of Memphis historian Dr. Doug Cupples, one of several historians we consulted for the story. “You can dispute that – period. End of story. Some of the boats in low river have been exposed. The Beauregard is down around below the (Memphis-Arkansas) bridge.”
Another historian Cupples knew retrieved some pieces believed to have been part of the Beauregard when a drought dropped the river to near record low levels in the late 1980s.
The Beauregard sank after either a shot from a Union gunboat cannon pierced its steam drum or one of the Union ram boats pierced its steam drum, according to just two of the many accounts of the battle in various history books.
All of the boats – Confederate and Union – are accounted for in the various histories of the city that include the battle.
“It is also recognized as one of the briefest and most inept naval engagements in American history,” Robert Sigafoos wrote in “Cotton Row to Beale Street” his definitive 1979 business history of the city.
Cupples disagrees and says those who judge the engagement by its short length – about 90 minutes – forget that boats in the conflict spent much more time searching for each other than they did firing at and hitting each other. Memphis was an exception.
The battle on the river had longer term consequences for the city’s development that no one could have known at the time.
Civilian boats on the river were part of the Confederate effort in a city where Confederate ground forces had largely fled well in advance of the Union fleet arriving at the city’s river doorstep. The civilian boats were stopped and boarded by Union troops during and after the battle.
One of those boats was the steamboat “Victoria” where Robert Church of Holly Springs, Ms. was an experienced steward and the son of a steamboat captain. The capture of the Victoria by the Union forces ended Church’s career working on riverboats as he fled from the boat and made his way to Memphis riverfront.
“He went into business on Beale Street,” Cupples said. “He came to own a saloon and became an extremely successful businessman and a pillar of the community.”
The Church family chronicle, “The Robert R. Churches of Memphis,” by Annette E. and Roberta Church, makes it clear that Robert Church has been saving his money and planning a move to Memphis before the Civil War battle on the river.
His escape from the “Victoria” took him near or perhaps directly to the street at the foot of the river that he became synonymous with – Beale Street.
“He took advantage of the chance that was given him and established himself in the city as he had planned,” the book reads. “And at the close of the Civil War, he was a well known and respected citizen of Memphis.”
Church was the South’s first black millionaire. He and his son, Robert R. Church Jr., were the foundation of the black political establishment in Memphis after the Civil War through World War II.
In two more summers, historians will mark the 150th anniversary of the other well known chapter in the city’s Civil War history – the raid by Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest in August 1864 into the Union-occupied city.