- Historic Sites
A gracious antebellum city of stern-wheelers and cotton money; a restless, violent city with a hot grain of genius at its heart; a city of calamity, desolation, and rebirth; a city that changed the way the whole world hears music. It’s all the same city, and it is this year’s Great American Place. Thomas Childers answers a summons to Memphis, Tennessee.
October 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 6
Memphis stood where cultures, rich and poor, black and white, urban and rural, did not so much converge as collide.
After centuries of seeing their lands traversed and claimed by a succession of European traders, settlers, and marauding armies, the Chickasaws in 1818 signed a formal agreement with the American government, ceding all West Tennessee to the United States. In the following year three Nashville land speculators, one of whom was Andrew Jackson, hero of the War of 1812 and soon to be President of the United States, founded the town of Memphis. Named grandiloquently for the capital of ancient Egypt, this upstart settlement struggled for decades to establish an economic presence on the river before two developments toward the middle of the century dramatically transformed its fortunes. In 1845 the navy yard opened, greatly increasing Memphis’s prominence as a river port midway between St. Louis and New Orleans, and shortly thereafter completion of the Memphis and Charleston Railroad provided a lucrative link to the Atlantic Coast. On the eve of the Civil War, Memphis had blossomed into a prosperous port city.
During these years of rapid economic expansion, great paddle-wheel steamers such as the Bell-Lee and the Grand Republic plied the river, docking along Memphis’s cobble-stoned shoreline, disgorging fashionable ladies, silk-vested gamblers, and prosperous planters from the Delta. Mountainous heaps of cotton bales crowded the riverbank, waiting to be hauled up to the warehouses on Front Street, while gentlefolk and charlatans alike hurried off to the Gayoso Hotel, an imposing four-story wonder.
Bales of cotton no longer accumulate along the riverbank, but the Memphis waterfront maintains more than a touch of its antebellum flavor. Scenes of life on the river—from the interiors of the Belle of the Bluffs , an 1870s steamboat loaded with bales of cotton, to a Union ironclad under fire from Confederate shore batteries—have been dramatically re-created in the eighteen-gallery Mississippi River Museum on Mud Island. Just outside the museum, River Walk, a five-block-long model complete with flowing water, traces the course of the Mississippi from Cairo, Illinois, to the Gulf, conveying the river’s awesome geographic scale. Then, at the southern tip of Mud Island, the twin smokestacks and giant red paddle wheels of the steamboats come stunningly, improbably, into view. A small fleet of paddle wheelers—the Memphis Queen Line—still docks at the cobblestone landing, offering moonlight cruises and musical excursions up and down the river. As I walked along on a muggy May evening, the Mississippi Queen , an enormous, five-deck stern-wheeler that steams from St. Louis to New Orleans, churned into port and, in the late-afternoon twilight, lowered its gangplank onto the dock. But for the hum of traffic over the Hernando DeSoto Bridge into Arkansas, it might have been 1858.
The Civil War marked a major turning point in the history of the city. Unlike Atlanta or Vicksburg or Richmond, Memphis was subjected to neither siege nor destruction. At dawn on June 6, 1862, thousands of the city’s residents lined the bluffs above the river to watch a confrontation between their Confederate fleet and a large Union naval force that steamed out of the morning mist. Dew still glistened on the carriages and luncheon baskets of the crowd when the Federal ironclads smashed the line of Confederate gunboats, and by noon it was all over. Three weeks later Ulysses S. Grant set up his headquarters in the Hunt-Phelan manor house on east Beale Street and began planning the Union assault on Vicksburg, two hundred and fifty miles to the south.
Throughout the Federal occupation Memphis staunchly supported the Confederate cause, and evidence of that allegiance can still be found around the city today. The ferociously capable general Nathan Bedford Forrest, who led an audacious raid on the city in 1864, is buried beneath an imposing equestrian statue in a park named for him on (ironically, it has always seemed to me) Union Avenue, and a large statue of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy and a resident of Memphis for many years after the war, presides over an immaculate park along the river. That park, sometimes called Confederate Park, was the site, in 1909, of the largest reunion of Rebel veterans ever held.
But without doubt the most memorable vestige of antebellum Memphis to survive the war is the Hunt-Phelan estate. Built between 1828 and 1832 with slave labor, this very handsome house, which briefly served as Grant’s residence and was later used as a hospital, has been immaculately restored, with virtually all its original furnishings. Those had been hurriedly loaded into a railroad boxcar as the Yankees approached in 1862 and were hauled all over the war-ravaged South until the family could at last return home in 1865. Meanwhile, Union authorities, employing teachers imported from the North, had also established a school on the grounds to educate former slaves, one of the first Freedmen’s Bureau schools, and that small wooden structure behind the main house is currently being restored.