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The Battle of Memphis


The Civil War battle of Memphis, Tennessee was fought 150 years ago this week, in early June of 1862.

Union Flag Officer Charles H. Davis traveled down the Mississippi River with a squadron of ironclad gunboats seeking to eliminate the Confederate naval presence close to Memphis, Tennessee. He hoped this action would expose the city to capture.

Confederate troops manned the city’s defenses, but had prepared a withdrawal to the south. Union forces had already cut rail links to the north and east.

James E. Montgomery, commander of the Confederate River Defense Fleet, made plans as the soldiers departed, to move eight cottonclad rams to Vicksburg to the south. When he learned not enough coal was available to fuel his ships, his plans collapsed.

The Federal Fleet arrived above the city on June 6th. Montgomery held a meeting with his captains in order to discuss options. They decided to stand and fight, not wanting to scuttle their ships and flee. Davis, on approach to Memphis, ordered his gunboats into a line of battle across the Mississippi River.

Union gunboats opened fire on Montgomery’s rams. Davis closed in on the Confederates, the fight growing wild. The Union ironclads sank all but one of Montgomery’s ships.

The River Defense Fleet was eliminated. Davis ordered the city to surrender. This naval victory for the Union opened the Mississippi River for Union shipments and warships as far south as Vicksburg. Memphis became a Union supply base for the remainder of the war.

Upon the destruction of the River Defense Fleet, the Confederate navy lost it’s presence along the Mississippi.

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  1. What I’m finding extraordinary with your posts these days, Susan, is how much of the war was battled on water. You hardly hear about it because the focus is always on the hand to hand battles. Nice to learn more about this action.

  2. Yes, Paisley! I hadn’t realized the Navy was so active in this war. I’d heard about the ironclads, but it seems keeping ports open for one side or another was very important. The ports and rivers were supply routes integral to both sides.

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