For the past five years, the Memphis Grizzlies have ranked (out of 30 NBA teams) 26th, 30th, 29th, 29th, and 28th in attendance.
Two professional teams suit up, match wits, bang into each other, shoot a bunch of balls, and one side emerges the victor. The press lauds the victors, dismantles the losers, and the whole event is recorded for posterity.
In the distant past, Memphians flocked downtown for such an event. Most loyally devoted themselves to the cause of the local team. This was, however, so long ago the Bluff City still had bluffs to speak of.
Also, this was no basketball game. The year was 1862 and the showdown was the Battle of Memphis.
“The First Battle of Memphis was a naval battle fought on the Mississippi River immediately above the city of Memphis on June 6, 1862, during the American Civil War. The engagement was witnessed by many of the citizens of Memphis. It resulted in a crushing defeat for the Rebels, and marked the virtual eradication of a Confederate naval presence on the river. Despite the lopsided outcome, the Union Army failed to grasp its strategic significance. Its primary historical importance is that it was the last time civilians with no prior military experience were permitted to command ships in combat. As such, it is a milestone in the development of professionalism in the United States Navy.”
The battle is beautifully rendered in an antique print from Harper’s Weekly, a New York-based publication, we have in store.
Harper’s Weekly reported the battle on June 28th, 1862 as follows:
THE WAR ON THE MISSISSIPPI
We devote pages 408 and 409 to illustrations of the WAR ON THE MISSISSIPPI, from sketches by our artist, Mr. Alexander Simplot. One of the pictures represents the GUN-BOAT FIGHT ON THE MISSISSIPPI OPPOSITE MEMPHIS. As a contrast to the descriptions by loyal men, we give the following account of this remarkable combat from the pen of the reporter of a rebel paper, the Memphis Argus, of June 6:
As was generally anticipated, several gun-boats of the Lincoln fleet made their appearance around the bend above the city this A.M., arriving below the island a little before 6 o’clock. Their appearance created an immediate movement in our fleet, under the brave Commodore Montgomery, who had been awaiting them, and his boats were at once headed up stream to offer them battle. Our fleet was composed of the General Van Dorn, flag-ship, General Price, General Bragg, Jeff Thompson, General Lovell, General Beauregard, Sumter, and Little Rebel, all rams under the supreme command of Commander Montgomery. Upon arriving opposite the mouth of Wolf Creek, the Federal boats in the mean time advancing from the island, the order was given to open fire, which was accordingly done by the Little Rebel. Three shots were fired from the Confederate fleet before any reply was made by the enemy, who, however, continued advancing. A short time afterward fire was opened by the advancing boats of the Federal fleet, and a brisk interchange of cannonading was kept up for some time, the shots from both sides generally falling wide of the mark. Up to this time no damage had been done. The engagement had then continued probably twenty minutes.
After that, more Federal boats showed up to the fight, and Montgomery ordered the fleet to fall back. The Confederate forces had some success in the battle, but generally got a whooping. In fact, they whooped themselves in some cases.
“In the mean time another Federal ram, the Monarch, started to the first’s assistance, rapidly passing the city under full head of steam. The Beauregard, having disabled her first adversary, turned about to run into the Monarch. The Price [Confederate] was also moved up, and the three boats were rapidly coming together.
A heavy blow aimed by the Beauregard at the Monarch missed and struck the Price, which was unable to get out of the way. She was struck squarely on the wheel-house, which was torn completely off, leaving the boat nearly a wreck. She at once made for the Arkansas shore, and sunk as deeply as the shallow water would allow. A number of person on board were killed and wounded by the enemy’s sharp-shooters.”
The rest of the fleet was either blown to bits or captured after that. After a number of shots and getting rammed, the Beauregard “commenced sinking rapidly in deep water…”
Ah, that sinking feeling. Spectators in Memphis have known it for centuries.