The Civil War In America.The Illustrated London News, vol.41, no.1155, p.84.
July 19, 1862
After six weeks of cramped existence on a Mississippi transport, I again find myself enjoying some of the comforts of civilisation. The limited area of a state-room of the smallest dimensions has changed to an apartment of such proportions that I am almost tempted to write a new version of "Une Voyage autour de ma Chambre." But either to write or draw with the thermometer at 100 deg. in the shade is a task so laborious, and one's energies become so lymphatic under the moistening influences of heat, that I must content me with relating facts and eschew the realms of fancy.
Memphis, the hotbed of Secession, has fallen. The proud city that would never surrender to the Northern vandal is now garrisoned by Federal soldiers; the blackened, smoking ruins that were to have greeted the advent of the invader was an empty boast; the streets "bathed in blood" but a figurative piece of bombast, for which the editor of The Appeal is responsible. Commodore Davis, who commands the national flotilla, need scarcely have wasted words in writing his despatch. "I came, I saw, I conquered," would have expressed everything. Never was a success so complete and so cheaply purchased by the victors; never an enemy so humiliated. The "stars and bars" have been trailed in the dust; the flag of the Union waves from the principal buildings in the fallen city. Verily, the Memphians have eaten dirt.
On the evening of the 4th inst. a lurid glare rising above the woods that separated us from Fort Pillow betokened the evacuation and destruction of the last but one of the defences of the Confederates on the banks of the Mississippi. Captain Phelps, commanding the flag-ship of the flotilla, immediately started on a reconnaissance round Craighead Point, whence an uninterrupted view of the works could be obtained, and found the flames to proceed from the burning of gun-carriages, cotton embrasures, and barrack-sheds. Beauregard's retreat from Corinth had induced the abandonment of Fort Pillow; and, to make its occupation as profitless as possible to the Federals, the torch had been applied to what remained. Nothing could be seen of the Confederate fleet; and the presumption was they had fallen back to Memphis, seventy-five miles below, the result proving this surmise to be correct. As it would have been extremely unwise to land a force with the risk of magazines exploding, it was determined to delay the occupation till the following morning, and accordingly at daylight on the 5th the flotilla weighed anchor, and steamed down to the still smoking line of earthworks. The position of Fort Pillow struck me as being remarkably strong both naturally and artificially. Situated on a bold rise known as the First Chickasaw Bluff, it commanded the bend in the river, which here has its channel immediately under the cliff, and within a hundred yards of the guns, most of which would direct a plunging fire on passing vessels. The works were in three tiers, and composed of a water battery over a quarter of a mile in length, a series of strong redoubts midway up the face of the bluff, and an upper series partially hidden by dense foliage. A semicircular line of rifle-pits, running three miles back in the country, protected the garrison from attack in the rear. The Confederates had evidently been engaged for some time removing their guns, as we found only twelve remaining when we landed. A portion of these had been spiked, some had been burst, and others had been dismounted; but still some half dozen might prove serviceable to the Federalists. There is no doubt the Southerners had had at least fifty guns in position; but, finding they would sooner or later have to evacuate, they had gradually removed the greater number of their pieces to strengthen the batteries being constructed at Vicksburg, the last barrier closing the Mississippi to the Federalists. By the time this letter appears in print the "Father of Waters" will pursue his course uninterrupted by cannon from his source to the Gulf of Mexico, and Vicksburg, the final stand-point of the Confederates, will have been wrenched from them by Davis and Farragut.
Remaining at Fort Pillow but time enough to make arrangements for holding it, the flotilla, consisting of five gun-boats, accompanied by the transports, steamed down the river for Memphis. Now I realised to the fullest extent the barbarous and wanton destruction of property of which the Secessionists are guilty. Whenever we approached a plantation on either the Tennessee or the Arkansas shore we were certain to see a column of smoke rising in the neighbourhood, indicating the burning of cotton, or else the water would be covered by floating masses cast from the bank into the stream. Passing within hailing distance of one of these plantations, and noticing some men engaged in efforts to save a quantity that had become entangled with some drifting timber, I called and asked them by whose orders their property had been destroyed. Their reply was, "They say it's by order of the Government, but there aint been no such thing in this dog-goned country for over a year." I then asked if they were glad to see the stars and stripes back again, and the answer was, "We guess we are, mighty so;" and, in token of this feeling being pretty general, numbers came down through the woods and cheered us as we passed along. We learned that the Southern fleet had preceded us but a few hours, and that their crews had landed and searched every plantation they came to for cotton, which they either burnt or threw into the river, despite the protestations of the owners. One of their transports we overtook and captured while engaged in this vandalism, but the more responsible of those who were on board landed and escaped across the country before we took possession of her. That night, at ten o'clock, we anchored three miles above Memphis, concealed from the town by a cluster of islands known to Mississippi boatmen as "Paddy's Hen and Chickens." The next day, June 6, was to decide the fate of the city, perhaps of the Federal flotilla, for, undoubtedly, there would be a great passage of arms between the rival fleets, the crews of one fighting beneath the eyes of their Southern belles and inspired to deeds of valour by their presence. An hour after the flotilla had come to its moorings a dead silence reigned on every vessel: many that night said "God save us!" and others cried "Amen!"
At five a.m. on the morrow the signal was flying from the Benton (flag-ship) to cast off, and at half-past five we rounded the point that separated us from Memphis, and came in full view of the city and the Confederate fleet, eight in number, drawn up in line across the river to dispute our progress. Nothing daunted, the five national gun-boats steadily pressed forward; and as we drew nearer we saw that the bluff in front of the town was covered by a dense crowd assembled to witness the gladiatorial display. The glorious sun of June rose resplendent, shedding its golden rays on spire and roof, and bathing the brown old Mississippi in a flood of light that made its opaque waters fairly sparkle. The parti-coloured masses on the cliff dressed in their gay summer clothing gave to the scene a festive appearance strangely at variance with the stern reality of war about to be enacted in their presence. But I was soon called from the contemplation of the spectators in the amphitheatre tiers to the arena itself, in which I was somewhat of an actor, for the first note of defiance had been roared from the throat of a 64-pounder, and the shot scattered the water up all round. In a few minutes all the vessels on each side were engaged, and the firing became general, the Southern boats slowly falling back while we continued advancing. Two vessels under a full head of steam came from our rear and passed swiftly through our line, each seeking an antagonist in the Confederate fleet. They mounted no guns, and had but a crew of twelve riflemen stationed behind a massive loopholed bulkhead. A few weeks since they were ordinary river steamers, but, having been thoroughly strengthened and protected by massive timbers and a solid iron-tipped prow placed on each, it was determined to try them as rams. On they sped unharmed by the storm of shot and shell which was rained upon them. The first, the Queen of the West, made for the Beauregard, and, as the latter sheared off to avoid the blow, she ran foul of the General Price, one of her consorts, completely tearing the starboard wheel off the latter and compelling her to run to the Arkansas shore in a sinking condition, where she was abandoned by her crew. The General Bragg now came up to the assistance of the Beauregard and struck the Queen of the West on her port paddle-box, crushing it in, but in turn got a huge rent in her port bow. In the mean time the other Federal ram, the Monarch, bore down towards the General Lovell, and, striking her amidships, cut her down to the water's edge, and in three minutes afterwards she sunk in one hundred feet of water, taking with her most of her crew. Thus two of the Confederate boats were disposed of, six only being left for the five national vessels to contend with, the rams retiring from the fight. A shot from the Benton, fired by Captain Phelps, struck the Beauregard in her boilers, and she went down, giving Commodore Davis, who made the most humane efforts, barely time to save those on board her. The Jeff Thompson was set on fire by a shell from a Federal boat, and, being run ashore, blew up shortly after she was abandoned; the General Bragg also was struck by a shell and her cotton bulkheads ignited, but the crew of the Benton, who boarded her, succeeded in extinguishing the fire. To sum up the whole affair, one Confederate vessel alone escaped--the General Van Dorn; three were destroyed, and four were captured after a running fight of one hour and a half.
Next mail will bring you an account of the occupation of Memphis, the feeling of the people, and their conduct under Federal rule. At present I can do no more than send you this brief letter, as my time has been taken up with sketching.