Tennessee – a state rich in wonderful attractions including outdoor recreation, great culinary offerings and abundant shopping – is extending an open invitation to visit the state and learn about a pivotal time in America’s history. I found this was a great time to take a tour of West Tennessee’s Civil War Heritage Trail.
The City of Memphis served as the perfect starting point of our tour, where we could relax, dine and take a walk down legendary Beale Street to absorb the sights and sounds of Memphis after our day trips. The Peabody Hotel proved to be a gracious host for the first two nights of our visit. We met the honored Peabody Ducks, enjoyed a tour of Duckingham Palace on the rooftop, as well as the awesome cityscape. On our first night, we ate world famous barbecue at the Rendezvous Restaurant, which is a “must-see” while in Memphis. The Peabody is a 13-story hotel that was built in 1869, and is comprised of luxury accommodations and excellent service. It is Memphis’ only historic hotel and is an exquisite example of Italian Renaissance Revival architecture. For a very special evening, we dined in the hotel restaurant, Chez Philippe. Chez Philippe is touted as the most opulent dining room in Memphis; and, in my estimation, it will be a very long time before I find its equal. We also enjoyed an afternoon cruise down the Mississippi on a paddlewheel steamboat – an experience that allowed me to soak in the significance the river played in the Civil War. The Mississippi River Museum at Mud Island is dedicated to doing just that. We learned that the explosion of The SS Sultana in 1865 was the worst maritime disaster in American history. Built to hold only 376 passengers, more than 2,000 former Union prisoners of war boarded in Vicksburg. The SS Sultana’s boilers exploded and the ship sank just seven to nine miles north of Memphis. An estimated 1,600 - 1,900 lives were lost – more than were lost on the Titanic. One thing I noticed about Tennessee during my visit is that historical reenactments are plentiful, and I realized how much I appreciate this art form as a way to bring history to life. When we visited the Hunt Phelan Home in Memphis, General Ulysses S. Grant appeared out of nowhere from the past and was surprised to see visitors from the future in his office. He had occupied the Hunt Phelan Home and used it for his headquarters, and the home was subsequently used as a Federal hospital during the war. Surviving as the last of the great Beale Street mansions, the Hunt Phelan Home has been restored to its original splendor and is now offering four-star cuisine and accommodations.
ALONG THE TRAIL The peaceful and beautiful scenery in West Tennessee today would never reveal its bloody past, unless you pulled back the cloak that 150 years of time has placed on it to uncover bits and pieces of forts, artillery shells and soldiers’ camping utensils and paraphernalia. Wandering through the old cemeteries, with graves bearing the names of Confederate leaders and soldiers, reminded us that this war and had changed the course of American history forever. The Civil War Heritage Trail is designed to bring people to the destinations where crucial battles were fought in Tennessee, which furnished more men to the Union cause than all other states combined. More than 600,000 combined casualties of the Civil War are on record.
Civil War enthusiasts young and old are sure to be fascinated by the Civil War Heritage Trail sites the state of Tennessee has marked out. Our first day of travels took us to Tiptonville, where we learned about the capture of Island Number 10 on the Mississippi River. With the Mississippi River creating Tennessee’s western border, many Civil War skirmishes happened on or near the river. A bend in the river in these parts made it a strategic location, where the Confederate Army attempted to defend the Upper Mississippi Valley. In Lake County, we found a cemetery monument bearing these words: “In memory of the boys in gray who gave their all for the Confederate Cause at the Battle of Island Number 10 in April 1862.” We traveled on through the scenic countryside to Dyersburg, where we visited Brigadier General Ortho French Strahl’s gravesite and cannon. Strahl and his men were killed in the battle of Franklin in 1864. Located about 45 miles north of Memphis, Fort Pillow State Historic Park was our next stop. It is interesting to note that controversy continues today over Confederate Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s attack on Fort Pillow, an important Confederate river fort. When the garrison refused to surrender, Forrest attacked with a cavalry division of approximately 2,500 men. Fort Pillow was defended by 295 white Tennessee troops and 262 U.S. African-American troops under the command of Major Booth. Due to high Union casualties, the “Fort Pillow Massacre” became a Union rallying cry and motivation to see the war through to the end. The next day our base location for the ongoing tour changed from Memphis to Jackson, as the trail took us to Fort Germantown, which was Union occupied by the end of 1862 and became the site of a Union Army post built in June of 1863, as part of a series of forts guarding the Memphis and Charleston railroad. It is thought to have been abandoned by October 1863 and never repaired or reoccupied. The earthen embankments of the fort are still visible today. We traveled on to the quaint town of Collierville, where Chalmer’s Collierville Raid took place followed by the Battle of Collierville. We learned that this struggle was due to Collierville’s strategic location on the Memphis and Charleston Railroad. The historic town square in Collierville is like something from a Norman Rockwell painting, with a charming white gazebo in its center, train station and shops around the square. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. I was delighted to visit some of the shops and breathe in the feeling of a bygone era. The trainstation next to the square, although not in operation, is an authentic station from the Civil War era. Collierville is also known as “The Antiques Capital of West Tennessee.” I liked it so much that I wanted to take up residence in this little town. On our first evening in Jackson, we met the owners of Brooks Shaw’s Old Country Store in Casey Jones Village, a family-run business that has expanded to become one of Tennessee’s top ten travel attractions. Live music filled the air, while reenactments of the Civil War era were taking place. People dressed in period costumes mingled with the guests, who were also invited to visit an open field, where the reenactment of the Last Cannon of the Civil War was taking place. Some members of our group volunteered to be inducted into the elite group of folks who have fired an authentic Civil War cannon.