Tennessee’s Collierville Has A Story to Tell
Collierville, Tennessee, is the kind of place where an ornamental cannon won’t strike you as anomaly; where the Sons of Confederate Veterans isn’t some abstract collective (they’re actual members of the community). The town even has its own soundtrack – the rhythmic railing of the train just off the square; “Amazing Grace” ringing from a bell tower, unseen to me, at noon.
Approaching Collierville from Memphis (a half-hour’s drive east), roads narrow and hush; trees (and homes) grow genteel with age; preserved churches and Civil War markers proliferate. It’s like visiting a country cousin who has a story to tell.
It’s a good story, too, which dooms it to compel in ups and downs. Whispers of Collierville date to 1835, though it’s not until 1852 – when the Memphis-Charleston Railroad lays tracks here – that the village makes a name for itself. Ironically, the railroad quickly delivers as much development as destruction: As the “vertebrae of the Confederacy” (Jefferson Davis’ words), the Memphis-Charleston line – and Collierville, in particular – were coveted by both sides during the Civil War. The Union wrangled control of the railroad in 1862, and in 1863, it seized Collierville, too. During the October 11 Battle of Collierville, 3,000 Confederates attacked 600 Union soldiers along the rail line. During battle, a train pulled in – carrying General Sherman himself (turns out he was en route from Memphis, already marching to the sea). The Confederates inflicted damage, killing some 100 Union soldiers and stealing Sherman’s favorite horse, Dolly. Yet, the railroad remained under Union control, and Sherman ordered much of Collierville burned.
Present-day monuments and markers are numerous and thorough with field reports, illustrations and letter transcripts. Running through them all is the reality of war here – the reality that Tennessee provided more Confederate soldiers than any other state with the exception of Virginia (and more Union soldiers than all other Confederate states combined). That Collierville homes and churches doubled as hospitals post-Shiloh. That the Wigfall Grays, Collierville’s volunteer infantry, fought hard for the Confederacy and returned home to work harder rebuilding their war-sacked town.
The epilogue to Collierville’s story is that the town cares for its story. It’s evident in those monuments and markers (some of them featured along Tennessee’s statewide Civil War Trails), and in the new Morton Museum of Collierville History. Though the main exhibit room is modern with crisp displays, digital maps and a storytelling kiosk, the museum inhabits the circa-1873 Collierville Christian Church, a Gothic Revival stunner that will host works by local artists alongside its historic collection (my favorites: an unearthed Civil War cannonball, an 1893 quilt and period clothing inviting young visitors to play dress-up). Museum admission is always free.
It’s also evident in and around Collierville’s town square, where the past co-exists with the present. Surrounding a central gazebo and greenspace (site of a summer concert series) and edged along its south side by vintage railcars (walk through them daily between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. for free), the square is small-town charm with a spoil of amenities – benches, bike racks, public restrooms and ample free parking.
You could spend the better part of a morning or afternoon ducking in and out of the square’s shops – boutiques bearing gifts, apparel, accessories and home décor, their irresistible window displays peeking from the square’s historic architecture.
Restaurants mix in, though I recommend something made with exceptional care to wrap your tour of Collierville: Find Square Beans Coffee (on the square’s west side). Gaze at the Sweet Magnolia case. Request anything inside – the day I visited, Sweet Tea Sorbetto and Whiskey and Pecan Gelato sounded incredible. (A Mississippi family hand-crafts all of the varieties in small batches using largely local and organic ingredients.)
Have you taken a walking tour of Collierville? What’s your favorite historic site or shop?