Fort Pillow, a Civil War dishonor


Massacre in Tennessee
Date: 
Tue, 1864-04-12

This date marks the anniversary of the Fort Pillow Massacre in 1864. The Fort Pillow Massacre occurred during the American Civil War.

The action stemmed from Southern outrage at the North's use of Black soldiers. From the beginning of hostilities, the Confederate leadership was faced with the question of whether to treat Black soldiers captured in battle as slaves in insurrection or, as the Union insisted, as prisoners of war. This conflict happened at Fort Pillow on the Mississippi River in Henning, Tennessee.

The battle has caused great controversy about whether a massacre of surrendered African-American troops was carried out or condoned by Confederate Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest. One Northerner wrote, "Fort Pillow marked one of the bleakest, saddest events of American military history."

Fort Pillow, 40 miles north of Memphis, was built by Brigadier General Gideon Johnson Pillow in early 1862 and was used by both sides during the war. When New Madrid and Island No. 10 fell to Union forces, Confederate troops evacuated Fort Pillow. Union forces occupied the Fort in the summer of 1862, the structure stood on a high bluff and was protected by three lines of entrenchments arranged in a semicircle, with a protective walls four feet thick and six to eight feet high surrounded by a ditch. A Federal gunboat, the USS New Era, was also available to defend.

On March 16, 1864, Major General Forrest launched a month-long cavalry raid with 7,000 troopers into western Tennessee and Kentucky. Their objectives were to capture Union prisoners and supplies and to demolish posts and fortifications from Paducah, Kentucky, south to Memphis. The first of the two significant engagements was the Battle of Paducah on March 25, where Forrest's men did considerable damage to the town and its military supplies. The Union garrison at Fort Pillow consisted of about 600 men, divided almost evenly between black and white troops.

The black soldiers belonged to the 2nd U.S. Colored Light Artillery and the 6th U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery, under the overall command of Major Lionel F. Booth. Many were former slaves and understood the personal consequences of a loss to the Confederates, at best an immediate return to slavery. The white soldiers were predominantly new recruits from the 14th Tennessee Cavalry, a Federal regiment from western Tennessee, commanded by Major William F. Bradford and reportedly containing numerous men who had deserted from the Confederate Army.

Forrest arrived at Fort Pillow at 10 a.m. on April 12. A stray bullet struck Forrest's horse, felling the general, bruising him, and putting him in a disagreeable mood. By 11 a.m., the Confederates had captured two rows of barracks about 150 yards from the southern end of the fort. The Union soldiers had failed to destroy these buildings before the Confederates occupied them, and subjected the garrison to a murderous fire. Rifle and artillery fire continued until mid-afternoon.

Forrest sent a note demanding surrender: "I now demanding unconditional surrender of your forces, at the same time assuring you that you will be treated as prisoners of war.... I have received a new supply of ammunition and can take your works by assault, and if compelled to do so you must take the consequences." Bradford replied, concealing his identity as he did not wish the Confederates to realize that Booth had been killed, requesting an hour for consideration. Forrest, who believed that reinforcing troops would soon arrive by river, replied that he would only allow 20 minutes, and that "If at the expiration of that time the fort is not surrendered, I shall assault it." Braddford's final reply was, "I will not surrender."

The Confederate assault was livid. While the sharpshooters maintained their fire into the fort, a first wave entered the ditch and stood while the second wave used their backs as stepping stones. These men then reached down and helped the first wave scramble up a ledge on the embankment. As the sharpshooters were signaled to hold their fire, the men on the ledge went up and over the embankment, firing now for the first time into the massed defenders, who fought briefly, but then broke back for a race to the landing at the foot of the bluff, where they had been told that the Union gunboat would cover their withdrawal by firing grape and canister. The gunboat did not fire a single shot because its gun ports were sealed. The fleeing soldiers were subjected to fire both from the rear and from the flank, from the soldiers who had been firing at the gunboat. Many were shot down. Others reached the river only to drown or be picked off in the water by marksmen on the bluff.

Conflicting reports of what happened next until dusk, led to the controversy. Union sources claimed that even though the Union troops surrendered, Forrest's men massacred them in cold blood. Several accounts support the charge of massacre. The Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War immediately investigated the incident and concluded that the Confederates shot most of the garrison after it had surrendered.

The report also states that after the fighting had ceased, several of the wounded were intentionally burned to death in their barracks or buried alive. A 1958 study by Albert Castel concludes that the Union forces were indiscriminately massacred after Fort Pillow "had ceased resisting or was incapable of resistance."

References
"The Fort Pillow Massacre: A Fresh Examination of the Evidence,"
Albert Castel, Civil War History 4 (March 1958).

The Civil War, A Narrative: Red River to Appomattox, Shelby Foote,
Random House, 1974,
ISBN 0-394-74913-8.

U.S. Congress, Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War.
"Fort Pillow Massacre" House Report No. 65,
38th Congress, 1st Session.

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