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Battle of Fort Pillow, 10 May 1862
Fort Pillow was a Confederate fort on the Tennessee bank of the Mississippi River (American Civil War). After the fall of Island No. 10 (7 April 1862), Fort Pillow was the main barrier to Union capture of Memphis. After an army expedition against the fort was abandoned, the burden of capturing the position fell to the Western Flotilla, a collection of ironclads and gunboats created by Flag-Officer Andrew Foote. However, Foote was now quite worn down by his efforts, and had requested that he be replaced. On 9 May, the flotilla was taken over by Flag-Officer Charles H. Davis.
Davis inherited an ongoing attack on Fort Pillow. The bombardment had begun on 14 April, soon after the fall of Island No. 10. By early May, the Confederates were ready to strike back. The American Civil War saw a brief resurgence of the ram as a major element in naval warfare. Steam power had increased the speed and manoeuvrability of the warship and iron armour had greatly improved their durability. Naval gunnery briefly lagged behind. In these circumstances, the Confederates had produced the C.S.S. Virginia. Despite being better armed that her Union counterpart at Hampton Roads, the Virginia had also been designed to be a powerful ram (although her ram had actually broken off after one attack).
The Confederate defenders of the Mississippi had constructed their own fleet of rams. On 10 May, those rams launched a surprise attack on the Union fleet attacking Fort Pillow. The Union fleet’s response was not well coordinated. Two of their ironclads were badly damaged by ramming attacks, before the Confederate fleet retreated back into the shelter of Fort Pillow’s guns.
Fort Pillow itself was soon evacuated by the Confederates. The main Confederate army had been forced to retreat from Corinth. This left the fort exposed to an attack from the rear, and so General Beauregard ordered the garrison to leave, after destroying the fort. During the night of 4 June they carried out that order, before withdrawing towards Memphis. The next morning the Union fleet occupied the site of the fort.
After the evacuation of Fort Pillow, the next Union target was Memphis. On 6 June, the Union’s Western Flotilla, reinforced by their own rams, fought and defeated the Confederate fleet at Memphis, and captured the city. Fort Pillow remained in use. It returned to prominence later in the war, when Confederate cavalry under Nathan Bedford Forrest captured the fort, and massacred dozens of black soldiers (Fort Pillow Massacre, 12 April 1864).
"The Most Terrible Ordeal of My Life": The Battle of Fort Pillow
Caption in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper (New York), May 7, 1864, "The war in Tennessee – Confederate massacre of federal troops after the surrender at Fort Pillow, April 12th, 1864." New York Public Library Digital Collections
With momentum created by his victory at Okolona firmly in hand Confederate Maj. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest prepared to launch an expedition from northern Mississippi in early March 1864. The Confederate cavalryman had two divisions under his command led by Brig. Gens. James Chalmers and Abraham Buford. Forrest hoped to upset enemy activity, recruit soldiers and gather supplies.
Although repulsed in their efforts outside Paducah, Kentucky, the Confederates enjoyed success at Union City and Bolivar, Tennessee. By the first days of April, Forrest decided to turn his sights on an enemy fortification on the banks of the Mississippi River, Fort Pillow.
Named for Confederate General Gideon Pillow, the work had been constructed to protect Memphis. When the city fell to Union forces in June 1862 it was abandoned and occupied by the Federals, who improved upon the defenses. Built in the shape of a half-moon and facing east, the fort consisted of three separate lines. Major Lionel Booth commanded the garrison which consisted of a section from the 2nd U.S. Colored Light Artillery, one battalion from the 6th U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery and the Unionist 13th West Tennessee Cavalry. The three units combined numbered almost 600 men.
Forrest planned to use Buford’s troopers as a diversion while Chalmers assailed the fortification. Around sunrise on April 12, three years to the day of the opening of hostilities at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, the lead elements of Chalmers’ division approached Fort Pillow. Chalmers quickly drove in Booth’s pickets and deployed for battle. “Our garrison immediately opened fire”, remembered Lt. Mack Leaming, the adjutant of the 13th West Tennessee Cavalry. “The firing continued without cessation, principally from behind logs, stumps and under cover of thick underbrush and from high knolls, until…the rebels made a general assault on our works, which was successfully repulsed with severe loss to them.” During the assault, Maj. Booth, “passing among his men and cheering them the same…was struck in the head by a bullet killed.” Command devolved upon the 13th West Tennessee Cavalry’s Maj. William Bradford.
Forrest himself arrived on the field about 10 a.m. in time to see a second attack repulsed. Unable to make any headway, around mid-afternoon, he decided to send over a message under a flag of truce. “Your gallant defense of Fort Pillow has entitled you to the treatment of brave men”, the note read. Forrest demanded unconditional surrender with assurances that the garrison would be treated as prisoners of war. Otherwise, if Forrest was forced to take the position by storm, the battle’s consequences would fall on the shoulders of the Federal commander.
Lt. Leaming was designated to meet the Confederates. He rendezvoused with the flag party 150 yards from the earthworks and requested one hour to consult with the other officers. Leaming had barely reached the fort when a second message was communicated and he went out to receive it. Impatient, Forrest himself had ridden forward. Confronting Leaming, Forrest demanded the garrison’s surrender in the next twenty minutes. Leaming carried this new ultimatum to other officers who voted unanimously not to capitulate. When Leaming delivered this decision in writing, Forrest read the dispatch, quietly saluted and walked away.
Forrest returned to his lines and promptly gave the order to advance. “The bugle then sounded the charge”, Chalmers recalled and “a general rush was made along the whole line, and in five minutes the ditch was crossed, the parapet scaled, and our troops were in possession of the fort.” “As our troops mounted and poured into the fortification the enemy retreated toward the river arms in hand and firing back”, Forrest wrote.
Organized Union resistance soon collapsed, however the Confederates were enraged to find they were opposed by black troops. Although the major combat had ceased, the killing continued. Many of the Confederate troopers clubbed or gunned down the African Americans, despite their pleas of surrender. This brutality was not just confined to the artillery units. The Confederates turned on the Tennessee troops who they considered to be turncoats. It was some time before the officers could restore some semblance of control. Among the dead was the fort’s temporary commander, Major Bradford.
When the firing finally came to an end, Forrest sustained casualties of 14 killed and 86 wounded. The Federals lost about half of their total strength with the black units losing 64% killed outright, more than 30% more than the white units. Today, 155 years later, historians still debate the details of Fort Pillow. It is clear there was a stage of orthodox fighting by both sides followed by a second phase of brutality. While Forrest did not give an order to wipe out the entire garrison, he lost control of his men and certainly could have done more to save the lives of the Union soldiers. At the same time, the garrison had outrightly refused an appeal to surrender. Still, had the black troops formally laid down their arms, there could not have been an expectation that they would all have been treated as prisoners of war.
Remembered as a “massacre”, Fort Pillow became a rallying cry in the North and a dark chapter of the American Civil War.
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Battle of Fort Pillow
The early spring of 1864 was cold and bleak in west Tennessee. For Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest and the 3,000 troopers he led from northern Mississippi that March–mostly Tennesseans who were eager to re-enter their home state–the land seemed devoid of warmth or welcome. Two years of Union occupation, interspersed with Confederate raids and counterraids, had spawned a poisonous atmosphere of revenge and reprisal that seemed to have sickened the entire region. ‘The whole of West Tennessee,’ Forrest reported angrily, ‘is overrun by bands and squads of robbers, horse thieves and deserters, whose depredations and unlawful appropriations of private property are rapidly and effectually depleting the country.’
Forrest himself was a native Tennessean, born in 1821 in Bedford County. Although he was raised in the backwoods of northern Mississippi, he had made his fortune in Memphis, and he always considered Tennessee his home. Now he was back, and what he saw did not amuse him. The land was picked over and brown, with burned farmhouses and ruined barns dotting the horizon. Nor was Forrest much amused by the tales he heard from local residents while he was camped at Jackson, Tenn., en route to Kentucky on a horse-gathering mission. A ‘regiment of renegade Tennesseans,’ he noted, led by Colonel Fielding Hurst of the 6th Tennessee (U.S.) Cavalry, had been plundering throughout southwestern Tennessee, perpetrating ‘wanton destruction of property’ and demanding–and getting–a sum of $5,139.25 from the residents of Jackson in return for not burning the town to the ground. (The sum was exactly, to the penny, the amount of a legal judgment made against Hurst by Federal authorities in Memphis on behalf of a female resident of Jackson whose property had been destroyed by the colonel’s raiders.)
Even worse than Hurst’s extortionate tactics was his treatment of several Forrest subordinates who had returned to their hometowns to recruit new soldiers for the Southern cause. Seven of these men had been murdered by Hurst’s forces in the past two months, including Lieutenant Willis Dodds, who had been killed less than two weeks earlier at his father’s home in Henderson County. Forrest reported that Dodds had been ‘put to death by torture,’ noting that a witness, who had seen the young lieutenant’s body shortly after his death, found the victim ‘most horribly mutilated, the face having been skinned, the nose cut off, the under jaw disjoined, the privates cut off, and the body otherwise barbarously lacerated and most wantonly injured.’
Jackson residents warned Forrest of another ‘nest of outlaws’ currently holed up in an old abandoned Confederate fortification, Fort Pillow, overlooking the Mississippi River 40 miles north of Memphis. These Unionists, members of the 13th Tennessee Cavalry under the command of Major William F. Bradford, included many former Confederates who had joined forces with the occupying Federals. These ‘homemade Yankees’ were hated by Forrest’s men, many of whose families reportedly had been victims of the turncoats’ threats, abuses and outright thievery. Bradford, an attorney who came from Forrest’s own home county of Bedford, was particularly loathed. Prior to receiving a commission in the Union Army, Bradford had led a band of pro-Northern guerrillas in raids against Confederate sympathizers in middle and west Tennessee. ‘Under the pretense of scouring the country for arms and rebel soldiers,’ said Forrest’s first biographers, Bradford had ‘traversed the surrounding country with detachments, robbing the people of their horses, mules, beef cattle, beds, plates, wearing apparel, money, and every possible movable article of value, besides venting upon the wives and daughters of Southern soldiers the most opprobrious and obscene epithets, with more than one extreme outrage upon the persons of these victims of their hate and lust.’
For the time being, Forrest could do nothing about the alleged atrocities–he was under orders to remount and refit a new division of Kentucky cavalry in the Bluegrass State–but he promised the people of Jackson that he would ‘attend to’ the Federals at Fort Pillow ‘in a day or two.’ In the meantime, he issued a proclamation labeling Hurst and his troopers outlaws and declaring that they were ‘not entitled to be treated as prisoners of war falling into the hands of the forces of the Confederate states.’ Instead, they would be shot down summarily whenever and wherever they were encountered. That was partly bluster on Forrest’s part, designed to strike fear into the hearts of wavering Confederate supporters and would-be deserters, but Union authorities took the threat seriously enough to warn Hurst ‘against allowing your men to straggle or pillage…as a deviation from this rule may prove fatal to yourself and [your] command.’
In a less than buoyant state of mind, Forrest and his men rode north toward Kentucky in late March. Part of the column, 500 horsemen under the command of Colonel William L. Duckworth, was detached to capture Union City, a crossroads village in northwestern Tennessee. Duckworth carried out his assignment with flair, posing as Forrest and sending a strongly worded surrender demand to the Federal garrison commander, Colonel Issac Hawkins, who had already surrendered to Forrest once before. Now Hawkins demanded to see Forrest in person before capitulating. Duckworth, thinking quickly, responded (as Forrest) that ‘I am not in the habit of meeting officers inferior to myself in rank…but I will send Col. Duckworth, who is your equal in rank, and who is authorized to arrange terms and conditions with you.’ The ruse worked and Hawkins, although holding a strong position, handed over himself and 500 other Union soldiers, as well as 300 horses and $60,000 in greenbacks that the garrison had recently received in pay. The Confederates joked afterward that they would be happy to parole Hawkins again in order to obtain more horses and equipment.
A similar ploy was not so successful at Paducah, Ky., which Forrest besieged the next day. There the Union colonel in command, Stephen G. Hicks, withdrew his forces into Fort Anderson, along the Ohio River, west of town. After hours of intermittent sniping, Forrest sent Hicks his standard surrender demand: ‘Having a force amply sufficient to carry your works and reduce the place, and in order to avoid the unnecessary effusion of blood, I demand the surrender of the fort and troops, with all public property. If you surrender, you shall be treated as prisoners of war but if I have to storm your works, you may expect no quarter.’
Hicks, a Mexican War veteran, rejected the demand. He had a sizable force of between 700 and 1,000 men from the 16th Kentucky Cavalry, the 122nd Illinois Infantry and the 1st Kentucky Negro Artillery, as well as two nearby gunboats, Peosta and Paw-Paw, standing off in the Ohio River, ready to blast the attackers with grapeshot and canister if they came too near. Hicks was convinced he could hold out indefinitely.
As soon as he heard of the abortive attack, Forrest angrily forbade any further assaults. Meanwhile, the raiders completed their mission inside Paducah while the Union gunboats indiscriminately shelled the town. Hicks directed the captain of one of the vessels to ‘protect the fort and let the town go to hell.’ Later, Union Brig. Gen. Mason Brayman congratulated Hicks on his ruthless decision, noting with satisfaction that the town had been ‘made a ruin,’ which Brayman said was only right since the ‘rebel instincts’ of the residents had ‘rendered it quite certain that the town would not have been occupied [by Forrest] without their consent.’
Forrest withdrew from Paducah before midnight on March 25, having gathered 400 horses and mules, 50 prisoners and a large supply of clothing, saddles and supplies–the whole point of his mission. He could have held Paducah indefinitely, Forrest claimed, but he had found the town wracked by an outbreak of smallpox and so withdrew to avoid unnecessarily exposing his men to the disease.
Back in Tennessee, Forrest was irritated by reports coming out of the North that labeled his Paducah raid a failure. The Louisville Journal, for one, charged that the Rebels had been ‘gloriously drunk, and but little better than a mob.’ The newspaper said Forrest’s men had ‘commenced an indiscriminate pillage of the houses’ and then had made’several desperate charges…upon the fort. The Federals met them with a withering fire, and in each onset the rebel columns were broken and driven back in confusion.’
Now Forrest turned his attention to Fort Pillow, ordering Brig. Gen. James Chalmers to bring up the rest of the cavalry corps from Mississippi. The first order of business was dealing with the much-hated Colonel Hurst and his command. Colonel James J. Neely struck Hurst’s trail between Somerville and Bolivar, Tenn., on March 29 and, in Chalmers’ retelling, ‘met the traitor Hurst at Bolivar, after a short conflict, in which we killed and captured 75 prisoners of the enemy, drove Hurst hatless into Memphis’ and captured ‘all his wagons, ambulances [and] papers,’ as well as ‘his mistresses, both black and white.’ As events at Fort Pillow would soon prove, Hurst had gotten off lightly with the mere loss of his hat and girlfriends.
To check Federal forces in the area while he advanced on Fort Pillow, Forrest sent Colonel Abraham Buford back to Paducah to seize the remaining 140 government horses that Northern newspapers had inadvisably bragged about the Rebels missing. At the same time, he directed Neely to threaten Memphis and pin down the Union garrison there. The Confederate commander, meanwhile, headed west toward Fort Pillow in a driving rainstorm with the main body of troops.
The fort, named after Confederate Brig. Gen. Gideon Pillow, had been constructed in 1861 on the east bank of the Mississippi River immediately below the intersection of the river with Coal (or Cold) Creek. The strongpoint had three lines of earthen entrenchments: a semicircular outer line of earthworks, a shorter second line of works atop a prominent hill and the fort itself, whose earthworks were 6 to 8 feet high and 4 to 6 feet across and were fronted by a 12-foot-wide, 6-foot-deep trench. The fort’s works extended in a 125-yard-wide semicircle, behind which the land rapidly fell away to the river. Deep ravines crisscrossed the landscape in front of the bastion, and four rows of barracks lay on the only open terrace of land, just to the southwest.
The Confederates had abandoned Fort Pillow after the fall of Corinth, Miss., in May 1862, and Union forces had occupied it intermittently ever since. On the morning of April 12, 1864, the fort was garrisoned by approximately 580 soldiers from three separate units: the 13th Tennessee Cavalry, under Major Bradford, which had been quartering at Fort Pillow for the past two months while recruiting new members and allegedly terrorizing Confederate sympathizers in the vicinity and two black artillery units, the 6th U.S. Heavy Artillery and the 2nd U.S. Light Artillery, manning six pieces of artillery that had only been at the fort for two weeks. Major Lionel F. Booth, a veteran of the Regular Army, was overall commander of the Union forces. Standing ready to render assistance from offshore was the Union gunboat New Era, under the direction of Captain James Marshall.
Booth was either very confident or very careless. Although there had been numerous sightings of Forrest and his men in the area, the Union major airily reported that things were quiet for 30 or 40 miles around Fort Pillow. ‘I think it perfectly safe,’ he assured Maj. Gen. Stephen Hurlburt in Memphis. Furthermore, Booth believed that he could ‘hold the post against any force for forty-eight hours.’ Events would soon prove him wrong on both counts.
On the afternoon of April 11, Forrest met with Chalmers at Brownsville, 38 miles east of Fort Pillow. Forrest wanted the former Mississippi lawyer to head for the fort as early as possible the next morning. Chalmers quickly complied, and at 6 a.m. the next day his two brigades, under Colonels Robert McCulloch and Tyree Bell, made contact with the Federal pickets outside the fort. The advance guard, led by Captain Frank J. Smith of the 2nd Missouri Cavalry, managed to creep around behind the pickets and send them flying. Only a handful of pickets escaped back to the fort with the unwelcome news that the Rebels had suddenly arrived in force.
Forrest wasted no more time. He quickly signaled bugler Jacob Gaus to sound the charge, and retired to a hill 400 yards away to watch the assault. The bugler’s notes had scarcely drifted away before the Confederate sharpshooters opened another devastating fire on the fort’s parapets, making it impossible for the defenders to so much as raise their heads above the works. Meanwhile, other gray-clad troops sprang from their places of concealment in the ravines or behind the barracks huts, tore across the few remaining yards to the ditch surrounding the fort and bubbled into it like a swarm of angry hornets. Within seconds they were boosting one another onto the outer ledge below the fort’s wall. Lieutenant Leaming, who left behind the only official Union report of the battle, said the Confederates seemed to ‘rise from out of the very earth.’
Almost unopposed, the Confederates leaped onto the top of the wall and began blazing away at the cowering Federals, many of whom reportedly were drunk from barrels of whiskey put out prior to the final assault. Tennessee officer DeWitt Clinton Fort, one of Forrest’s men, was in the forefront of the attack. ‘As we charged over the ramparts,’ said Fort, ‘the enemy’s garrison of mixed complexion retreated over the bluff down to the water’s edge. Here was assembled one wild promiscuous mass rendered senseless and uncontrollable by the three causes–fright, drunkenness, and desperation.’
The Union defenders, black and white, soon broke and ran for the open rear of the fort. One black artilleryman, Private John Kennedy of the 2nd U.S. Colored Light Artillery, heard Bradford shout, ‘Boys, save your lives!’ Kennedy urged Bradford to ‘let us fight yet,’ but the major, seeing the Confederate attackers pouring in from all directions, said despairingly, ‘It is of no use anymore,’ and fled to the rear with the rest of his troops.
Inside the fort was a mass of confusion. Some of the Federals threw down their weapons and attempted to surrender, some continued firing, others simply ran away, spilling over the bluff’s brow and sliding down the vine-choked bank toward the river. Bradford and Marshall had worked out a prearranged signal for New Era to steam close to the bank at the first sign of trouble and ‘give the Rebels canister.’ Instead, no doubt to Bradford’s horrified consternation, Marshall swung the gunboat away from the shore. Meanwhile, Confederate marksmen stationed above and below the fort caught the retreating Federals at point-blank range and enfiladed the frantic fugitives. (Marshall later told a congressional committee that he had abandoned the plan because he was afraid the Confederates ‘might hail in a steamboat from below, capture her, put on four or five hundred men, and come after me.’)
Pandemonium reigned. The wrathful Confederates–most of whom had marched all night to the outskirts of the fort, run and sniped under enemy fire all morning, and then waited anxiously in the hot afternoon sun for the final assault to begin–were in no mood to be forgiving. To a man they believed that the Federals had been fools to refuse Forrest’s surrender demand. That refusal had cost them another 100 good men, dead or wounded. To their minds, the sight of black faces among the defenders was an added insult. The volatile mixture of racial animosity, long-simmering feuds with Tennessee Unionists, reports of atrocities committed against their own women and children, lingering embarrassment from the Paducah raid, physical exhaustion, battle excitement and fear for their own lives produced a brief but deadly spasm of vengefulness.
In the swirling confusion inside the fort the situation rapidly degenerated. Before Forrest could mount up and ride into the fort to restore order, an unknown number of Union troops reportedly were shot down while attempting to surrender. Meanwhile, the fort’s American flag still flew above the ramparts, and Confederates below the bluff had no way of knowing what was going on inside the fort. As DeWitt Clinton Fort noted in his diary after the battle: ‘The wildest confusion prevailed among those who had run down the bluff. Many of them had thrown down their arms while running and seemed desirous to surrender while many others had carried their guns with them and were loading and firing back up the bluff at us with a desperation which seemed worse than senseless. We could only stand there and fire until the last man of them was ready to surrender.’
Forrest himself, in a little-known postwar interview with fellow Confederate general Dabney H. Maury, supported Fort’s contention. ‘When we got into the fort the white flag was shown at once,’ Forrest said in an article published in the Philadelphia Weekly Times. ‘The negroes ran out down to the river and although the [white] flag was flying, they kept on turning back and shooting at my men, who consequently continued to fire into them crowded on the brink of the river, and they killed a good many of them in spite of my efforts and those of their officers to stop them. But there was no deliberate intention nor effort to massacre the garrison as has been so generally reported by the Northern papers.’
Within half an hour the battle was over. Of the fort’s total garrison of 580 men, some 354 apparently were killed or wounded (final figures are still hotly disputed). Of these, a large number drowned while attempting to swim to the Union vessels that were steaming away without them. Another 226 were taken prisoner, including Bradford, who was shot and killed a few days later while attempting to escape.
After the battle, a congressional committee chaired by radical Republican Senator Benjamin F. Wade of Ohio issued a highly charged report accusing Forrest and his men of ‘an indiscriminate slaughter, sparing neither age nor sex, white or black, soldier or civilian.’ The fact that no women or children were killed at the fort, and only one civilian (who had taken up arms at the time of the attack), did not deter Wade’s committee, whose chief aim was not to determine the truth but to deliver a piece of wartime propaganda intended to incite the restive Northern public on the eve of Ulysses S. Grant’s long-awaited spring offensive. The report, virtually useless as an evidentiary document, did succeed in tarring Forrest and his men with the label of murderers, and the capture of Fort Pillow quickly became known as a ‘massacre.’ It remains so identified today, an explosive and imprecise term that sheds much heat–but little light–on one of the murkiest and most controversial episodes of the Civil War.
This article was written by Roy Morris, Jr. and originally appeared in America’s Civil War magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to America’s Civil War magazine today!
This Civil War earthwork and battleground occupies a Mississippi River bluff in Lauderdale County. Late in the spring of 1861 Confederate troops from Arkansas built a battery at the site to control a bend in the river. Major General Gideon Pillow subsequently ordered the construction of a thirty-acre enclosure with numerous batteries below, in, and atop the bluff. It soon took on his name.
When upriver defenses crumbled in early 1862, Brigadier General John Villepigue arrived with reinforcements and a ram fleet to prepare the fort for action. On April 13 a Confederate gunboat fleet retreated to Fort Pillow. A superior Federal flotilla followed and anchored near Osceola, Arkansas, exchanging artillery fire with the fort. Neither side did much damage both forces sent most infantrymen to participate in the Corinth, Mississippi, campaign.
On May 10 Captain James Montgomery’s Confederate ram fleet surprised the ships under Captain Charles Davis in the nearly bloodless battle of Plum Bend. The rams fled after sinking two gunboats, which were soon raised and repaired. Federal Brigadier General Isaac Quimby then arrived with troops to storm the fort but quickly abandoned the effort. Next, Colonel Charles Ellet arrived with army rams and tried to attack the Confederate fleet, only to be driven back by the fort’s artillery. As a result of the Confederate retreat from Corinth, Villepigue evacuated the fort by June 4.
The Federal army irregularly used the site until fall 1862, when a garrison of cavalry and mounted infantry began patrolling the area in search of guerrillas, conscription agents, and contraband trade. The navy kept a warship near the fort to support these operations. The fort became a trading center as well as a refuge for runaway slaves and Unionists, but the guerrilla war locked into a stalemate. In early 1864 the fort turned into a recruiting post.
The garrison included some three hundred inexperienced white Unionists and approximately an equal number of African Americans, when some fifteen hundred Confederate veterans under Major General Nathan B. Forrest assaulted the fort on April 12. The gunboat evacuated most civilians and ineffectually shelled the enemy. During morning fighting, the Federals retreated to a small inner fort near the bluff. Calling a truce, Forrest offered to accept the entire garrison as prisoners of war, a significant gesture as the Confederacy did not officially recognize blacks as legitimate soldiers. The Federals refused, and the next Confederate charge broke into the fort. As a result of the intense hostility toward armed blacks and Southern Unionists, discipline among the victors broke down, and many granted no quarter. Deaths totaled 64 percent of the black troops and at least 31 percent of the whites. Forrest alleged that the Federals refused to surrender until most had died Federal survivors claimed that a massacre took place.
Sharp Northern criticism included a congressional report written by Senator Benjamin F. Wade and Representative Daniel W. Gooch. Abandoned after the incident, the site slowly reverted into a wilderness. In 1971 the state acquired it to develop a state historical site known now as the Fort Pillow State Historic Area.
Battle of Fort Pillow, 10 May 1862 - History
By Roy Morris Jr.
When Confederate Maj. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest and his 3,000 battle-hardened troopers rode back into their homeland of West Tennessee in late March 1864, they were not in the best of moods. A horse-gathering raid into Kentucky had netted a haul of 400 horses and mules for a new division of Bluegrass cavalry, but it had also seen the death of Colonel A.P. Thompson during an unsuccessful—and unordered—attack on Union-held Fort Anderson on the Ohio River near Paducah.
Forrest had already withdrawn from the smallpox-ravaged town before the attack, but that did not prevent pro-Northern newspapers from crowing about the comparatively minor skirmish at Forrest’s expense. The Louisville Journal, labeling the Paducah raid an abject failure, charged that Forrest’s men had been “gloriously drunk, and but little better than a mob.” The paper accused the raiders of “commencing an indiscriminate pillage of the houses” before making “several desperate charges” upon the fort. “The Federals met them with a withering fire, and in each onset the rebel columns were broken and driven back in confusion.”
That was bad enough, but the staunchly abolitionist Chicago Tribune leveled the explosive accusation that Forrest’s men had “skedaddled, after killing as many Negroes as they could, which seems to have been their primary object in coming to Paducah.” Even worse in Southern eyes was the newspaper’s provocative claim that Forrest and his men had been “ignominiously beaten back by Negro soldiers with clubbed muskets.” Further rubbing salt into the wound were false reports that Colonel Thompson, a well-liked young officer, had been killed by a musket ball to the forehead fired by “an ardent young African.” (Actually, Thompson was killed by a shell from a Union gunboat.)
To a man, Forrest’s soldiers seethed at the bogus reporting, which neglected to mention the surrender of a Federal detachment at Union City, a crossroads village in northwestern Tennessee, earlier in the raid. There, Colonel William L. Duckworth, posing as Forrest, had bluffed garrison commander Colonel Isaac Hawkins into capitulating without a fight. Hawkins, despite holding a strong opposition, had handed over himself and 500 other Union soldiers along with 300 horses and $60,000 in greenbacks that the garrison had recently received in pay. The Confederates joked afterward that they would be happy to parole Hawkins in order to obtain more horses and equipment the next time they needed them.
The Atrocities of Fielding Hurst
Riding back into their home state—Forrest and most of his men were native West Tennesseans—the returning horsemen were besieged by their hard-pressed friends and neighbors to do something about ongoing Federal abuses in the area. Two years of Union occupation interspersed with Confederate raids and counterraids had spawned a poisonous atmosphere of revenge and reprisal that hung over the entire region like an evil cloud. “The whole of West Tennessee,” Forrest reported angrily, “is overrun by bands and squads of robbers, horse thieves and deserters, whose depredations and unlawful appropriations of private property are rapidly and effectually depleting the country.” The land itself, usually green and fertile in the spring, was picked over and brown, dotted with burned farmhouses and ruined barns.
Making camp at Jackson, Forrest received a delegation of local residents who brought word of an ongoing campaign of plunder, blackmail, and destruction by a regiment of “renegade Tennesseans” led by Colonel Fielding Hurst of the 6th Tennessee (U.S.) Cavalry. According to the townsfolk, Hurst had demanded and gotten a sum of $5,139.25 from Jackson residents in return for a promise not to burn the town to the ground. The sum was precisely, to the penny, the amount Hurst had been fined by authorities in Memphis for destroying a local woman’s property during a previous raid.
Even worse than Hurst’s extortion demands, Forrest learned, was the colonel’s brutal treatment of several Forrest subordinates who had returned to their hometowns to recruit new soldiers for the Confederate cause. Hurst had murdered seven of the recruiters in the past two months, including a well-liked young lieutenant named Willis Dodds, who had been killed less than two weeks earlier at his father’s home in Henderson County. According to reports, Dodds had been tortured to death and “most horribly mutilated, the face having been skinned, the nose cut off, the under jaw disjoined, the privates cut off, and the body otherwise barbarously lacerated and most wantonly injured.”
A furious Forrest issued a proclamation formally labeling Hurst and his troopers as outlaws and declaring that they were “not entitled to be treated as prisoners of war falling into the hands of the forces of the Confederate states.” Instead, he said, Hurst’s men would be shot down summarily whenever and wherever they were captured. Union authorities in Memphis warned Hurst “against allowing your men to straggle or pillage, as a deviation from this rule may prove fatal to yourself and your command.”
“Homemade Yankees” of Fort Pillow
The Jackson delegation also told Forrest about another “nest of outlaws” currently holed up in an abandoned Confederate fortification, Fort Pillow, overlooking the Mississippi River 40 miles due north of Memphis. These Unionists, members of the 13th Tennessee Cavalry, were under the command of Major William F. Bradford, another West Tennessee Unionist from Forrest’s namesake home county of Bedford. The unit contained many “homemade Yankees,” former Confederates who had joined forces with the occupying Federals. The turncoat cavalrymen were roundly detested by Forrest’s men, many of whose families reportedly had been victimized by Bradford’s men through threats, abuses, and outright thievery. “Under the pretense of scouring the country for arms and rebel soldiers,” Forrest reported, Bradford had “traversed the surrounding country with detachments, robbing the people of their horses, mules, beef cattle, beds, plates, wearing apparel, money, and every possible movable article of value, besides venting upon the wives and daughters of Southern soldiers the most opprobrious and obscene epithets, with more than one extreme outraged upon the persons of these victims of their hate and lust.” It was the worst charge that could be leveled against a supposed gentleman of the time, and it virtually demanded immediate revenge.
Union-held Fort Anderson, near Paducah, Kentucky, withstood an earlier attack by Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry.
Promising to attend to the Federals at Fort Pillow “in a day or two,” Forrest ordered Brig. Gen. James Chalmers to bring up the rest of the cavalry corps from its base camp in northern Mississippi. Chalmers, a diminutive attorney in civilian life—his men affectionately called him “Little Un”—quickly obeyed. The first order of business was dealing with the much hated Hurst and his renegade Tennesseans. On March 29, Forrest subordinate Colonel James J. Neely trailed Hurst to Bolivar, Tennessee, and overran his camp with a swift surprise attack. As Chalmers reported later, “Colonel Neely met the traitor Hurst at Bolivar, after a short conflict, in which we killed and captured 75 prisoners of the enemy, drove Hurst hatless into Memphis and captured all his wagons, ambulances and papers, as well as his mistresses, both black and white.” As subsequent events at Fort Pillow would prove, Hurst got off lightly with the mere loss of his hat and his girlfriends.
To lock Federal forces into place while he advanced on Fort Pillow, Forrest sent Colonel Abraham Buford back to Paducah, Kentucky, to seize the remaining 140 U.S. horses that Northern newspapers had bragged about the Rebels missing on their last go-round. Forrest also ordered Neely to pin down the Union garrison at Memphis. Meanwhile, Forrest personally headed west toward Fort Pillow with the remainder of his formidable command in a driving rainstorm. The bad weather did not improve the soldiers’ moods.
“I Can Hold the Post Against Any Force For Forty-Eight Hours.”
Fort Pillow, constructed in 1861 on the east bank of the Mississippi River, was named after Confederate Brig. Gen. Gideon Pillow, another native Tennessean. It stood immediately below the intersection of the river and Coal (or Cold) Creek and featured three lines of earthen entrenchments—a semicircular outer line of earthworks, a shorter second line atop a prominent hill, and the fort itself, with earthworks six to eight feet high and four to six feet across. A 12-foot-wide, six-foot-deep trench fronted the fort. The fort’s earthworks extended in a 125-yard-wide semicircle, behind which the land fell away rapidly to the river. Deep ravines crisscrossed the landscape in front of the fort, and four rows of barracks stood on an open terrace of land southwest of the bastion.
The fort had been abandoned by the Confederates after the fall of Corinth, Mississippi, in May 1862. Since then, Union forces had occupied the stronghold intermittently without bothering to strengthen or expand it beyond throwing up some more rifle pits and gun platforms. The presence of the Union gunboat New Era, anchored just offshore and commanded by Captain James Marshall, added to the defenders’ false sense of security. As Forrest advanced implacably toward it, Fort Pillow now was garrisoned by 580 soldiers in three separate units. The 13th Cavalry, under Major Bradford, had quartered there for the past two months while recruiting new members and continuing to terrorize Confederate sympathizers in the region. Bradford’s force was joined by two African American artillery units—the 6th U.S. Heavy Artillery and the 2nd U.S. Light Artillery, manning six pieces of artillery. The ill-starred black gunners had only been at the fort for two weeks and had taken no part in the cavalry’s ongoing depredations. Fairly or not, they would share in the blame.
Fort Pillow’s garrison was commanded by Major Lionel F. Booth, a Philadelphia native and Regular Army veteran of the Battle of Wilson’s Creek. His appointment did not sit well with Bradford, who was also a major but was a few weeks shy of Booth in seniority. In truth, neither of the officers nor their men should have been there at all. Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman, who needed every available man for his upcoming Atlanta campaign, had pointedly ordered rear-echelon commanders to abandon strategically unimportant forts such as Fort Pillow. But Memphis-based Maj. Gen. Stephen Hurlbut had ignored Sherman’s order and sent Bradford’s and Booth’s men into the fort anyway. The suspicion, although never proved, was that Hurlbut was involved in the lucrative cotton-smuggling trade—Northern mills were paying up to 80 cents per pound for cotton—and was using Fort Pillow as a convenient distribution point. If so, Hurlbut’s subordinates would eventually pay for his suspected transgressions.
Whatever his reasons for reoccupying the fort, Hurlbut assured Booth that he would withdraw the garrison as soon as he learned that Forrest was preparing to attack it. In the meantime, Hurlbut advised Booth to keep a sharp eye out for Forrest and his men, who were reportedly already moving into the area. Booth was either extremely confident or extremely careless. Things were quiet for 30 or 40 miles around Fort Pillow, he assured Hurlbut. “I think it is perfectly safe. I can hold the post against any force for forty-eight hours.” Events would soon prove him tragically wrong on both counts.
The Union gunboat New Era, shown under construction in St. Louis in 1861, proved little help to the desperate defenders of Fort Pillow. Captain James Marshall pulled back into the middle of the river, away from harm’s way, during the final Confederate assault.
Forrest Discover’s Fort Pillow’s Weakness
Forrest rendezvoused with Chalmers at Brownsville, 38 miles east of Fort Pillow, on the afternoon of April 11. He directed Chalmers to head for Fort Pillow as early as possible the next morning. Chalmers, well schooled in Forrest’s maxims of speed, obedience, and decisiveness, headed out the next day at 6 am. Colonels Robert McCulloch and Tyree Bell, commanding Chalmers’ two brigades, soon made contact with Federal pickets outside the fort. Captain Frank J. Smith of the 2nd Missouri, leading the Confederate advance, sent his men creeping around behind the pickets to pick them off. Only a handful of pickets managed to make it back to the fort with the unwelcome news that Forrest’s Rebels had suddenly appeared as if out of thin air.
Forrest’s veteran fighters quickly consolidated their position. The Federal defenders, with characteristic laxity, had failed to man the outer works, allowing the Southern troopers to concentrate their fire on the inner line of works. Sharpshooters quickly moved into place behind fallen logs, tree stumps and thick underbrush, and atop high knolls overlooking the fort. They began pouring devastating volleys into the surprised Union ranks, concentrating on the officers. “We suffered pretty severely in the loss of commissioned officers by the unerring aim of the rebel sharpshooters,” Lieutenant Mack J. Leaming of the 13th Tennessee reported later. Among the first to fall was Major Booth, who had been strolling incautiously between the fort’s two battery ports when he was fatally struck by a rifle bullet to the chest. His death, reported at 9 am, abruptly left the fort under the command of the comparatively inexperienced Bradford, who now had the position he had wanted from the first. Doubtless, he would have wished for better timing.
Forrest arrived on the field an hour later and, as was his wont, immediately undertook a personal reconnaissance of the scene. By this time Chalmers’ men had captured the second line of works and invested the fort itself. Fire from inside the battlements killed two of Forrest’s horses, the second rearing up abruptly and falling backward onto the furious general, badly bruising his leg and doing little to improve his disposition. Forrest’s adjutant, Captain Charles W. Anderson, suggested mildly that the general complete his reconnaissance on foot, but Forrest told him in no uncertain terms that he was “just as apt to be hit one way as another, and that he could see better where he was.” Forrest skulked from no man.
A well-turned-out artilleryman in the
United States Colored Troops (USCT).
Two African American units, the 6th U.S. Heavy Artillery and the 2nd U.S. Light Artillery, were stationed at Fort Pillow.
With his experienced eye, it did not take Forrest long to pinpoint Fort Pillow’s fatal flaws. Not only did the numerous ravines provide perfect cover for his men, allowing them to approach as near as 25 yards without detection, but the Union artillery pieces could not be depressed sharply enough to fire at the enemy with any success. Anderson summed up the morning’s findings: “The width or thickness of the works across the top prevented the garrison from firing down on us, as it could only be done by mounting and exposing themselves to the unerring aim of our sharpshooters, posted behind stumps and logs and all the neighboring hills. They were also unable to depress their artillery so as to rake these slopes with grape and canister, and so far as safety was concerned, we were as well fortified as they were the only difference was that they were on one side and we on the other of the same fortification. They had no sharpshooters with which to annoy our main force, while ours sent a score of bullets at every head that appeared above the walls. It was perfectly apparent to any man endowed with the smallest amount of common sense that to all intents and purposes the fort was ours.” Unfortunately for the defenders, common sense was in short supply that day.
282 Shells From New Era
Bradford, the new commander, apparently believed that he could either hold out until reinforcements arrived in the form of two troop ships steaming up from Memphis, or he could somehow bluff Nathan Bedford Forrest into withdrawing. Bradford had read the misleading newspaper accounts of the Paducah incident Forrest didn’t read newspapers.
From their concealed vantage points, the Confederates continued to blaze away at the Federals huddling ineffectually behind their breastworks. Meanwhile, McCulloch’s men moved into position among the barracks huts southwest of the fort that the hastily retreating soldiers had failed to set afire. At the northern end of the fort, Colonel Clark R. Barteau’s 2nd Tennessee Regiment moved into place in a deep ravine below Coal Creek. The creek, swollen by heavy rains and backwater from the river, was completely impassable. The fort, with its back to the river, was literally surrounded by water.
With Forrest’s riflemen keeping the defenders pinned down inside the fort, Captain Marshall brought New Era briefly into the fray, her guns sending 282 shells into the Confederate ranks before backing away from the bluff at 1 pm to avoid continuing sniper fire. Few of the shells did any real damage to the attackers—if anything, they merely angered the Southerners even more.
Forrest’s Offer of Surrender to Fort Pillow
Forrest called a temporary halt to the firing while he waited for his ammunition train to catch up to the main body. The wagons, forced to struggle through churned-up dirt roads from Brownsville, finally reached the outskirts of the fort at 3:30. Unaware that Booth was already long dead, Forrest sent a trio of messengers into the fort under a flag of truce. The three, Captains Walker A. Goodman and Thomas Henderson and Lieutenant Frank Rodgers, bore the usual implacable Forrest surrender demand. “The conduct of the officers and men garrisoning Fort Pillow has been such as to entitle them to be treated as prisoners of war,” Forrest wrote. “I demand the unconditional surrender of this garrison, promising that you shall be treated as prisoners of war. My men have received a fresh supply of ammunition, and from their present position can easily assault and capture the fort. Should my demand be refused, I cannot be responsible for the fate of your command.”
Thinking quickly, Forrest’s attackers boost themselves over the wall at Fort Pillow on each other’s shoulders. The attackers, said Union survivors, seemed to spring out of the very ground itself.
Forrest, who had made millions as a slave trader before the war, was always unyielding in his surrender demands. He knew how to bluff and how to bargain. One aspect of the current note surprised Forrest’s own officers. Standard Confederate procedure was to treat former slaves as recovered property, not prisoners of war. There were a number of such former slaves in the two black units at Fort Pillow. Despite dealing from an overwhelming position of strength, Forrest was apparently granting the defenders a significant concession. “There was some discussion about it among the officers present,” noted Goodman, “and it was asked whether it was intended to include the Negro soldiers as well as the white, to which both General Forrest and General Chalmers replied that it was so intended and that if the fort surrendered the whole garrison, white and black, should be treated as prisoners of war.”
Forrest was not typically motivated by excessive feelings of mercy toward the enemy, but he may have wanted to avoid needless casualties to his own troops by unilaterally eliminating the necessity on the part of the African American soldiers to hold out to the last man. If so, his pragmatic charity would fall on deaf ears—specifically Major Bradford’s, which were the only ears that mattered. Later described as “too brave for his own good,” Bradford falsely responded to Forrest’s note under Booth’s name and requested an hour’s time to make his decision.
“I Will Not Surrender”
The usually wily Forrest agreed but immediately regretted his decision when he observed two new Union steamers, Olive Branch and Liberty, hastening upriver toward the fort. The first ship was loaded down with Union soldiers and artillery. Forrest immediately dispatched two squads of riflemen to the bluffs above and below the fort to prevent any enemy reinforcements from landing. “Shoot at everything blue betwixt wind and water,” he ordered. Inexplicably, Captain Marshall, as overall commander of naval forces in the area, told the two boats to pass by without attempting to relieve Fort Pillow, and they proceeded on to Cairo, Illinois, blithely unaware of the fire and brimstone about to descend upon the fort and its beleaguered defenders.
Alarmed and angered by the apparent attempt to land Union reinforcements at Fort Pillow while under a flag of truce, Forrest sent a new message to Booth (actually Bradford) demanding that he make his decision within the next 20 minutes. Bradford conferred with the other officers in camp and sent word to Forrest stating vaguely, “Your demand does not produce the desired result.” Forrest did not have the time or patience for subtle word games. “Send it back, and say to Mayor Booth that I must have an answer in plain English,” Forest said. “Yes or no.” Booth, of course, was beyond answering, but Bradford, still posing as Booth, returned a blunt new reply: “General: I will not surrender. Very respectfully, your obedient servant, L.F. Booth, commanding U.S. forces, Fort Pillow.” To a worried physician trapped inside the fort with the soldiers, Bradford gave a simple reason for his refusal to surrender. “My name is not Hawkins,” he said, alluding to the much-derided surrender by Colonel Isaac Hawkins at Union City two weeks earlier.
Panicky Union troopers break for the Mississippi River as Confederates overrun their tent camp and fire into their ranks at Fort Pillow. Most of the casualties occurred during the confused flight to the river.
Amazed and annoyed at the response, Forrest wasted no more time in mounting an attack. He signaled bugler Jacob Gaus to sound the charge, then retired to a hill 400 yards away to watch the assault. The bugle notes had scarcely drifted away on the breeze before the Confederate sharpshooters unleashed another devastating blast at the fort’s parapets to cover the attack. The flummoxed defenders were unable to so much as raise their heads above the works for fear they would be shot off their shoulders. Meanwhile, Forrest’s men sprang from concealment in the ravines and behind the barracks huts and tore across the remaining few yards to the ditch surrounding the fort.
Boiling into the ditch like a swarm of angry hornets, the Confederates began boosting one another onto the outer ledge below the fort’s wall. Lieutenant Leaming, who left behind the only official Union report of the battle, said the attackers seemed to “rise from out of the very earth.” Virtually unopposed, they leaped onto the top of the wall and began blasting away at the cowering Federals, many of whom reportedly were intoxicated after emptying barrels of whiskey that Bradford had ill-advisedly put out prior to the final assault. If he had hoped to strengthen the defenders’ resolve, Bradford had badly miscalculated. Tennessee-born Captain DeWitt Clinton Fort, in the forefront of the attack despite having been born with a club foot, observed the enemy’s reaction. “As we charged over the ramparts,” reported Fort, “the enemy’s garrison of mixed complexion retreated over the bluff down to the water’s edge. Here was assembled one wild promiscuous mass rendered senseless and uncontrollable by the three causes—fright, drunkenness, and desperation.” It was a potent—and ultimately fatal—mix.
Fort Pillow’s congressional investigator Benjamin Wade.
“Boys, Save Your Lives!”
The terrified defenders, black and white, broke and ran for the open rear of the fort. One African American artilleryman, Private John Kennedy of the 2nd U.S. Colored Light Artillery, heard Bradford shout, “Boys, save your lives!” No one needed the advice. Kennedy urged Bradford to “let us fight yet,” but the major, seeing Confederate attackers pouring in from all directions, said despairingly, “It is of no use anymore.” The demoralized commander fled to the rear with the majority of his remaining troops.
Behind him, the interior of the fort was a scene of mass confusion. Some of the Federals threw down their weapons and attempted to surrender, while others continued firing. Still others simply ran away, spilling over the brow of the bluff and sliding down the vine-choked bank toward the river. Bradford and Marshall had worked out a prearranged signal for New Era to steam closer to the bank at the first sign of trouble and “give the Rebels canister.” But now, in the midst of the developing rout, Marshall unaccountably flinched. To Bradford’s horrified consternation, Marshall swung the gunboat away from the shore and began backing into the middle of the river. (In highly questionable testimony before a congressional committee a few months later, Marshall said weakly that he had abandoned the plan because he was afraid the Confederates “might hail in a steamboat from below, capture her, put on four or five hundred men, and come after me.” Marshall was no one’s idea of John Paul Jones.) Meanwhile, unhampered by return fire, Forrest’s marksmen stationed above and below the fort caught the retreating Federals at point-blank range and enfiladed the frantic fugitives.
Pandemonium reigned inside Fort Pillow. The enraged Confederates, most of whom had ridden all night to the outskirts of the fort, run and sniped under enemy fire all morning, and then waited anxiously in the hot afternoon sun for the final assault to begin, were in no mood to be forgiving. To a man they believed the Federals had been fools for rejecting Forrest’s generous surrender offer. That refusal had cost them another 100 good men, dead or wounded, in the interim. The sight of African American soldiers at the fort was an added insult to the white-supremacist Southerners, who seethed at the racially motivated gibes from some of the defiant, if overconfident, defenders.
Slaughter in Fort Pillow
Many extraneous factors now came to a head. The volatile mixture of racial animosity, long-simmering feuds with white Tennessee Unionists, reports of atrocities committed against their own women and children by those same Unionists, lingering embarrassment over the Paducah raid, physical exhaustion, battle excitement, and fear for their own lives produced a brief but deadly spasm of revenge. Given the prevailing racial politics of the time, the African American soldiers who had so recently been assigned to the fort and who had taken no part in the earlier outrages, now suffered the brunt of the blame.
Fort Pillow’s congressional investigators Daniel Gooch.
In the swirling confusion inside the fort, the situation rapidly deteriorated. Before Forrest could mount up and ride into the fort to restore order, an untold number of Union troops were shot down attempting to surrender. Others continued to shoot back, further adding to the chaos. The fort’s Union flag still flew above the ramparts, and Confederates below the bluff had no way of knowing what was going on inside the fort. As Dewitt Clint Fort noted in his diary after the battle, “The wildest confusion prevailed among those who had run down the bluff. Many of them had thrown down their arms while running and seemed desirous to surrender while many others had carried their guns with them and were loading and firing back up the bluff at us with a desperation which seemed worse than senseless. We could only stand there and fire until the last man of them was ready to surrender.”
Other observers, Union and Confederate, told a more lurid tale of the fighting. Fellow Southerner Achilles V. Clark of the 20th Tennessee Cavalry reported in a letter home that “the slaughter was awful. Words cannot describe the scene. The poor deluded Negroes would run up to our men, fall upon their knees and with uplifted hands scream for mercy, but they were ordered to their feet and then shot down. The white men fared little better.” Private George Shaw of the 6th USCHA alleged that he had been wounded after trying to surrender. Shaw said he heard a Confederate soldier shout, as he was raising his rifle, “Damn you, you are fighting against your master!”
Other African American soldiers told similar horrifying stories. Private Benjamin Robinson told government investigators that he saw the Confederates “shoot two white men right by the side of me after they had laid their guns down.” Fellow private Ransom Anderson testified that he was slashed with a bayonet while lying on the ground after surrendering and that he observed another member of B Company, Coolie Rice, “stabbed by a rebel soldier with a bayonet and the bayonet broken off in his body.” White Union cavalryman Daniel Stamps later testified that “while I was standing at the bottom of the hill, I heard a rebel officer shout out an order of some kind to the men who had taken us, and saw a Rebel soldier standing by me. I asked him what the officer had said. It was ‘kill the last damn one of them.’ The soldier replied to his officer that we had surrendered, that we were prisoners and must not be shot. The officer again replied, seeming crazy with rage that he had not been obeyed, ‘I tell you to kill the last God damned one of them.’”
Whoever—if anyone—had issued such an order, it was apparently not Forrest. Chalmers told a captured Union officer the next day that he and Forrest had “stopped the massacre as soon as we were able to do so.” Another Confederate at the scene, Surgeon Samuel H. Caldwell of the 16th Tennessee Cavalry, wrote to his wife on April 15, “If General Forrest had not run between our men & the Yanks with his pistol and sabre drawn not a man would have been spared.” Brigade commander Colonel Tyree Bell blamed what he called “promiscuous firing” by Forrest’s men on the drunken, panicky behavior of the enemy. “The drunken condition of the garrison and the failure of Colonel Bradford to surrender, thus necessitating the assault, were the causes of the fatality,” Bell told Forrest biographer John A. Wyeth 35 years later.
By 10 am, Forrest’s experienced troopers had crashed through the lightly defended outer ring at Fort Pillow and invested the fort in a semi-circular iron ring. No one could believe the Federals would refuse to surrender.
Killing Captain Bradford
Within half an hour the battle was over. Of the fort’s total garrison of 580 men, some 354 apparently were killed or wounded. Final figures are still hotly disputed. Of these, a large number drowned while attempting to swim out to the Union vessels that were steaming away without them. Another 226 were taken prisoner, including Bradford, who emerged from the river dripping and shivering and was taken to Colonel McCulloch’s tent for safety. McCulloch allowed Bradford to temporarily leave his custody to superintend the burial of his brother, Captain Theodorick Bradford, who had been killed at Fort Pillow. Instead of returning to camp, Bradford attempted to escape only to be recaptured wearing civilian clothes near Covington, Tennessee. Two days later he was taken into the woods near Brownsville and shot by his guards. “A great many of the soldiers in Forrest’s command felt that they had a personal grievance against this man,” Forrest biographer Wyeth observed somewhat mildly. “It was not a matter of great surprise that opportunity was taken to exact private revenge upon him at this time.” The fact that Bradford was captured in civilian disguise gave at least a patina of legality to his execution.
“Remember Fort Pillow!”
Almost immediately, word spread across both the North and the South that Forrest and his men had conducted a virtual massacre at the fort. Forrest’s exultant first report, three days after the battle, encouraged such a reading. “The victory was complete,” he announced. “The river was dyed with the blood of the slaughtered for 200 yards. It is hoped that these facts will demonstrate to the Northern people that Negro soldiers cannot cope with Southerners.” Chalmers echoed those sentiments. The Confederate victory at Fort Pillow, he said, “had taught the mongrel garrison of blacks and renegades a lesson long to be remembered.”
Within a week, the Federal government mounted a well-publicized investigation into the “massacre” at Fort Pillow. A special subcommittee of the U.S. Congress’s Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War hurried to Tennessee to take—and sometimes invent—eyewitness accounts of the battle and its aftermath. The committee, chaired by radical Republican Senator Benjamin F. Wade of Ohio, issued a highly charged report accusing Forrest and his men of engaging in “an indiscriminate slaughter, sparing neither age or sex, white or black, soldier or civilian.” The fact that no women or children were killed at the fort and only one civilian (who had taken up arms at the time of the attack), did not deter Wade’s committee from releasing its findings as fact. The partisan report was useless as an evidentiary document, but it was inarguable that the vast majority of Union soldiers killed at Fort Pillow, either during or immediately after the battle, were black. Of the 262 African American soldiers at the fort, only 58—or 22 percent—were taken away as prisoners, as opposed to 168 white prisoners, nearly three times as many.
This sensationalized image of Confederates massacring African American soldiers at Fort Pillow was published in the April 30, 1864, issue of Harper’s Weekly. Only 58 black soldiers, less than one in four, survived the battle.
Forrest himself, in a little known postwar interview with fellow Confederate general Dabney H. Maury in the Philadelphia Weekly Times, went to some pains to mitigate his role in the battle. “When we got into the fort the white flag was shown at once,” Forrest said. “The Negroes ran out down to the river, and although the white flag was flying, they kept on turning back and shooting at my men, who consequently continued to fire into them crowded on the brink of the river, and they killed a good many of them in spite of my efforts, and those of their officers to stop them. But there was no deliberate intention nor effort to massacre the garrison as has been so generally reported by the Northern papers.”
Deliberate or not, the casualty figures at Fort Pillow would linger over Forrest for the remainder of the war, even after William Tecumseh Sherman—surely no Confederate apologist—determined that there was no cause for further investigation or retaliation. “Let the soldiers affected make their own rules as we progress,” Sherman told Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. “We will use their own logic against the enemy as we have from the beginning of the war.” Subsequently, the battle cry “Remember Fort Pillow!” would rise from Union soldiers’ lips for the remainder of the war. In many ways, it is still echoing today.
Battle of Fort Pillow, 10 May 1862 - History
The Confederate Casualties of
Battle of Fort Pillow
April 12, 1864
Fort Pillow, Tennessee
Original list obtained from Park Ranger at Fort Pillow State Historic Park
Individual Service Records obtained from NARA National Archives
The original list of 95 casualties was provided by the Park Ranger of Fort Pillow Historical Park. He could not provide a reference source for this list. In my opinion, this list could have been compiled by a historian several years after the battle. The list was typed with corrections and he included one sheet of the original hand-written list. The official records and many sources report the casualties as being 14 killed and either 60 or 80 wounded. After researching reference books and the National Archives(NARA), this list has been revised and expanded. Now it includes details on many of the soldiers including those who died of later from their wounds, such as Lt.-Col Reid.
The Battle of Fort Pillow was part of General Forrest's raid into western Tennessee in 1864. Fort Pillow was the first river fort north of Memphis but was abandoned by the Confederates in June 1862. By 1864, the Union had only 550 troops at the fort when General Forrest attacked it with 1500 Confederates. The Union troops hoped to hold out until gunboats came down the river with infantry and artillery support. The result was that more than half of the Union troops were killed and most of these were black. Thus it became known as the "Fort Pillow Massacre". The purpose of this webpage is not to discuss the causes and effects but to give an accounting of the cost of this battle. For an accounting of the Union casualties and wounded, go to Union Casualties.
This original list has been retained in the original order and with incorrect information that allows the reader to determine its validity. Changes have been made to the list and the reference sources added using symbols in the last column. There are many changes but over all the list is very accurate.
Contributing Genealogist Researchers: Nancy Cole Douglas and Gary Cole
|Chalmer's Division||< 2nd BRIGADE >|| |
|2 Missouri Cav|
|1||GILMORE ||George W. ||2-Lt ||I / G||2 Missouri||Wounded||Seriously- In shoulder. |
Through right breast.
| [ 2M] |
|2||HAISLIP ||Thomas W. ||Pvt||A||2 Missouri||Killed||______|| [ 2M] |
|3||BROYLES ||Robert H.||Pvt||A||2 Missouri||Wounded ||Dangerously- Upper lobe |
of lung. "Mortally Wounded on the walls" Left in Tenn, Died April 30, 1864
| [ 2M] |
|4||CHANEY||Cephus J. A.|
Names are spelled as found in archives and census records. Alternates are shown crossed out or in Blue .
. indicates the names in the original roster has not been confirmed by NARA records or other sources.
The original list has been edited for corrections and re-arranged to depict the organization of the brigades.
An explanation of the identify and history of the cavalry units are explained below .
See Organization, below, for organization of units.
The following text was entered in List before the heading "2nd Division".
"The 18th Miss Battalion was in the engagement but has not been reported as yet.
W. R. Hodprach - Chf. Surg.
Chalmers Div., Forrests Cavl."
Willis' Texas Battalion was orginally part of Waul's Texas Legion consisting of infantry, 6 companies of cavarly and artillery. Later the cavalry were seperated and identified by its commander, Colonel Leonidas Willis .
Duff's Battalion began as 19 Battalion Mississippi Cavalry and was later identified as 8 Mississippi Cavalry . Commander was Lt-Col. William L. Duff.
18 Miss Cavalry was also known as 18 Battalion Mississippi Cavalry. It was commanded by Maj. A. H. Chalmers, brother to General J. R. Chalmers .
15 Tenn Cavalry - The records for the soldiers listed above as being with this unit were actually members of 20th (Russell's) Tenn Cavalry . The 1 5th (Stewart-Logwood's) Tennesse Cavalry was later supplemented by men from several of the Tennesse regiments . Commander was Col. Francis M. Stewart.
16 Tenn or Wilson's Cavalry was also known as 21 (Wilson's) Tenn Cavalry was formed in Feb. 1864. It merged with 21 Tenn Cavalry or Barteau's Cavalry . Commander was Col. Andrew L. Wilson.
2nd Tenn Cavalry later became known as the 22nd Tenn Cavalry or Barteau's Cavalry .
For these statistics, KIA are those who had died by April 13th. General Forrest had reported Lt-Col. Reed
as a KIA, but he was mortally wounded and died in Jackson.
* Includes 3 soldiers on the original list but were not confirmed by NARA records.
This website has info on men who served in the 20th Tennessee Cavalry with data from National Archive records for individual soldiers. This site has names of soldiers wounded or killed at Fort Pillow who match with the names on the above roster only the unit is different. Most of the ones listed above as being in 15th Tenn were included in the roster for 20th Tennessee Cavalry.
Excerpts from two records:
J. Cardwell Wilson , Captain, Company F. See Stories
The website for the 20 Tenn Cavalry states he was shot through the lungs at Ft. Pillow "while charging at the head of his company. He was carried by his men on stretchers eighteen miles to Dr. Brodie's, where he died after lingering several days" on April 16, 1864. Two of his men ("Hard" Wilson and Smith Randle) were detailed to wait with him.
This site also confirmed three other names. Quote from site:
"The next day Bell's Brig. moved back to West Tennessee and recruited their stock about 10 days when it was ordered to Fort Pillow. Company A, 15 Tenn. Cav. had two men & one Lieut. wounded slightly, to wit. R.H. Goodman & privates T andy Holman & G.W. Robertson . It was a total loss to the Federals while our loss was comparatively none, only about 15 killed. After the dead were buried and the spoils gathered up we moved back to Brownsville, Tenn . when we were ordered to Miss. On reaching Holly Springs, Miss. we were ordered back to Dyer and Gibson counties where we remained up to 30th of April 1864 conscripting. Wm. Gay, Capt. Co. A, 15 Tenn. Cav. Regt."
External Link: http://www.members.tripod.com/2ndmocavcsa/
This is a site for a re-enactment group but includes a page of Original Roster of the soldiers who served during the war. I was able to match 14 of the 16 soldiers on my list. However two that did match did not have a match with their rank: example, corporal versus captain.
The following names seem to be a match or of interest.
+ John R. BrinkIey - 3rd Corporal. Made 1st Sergeant, at reorganization, replacing Austin. Wounded at Fort
Pillow, TN, April 10, 1864. Left at Brownsville, Tennessee, unable to be moved.
+ J. K. Brinkley (duplicate of above?) - Wounded at Fort Pillow, TN, April 12, 1864. Cared for by Henry A. Brinkley,
+ Henry A. Brinkley - Detailed as nurse for J. K. Brinkley, who was wounded at Fort Pillow, Tennessee.
+ Robert Douglas - Wounded at Fort Pillow, Tennessee, April 12, 1864.
+ James M. Link - Wounded at Fort Pillow, Tennessee, April 12, 1864. Paroled at Gainesville, AL, May 10, 1865.
Compare this to National Archive ( NR ) records that lists a J. C. Brinkley of Co. C, who was left in W. Tenn.
NARA records state Lt-Colonel Leonidas Willis resigned his command on Feb. 4, 1865.
This is a diary of a member of Barteau's 2nd Tennesee Cavalry regiment published in 1877 and is available free on Google Books. In the chapter on Fort Pillow he lists the casualties of the regiment.
The diary gives detail of one of the casualties as follows:
" William Duke 's leg was broken near the ankle joint by a firle-ball, and after examination and conultation our surgeons decided to amputate his foot. As soon as Duke learned their decision he called on D. B. Willard ( a member of Company C who carried him from the field) to hand him his pistol, and said, "I'll shoot the first man who attempts to cut off my foot." "If you don't want it cut off it will not be done," said Willard. By request of Duke, Willard made some splinters, and finally the surgeons assisted in bandaging his leg, and the result was he soon got well, and thus saved his foot."
The diary also stated 1st Lt George Leave "fell mortally wounded by a canister-shot". NARA records show a 1st Lt. George Love of Company D was killed.
Walton's Artillery Battery - Mountain Howitzers
(placed in town south of fort.)
The Tennessee State park is a 1,646-acre park located on Mississippi River about 60 miles north of Memphis, TN on Hiway 51 near Henning. The park has an Intrepretive Center & Museum, a Nature Center, campgrounds and hiking trails covering the three tiers of breastworks that was constructed there during the war.
Check out my photos of Fort Pillow State Historic Park at Photos.
Return to Main Menu of Fort Pillow.
"River Run Red" by Andrew Ward, Viking Penguin, 2005. 530 pages.
Sub-title "The Fort Pillow Massacre in the American Civil War". ISBN 0-670-03440-1 .
“The River Was Dyed With Blood Nathan Bedford Forrest & Fort Pillow" , Brian Steel Wills, Unv of Oklahoma Press, 2014 . 274 pages.
“The Artillery of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Cavalry” . John W. Morton, Tennessee Regimentals series.
“The Campaigns of Gen. Nathan B. Forrest” . Gen Thomas Jordan and J. P. Pryor. Da Capo Press, 1996. 736 pages.
"Coming Like Hell!: The Story Of The 12th Tennessee Cavalry" , by Waldon Loving, Writers Press Club, 2002, 230 pages. History of Green's 12 Tennessee Cavalry(CS).
"Brigadier General Tyree H. Bell, C.S.A.: Forrest'S Fighting Lieutenant" , by Nathaniel Cheairs Hughes Jr., Unv Tennessee Press 2004, 360 pages. Col. Bell was Forrest's recruiter in West Tennessee in fall of 1863 and would lead one of his brigades.
“Hancock's Diary” or "A History of the Second Tennesse Cavalry". by R. R. Hancock, Brandon Printing Co, 1887. 644 pages.
to 1865 By an Old Johnnie: Personal Recollections and Experiences in the Confederate Army” , by James Dinkens, Robert Clarke, 1897.
Letters to a Friend” by Captain Dewitt Clinton "Clubfoot" Fort, 2007, 218 pages.
History of the Confederate States published in multiple volumes in 1880's and reprinted in 1950's.
“Confederate Military History: Tennessee”
“Confederate Military History: Mississippi”
“Confederate Military History: Missouri”
"Military History of Mississippi 1803-1898” by Dunbar Rowland. New edition with supplement by H. Grady Howell, Jr. Chickasaw Bayou Press, 2003.
"Military Annals of Tennessee” - Volume 1 - History of each Tennesee unit.
"Military Annals of Tennessee” - Volume 2 - Tabulated list of all soldiers of Tennesee. J. M. Lindsay & Co. 1886, reprinted in 1974.
"Tennesseans in the Civil War" A Military History of Confederate and Union Units - Civil War Centennial Commission 1964.
“ American Civil War Fortifications (3): The Mississippi and River Forts”, by Ron Field, Osprey Publishing 2007, 64 pages. ISBN 978-184603-194-6.
U.S. Congress Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, "Fort Pillow Massacre", House Report No. 65, 38th Congress, 1st Session. [Modern publication by Adena of Eveanston IL.
" 14 Letters to a Friend: the Story of the Wartime Ordeal of Capt. DeWitt "Clubfoot" Fort ". Transcribed by Laurie B. McDonald. Details about Co. G, 2nd Missouri Cavalry. Edinburg, Texas, 2007. ISBN 978-1-60530-979-8
MHQ The Quarterly Journal of Military History Spring 1996, Vol 8 No. 2 : "Kill the Last Damn One of Them" by Noah Andre Trudeau. Published by American Historical Publications, Inc. hardbound. Article on General Forrest and the battle.
The Land We Love Volume III, Number IV, August 1867 : "The 2nd Missouri Cavalry" by By Col. W. H. Brandtle.
“ 12 April: A Civil War Novel" , by Gary Cole, Trafford Publishing 2014 , 658 pages. ISBN 978-1-4907-2440-9.
The following account is quoted from "River Run Red":
Return to Main Menu of Fort Pillow.
Go to List of Killed In Action for an abreviated list.
External Link to Fort Pillow State Historic Park for more on the Park, its museum and a brief history of the battle.
Battle of Fort Pillow - Controversy Surrounds Massacre
The Battle of Fort Pillow, known as the Fort Pillow Massacre, particularly in the North, was fought on April 12, 1864, at Fort Pillow on the Mississippi River in Henning, Tennessee, during the American Civil War. The battle generated great controversy about whether a massacre of surrendered African-American troops was conducted or condoned by Confederate Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Fort Pillow, 40 miles (64 km) north of Memphis, was built by Brigadier General Gideon Johnson Pillow in early 1862 and was used by both sides during the war. With the fall of New Madrid and Island No. 10 to Union forces, Confederate troops evacuated Fort Pillow on June 4, 1862, in order to avoid being cut off from the rest of the Confederate Army. Union forces occupied Fort Pillow on June 6, 1862, and used it to protect the river approach to Memphis.
The fort stood on a high bluff and was protected by three lines of entrenchments arranged in a semicircle, with a protective parapet four feet thick and six to eight feet high surrounded by a ditch. (During the battle, the thick parapet would in fact prove to be a disadvantage to the defenders because they could not fire upon approaching troops without mounting the top of the parapet, subjecting them to enemy fire. Similarly, operators of the six artillery pieces of the fort found it difficult to depress their barrels enough to fire on the attackers once they got close). A Federal gunboat, the USS New Era, commanded by Captain James Marshall, was also available for the defense.
On March 16, 1864, Major General Nathan Bedford 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. Forrest's Cavalry Corps, which he called "the Cavalry Department of West Tennessee and North Mississippi", consisted of the divisions led by Brig. Gens. James R. Chalmers (brigades of Brig. Gen. Robert V. Richardson and Col. Robert M. McCulloch) and Abraham Buford (brigades of Cols. Tyree H. Bell and A. P. Thompson).
The first of the two significant engagements in the expedition was the Battle of Paducah on March 25, and Forrest's men did considerable damage to the town and its military supplies. Numerous skirmishes occurred throughout the region in late March and early April. Needing supplies, Forrest planned to move on Fort Pillow with about 1,500 to 2,500 men. (He had detached part of his command under Buford to strike Paducah again). He wrote on April 4, "There is a Federal force of 500 or 600 at Fort Pillow, which I shall attend to in a day or two, as they have horses and supplies which we need."
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 rather than being treated as a prisoner of war. Some Confederates had threatened to kill any Union black troops they encountered. The white soldiers were predominantly new recruits from the 13th Tennessee Cavalry, a Federal regiment from western Tennessee, commanded by Maj. William F. Bradford.
Forrest arrived at Fort Pillow at 10 a.m. on April 12. By this time Chalmers had already surrounded the fort. A stray bullet struck Forrest's horse, felling the general and bruising him. (This would be the first of three horses he lost that day). He deployed sharpshooters around the higher ground that overlooked the fort, bringing many of the occupants into their direct line of fire. Major Booth was killed by a sharpshooter's bullet to the chest and Bradford assumed command. By 11 a.m., the Confederates had captured two rows of barracks about 150 yards (140 m) 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 3:30 p.m. Forrest sent a note demanding surrender: "I now demand 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." Bradford's final reply was, "I will not surrender." Forrest ordered his bugler to sound the charge.
The Confederate assault was furious. 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. All of this proceeded flawlessly and with very little firing, except from the sharpshooters and around the flanks. Their fire against the New Era caused the sailors to button up their gun ports and hold their fire. 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 rearward 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, and there probably would have been more Union casualties than Confederate if they had fired. 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, from 4 p.m. to dusk, led to the controversy. Union sources claimed that even though the Union troops surrendered, Forrest's men massacred them in cold blood. Surviving members of the garrison said that most of their men surrendered and threw down their arms, only to be shot or bayoneted by the attackers, who repeatedly shouted, "No quarter! No quarter!" 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. A 2002 study by Albert Castel concluded that the Union forces were indiscriminately massacred after Fort Pillow "had ceased resisting or was incapable of resistance."
This was disputed by Lt. Daniel Van Horn of the 6th U. S. Heavy Artillery (Colored) who stated in his official report "There never was a surrender of the fort, both officers and men declaring they never would surrender or ask for quarter."
Forrest's men insisted that the Federals, although fleeing, kept their weapons and frequently turned to shoot, forcing the Confederates to keep firing in self defense.Their claim was substantiated by the numerous Federal rifles that were found on the bluffs near the river (see Jordan, THQ). The Union flag was still flying over the fort, which indicated that the force had not formally surrendered. A contemporary newspaper account from Jackson, Tennessee, states that "General Forrest begged them to surrender," but "not the first sign of surrender was ever given." Similar accounts were reported in both Southern and Northern newspapers at the time.
Later, in his Memoirs, U.S. Grant described the battle this way:
Forrest, however, fell back rapidly, and attacked the troops at Fort Pillow, a station for the protection of the navigation of the Mississippi River. The garrison consisted of a regiment of colored troops, infantry, and a detachment of Tennessee cavalry. These troops fought bravely, but were overpowered. I will leave Forrest in his dispatches to tell what he did with them. "The river was dyed," he says, "with the blood of the slaughtered for two hundred yards. The approximate loss was upward of five hundred killed, but few of the officers escaping. My loss was about twenty killed. It is hoped that these facts will demonstrate to the Northern people that negro soldiers cannot cope with Southerners." Subsequently Forrest made a report in which he left out the part which shocks humanity to read.
The Fort Pillow massacre was one of the worst blots on the record of Confederate troops during the American Civil War. Fort Pillow was located on the Tennessee bank of the Mississippi River, and had fallen into Union hands in May 1862. However, even two years later, and with the main fighting now focused on the road to Atlanta, Confederate raiders still forced the Union to maintain garrisons across the occupied south.
One of the best known of those raiders was Nathan Bedford Forrest. He had been commanding the cavalry of the army in Tennessee, but after the Confederate victory at Chickamauga (19-20 September 1864), he had fallen out with General Bragg (as had so many others), and refused to serve under him any longer. While Bragg settled down to besiege Chattanooga, Forrest headed back to an independent command in Mississippi.
People, Locations, Episodes
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 Black 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 wall 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 the 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 the 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." Bradford'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 the 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."
"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,
Remembering Fort Pillow
O n April 12, 1864, Confederate soldiers under the command of Nathan Bedford Forrest launched an attack on Fort Pillow, a Union redoubt located on a high bluff overlooking the Mississippi River about forty miles north of Memphis, Tennessee. Less a fort than a parapet overlooking a rough array of entrenchments, Fort Pillow was originally built by the Confederacy early in the war, and it had been occupied by various Union battalions since the summer of 1862. By 1864, troop changes led to the encampment of a Federal garrison at the fort, composed of a combination of black artillerymen and white cavalry troops. This biracial garrison sparked the outrage of Confederates in the area, and in the spring of 1864, Forrest, accompanied by approximately 2,000 troops, drove towards Fort Pillow. Forrest knew the area well. He had worked it extensively while working as a slave trader in the years before the war.
On the morning of April 12th, Confederate forces surrounded the fort, and sharpshooters began picking off Union soldiers, including Lionel Booth, the commander of the garrison. By mid-afternoon, Forrest—fearing Union reinforcements via the river—called for the surrender of the fort, a demand the Federal garrison refused. After receiving the rejection, Forrest ordered a final assault. The Confederate soldiers greatly outnumbered the Union forces and took control of the fort within minutes. They promptly killed about half of the Union garrison. The disproportionate number of black soldiers killed, including many rumored to have been executed after their surrender, led to charges of a massacre. Initially an inconsequential battle, Fort Pillow soon came to epitomize the racialized horrors enacted during the Civil War.
Fort Pillow represented a dramatic example of the mercilessness of the war in Tennessee and the contentious attitudes towards African Americans in uniform. The post-attack atrocities had an immediate impact on the conduct of the war as both sides reacted to the news. Wire reports carried stories of black soldiers killed after surrendering, at least one instance of a soldier burned to death, and various accounts of men buried alive. Though some of these accounts may have been exaggerated, the northern press ran with them, and Fort Pillow soon emerged as the prototypical example of Confederate racism and bloodlust. Within a week of the events at Fort Pillow, General Ulysses S. Grant demanded that all black soldiers captured by the Confederates be treated the same as white prisoners of war, but that demand ultimately led to breakdowns in prisoner exchanges when the Confederacy refused it. A congressional committee tasked with investigating the atrocities interviewed numerous survivors and eyewitnesses, and it came to the conclusion that a massacre had indeed occurred.
For black soldiers, the Fort Pillow massacre represented the dread and potential horror that resulted from donning a blue uniform. And yet they fought. In the weeks and months after the battle, most famously at the Battle of Brice’s Crossroads in Mississippi that June, black Union soldiers would fasten “Remember Fort Pillow” badges to their jackets. To many black soldiers, after Forrest’s actions at Fort Pillow, surrender equaled execution. The actual survivors of Fort Pillow had to contend with both the realities of a continued slog of an unyielding war as well as the brutal memories of that afternoon.
In the days after the battle, Fort Pillow was a broken landscape of partially buried corpses and hastily dug mass graves. Before the war ended, Union soldiers and others made various attempts at reburial, but it took several years before the federal government was able to commit to a concerted effort at reinterment. In 1867, most of what could be found of the remains was transferred to the just-consecrated Memphis National Cemetery, thanks in large part to the widow of Lionel Booth, the commander of the fort who had been killed by a Confederate sniper early on the day of the battle. Mary Booth fought relentlessly to retrieve her husband’s body from the fort, and she later worked to help African American widows of fallen soldiers to obtain pensions, as military widow’s benefits required legal marriage certificates that most former slaves did not have. Booth also oversaw the postwar transfer of the bodies to Memphis and invited surviving members of the battle to serve as honor guard for their reinterment.
“This is a White Man’s Government” by Thomas Nast, 1868 (Library of Congress)
After the war—and perhaps to the bewilderment of some southerners far removed from the Mississippi Valley, where Nathan Bedford Forrest’s name had the power of a folk tale—Union newspapers seized upon Forrest as the symbol of the unrepentant Confederate. In a series of cartoons for Harper’s Weekly in 1868, for example, Thomas Nast used Forrest as the avatar of a particularly violent form of white southern masculinity. In a string of cartoons drawn in the run-up to that year’s Democratic National Convention, to which Forrest was a delegate, Nast made Fort Pillow the signifier of Forrest himself. Nast’s most famous cartoon in the series, entitled “This is a White Man’s Government,” centers on Forrest wearing his old Confederate uniform and hoisting a dagger marked “Lost Cause.” And on his lapel: a skull-adorned pin marked “Fort Pillow.”
Now, more than 150 years after Fort Pillow, the massacre still resonates, as it connects to the most profound and tragic aspects of southern and American history. With its overtones of race, violence, politics, and masculine culture, the story of Fort Pillow underscores the cruel realities facing African Americans during the Civil War. But it is also a central element of the Nathan Bedford Forrest story, especially as the general’s detractors fought to remove his statue in Memphis, which finally came down in December 2017. As Memphis reckons with its post-Forrest landscape, the question remains of what to do with the Fort Pillow site itself, which has for too long served as an under-serviced reminder of the battle instead of a well-defined memorial to the black men who lost their lives in those trenches.
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About the Author
Court Carney is Associate Professor of History at Stephen F. Austin State University. He is the author of Cuttin' Up: How Early Jazz Got America's Ear (Kansas 2009), and is currently working on a book on Fort Pillow and a book on the image of Nathan Bedford Forrest.
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|date= >> In 1997, an American motion picture, titled Last Stand at Saber River (based on the Elmore Leonard novel), features a character (played by Tom Selleck) who was a Confederate soldier at the Fort Pillow Massacre. The character returns to his home in the U.S. Southwest and describes the incident as murder.
In 1999, Las Vegas documentary filmmaker, Stan Armstrong produced The Forgotten Battle of Fort Pillow. The documentary explores the details of the battle and gives an in-depth look at General Forrest who planned and led the attack.
An alternate version of the Fort Pillow massacre is described in the 2004 mockumentary C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America. The only difference is that the massacre took place somewhere in the north, following the Confederacy winning the Civil War.
In 2006, in contrast to his many alternative history novels, Harry Turtledove published the historical novel Fort Pillow about the battle and the massacre. In his alternate history novel, The Guns of the South, the events of Fort Pillow are referred to as a massacre in the novel's imagined timeline.
African American novelist Frank Yerby provided a brief narration of the massacre in his 1946 novel, The Foxes of Harrow (Chapter XXXVI).