Fort Pillow Massacre: Facts, Deaths and Significance

Fort Pillow Massacre: Facts, Deaths and Significance

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The Fort Pillow Massacre in Tennessee on April 12, 1864, in which some 300 African-American soldiers were killed, was one of the most controversial events of the American Civil War (1861-65). Though most of the Union garrison surrendered, and thus should have been taken as prisoners of war, the soldiers were killed. The Confederate refusal to treat these troops as traditional prisoners of war infuriated the North, and led to the Union’s refusal to participate in prisoner exchanges.

Fort Pillow Massacre: Background

In 1861, the Confederates constructed a military installation at the Fort Pillow site and named it for General Gideon Johnson Pillow (1806-78), a Tennessee native. Fort Pillow overlooked the Mississippi River and was an important part of the Confederate river defense system before it was captured by federal forces in the summer of 1862.

In March 1864, Confederate Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest (1821-77) launched a cavalry raid in western Tennessee and Kentucky that was aimed at destroying Union supply lines and capturing federal prisoners. In early April, he determined to move on Fort Pillow, located 40 miles north of Memphis. At the time, Fort Pillow was being held by a garrison of around 600 men, approximately half of whom were black soldiers.

Fort Pillow Massacre: April 12, 1864

On the morning of April 12, Forrest’s force, estimated at 1,500 to 2,500 troops, quickly surrounded the fort. When the fort’s commander, Union Maj. Lionel Booth, was killed by a Confederate sniper’s bullet, the second in command, Major William Bradford took control. By 3:30 pm, Forrest demanded surrender from the Union troops. Bradford, hoping for reinforcements from Union boats arriving by the Mississippi River, called for a one-hour cease fire.

Forrest, however, spotted Union boats approaching and sent men to block the possible reinforcements. Then he declared his troops would storm the fort in 20 minutes—which they did, meeting little meaningful resistance.

While Major Bradford fled toward the Mississippi, most of the Union garrison surrendered, and thus should have been taken as prisoners of war. But Confederate and Union witness accounts attest that some 300 soldiers were gunned down by the Confederate forces, the majority of them black. The Confederate refusal to treat these soldiers as traditional POWs infuriated the North, and led to the Union’s refusal to participate in prisoner exchanges.

Union survivors’ accounts, later supported by a federal investigation, concluded that African-American troops were massacred by Forrest’s men after surrendering. Southern accounts disputed these findings. Forrest, himself, claimed that he and his troops had done nothing wrong and that the Union men were killed because Bradford had refused to surrender. Controversy over the battle continues today.

The Fort Pillow site is now a Tennessee state park.

Fort Pillow Massacre (1864)

On April 12, 1864, some 3,000 rebels under the command of Nathan Bedford Forrest overran Fort Pillow, a former Confederate stronghold situated on a bluff on the Tennessee bank of the Mississippi, some 40 miles north of Memphis. The garrison consisted of about 600 Union soldiers, roughly evenly divided between runaway slaves-turned-artillerists from nearby Tennessee communities and white Southern Unionist cavalry mostly from East Tennessee. Under a flag of truce which his men violated by creeping up on the fort, Forrest demanded the garrison’s surrender, threatening that if it refused he would not be responsible for the actions of his men. Believing Forrest was bluffing, Bradford refused, whereupon the Confederates swarmed over the parapet.

The overwhelmed garrison fled down the bluff to the river, where they were caught in a deadly crossfire. Forrest’s men continued to shoot well after the Federals had thrown down their weapons, and many men were killed in hospital tents or as they begged for mercy. By the next morning only about 65 blacks had survived a massacre that had continued intermittently through the night. More than seventy percent of the white survivors would perish in rebel prisons. The Confederates lost about 18 killed.

Northern Radicals seized on the massacre to inflame a wavering Northern public. Though Forrest initially described the river as “dyed with the blood of the slaughtered for 200 yards,” and his field commander bragged that his men had taught “the mongrel garrison” a memorable lesson, Forrest and his staff later either denied there was a massacre or blamed it on the garrison itself.

The Fort Pillow affair became a target of Southern revisionists, and many reference works balk at deeming the battle a massacre. But recent accounts drawn from primary sources conclude emphatically that a massacre did indeed transpire, and that Forrest’s field officers did little to stop it, for which Forrest himself bears the ultimate responsibility.

Fort Pillow Massacre: Facts, Deaths and Significance - 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.

James Chalmers.

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.

Fort Pillow

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.

What is the Historical Importance of Fort Pillow?

Fort Pillow, Tennessee is the site of an American Civil War battle that took place on 12 April 1864. Many believe the battle resulted in a massacre of Union forces following their surrender. About 600 Union soldiers garrisoned the previously abandoned Fort Pillow and were met by a substantially larger Confederate Cavalry Corps led by Nathan Bedord Forrest. A disproportionate percent of black soldiers died compared to their white counterparts in the Union Army, which suggested racial discrimination in Confederate rules of engagement.

Forrest’s Cavalry Corps had been engaging in raids in western Tennessee and Kentucky for a month before arriving at the Union-held Fort Pillow 40 miles (60 kilometers) north of Memphis, Tennessee. Union troops were defending the river approach to Memphis, aided by one Federal gunboat, the USS New Era. Confederate motivation for taking Fort Pillow included needing horses and supplies stored at the fort, as well as wanting to clear Union positions from the area. Forrest’s cavalry strength was estimated at between 1,500 and 2,500 at the time of the battle.

The Confederates were able to position sharpshooters on high ground surrounding the fort and begin picking off Union soldiers, including officers. Following prolonged rifle fire and artillery bombardment, the Union commander William F. Bradford rejected an offer of surrender. Forrest ordered his troops to advance forward and assault the fort. It was soon overrun, and remaining Federal forces were driven into an open position near the New Era.

At this point in the battle, the course of events becomes less clear. Most Union sources suggest that Federal troops had by now surrendered, but were shot or bayoneted to death rather than taken as prisoners of war. On the other hand, Confederate soldiers in the battle recall that Union troops continued to fire upon them as they fled. The New Era did not provide cover for the fleeing Federals, and about 80% of black soldiers were killed compared to around 40% of white Union soldiers.

There is conflicting evidence as to whether or not a massacre took place at Fort Pillow. The Union flag remained flying after the battle, indicating that no formal surrender occurred. Many Federal rifles were found near the river, rather than in the fort. Black soldiers, many of which were former slaves, may have feared retribution and restoration to slavery if they surrendered to the Confederates. A Confederate sergeant, however, wrote home after the battle that many blacks dropped their weapons and screamed for mercy only to be shot down.

In the North, the battle was interpreted to be a massacre. The New York Times newspaper reported that at least 300 blacks were killed in cold blood after the surrender. The Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, a Union investigating body, concluded that most of the garrison was shot after surrendering. Despite the tactical victory of the Confederates, the Battle of Fort Pillow is believed to have further inflamed black-white race relations, increased the morale of Union forces, and strengthened Northern resolve to see the war through the end.

The Fort Pillow Massacre

The Fort Pillow Massacre occurred after the Union defeat at the battle of Fort Pillow in Henning, Tennessee on April 12, 1864.

During the initial phase of the battle, the Confederate army bombarded the fort with artillery in an attempt to get the Union soldiers inside to surrender.

When Union Major William Bradford refused, 1,500 Confederate cavalrymen stormed the fort and overtook the 557 Union soldiers inside, half of whom were African-American.

After the battle was over, the large number of Union casualties, about 231 dead and 100 wounded, compared to the relatively few Confederate casualties, raised concerns about what happened after the battle ended.

Survivors later stated that after the Union soldiers surrendered, the Confederates slaughtered many of the African-American soldiers. Illustration of the Massacre at Fort Pillow published in Harper’s Weekly on April 30, 1864

One such account, a letter to Congressman H.T. Blow from naval officer Robert S. Critchell, was published in the New York Times a few weeks after the battle:

“SIR: Since you did me the favor of recommending my appointment last August, I have been on duty aboard this boat.
I now write you with reference to the Fort Pillow massacre. I write, because most of our crew are colored, and I feel personally interested in the retaliation which our Government may deal out to the rebels, when the fact of the merciless butchery is fully established.
Our boat arrived at the fort about 7 1/2 A.M., on Wednesday, the 13th, the day after the rebels captured the fort. After shelling them, whenever we could see them, for two hours, a flag of truce from the rebel Gen. CHALMERS was received by us, and Capt. FERGUSON, of this boat, made an arrangement with Gen. CHALMERS for the paroling of our wounded and the burial of our dead the arrangement to last until 5 P.M. We then landed at the fort, and I was sent out with a burial party to bury our dead.
I found many of the dead lying close along by the water’s edge, where they had evidently sought safety they could not offer any resistance from the places where they were, in holes and cavilles along the banks most of them had two wounds. I saw several colored soldiers of the Sixth United States Artillery, with their eyes punched out with bayonets many of them were shot twice and bayonetted also. All those along the bank of the river were colored. The number of the colored near the river was about seventy. Going up into the fort, I saw there bodies partially consumed by fire. Whether burned before or after death I cannot say, any way there were several companies of rebels in the fort while these bodies were burning, and they could have pulled them out of the fire had they chosen to do so.
One of the wounded negroes told me that he had’nt done a thing, and when the rebels drove our men out of the fort they (our men) threw away their guns and cried out that they surrendered but the rebels kept on shooting them down until they had shot all but a few. This is what they all say.
I had some conversation with rebel officers, and they claim that our men would not surrender, and in some few cases they could not control their men, who seemed determined to shoot down every negro soldier, whether he surrendered or not. This is a flimsy excuse, for after our colored troops had been driven from the fort, and they were surrounded by the rebels on all sides, it is apparent that they would do what all say they did, throw down their arms and beg for mercy.
I buried but very few white men the whole number buried by my party and the party from the gunboat New Era was about one hundred.
The rebels had burned some of the white dead.
I can make affidavit to the above if necessary.
Hoping that the above may be of some service and that a desire to be of service will be considered sufficient excuse for writing to you, I remain, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
ROBERT S. CRITCHELL, Acting-Master’s Mate, U.S.N.”

Illustration titled “Confederate Massacre of Federal Troops after the Surrender at Fort Pillow April 12, 1864” published in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly in 1894

A letter from another survivor, a civilian photographer with the Union army, Charles Robinson, also detailed the atrocities that day:

“As soon as the rebels got to the top of the bank there commenced the most horrible slaughter that could possibly be conceived. Our boys when they saw that they were overpowered threw down their arms and held up, some their handkerchiefs & some their hands in token of surrender, but no sooner were they seen than they were shot down, & if one shot failed to kill them the bayonet or revolver did not. I lay behind a high log & could see our poor fellows bleeding and hear them cry ‘surrender’ ‘I surrender,’ but they surrendered in vain for the rebels now ran down the bank and putting their revolvers right to their heads would blow out their brains or lift them up on bayonets and throw them headlong into the river below.”

An article published in Harper’s Weekly on April 30, 1864, titled The Massacre at Fort Pillow, also suggests that five of the African-American soldiers were buried alive, several African-American women were killed, dead and wounded African-American soldiers were heaped into a pile and set on fire and several civilians who sought protection with the Union army where also killed or wounded.

A federal investigation launched by the Joint Select Committee on the Conduct of War examined the claims and sided with the survivors, blaming the Confederates for shooting the soldiers after they surrendered.

The Confederates refuted the findings and southern newspapers accused the Union army of lying. In one such article, published in the Richmond Enquirer on April 30, 1864, the author downplayed the idea of a massacre and stated that black Union soldiers, who were often sold into slavery when captured by the Confederates, were too valuable to kill:

“The ‘so-called’ massacre at Fort Pillow is merely an offset to the damaging truths that have made the names of BUTLER, MCNEILL and TURCHIN infamous all over the world. In this light it will be understood and appreciated as merely another false-hood…We have seen no evidence of any ‘massacre’ whatever, but should it become necessary to put a garrison to the sword, under the law of war, we should expect the whites to be shot and the negroes to be sold. A negro at $5,000 is too valuable to be shot.”

Despite the eyewitness accounts and the results of the federal investigation, both sides have yet to come to an agreement about what actually occurred after the battle of Fort Pillow and the controversy still continues to this day.

Harper’s Weekly The Massacre at Fort Pillow April 30 1864:
New York Times From The South The Rebel Press on the Fort Pillow Massacre May 8 1864:
Minnesota History Magazine Fort Pillow “Massacre”:
New York Times The Fort Pillow Massacre May 3 1864: The Fort Pillow Massacre:
National Park Service: Fort Pillow: Fort Pillow Massacre (1864):

1 thought on “The Fort Pillow Massacre”

The only controversy is the the traitors to the Union will not admit to the massacre…. the evidence is there and their notion that African Americans were too valuable to shoot, what year was the massacre? 1864 the hand writing was on the wall. Sherman was beginning his decimation of the south, Vicksburg was gone, Grant was chasing Lee, rebel desertions were sky rocketing. In April of 64 the rebels were hanging on by finger nails. Forrest commanded this slaughter out of vindictiveness.

Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

While doing research on something else, I came across a couple of accounts of the aftermath of the Confederate assault on Fort Pillow, written by naval officers of U.S.S Silver Cloud (above), the Union “tinclad” gunboat that was the first on the scene. I don’t recall encountering these descriptions before, and they really do strike a nerve with their raw descriptions of what these men witnessed, at first hand.

These accounts are particularly important because historians are always looking for “proximity” in historical accounts of major events. The description of an event by someone who was physically present is to be more valued than one by someone who simply heard about it from another person. The narrative committed to paper immediately is, generally, more to be valued than one written months or years after the events described, when memories have started to fade or become shaded by others’ differing recollections. Hopefully, too, the historian can find those things in a description of the event by someone who doesn’t have any particular axe to grind, who’s writing for his own purposes without the intention that his account will be widely and publicly known. These are all factors — somewhat subjective, to be sure — that the historian considers when deciding what historical accounts to rely on when trying to reconstruct historical events, and to understand how one or another document fits within the context of all the rest.

Which brings us back to the eyewitness accounts of Acting Master William Ferguson, commanding officer of U.S.S. Silver Cloud, and Acting Master’s Mate Robert S. Critchell of that same vessel.

Ferguson’s report was written April 14, 1864, the day after he was at the site. It was addressed to Major General Stephen A. Hurlbut, commanding officer of the Union’s XVI Corps of the Army of the Tennessee, then headquartered at Memphis. It appears in the Army OR, vol. 57, and the Navy OR, vol. 26.

Ferguson’s report is valuable because it is detailed, proximate in time to the event, and was written specifically for reference within the military chain of command. It seems likely that Ferguson’s description is the first written description of the aftermath of the engagement within the Federal’s command structure. Certainly it was written before news of Fort Pillow became widely known across the country, and the event became a rallying cry for retribution and revenge. Ferguson’s account was, I believe, ultimately included in the evidence published by the subsequent congressional investigation of the incident, but he had no way of anticipating that when he sat down to write out his report just 24 hours after witnessing such horrors.

The second account is that of Acting Master’s Mate Robert S. Critchell (right), a 20-year-old junior officer aboard the gunboat. Critchell’s letter, addressed to U.S. Rep. Henry T. Blow of Missouri, was written a week after Ferguson’s report, after the enormity of events at the fort had begun to take hold. If Ferguson’s report reflected the shock of what he’d seen, Critchell’s gives voice to a growing anger about it. Critchell’s revulsion comes through in this letter, along with his disdain for the explanations of the brutality offered by the Confederate officers he’d met, that they’d simply lost control of their men, which the Union naval officer calls “a flimsy excuse.” Crittchell admits to being “personally interested in the retaliation which our government may deal out to the rebels,” but also stands by the accuracy of his description, offering to swear out an affidavit attesting to it.

Critchell’s note about the explanation offered by Confederate officers, who argued that the black soldiers “would not surrender and in some few cases [the Confederate officers] ‘could not control their men,’ who seemed determined to shoot down every negro soldier, whether he surrendered or not,” is worth noting. That was the excuse offered at the time, and it remains so almost 150 years later, for those Fort Pillow apologists who acknowledge that unnecessary bloodshed took place at all. Critchell observed at the time that “this is a flimsy excuse,” and so it remains today.

Critchell’s letter also seems to endorse retaliation-in-kind, “because some of our crew are colored and I feel personally interested in the retaliation which our government may deal out to the rebels, when the fact of the merciless butchery is fully established.” This urge is, unfortunately, entirely understandable, and we’ve seen that within weeks the atrocity at Fort Pillow was being used as a rallying cry to spur Union soldiers on to commit their own acts of wanton violence. Vengrance begets retaliation begets vengeance begets retaliation. It never ends, and it’s always rationalized by pointing to the other side having done it before.

It never ends, but it often does have identifiable beginnings. Bill Ferguson and Bob Critchell saw one of those beginnings first-hand.

Critchell letter and images from Robert S. Critchell, Recollections of a Fire Insurance Man (Chicago: McClurg & Co., 1909).

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Thanks. I was looking into Silver Cloud because that boat and another former Union “tinclad,” St. Clair, were among the first new boats brought to Texas after the war, and so helped re-inaugurate the steamboat trade in this area. They were heavily promoted and advertised, but their owners did not mention that they’d been Union gunboats during the conflict. Silver Cloud was snagged and wrecked on Buffalo Bayou, east of Houston, in October 1866.

Funny how there are sometimes local connections like that.

Acting Master Ferguson seems to be most knowledgeable of bayonet wounds, which he describes with some frequentcly however, the assaulting force was entirely cavalry. Bayonets are not weapons carried by cavalrymen. By whom were the bayonet wounds inflicted?

Ferguson’s report should be read like any other he reported what he saw, as he understood it. He mentions bayonets twice.

Reblogged this on Civil War Emancipation and commented:
Another terrific post from Andy Hall over at Dead Confederates. He deals with firsthand accounts of the aftermath of the Fort Pillow Massacre from two Union naval officers who helped to remove wounded black soldiers from Fort Pillow under flag of truce.

I thought your analysis of the two letters was very good. However, I might have given the second letter a little less weight as it seemed to show less disinterest than the first.

Are these letters in John Cimprich’s studies of Fort Pillow?

Got Cimprich’s book today, and he does list Critchell as a source. The actual letters are not reproduced.

If -No Quarter- was the rule at Fort Pillow, who initiated that rule?

“The enemy announced their determination not to surrender, and were accordingly defiant and insolent in their demeanor. They ridiculed the idea of taking the fort, and intimated that the last man would die before surrendering….
General Forrest begged them to surrender, but he was told with an air of insulting defiance that he could not take the place, and that they asked for no quarter. Not the first sign of surrender was ever given. Gen. Forrest expected a surrender after entering the fort, and anxiously looked for it, as he witnessed the carnage but no token was given.”

Memphis Appeal (Atlanta), May 2, 1864 (report dated Jackson, TN, April 18)

Yes, being from Texas I know the story of the Alamo well — how Colonel Travis had the buglers line up on the wall and play the Deguello, to show that no quarter would be given to Santa Ana’s troops. And sure enough, the Texians slaughtered them all, to a man. (I think I’ve got that right.)

Snark aside, I’ve seen that claim before about Fort Pillow, and it makes no sense — none. I can’t recall a single instance where the besieged, outnumbered defenders of a fixed fortification initiated the whole “no quarter” thing. That’s just not how it works, you know?

The claim itself is belied by the physical evidence. The extensive accounts of the desecration of the bodies speaks to a deeper, more primal rage, and the tacit admission that the officers “lost control” of their men. This is quite a find Andy.

You expressed it more succinctly than I, thanks.

“…it makes no sense…”
Right. The folks inside Fort Pillow didn’t show much sense that day.

“Major Bradford [13th TN Cav.] brought in a black flag, which meant no quarter.”
-testimony of Pvt. Major Williams, 6th U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery

“There never was a surrender of the fort, both officers and men declaring they never would surrender or ask for quarter.”
-report of Lt. Daniel Van Horn, 6th U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery, April 14, 1864

Your post has got me reviewing the correspondence of Charles Waldo of the 12th Wisconsin with the West Bend Post. Waldo was an experienced reporter for the Post when he enlisted and he had sent regular dispatches to his hometown newspaper about once a month for the first two and a half years of his enlistment.

The unit was ‘veteranized’ in the first three months of 1864. Those who reenlisted, more than half of the unit, were given transport home from Vicksburg to Wisconsin for a month of furlough that presumably included intensive recruiting efforts. Those who declined that incentive were considered ‘copperheads’ and remained on duty in and around Vicksburg until such time as the unit was to be reformed at Cairo in mid April with a large contingent of new recruits, including my great great grandmother’s younger brother.

Waldo’s correspondence abruptly ends on April 30th with precious little explanation beyond a note that indicates he was given a two week furlough, coinciding apparently with his unexpected arrival in West Bend. His penultimate post was published on April 18th, describing a departure by boat from Memphis for Cairo on the 6th of April.

His final post was dated April 18th and published on April 30th. It describes a change of plans. The unit had been directed to proceed to Cairo where it would await the arrival of those veterans returning from furlough along with the new recruits. Instead of awaiting that arrival, however, the unit was sent by boat from Cairo to Paducah on about the 13th on a rumor that a fort there was under threat of an imminent attack by the cavalry of Nathan Forrest. The post describes attempts to engage Forrest at Paducah between the 13th and the 18th of April, a time when most accounts seem to concur that Forrest was otherwise occupied at Fort Pillow, north of Memphis.

It seems a bit odd to me that Waldo’s newspaper correspondence ends so abruptly at precisely the point of the Fort Pillow massacre. There is no indication that he ever rejoined his unit after his two week furlough. He was officially mustered out six months later during Sherman’s March to the Sea when the three years of his enlistment ended, but I’m not sure I’m convinced that he was with his unit at the time. His newspaper career appears to have ended with his unplanned two week furlough.

Bravo, Mr. Hall, for bringing forth these two splendid, completely impartial and dispassionate accounts of the action at Ft. Pillow by the expert forensic officers of the agressing military force.

Nearly 150 years has passed since the Union debacle at Ft. Pillow, and people are continuing to prop up the characterization of the criminally bungled “defense” of the works by inept junior officers leading a force of “Tennesse Tories” and former slaves (who had been depredating against the civilian population of Western Tennesse) as due to their “massacre” by legions of evil, sadistic Confederates under the direct leadership of “that devil Forrest” who refused their surrender request and pleas for mercy. Most recently, on GBTV, talk show personality Glenn Beck and Rev. David Barton even advanced the new and outrageous claim that General Forrest had used his sword to “skin alive” survivors of ther battle.

It is beyond tiresome, let alone terribly unjust to dismiss Southern accounts of the action as biased, while upholding all of the antagonists accounts of the action as gospel. Beyond that single most important point, none of the observations of these two particular officers, late to the scene were inconcistent with official accounts of the action by General Forrest and his officers, including the dead bodies found in some of the burned shelters, men shot down fleeing for the protection of the approaching gunboat ‘New Era’ while the garrison flag continued to fly above the fort, and more. Neither do the after action reports of the number of wounded and men taken as prisoners square with the “massacre” depiction of the events, any more than it makes sense that Forrest had raised the black flag on the fort’s defenders, and then arrange a truce for the Union gunboats to remove the wounded and bury their dead. (This brings up another sensational claim made at the time, that Confederates buried men alive, while it is clear from official accounts that the Federals buried their own dead.)

It is also clear that there was an urge to punish the depredators of the 6th TN (Union) regiment inside the fort that motivated the attackers, and that manifested in the manner in which the assault was pressed on the fort’s occupants, many of whom broke and ran, threw down their weapons in surrender, only to pick them up again to fire on their pursuers. That the hand-to-hand, point blank combat that followed left the inside of the fort and the riverbank littered with grisly corpses that bore witnesses to the brutality that accompanied their deaths would have been appalling to any unaccustomed to such a scene.

FOrrest was called on of the two greatest geniuses produced by the War by Shelby Foote, yet this is the action, along with his post-war link to the Ku Klux Klan, by which he is know today. It fits nicely with the politically correct, Sesam Street version of the War, that it was all abount slavery. Karl Marx and Frederick Douglass would certainly agree. You might get an argument from the hundreds of thousands of men who fought a war for Independence, and a right to govern themselves according to the Constitution handed down from their grandfathers, not to mention a growing body of historians willing to probe through the exculpatory “victor’s history” of the War For Southern Independence.

I regret there are a few typos in my post. (ex. “F(O)rrest was on(e) of the two greatest geniuses…”, “Sesam(e) Street”, etc.). While typing, the text would sometimes disappear or become obscured by the boxes popping up requesting e-mail address, name, etc. which made proofing while typing difficult. Perhaps this is a problem with the site that can be corrected.

Your typos (or mine, of which there are plenty) are not “a problem with the site.” They’re typos.

Reference to “political correctness”? Check. Reference to Karl Marx? Check. Reference to “victor’s history”? Check. You guys need to get some new talking points. Talk about “beyond tiresome. . . .”

You’ll note that in this post I made no mention of Forrest, nor to the word “massacre.” Those appear in the writing of the two officers who were actually present in the immediate aftermath of the fight. Neither claims that Forrest flew a “black flag,” or personally issued an order of “no quarter.” Nonetheless, the physical evidence they noted makes it clear that, in Feguson’s words, “little quarter was shown to our troops.” Even the Confederate officers Critchell met admitted as much, claiming that had lost control of their troops. You describe the defense of Fort Pillow as “criminally bungled,” but that seems like a pretty good term for the leadership shown by Confederate officers in the event, by their own admission.

You snidely refer to the naval officers I quoted as “expert forensic officers,” but they reported what they saw, and the obvious conclusions they drew from them. The other day I was driving and came upon two smashed-up cars in an intersection. Glass all over the street, people standing around talking on cell phones, fortunately no one apparently seriously hurt. Now, I didn’t see the actual collision, right? But I’m confident in saying that there was an accident, and since that intersection is a four-way stop, I’m also pretty confident that one (or both) of those vehicles ran a stop sign. I’m not certified by the state in traffic accident reconstruction, but there are times when it’s pretty obvious what happened.

Those naval officers likewise had no doubt about what they saw, and saw a distinction between what they witnessed and the aftermath of conventional warfare. As Ferguson said, “When a work is carried by assault there will always be more or less bloodshed, even when all resistance has ceased but here there were unmistakable evidences of a massacre carried on long after any resistance could have been offered, with a cold-blooded barbarity and perseverance which nothing can palliate.”

You chide me for supposedly taking these accounts as “gospel,” and argue that I’m biased in my understanding of these events. But I see not a hint of doubt on your part that no indiscriminate or unjustified killing took place at Fort Pillow. Believe what you want about that event, but please look in the mirror before you accuse others of being unduly biased.

Your reference to the USCTs at Fort Pillow as merely as “former slaves,” rather than as U.S. soldiers (regardless of their former status), is both insulting and perhaps unintentionally revealing. It reflects a real undercurrent that was expressed much more openly among Confederates during the war, that black Union troops were nothing more than slaves in organized insurrection, and liable to be treated as such. That was a widespread belief (and semi-official Confederate policy) at the time, but it’s still jarring to hear it now. You might want to reconsider describing black U.S. troops that way.

You seem to think that I might have some sympathy with Beck and Barton’s recent statements about Fort Pillow I don’t, and consider them both to be fools. But then, I’ve thought that for a long time, irrespective of their claims in that segment.

As for Shelby Foote, he was a gifted storyteller and a wonderful raconteur, but he never considered himself an historian. He told stories in his interviews that seem profound, but some of them simply aren’t true. His tale about the use of language — “the United States are” v. “the United States is” — is a wonderful, illustrative story that also happens to be demonstrably false.

“The enemy carried our works at about 4 p.m., ” one of the few surviving officers of the Thirteenth Tennessee remembered, “and from that time until dark, and at intervals throughtout the night, our men were shot down without mercy and almost without regard for color.” There was a wholesale butchery of brave men, white as well as black.” “The rebels were very bitter against these loyal Tennesseeans, terming them “home-grown Yankees,” and declaring they would give them no better treatment than they dealt out to the negro troops [along] with whom they were fighting.” Lincoln’s Loyalists page 140

So not only is it the defenders’ fault for getting massacred, it’s also Andy’s fault that commenters leave typos on his blog? I’m learning all kinds of things.

Of course I made them, but with the text not visible, it is difficult to monitor errors. I suppose the window is just so large, and it doesn’t scroll as well as it might. Thanks for posting.

Mr. Connerly-You leave out the unalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that these self-proclaimed lovers of liberty denied to millions of men, women, and children because of the color of their skin, or, as the British philosopher Samuel Johnson said during the American Revolution, “”How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”.

The fact is that Ft. Pillow, Saltville, etc. were entirely consistent with Confederate policy in response to the Union allowing Blacks to enlist as soldiers and fight. This is not based on any presentist beliefs but on the accounts of Confederate officers.

Almost a year before Ft. Pillow, there was this correspondence between CSA Lt. Gen. Kirby Smith and his subordinate Maj. Gen. Richard Taylor, transmitted to Gen. Samuel Cooper by Smith:


Shreveport, La., June 16, 1863.
General S. COOPER,
Adjutant and Inspector General, Richmond, Va.:
GENERAL: I have the honor to inclose you two letters, addressed to Major-General Taylor, in regard to the disposition to be made of negroes and their officers captured in arms. Unfortunately such captures were made by some of Major-General Taylor’s subordinates. I have heard unofficially that the last Congress did not adopt any retaliatory legislation on the subject of armed negroes and their officers, but left the President to dispose of this delicate and important question. In the absence of any legislation and of any orders except those referred to in the inclosed letters, I saw no other proper and legal course for me to pursue except the one which I adopted.
I have the honor to be, general, your obedient servant,
[Inclosure No. 1.]
Shreveport, La., June 13, 1863.
Maj. Gen. R. TAYLOR, Commanding District of Louisiana:
GENERAL: I have been unofficially informed that some of your troops have captured negroes in arms. I hope this may not be so, and that your subordinates who may have been in command of capturing parties may have recognized the propriety of giving no quarter to armed negroes and their officers. In this way we may be relieved from a disagreeable dilemma. If they are taken, however, you will turn them over to the State authorities to be tried for crimes against the State, and you will afford such facilities in obtaining witnesses as the interests of the public service will permit. I am told that negroes found in a state of insurrection may be tried by a court of the parish in which the crime is committed, composed of two justices of the peace and a certain number of slave-holders. Governor Moore has called on me and stated that if the report is true that any armed negroes have been captured he will send the attorney-general to conduct the prosecution as soon as you notify him of the capture.
I have the honor to be, general, your obedient servant,
Lieutenant-General, Commanding.
[Inclosure No. 2. ]
Shreveport, La., June 13, 1863.
Maj. Gen. R. TAYLOR,
Commanding District of Louisiana:
GENERAL: In answer to the communication of Brigadier-General Hébert, of the 6th instant, asking what disposition should be made of negro slaves taken in arms, I am directed by Lieutenant-General Smith to say no quarter should be shown them. If taken prisoners, however, they should be turned over to the executive authorities of the States in which they may be captured, in obedience to the proclamation of the President of the Confederate States, sections 3 and 4, published to the Army in General Orders, No. 111, Adjutant and Inspector General’s Office, series of 1862. Should negroes thus taken be executed by the military authorities capturing them it would certainly provoke retaliation. By turning them over to the civil authorities to be tried by the laws of the State no exception can be taken.
I am, general, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
Assistant Adjutant-General.<>In fact there were, comparatively, very few Negro prisoners taken that day. It was the first occasion on which of the Army of Northern Virginia came in contact with Negro troops, & the general feeling of the men toward their employment was very bitter. The sympathy of the North for John Brown’s memory was taken for proof of a desire that our slaves should arise in a servile insurrection & massacre throughout the South, & the enlistment of Negro troops was regarded as advertisement of that desire & encouragement of that idea to the Negro.

That made the the fighting on this occasion exceedingly fierce & bitter on the part of our men, not only toward the Negroes themselves but sometimes even to the whites along with them. Note Maj. Powell’s remarks about the use of the bayonet on the charge upon the Crater.

Some of the Negro prisoners, who were originally allowed to surrender by some soldiers, were afterward shot by others, & there was, without doubt, a great deal of unnecessary killing of them.<<

I’m acquainted with Andrew Ward, author of River Run Red: The Fort Pillow Massacre, and I think it is interesting to note that Forrest did take quite a number of prisoners in the battle, both white and black, and that on the whole the white prisoners fared worse than the black. Most of the white prisoners were eventually delivered to Andersonville where more than three quarters of them died, an unusually high percentage, considering that two thirds of the prisoners incarcerated at Andersonville survived the ordeal. While white prisoners from Fort Pillow outnumbered black prisoners by a three to one margin, three out of four of the black prisoners later escaped and rejoined USCT units. They may have survived because they could be sold, legally or not, as slaves.

Ward’s book describes Ferguson’s role in the massacre’s aftermath in some detail in three or four passages two or more pages in length. Critchell, on the other hand, can’t be found in the index. The book runs nearly six hundred pages and draws extensively from NARA pension documents in accounting for the fate of nearly all of the battle’s Union survivors, so it surprises me that Critchell’s account would have escaped Ward’s notice.

Ward points out that Sherman had given orders to Hurlbut to evacuate Fort Pillow as he considered the position difficult to defend and quite limited in strategic value. If Hurlbut had followed orders there would have been no massacre, but he defied Sherman as the location was optimal for moving contraband cotton and for recruiting former slaves from the delta into the Union fold. Ward also observes that Forrest was not really in the business of gratuitously killing and/or maiming soldiers who he tended to regard as escaped slaves, property of considerable value to their former owners if returned in reasonably good condition.

The embedded newspaperman I mentioned in my earlier comment, Charles Waldo, was not just a reporter, but an editor and part owner of the West Bend Post, a paper that had been called the West Bend Democrat when he and two partners purchased it in 1861. Waldo sold his share of the paper in 1866. While it’s not clear exactly why his narrative of the war broke off where and when it did, it does appear to have coincided with the Fort Pillow massacre. He served as a quartermaster’s sergeant with the 12th Wisconsin and was familiar with many of the more prominent citizens of the community from which his regiment was drawn. While most units involved in the Siege of Vicksburg took part in the siege and then moved on to duty elsewhere, his unit remained in that vicinity for the next nine months.

Waldo’s account is interesting and illuminating in large measure because he had readers depending on him to make sense of the war firsthand as it was taking place. I’m left wondering if he ever did rejoin his unit and resume his correspondence. Did the remainder of his account disappear because it may have contradicted the official narrative? What would he have made of the Fort Pillow massacre? And how would he have handled the Battle of Atlanta and The March To The Sea a few months later? His description of the march from Jackson to Meridian and back, leading to the fall of Vicksburg, is probably a good indication. He seemed to have a good grasp at times of what was going on around him. He was particularly cognizant of the number of newspaper offices between Jackson and Meridian that were torched while the rail lines were being dismantled.

There is a monument to the men from Tennessee at Andersonville.

All one really needs to know is that the United States army illegally invaded the seceded southern states. What was done to them, considering that they were involved in treason and other crimes, is entirely moot. The Confederate soldiers were entirely too nice to the invaders, regardless of color.

Every United States soldier and sailor who dies, from whatever cause, was entirely just and fitting.

Lincoln’s death was entirely lawful and justified, for example, he was, after all, a traitor and war criminal.

You’re welcome to believe anything you want.

Pat, are you still trying to sell that treason thing? It has been shown to not work based on the defn. of treason. So why do you continue to try and sell it?

So let me ask you a question, what gave the southern states the right to refuse the outcome of the 1860 election?

Let it go. Pat’s just being Pat. Fish gotta swim.

The seceded states exercised their lawful power to secede. End of story. Their rationale was their business, nothing in the US Constitution required them to remain in the United States, nor to give a reason why they seceded.

The US constitution was wantonly violated by the Lincoln junta, Lincoln committed treason as defined by the US Constitution, Article III, Section III.

The problem you apologists for the Lincoln Junta have is that you must show what law was broken, that is to say, what part of the Constitution prohibited secession by a state.

You cannot do that, not one has been able to do that for the past 150 years. Drone on about the usual slavery, “they dun fired fust”, and the like but no one has EVER shown that the southern states broke any law when they seceded.

If you want to argue about the legality of secession, or Lincoln’s supposed treason, you’re welcome to do so elsewhere. I’m really not interested in going down either of those interminable rabbit holes.

That’s the whole idea Andy – whenever someone such as yourself brings first-hand accounts such as these to light, these modern day “seceders” blow smoke such as “the legality of secession” and the like to either legitimize atrocities or explain them away. Unlike those who are truly interested in the search for historical fact, P.H. and his ilk want to have a debate about the Constitution. I’m convinced that the Seceders would be better off frequenting the many Re-enactor blogsites where they could mix fact and fiction to fit their purpose.

Just tryin’ to keep things on track. There are plenty of threads to discuss the legality of secession, but this is not one of them.

It’s never been clear to me why I’m expected to “justify” that actions of long-dead people who are supposedly on my “side.” It’s important to try to understand *why* people in the past did what the did and said what they said, but that’s entirely different than *advocating* for them, or taking up their cause as my own.

Hey Andy
I am the great grandson of William Ferguson of Silver Cloud fame. Your blog was most interesting and I wish I had family anecdotal information to offer regarding Fort Pillow, but alas do not. The only story I remember hearing as a child many years ago was about the derringer that he reportedly took from a
female confederate spy. I have to say that the discussions in your blog have inspired me to learn more about the Civil War, and my great grandfather’s involvement. Thanks,
Bill Ferguson

Thanks for your comment. I’m pleased and honored to make you acquaintance. Your g-grandfather was witness to the aftermath of one of the most infamous incidents of that conflict. It may be understandable that he didn’t pass those particular stories along.

Would you happen to have an image of him? I don’t think I’ve ever seen one.

Mr. Hall,
Thank you for this blog entry. It makes me want to read more of your entries. I applaud your sensibilities. My family is in large part from Blandville, Ky., a town no longer in official existence, but which still holds buried many ancestral bones and is, therefore, important to me. Blandville lies approximately 26 miles from Paducah and about 160 miles from Fort Pillow. My interest in Fort Pillow stems from my learning that this battle occurred in such close proximity to my ancestral home and involved at least one black soldier from Ballard county, at a time when Blandville was the county seat and Paducah was noteworthy as the 2nd battlefield under General Forrest during that campaign of war. Since some of my ancestors were present in the region during that time, I can only guess at their experiences through historical accounts such as these. All best to you. Thanks again.

Thanks. I hope you’ll find more here that makes for interesting reading.

Interesting article, it gives some on scene opinions of the action that took place at Fort Pillow. Having recently become interested in Ft Pillow and N.B. Forrest I’ve come to realize it is difficult to find unbiased or factual information. I have read a report by a Daniel Van Horn 2d Lt Co D Sixth U S Heavy Artillery (colored) dated 14 April 1864 that sheds light on this battle. He was captured and escaped, references Union soldiers burning buildings to deny them to the enemy and fails to mention atrocities. I could find no record or mention of his report or if he called upon in investigations both during and after the war. I’ve also located several Official Reports both Union and Confederate that mention units of Tenn Calvary U S carrying out extremely brutal tactics against civilians and captured Confederates. I believe the attacking force had one opinion of the colored troops and a extremely more aggressive one towards the Tenn Calvary. It has been suggested that the reputation of the Calvary troops is the reason the acting commander of the fort (Tenn Calvary) forged the dead commanders name and refused surrender because understood what his fate would be. It’s always been interesting to me to learn of stories and events leading up to many of the battle of this war.
I agree with your closing statements about vengeance, retaliation and identifiable beginnings.

These two accounts are important parts of the story because (1) they were written immediately after the events, and (2) they were not intended for public distribution, and so are less likely to be deliberately intending to sway public opinion.

My Bradford family comes from White County, TN. The following is what I have learned in trying to find out if we are related to Major Bradford. So far, I have had very little success in finding anything about his ancestry.
From what I have been able to gather, and hopefully my memory serves, Major William F. Bradford and Gen. N B Forrest were both from Bedford County, TN. Bradford was a lawyer and Forrest knew him or at least, knew of him, before the war. When Bradford formed and commanded his own cavalry of TN Unionists, it’s said he abused that power for personal revenge and profit. It enraged Forrest that “home grown yanks”, traitors to their own state, would then stoop to prey on their own neighbors. So Bradford had a very good reason to not negotiate under his own name, and to stall, hoping for a river rescue. Bradford’s older brother, Capt. Theo Bradford, was killed at Fort Pillow while trying to signal The New Era for help.
After Bradford was captured, he begged Forrest to allow him to bury his brother. Forrest was sympathetic, having recently lost a brother of his own, and permission was granted. Bradford removed his uniform coat to dig the grave and when he was done, he slipped on a civilian coat and was able to escape by telling the sentry he was a sutler, not a soldier. When it was later determined that the sentry was fooled into letting the senior officer escape, he suffered many insults, jibes and teasing from others in his ranks. Bradford was later recaptured about 20 miles away, and the man in charge of marching the prisoners along was, of course, that same sentry that had been so humiliated. When Bradford asked permission to relieve himself, the sentry nodded and pointed to a tree. As Bradford approached the tree, he was shot “trying to escape.”.

Was Fort Pillow ever also known as Fort Wright? Because I’m trying to make sense out of some accounts that refer to Fort Randolph and Fort Wright as the same fort, others that say that they were separate forts but that Fort Pillow was sometimes called Fort Wright etc. Some accounts put Fort Wright about 1 mile from Fort Randolph, others say 12 miles away and that Fort Wright was really Fort Pillow. The lady at the Tipton County Historical Society says Wright and Randolph were the same fort, located at Randolph, Tennessee. Then I’ve read contemporary newspaper stories saying rebels fell back from Fort Wright to Fort Randolph, meaning they were two different forts. Confusing as all hell.

I don’t have personal knowledge of the area, but Wiki gives three different sites as Wright, Randolph and Pillow. Pillow is in SW Lauderdale County, and Wright and Randolph are in NW Tipton County. Wright and Randolph are about 27 miles NNE of Memphis as the crow flies, and Pillow is maybe eight miles beyond that.

"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.

Fort Pillow Massacre: Facts, Deaths and Significance - HISTORY

The Patriot Film Fact or Fiction: Events
Benjamin Martin's raid on Fort Wilderness :
Throughout the film beginning in the opening narration, references are made to Benjamin Martin's actions in the French and Indian War from his opening narration to the South Carolina Assembly to Major Jean Villeneuve's angry responses to Martin's authority. Benjamin refused to answer his son Thomas when questioned about it. Later in the film, Benjamin is finally ready to tell Gabriel what happened at Fort Wilderness:

"The French and Cherokee had raided along the Blue Ridge. The English settlers had sought refuge at Fort Charles. By the time we got there, the fort was abandoned. They'd left about a week before. But what we found was. They'd killed all the settlers, the men. With the women and some of the children they had. We buried them all, what was left of them.

"We caught up with them at Fort Wilderness. We took our time. We cut them apart slowly, piece by piece. I can see their faces. I can still hear their screams. All but two. We let them live. We placed the heads on a pallet and sent them back with the two that lived to Fort Ambercon. The eyes, tongues, fingers, we put in baskets sent them down the Asheulot to the Cherokee. Soon after, the Cherokee broke their treaty with the French. That's how we justified it. We were heroes."

1. The only Fort Wilderness to have existed is at Disney World.
2. Fort Charles is actually in Port Royal, Kingston, Jamaica.
3. Fort Ambercon never existed.
4. The Asheulot River is in New Hampshire.

In 1759, tensions between the British and their Cherokee Indian allies boiled over and the Indians began attacking frontier settlements in the Blue Ridge region of Virginia and in the Carolinas. In early 1760, they began a siege of Fort Loudoun (located in what is now Tennessee), which ended in a massacre of British soldiers when the British did not keep the agreed terms of surrender. The South Carolina militia responded with a campaign in which Francis Marion participated. They mainly destroyed Indian villages and burned crops to starve the Cherokees into surrendering.

High-resolution images are available to schools and libraries via subscription to American History, 1493-1943. Check to see if your school or library already has a subscription. Or click here for more information. You may also order a pdf of the image from us here.

Gilder Lehrman Collection #: GLC05080.06 Author/Creator: United States. Congress (38th, 1st session : 1864) Place Written: Washington, D.C. Type: Book Date: 1864 Pagination: 1 v. : 170 p. : ill. 23 x 15 cm.

Contains a full report of the April 1864 battle at Fort Pillow, Tennessee, based on an investigation of the battle itself, as well as the operations of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest "and his command immediately preceding and subsequent to that horrible transaction." Includes testimony from soldiers present at the battle, who witnessed Forrest's violations of the conduct of war, including shooting unarmed Union troops following their surrender. Contains the testimony of Lieutenant Mack J. Leaming, who wrote a detailed account of the events of Fort Pillow in 1893 (refer to GLC05080.01). Includes separate report no. 67, with testimony from returned Union soldiers who were taken as prisoners of war, complete with eight woodcuts of emaciated returned prisoners. Returned prisoners attest that their captors intentionally starved them at various times and stole their clothing, causing many to freeze to death. The Senate reports of Fort Pillow and prisoners of war are included in GLC00267.230.

It is estimated that 560 Union troops fought 1,500-2,000 Confederate soldiers in the Battle of Fort Pillow, Tennessee. Most of the Union soldiers killed at Fort Pillow, both during and after the battle, were African American. Much historical controversy exists regarding the facts surrounding Fort Pillow.

Watch the video: Voices of the Civil War Episode 27: Battle of Fort Pillow (May 2022).