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Fort Pillow Massacre

The Battle of Fort Pillow, also known as the Fort Pillow Massacre, was fought on April 12, 1864, at Fort Pillow on the Mississippi River in Henning, Tennessee, during the American Civil War. The battle ended with a massacre of surrendered Federal black troops by soldiers under the command of Confederate Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest.

 

Fort Pillow, 40 mi (64 km) north of Memphis, was built by Brigadier General Gideon Johnson Pillow in early 1862 and was used by both sides during the war. With the fall of New Madrid and Island No. 10 to Union forces, Confederate troops evacuated Fort Pillow on June 4, in order to avoid being cut off from the rest of the Confederate Army. Union forces occupied Fort Pillow on June 6, and used it to protect the river approach to Memphis.

 

The fort stood on a high bluff and was protected by three lines of entrenchments arranged in a semicircle, with a protective parapet 4 ft (1.2 m) thick and 6 to 8 ft (1.8 to 2.4 m) high surrounded by a ditch. (During the battle, the thick parapet would in fact prove to be a disadvantage to the defenders because they could not fire upon approaching troops without mounting the top of the parapet, subjecting them to enemy fire. Similarly, operators of the six artillery pieces of the fort found it difficult to depress their barrels enough to fire on the attackers once they got close.) A Federal gunboat, the USS New Era, commanded by Captain James Marshall, was also available for the defense.

 

On March 16, 1864, Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest launched a month-long cavalry raid with 7,000 troopers into western Tennessee and Kentucky. Their objectives were to capture Union prisoners and supplies and to demolish posts and fortifications from Paducah, Kentucky, south to Memphis. The first of the two significant engagements in the expedition was the Battle of Paducah on March 25, and Forrest's men did considerable damage to the town and its military supplies. Numerous skirmishes occurred throughout the region in late March and early April. Needing supplies, Forrest planned to move on Fort Pillow with about 1,500 to 2,500 men.

 

The Union garrison at Fort Pillow consisted of about 600 men, divided almost evenly between black and white troops. The black soldiers belonged to the 6th U.S. Regiment Colored Heavy Artillery and a section of the 2nd U.S. Colored Light Artillery (previously known as the Memphis Battery Light Artillery (African Descent)), under the overall command of Major Lionel F. Booth. Many were former slaves and understood the personal consequences of a loss to the Confederates—at best an immediate return to slavery rather than being treated as a prisoner of war. Some Confederates had threatened to kill any Union black troops they encountered. The white soldiers were predominantly new recruits from the 13th Tennessee Cavalry, a Federal regiment from western Tennessee, commanded by Maj. William F. Bradford.

 

Forrest arrived at Fort Pillow at 10:00 on April 12. By this time, Chalmers had already surrounded the fort. A stray bullet struck Forrest's horse, felling the general and bruising him. (This would be the first of three horses he lost that day.) He deployed sharpshooters around the higher ground that overlooked the fort, bringing many of the occupants into their direct line of fire. Major Booth was killed by a sharpshooter's bullet to the chest and Bradford assumed command. By 11:00, the Confederates had captured two rows of barracks about 150 yd (140 m) from the southern end of the fort. The Union soldiers had failed to destroy these buildings before the Confederates occupied them and subjected the garrison to a murderous fire.

 

Rifle and artillery fire continued until 15:30, when Forrest sent a note demanding surrender: "I now demand unconditional surrender of your forces, at the same time assuring you that you will be treated as prisoners of war. ... I have received a new supply of ammunition and can take your works by assault, and if compelled to do so you must take the consequences." Bradford replied, concealing his identity as he did not wish the Confederates to realize that Booth had been killed, requesting an hour for consideration. Forrest, who believed that reinforcing troops would soon arrive by river, replied that he would only allow 20 minutes, and that "If at the expiration of that time the fort is not surrendered, I shall assault it." Having been given the opportunity to surrender Bradford's final reply was: "I will not surrender." Forrest ordered his bugler to sound the charge.

The Confederate assault was furious. While the sharpshooters maintained their fire into the fort, a first wave entered the ditch and stood while the second wave used their backs as stepping stones. These men then reached down and helped the first wave scramble up a ledge on the embankment. All of this proceeded flawlessly and with very little firing, except from the sharpshooters and around the flanks. Their fire against the New Era caused the sailors to button up their gun ports and hold their fire. As the sharpshooters were signaled to hold their fire, the men on the ledge went up and over the embankment, firing now for the first time into the massed defenders, who fought briefly, but then broke and ran to the landing at the foot of the bluff, where they had been told that the Union gunboat would cover their withdrawal by firing grapeshot and canister rounds. The gunboat did not fire a single shot because its gun ports were sealed, and there probably would have been more Union casualties than Confederate if they had fired. The fleeing soldiers were subjected to fire both from the rear and from the flank, from the soldiers who had been firing at the gunboat. Many were shot down. Others reached the river only to drown, or be picked off in the water by marksmen on the bluff.

 

Conflicting reports of what happened next, from 16:00 to dusk, led to controversy. Union and Confederate sources claimed that even though the Union troops surrendered, Forrest's men massacred them in cold blood. Surviving members of the garrison said that most of their men surrendered and threw down their arms, only to be shot or bayoneted by the attackers, who repeatedly shouted, "No quarter! No quarter!" The Joint Committee On the Conduct of the War immediately investigated the incident and concluded that the Confederates shot most of the garrison after it had surrendered. A 2002 study by Albert Castel concluded that the Union forces were indiscriminately massacred after Fort Pillow "had ceased resisting or was incapable of resistance." Historian Andrew Ward in 2005 reached the conclusion that an atrocity in the modern sense occurred at Fort Pillow, including the murders of fleeing black civilians, but that the event was not premeditated nor officially sanctioned by Confederate commanders. A Confederate sergeant, in a letter written home shortly after the battle said that "the poor, deluded negroes would run up to our men, fall upon their knees, and with uplifted hand scream for mercy, but were ordered to their feet and then shot down." This account is consistent with the relatively high comparative casualties sustained by race of the defenders.

 

On April 17, 1864, in the aftermath of Fort Pillow, Grant ordered General Benjamin F. Butler, who was negotiating prisoner exchanges with the Confederacy, to demand that in the exchange and treatment of prisoners, black prisoners had to be treated identically to whites. A failure to do so would "be regarded as a refusal on their part to agree to the further exchange of prisoners, and [would] be so treated by us." This demand was refused and Confederate Secretary of War Seddon in June 1864 stated the confederate position: "I doubt, however, whether the exchange of negroes at all for our soldiers would be tolerated. As to the white officers serving with negro troops, we ought never to be inconvenienced with such prisoners."

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Uploaded on October 26, 2012