The Fall of Fort Pillow

June 5, 1862 – Confederates abandoned an important garrison on the Mississippi River, opening a path for Federal naval forces to move downstream and threaten Memphis, Tennessee.

General P.G.T. Beauregard’s withdrawal from Corinth, Mississippi, doomed many Confederates stationed on the Mississippi west of that town. First in line from north to south were the 3,600 men at Fort Pillow, Tennessee. These troops had been under bombardment from the Federal Western Flotilla since April 13. But with Corinth abandoned, their supply line on the Memphis & Charleston Railroad was lost, leaving them isolated and vulnerable.

Fort Pillow | Image Credit:
Fort Pillow | Image Credit:

General John B. Villepigue, commanding at Fort Pillow, received orders from Beauregard to “immediately evacuate Fort Pillow for Grenada (150 miles south in Mississippi) by the best and shortest route. Whenever you shall be about to abandon the fort you will telegraph the commanding officer at Memphis to burn all the cotton, sugar, &c, in the vicinity of that city.” The troops were to leave behind anything they could not carry; “arms will be furnished you from the depot at Columbus, Miss., should there be any there.”

Despite protests from Memphis residents and Brigadier General M. Jeff Thompson, Villepigue’s Confederates began withdrawing from Fort Pillow and arriving at Memphis on June 3. It was a foregone conclusion among many that without the fort’s protection, Memphis would soon fall. The last of the troops and ammunition were taken by steamer to Vicksburg; the ship fired off one last shot at the Federal vessels before abandoning Fort Pillow. Villepigue reported:

“First we set fire to the quartermaster’s stores; next, the commissary, and then every ‘shanty’ on the ‘hill.’ We blew up all the guns, except two which would not burst. It was a terrific sight–the rain pouring down, the thunder rolling midst the lightning flashes, while the Yankees were pouring a stream of fire, making the sight sublime, though terrible.”

The Federal commanders, Commodore Charles H. Davis leading the gunboats and Colonel Charles R. Ellet leading the rams, had planned to attack Fort Pillow on the 4th, unaware it had been abandoned earlier that morning. Colonel Graham Fitch, commanding 1,000 Federal infantry slated to land and attack, wanted to launch his assault on this day, “but a foolish movement of Colonel Ellet prevented it in a way that could not be foreseen.” So it was scheduled to take place tomorrow.

That afternoon, massive explosions could be heard from the fort, and that night the Federals could see intense fires burning. The fires revealed that the Confederates were gone. Fort Randolph, about 12 miles below Fort Pillow, was abandoned by that evening. Confederates had held firm against Federal bombardment for nearly two months before withdrawing.

Fitch called off his assault and prepared to land and take the works the next day. Federal troops went ashore on the 5th and confirmed Fort Pillow was empty. Ellet came ashore and raised the U.S. flag over the fort. Davis did not acknowledge this in his report due to the heated rivalry between his gunboats and Ellet’s rams within the fleet.

The explosions from yesterday had been casemates and magazines “blown to atoms.” Fitch reported that the Confederates “had destroyed or carried away nearly all the property of the fort; the gun-carriages were burned and burning, and many of the guns that could not be removed were burst.” He did not consider the works valuable enough to occupy, so he left a company behind while Davis left a gunboat, and both men began planning to take Memphis.

The fall of Fort Pillow exposed Memphis as a virtually defenseless city, ripe for Federal conquest. The inadequate Confederate River Defense Fleet on the Mississippi under Captain James E. Montgomery and Thompson’s small force at Memphis were now all that stood between the powerful Federal Western Flotilla and the vital river city. News of the Confederate withdrawal panicked cotton planters along the Mississippi, and they began burning their crops to prevent them from falling into Federal hands.

Davis pledged to advance on the city “with the least possible delay.” The two Federal naval commands began moving down the Mississippi toward Memphis, 40 miles away. Davis commanded the ironclads and mortar boats, and even though they were manned by naval personnel, Davis reported to Major General Henry W. Halleck. Colonel Ellet commanded the rams and reported to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, with army soldiers comprising his crews. The fleet also escorted transports for Fitch’s troops.

The Federals chased down a Confederate transport steamer, capturing her before the crew could burn her. The ships spent the night assembling north of Memphis, preparing to attack the next day.


References; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 13298; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 180; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 162; Korn, Jerry, War on the Mississippi: Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 20; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 221-22; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 417; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 87; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 486


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