The Fort Pillow Controversy

April 12, 1864 – Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Confederate cavalry attacked the Federal garrison at Fort Pillow on the Mississippi River, and a controversy ensued over whether black troops were killed after surrendering.

Forrest’s troopers descended on Fort Pillow as part of their raid on Federal outposts and supply lines in western Tennessee. Forrest also sought to avenge Federal depredations being committed in the region; several men suspected of aiding the Confederacy were held without charges, and one of Forrest’s officers had been tortured and murdered.

The fort was a large earthwork on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi, about 40 land miles north of Memphis. Held by Federal forces since June 1862, the fort protected a nearby trading post, and it was garrisoned by 557 Federal troops under Major Lionel F. Booth. Of these troops, 262 were newly recruited former slaves, and the rest were mostly Tennessee Unionists (whom Forrest’s Tennesseans considered traitors). The Federal tinclad gunboat U.S.S. New Era patrolled the Mississippi riverfront behind the garrison.

Fort Pillow | Image Credit:

A portion of Forrest’s command consisting of 1,500 horsemen under Brigadier General James R. Chalmers attacked the outposts at 5:30 a.m. on the 12th and surrounded the fort by 8 a.m. Federal artillery and the New Era’s guns could not be positioned to hit the Confederates, who took the high ground on the perimeter and killed Booth. Command passed to Major William F. Bradford.

Gen Nathan Bedford Forrest | Image Credit:

Forrest arrived around 10 a.m. and directed an attack in which the Confederates captured the Federal barracks on the south side of the fort. The New Era steamed downriver to replenish her ammunition. Forrest’s aide, Captain Charles W. Anderson, stated that “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.”

When Forrest’s ammunition train arrived around 3 p.m., he sent a courier to Bradford under a flag of truce demanding surrender and warning, “Should my demand be refused, I cannot be responsible for the fate of your command.”

Bradford asked for one hour to consult with his officers. However, Forrest could see the New Era on the river and feared that she carried reinforcements. He gave Bradford just 20 minutes, stating, “If at the expiration of that time the fort is not surrendered, I shall assault it.” During the 20-minute ceasefire, Federal troops mocked the Confederates from the fort parapets. Confident he could hold the fort, Bradford finally replied, “I will not surrender.” Forrest attacked immediately.

The Confederates easily broke through the outer defenses, scaled the parapets, and drove the defenders down the bluff toward the river. The Federals tried fleeing to the gunboat, but it pulled back under the heavy Confederate fire. The fight soon degenerated into a panic, as Forrest and his officers tried stopping their men from wiping out the entire garrison.

In the end, all 557 Federals were killed, wounded, or captured (231 killed, 100 wounded, and 226 captured). Of those taken prisoner, 58 were black and 168 were white. The Confederates also captured six guns and 350 stands of small arms while losing just 100 men (14 killed and 86 wounded). Federal Acting Master William Ferguson, assigned to investigate Fort Pillow the day after it fell, reported:

“About 8 a.m. the enemy sent in a flag of truce with a proposal from General Forrest that he would put me in possession of the fort and the country around until 5 p.m. for the purpose of burying our dead and removing our wounded, whom he had no means of attending to. I agreed to the terms proposed…

“All the wounded who had strength enough to speak agreed that after the fort was taken an indiscriminate slaughter of our troops was carried on by the enemy with a furious and vindictive savageness which was never equaled by the most merciless of the Indian tribes… Bodies with gaping wounds, some bayoneted through the eyes, some with skulls beaten through, others with hideous wounds as if their bowels had been ripped open with bowie-knives, plainly told that but little quarter was shown to our troops…

“Of course, 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…”

In his report, Forrest wrote:

“The victory was complete, and the loss of the enemy will never be known from the fact that large numbers ran into the river and were shot and drowned. The force was composed of about 500 negroes and 200 white soldiers (Tennessee Tories). The river was dyed with the blood of the slaughtered for 200 yards. There was in the fort a large number of citizens who had fled there to escape the conscript law. Most of these ran into the river and were drowned.

“The approximate loss was upward of 500 killed, but few of the officers escaping.

“It is hoped that these facts will demonstrate to the northern people that negro soldiers cannot cope with Southerners. We still hold the fort.”

Witnesses accused the Confederates of killing Federal soldiers–particularly the black soldiers–even after they surrendered. Survivors later testified at a congressional hearing that the Confederates shouted, “No quarter!” while shooting or bayoneting several men who had already laid down their arms. Northerners generally decried the “Fort Pillow Massacre,” viewing it as indicative of the atrocities that Confederates committed against black soldiers for fighting against them.

Forrest argued that the engagement could hardly be called a “massacre” since he had taken 226 prisoners, none of whom were seriously injured. He also maintained that some Federals picked up their weapons and resumed firing after they surrendered, and therefore suffered the consequences. Others claimed the high black casualty rate was due to their brave defense, as they were the last to flee.

Four of President Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet members—Secretary of State William H. Seward, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, and Navy Secretary Gideon Welles—publicly supported the execution of an equal number of Confederate prisoners of war in retaliation. But Major General William T. Sherman, overall commander in the region, recommended no vengeance, and Lincoln ultimately agreed. Forrest and his men were not called upon to testify in their own defense after the war. Nevertheless, black soldiers used the rallying cry, “Remember Fort Pillow!” for the rest of the conflict.



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