Tag Archives: James R. Chalmers

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: FortWiki.com

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: Flickr.com

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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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 167; Bailey, Ronald H., The Battles for Atlanta: Sherman Moves East (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 24, 25; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 187-89; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20657-81; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 392; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 2298-338; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 417-19; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 108; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 484-85; 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. 190-91; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 277-78

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Chattanooga: Federal Leadership Questioned

October 11, 1863 – Federal reinforcements from Virginia entered Chattanooga, but it was becoming clear that Major General William S. Rosecrans was not up to the task of breaking the Confederate siege paralyzing his Army of the Cumberland.

Maj Gen William S. Rosecrans | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

As Major General Joseph Hooker’s XI and XII corps began reinforcing Rosecrans’s army, Hooker telegraphed Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, “You may justly claim the merit at having saved Chattanooga.” He placed his four divisions below the city to prevent Confederates from crossing the Tennessee River and attacking the Federal rear.

Despite the reinforcements, there seemed to be no viable way to break the siege. Information from the city became scarce, and President Abraham Lincoln had to ask Tennessee Military Governor Andrew Johnson, “What news have you from Rosecrans’ Army?…”

In eastern Tennessee, Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s Federal Army of the Ohio showed no signs of moving southwest to try breaking Rosecrans out. To the west, Major General William T. Sherman’s Federals from Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Tennessee were moving very slowly toward Chattanooga, repairing the railroad as they went.

Rear Admiral David D. Porter, commanding Federal naval forces on the Tennessee River, informed Grant that the river was low, preventing the larger Federal gunboats from supporting Sherman’s advance. Porter assured Grant that he would bring the vessels up as soon as possible, adding, “My intention is to send every gunboat I can spare up the Tennessee. I have also sent below for light-drafts to come up.”

As Sherman left Memphis to join his men heading west, his train was attacked at Collierville, about 20 miles out of Memphis, by General James R. Chalmers’s Confederate cavalry. A four-hour fight ensued when Sherman refused to surrender unconditionally. The Confederates finally withdrew upon learning that a Federal division was coming from Memphis to reinforce Sherman. The Federals sustained 110 casualties (14 killed, 42 wounded, and 54 captured); Sherman lost five staff horses and his second-best uniform. The Confederates lost 51 men (three killed and 48 wounded).

Meanwhile, Lincoln became increasingly convinced that Rosecrans could not handle his predicament. Lincoln remarked that Rosecrans seemed “stunned and confused, like a duck hit on the head.” This was bolstered by gloomy reports from Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana, Stanton’s operative in Chattanooga. Dana had called for Rosecrans’s removal, and he repeated it on the 12th:

“I have never seen a public man possessing talent with less administrative power, less clearness and steadiness in difficulty, and greater practical incapacity than General Rosecrans. He has inventive fertility and knowledge, but he has no strength of will and no concentration of purpose. His mind scatters; there is no system in the use of his busy days and restless nights… Under the present circumstances I consider this army to be very unsafe in his hands.”

However, Lincoln had no replacement in mind, so he continued trying to motivate Rosecrans to fight his way out of Chattanooga. Lincoln wired: “You and Burnside now have (the enemy) by the throat, and he must break your hold or perish.” Rosecrans responded that the Confederates had ripe corn to eat but “our side is barren… we must put our trust in God, who never fails those who truly trust.”

A week later, Dana received reports that hungry soldiers were shouting “Crackers!” at officers inspecting fortifications. Dana wrote Stanton:

“Amid all this, the practical incapacity of the general commanding is astonishing, and it often seems difficult to believe him of sound mind. His imbecility appears to be contagious… If the army is finally obliged to retreat, the probability is that it will fall back like a rabble, leaving its artillery, and protected only by the river behind it.”

Stanton shared Dana’s reports with Lincoln. Meanwhile, heavy rains had made most of the roads outside Chattanooga virtually impassable, preventing supplies from getting over Walden’s Ridge to feed the Federals.

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References

Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 332, 334; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 765-67, 782-83; Korn, Jerry, The Fight for Chattanooga: Chickamauga to Missionary Ridge (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 83, 85-89; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 419-20

The Fall of Munfordville

September 17, 1862 – General Braxton Bragg’s Army of Mississippi captured a Federal garrison in Kentucky after a unique gesture of chivalry.

General Braxton Bragg | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Bragg had sent a portion of his army under Brigadier General James R. Chalmers to cut the railroad line north of Glasgow. Chalmers, along with a cavalry detachment, had exceeded orders and continued to Munfordville. When the Federal garrison there refused to surrender, Bragg condemned Chalmers’s “unauthorized and injudicious” move north and sent the rest of his army to join in forcing the garrison’s surrender.

By the 15th, about 30,000 Confederates had assembled outside Munfordville to face just 4,000 Federals in the town. The Federals held defensive positions on the south bank of the Green River, protecting the railroad crossing over that waterway. They were led by Colonel Cyrus L. Dunham, who arrived the previous day with reinforcements and outranked the former commander, Colonel John T. Wilder.

Bragg readied his men for an all-out attack to overrun the garrison. But one of his division commanders, Major General Simon B. Buckner, was a native of this part of Kentucky, and he feared that such an assault might alienate or endanger friends and neighbors. Bragg held back, instead surrounding the garrison by moving Major General Leonidas Polk’s corps to the Federal rear and placing Major General William J. Hardee’s corps to the front.

Meanwhile, the second Confederate army operating in Kentucky, led by Major General Edmund Kirby Smith, reached Covington, just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. After panicking the locals in that area, Smith pulled back the next day and began returning toward Lexington.

By the afternoon of the 16th, Bragg had the garrison surrounded. He sent his demand for surrender at 6 p.m., but the Federals were in the middle of a command change. Since the Confederates had failed to cut the telegraph wire, a cable arrived in Munfordville from Federal headquarters at Louisville removing Dunham from command and reinstating Wilder to lead the garrison.

Gen Simon B. Buckner | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Being a volunteer, Wilder was unfamiliar with military protocols and questioned Bragg’s claim of numerical superiority. He asked town residents for advice. The residents, knowing that Buckner was among the Confederates, told Wilder to consult with him because he was an honorable man. Wilder came across the lines under a flag of truce and asked to meet with Buckner to seek his advice as a gentleman.

Under this unusually chivalric arrangement, Buckner agreed to give Wilder a tour of the Confederate forces surrounding Munfordville so he could see the force arrayed against him. Wilder saw the large number of men and guns stationed outside town and agreed to surrender the next morning.

A formal surrender ceremony took place on the 17th. The Confederates took 4,267 prisoners, 10 guns, 5,000 small arms, and, according to Bragg, “a proportionate quantity of ammunition, horses, mules, and military stores. My admiration of and love for my army cannot be expressed. To its patient toil and admirable discipline am I indebted for all the success which has attended this perilous undertaking.”

Bragg paroled the Federal prisoners and reported to the Confederate adjutant general that his “junction with Kirby Smith is complete. (Federal Major General Don Carlos) Buell still at Bowling Green.”

Buell’s Army of the Ohio could not prevent the garrison at Munfordville from falling, and Bragg’s army now stood between his Federals and Louisville. Meanwhile, the Federals under General George W. Morgan were forced to abandon Cumberland Gap now that two Confederate armies were operating in Kentucky, to their rear. This left the largely Unionist residents of that region vulnerable to Confederate reprisals.

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 89; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 242; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 212-14; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 658-59; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 209, 212; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 266-68; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: C.B. Richardson, 1866; revised version New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 504; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 517-18, 576-77; Street, Jr., James, The Struggle for Tennessee: Tupelo to Stones River (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 51; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 414-15