Sunday, April 14, 2013

Fort Pillow Massacre, April 12, 1864

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. The battle ended with a massacre of surrendered Federal black troops by soldiers under the command of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest.  

Nathan Bedford Forrest
Fort Pillow, 40 miles north of Memphis, Tennessee, was built by 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 in 1862, 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 thick and 6 to 8 ft 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.)

On March 16, 1864, General 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. He wrote on April 4, "There is a Federal force of 500 or 600 at Fort Pillow, which I shall attend to in a day or two, as they have horses and supplies which we need."

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, under the overall command of Major Lionel 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 Major William Bradford.  

Forrest arrived at Fort Pillow at 10:00 on April 12. By this time, one of his generals, James Chalmers had already surrounded the fort.Forrest 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. 

James Chalmers
By 11:00, the Confederates had captured two rows of barracks at 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:

 "The conduct of the officers and men garrisoning Fort Pillow has been such as to entitle them to being treated a prisoners of war. I demand the unconditional surrender of the entire garrison, promising that you shall be treated as prisoners of war. My men have just 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." 
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. 

Illustration of Massacre
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 a 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.

There are conflicting reports of what happened next, from 16:00 to dusk.

Union 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!" 

New York Herald Newspaper Account of Fort Pillow
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.
New York Times article about Fort Pillow
Confederate casualties were comparatively low (14 killed and 86 wounded) and Union casualties were high. Of the 585–605 men present, the Union losses were reported as 277–297 dead.  It is obvious that the race of the soldiers affected casualties. Of the black members of the garrison, only 58 (around 20%) were marched away as prisoners; 168 (almost 60%) white soldiers were taken prisoner. Not all of the prisoners who were shot were black – Major Bradford was apparently among those shot after he surrendered.  Confederate anger at the thought of blacks fighting them, and their initial reluctance to surrender (because many of the black troops believed they would only be killed if they surrendered in Federal uniform) resulted in a tragedy.

Forrest's men insisted that the Federals, although fleeing, kept their weapons and frequently turned to shoot, forcing the Confederates to keep firing in self defense. Their claim is consistent with the discovery of numerous Federal rifles on the bluffs near the river.  A contemporary newspaper account from Tennessee states that "General Forrest begged them to surrender," but "not the first sign of surrender was ever given." Similar accounts were reported in both Southern and Northern newspapers at the time. 

The Congressional 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. 

"Remember Fort Pillow" was thereafter used as a Union rallying cry and cemented resolve to see the war through to its conclusion.

On April 17, 1864, in the aftermath of Fort Pillow, General Ulysses Grant ordered General Benjamin 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." 

Benjamin Butler

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."

The Union already had a policy about killing prisoners of war. On July 30, 1863, prior to the massacre, President Abraham Lincoln wrote his Order of Retaliation: "It is therefore ordered that for every soldier of the United States killed in violation of the laws of war, a rebel soldier shall be executed; and for every one enslaved by the enemy or sold into slavery a rebel soldier shall be placed at hard labor on the public works, and continued at such labor until the other shall be released and receive the treatment due to a prisoner of war."

On May 3, 1864, President Lincoln requested his cabinet give him opinions on how the Union should respond to the massacre. Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase recommended that Lincoln enforce his Order of Retaliation of July 30, 1863. 

Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles wanted to wait for the congressional committee to obtain more information. However, Welles expressed his disdain by writing in his diary: “There must be something in these terrible reports, but I distrust Congressional committees. They exaggerate.” 

Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and Attorney General Edward Bates wanted retaliatory measures. 

Secretary of the Interior John Usher wrote that it was “inexpedient to take any extreme action” and wanted the officers of Forrest’s command to be made responsible. 

Postmaster General Montgomery Blair wanted the “actual offenders” given the “most summary punishment when captured.” 

Secretary of State William Seward wanted the commanding general of the Union army to confront the commanding general of the Confederate army about the allegations.

In the United States Senate, Henry Wilson cited the massacre when he advocated for equal pay for African-American soldiers. A Vermont newspaper portrayed Wilson's position: "Henry Wilson of Massachusetts, in a speech in the U. S. Senate on Friday, said he thought our treatment of the negro soldiers almost as bad as that of the rebels at Fort Pillow. This is hardly an exaggeration."

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.

Recent histories agree that a massacre occurred: Richard Fuchs, author of An Unerring Fire, concludes, “The affair at Fort Pillow was simply an orgy of death, a mass lynching to satisfy the basest of conduct – intentional murder – for the vilest of reasons – racism and personal enmity.” Ward states, “Whether the massacre was premeditated or spontaneous does not address the more fundamental question of whether a massacre took place... it certainly did, in every dictionary sense of the word.”

Fort Pillow, now preserved as the Fort Pillow State Park, was named a U.S.  National Historic Landmark in 1974.

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