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|
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.
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.
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."
|Illustration of Massacre|
|New York Herald Newspaper Account of Fort Pillow|
|New York Times article about Fort Pillow|
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."
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.
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.