Friday, April 12, 2013

This Day in History: Apr 12, 1864: The Fort Pillow Massacre

During the American Civil War, Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest's Confederate raiders attack the isolated Union garrison at Fort Pillow, Tennessee, overlooking the Mississippi River. The fort, an important part of the Confederate river defense system, was captured by federal forces in 1862. Of the 500-strong Union garrison defending the fort, more than half the soldiers were African-Americans.

After an initial bombardment, General Forrest asked for the garrison's surrender. The Union commander refused, and Forrest's 1,500 cavalry troopers easily stormed and captured the fort, suffering only moderate casualties. However, the extremely high proportion of Union casualties--231 killed and more than 100 seriously wounded--raised questions about the Confederates' conduct after the battle. Union survivors' accounts, later supported by a federal investigation, concluded that African-American troops were massacred by Forrest's men after surrendering. Southern accounts disputed these findings, and controversy over the battle continues today.

The enlistment of African-Americans into the Union army began after the enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, and by the war's end 180,000 African Americans had fought in the Union army and 10,000 in the navy.

More on the Massacre

Union and Confederate 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!"[8] The 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. 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."[9] 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.[10]
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.”[11] 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.”[12] John Cimprich states, “The new paradigm in social attitudes and the fuller use of available evidence has favored a massacre interpretation... Debate over the memory of this incident formed a part of sectional and racial conflicts for many years after the war, but the reinterpretation of the event during the last thirty years offers some hope that society can move beyond past intolerance.”[13]

Lieutenant Daniel Van Horn of the 6th U. S. Heavy Artillery (Colored) stated in his official report "There never was a surrender of the fort, both officers and men declaring they never would surrender or ask for quarter."[14] Another officer of the unit, however, and the only surviving officers of the 13th Tennessee Cavalry attested to the characterization that unarmed soldiers were killed in the act of surrendering. However, 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."[15] This account is consistent with the relatively high comparative casualties sustained by race of the defenders. (See next section.)

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.[8] Their claim is consistent with the discovery of numerous Federal rifles on the bluffs near the river (see Jordan, who inconclusively asked in 1947, "Was there a Massacre. . .?" THQ). The Union flag was still flying over the fort, which indicated that the force had not formally surrendered. A contemporary newspaper account from Jackson, 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.[16]

Historian Allan Nevins wrote that although the interpretation of the facts had "provoked some disputation":
Northerners, however, saw only one side. They read headlines announcing "Attack on Fort Pillow – Indiscriminate Slaughter of the Prisoners – Shocking Scenes of Savagery; dispatches from Sherman's army declaring "there is a general gritting of teeth here"; reports from the Missouri Democrat detailing the "fiendishness" of rebel behavior; and editorials like that in the Chicago Tribune condemning the "murder" and "butchery".[17]

The New York Times reported on April 24:
The blacks and their officers were shot down, bayoneted and put to the sword in cold blood... . Out of four hundred negro soldiers only about twenty survive! At least three hundred of them were destroyed after the surrender! This is the statement of the rebel General Chalmers himself to our informant.[18]

Later, in his Memoirs, Ulysses S. Grant, who was not present at the battle, wrote of the battle:
Forrest, however, fell back rapidly, and attacked the troops at Fort Pillow, a station for the protection of the navigation of the Mississippi River. The garrison consisted of a regiment of colored troops, infantry, and a detachment of Tennessee cavalry. These troops fought bravely, but were overpowered. I will leave Forrest in his dispatches to tell what he did with them. "The river was dyed," he [Forrest] says, "with the blood of the slaughtered for two hundred yards. The approximate loss was upward of five hundred killed, but few of the officers escaping. My loss was about twenty killed. It is hoped that these facts will demonstrate to the Northern people that negro soldiers cannot cope with Southerners." Subsequently, Forrest made a report in which he left out the part which shocks humanity to read.[19]


Casualty figures vary according to different sources. Dyer gives the following statistics of Union casualties: 350 killed and mortally wounded, 60 wounded, 164 captured and missing, 574 aggregate.[20]

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. Some scholars, however, believe these reports were exaggerated (Jordan). 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.[21] 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.

The Confederates evacuated Fort Pillow that evening, so they gained little except a temporary disruption of Union operations. The "Fort Pillow Massacre" 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, Grant ordered General Benjamin F. 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."[22]

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.[23]

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.[24]

On May 3, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln requested his cabinet give him opinions on how the Union should respond to the massacre.[25] Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase recommended that Lincoln enforce his Order of Retaliation of July 30, 1863.[26] 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.”[27] Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and Attorney General Edward Bates wanted retaliatory measures.[28][29] Secretary of the Interior John P. Usher wrote that it was “inexpedient to take any extreme action” and wanted the officers of Forrest’s command to be made responsible.[30]

Postmaster General Montgomery Blair wanted the “actual offenders” given the “most summary punishment when captured.” Blair cited page 445 of the book International Law; or, Rules Regulating the Intercourse of States in Peace and War, written by Henry W. Halleck (the Union Chief of Staff) as justification for retaliation. [31]

Secretary of State William H. Seward wanted the commanding general of the Union army to confront the commanding general of the Confederate army about the allegations.[32] Welles wrote of the cabinet meeting on May 6:
Stanton fell in with my suggestion, so far as to propose that, should Forrest, or Chalmers, or any officer conspicuous in this butchery be captured, he should be turned over for trial for the murders at Fort Pillow. I sat beside Chase and mentioned to him some of the advantages of this course, and he said it made a favorable impression. I urged him to say so, for it appeared to me that the President and Seward did not appreciate it.[33]

Lincoln began to write instructions to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, but took no subsequent action because he was “distracted” by other issues.[34]
In the United States Senate, Henry Wilson cited the massacre when he advocated for equal pay for African-American soldiers.[35] 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 and exagerration.[36]

It may, or may not be, that the fighting ability of the African-American soldiers was negatively affected by the fact that they received less pay.
Fort Pillow, now preserved as the Fort Pillow State Park, was named a U.S. National Historic Landmark in 1974.[37]

Taken from:  & [12.04.2013]

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