As today is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Fort Pillow, and I’ve spent a lot of time researching and thinking about Nathan Bedford Forrest so as to use him as a character in my book, I thought I would dwell on what is unquestionably the most infamous event of Forrest’s career. During his raid of West Tennessee in 1864, Forrest, overseeing Chalmer’s Division of cavalry, attacked Fort Pillow near Memphis. The several hundred-man garrison was half-white and half-black, and most of the latter were massacred in the carnage that ensued when the Rebel troopers stormed the fort.
Here are some of my takeaways on the massacre:
- From a military historical point of view, storming a fortification has always been a terrifying, bloody business for both the attacker and defender. When such an assault is successful, massacres of a defending garrison are commonplace even without the racial animus that Confederate troops had for blacks in blue uniforms. Although such incidents were uncommon in the Civil War (proving once again how civil the Civil War often was), history in general is replete with them.
- The attack on Fort Pillow has been raked over ever since the war, and no solid evidence has ever been uncovered to indicate Forrest gave a “take no prisoners” order. Quite the contrary, it has been very well established that he sought to stop the massacre once he was aware of what was happening. While no evidence has ever come to light that General Chalmers ordered the massacre, there is some to suggest he condoned it once it was under way.
- Between the above two points, I think the business was a soldiers’ affair. The greybacks slaughtered the black troops once they got them in a more or less helpless position because: 1) they were inclined to do so out of sheer racial animosity anyway; and 2) men storming a fort are prone to run wild and slaughter the fort’s defenders in any case.
- Forrest’s prominent role in the foundation of the Ku Klux Klan gave the Fort Pillow massacre a bigger identity than it otherwise would have enjoyed. Although Forrest left the KKK long before it gained anything like the identity it would take on later as a nationwide white supremacist organization, the fact is that that very same KKK always pointed to a man who was a former slave trader, prominent Confederate general, and who presided over an infamous massacre of black troops as their founder. For them, all those things were a point of pride, lumping the entire package together into the same simplified, ugly light.