Thoughts About Fort Pillow

on April 12, 2014 in American Civil War, Battles, General History, People and Biographies
Battle and massacre at Fort Pillow

Engraving of the Fort Pillow massacre from 1894.

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.

2 Responses to “Thoughts About Fort Pillow”

  1. Ken Jones says:

    Mr. Thomas, I believe that you may want to continue your research for I fear that you may have missed some issues. Fort Pillow was not only manned by predominately black artillery troops, but was also occupied by troops that consisted of “Tennessee Tories” or residents of Tennessee that either had remained loyal to the federal government or turned coat when they felt the tides of war turning. You fail to recognize that as a factor in the Confederate troop’s reaction. Secondly, Forrest and his troops had laid siege to a number of forts similar to Pillow, all of who surrender without firing nary a shot. The failure of the Fort Pillow compliment to acquiesce to the surrender demands undoubtedly further agitated Forrest’s troops.
    This begs the question as to why the Fort pillow troops would decide to stand and fight rather than raise the white flag like the other installations had done. The answer can be found in the first point regarding the makeup of the federal troops manning the fort. Both black troops and turncoat Tennesseans had far more to fear in capture than they did in death. There are many accounts of union troops, especially black troops, begging for quarter and surrendering. Instead of standing down and ceasing hostilities when granted parole, the troops took up arms once their captors pressed the attack against the remaining combatants and began shooting at them from behind. This was considered a cowardly act and dishonorable act at the time.
    What gives me greatest pause as to the intensity of your research lies in your assertion that Forrest had a “prominent role in the foundation of the Ku Klux Klan”. Surely you have researched the early development of the Klan before making this broad and erroneous statement. Surely you know that the Klan first sought the leadership of Robert E. Lee to be their first unifying leader, a request that Lee turned down. The mere fact that they sought Lee should reveal their intentions to seek a leader, not because of an unsubstantiated hatred of blacks, but because of their ability to inspire their followers. Fort Pillow had little or no impetus in the selection of Forrest.

  2. Hale C says:

    Mr. Jones is spot on about the importance of the pro-US Tennessee troops in the garrison. C.S. troops, as well as the Confederate political authorities saw these people as traitors.

    Moreover, during the surrender negotiations, the US commander was clearly trying to stall, hoping for help from the Yankee gunboats that were in the offing.

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