Today in Civil War History: Remembering Fort Pillow

Today is the 155th anniversary of the Battle of Fort Pillow, arguably the most controversial battle of the Civil War, when Confederate forces under Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest attacked the fort on the Mississippi River near Henning, Tennessee. Forrest had at least 1,500 men with him, and the defending Union troops had about 600 or so. The defenders were made up of both former slaves and white Southern Unionists that had enlisted in the Union Army. The fort was captured without too much effort, and then a massacre of the Union troops began.

There are still some who try to argue that there was no massacre, and that accounts of the brutal aftermath of the short siege were exaggerated. No. A thousand times NO. It was indeed a massacre, as some 14 or so Confederates died and some 86 or so were wounded, and the number of Union (and possibly Union civilian) deaths has been estimated to range from at least 220 or so up to 500, with another 130 wounded. We are supposed to believe that the troops defending a fort somehow managed to suffer many more deaths than the attackers? Not to mention that the number of Union deaths are grossly out of proportion with the rest of the casualties? No. And accounts from the Confederates themselves point to the murder of Union soldiers after they surrendered. One Confederate wrote the following in a letter to his family:

Our men were so exasperated by the Yankee’s threats of no quarter that they gave but little. The slaughter was awful. Words cannot describe the scene. The poor deluded negros would run up to our men fall on their knees and with uplifted hands scream for mercy but they were ordered to their feet and then shot down. The whitte [sic] men fared but little better. The fort turned out to be a great slaughter pen. Blood, human blood stood about in pools and brains could have been gathered up in any quantity. I with several others tried to stop the butchery and at one time had partially succeeded but Gen. Forrest ordered them shot down like dogs and the carnage continued. Finally our men became sick of blood and the firing ceased.

Forrest himself admitted that a “wholesale slaughter of the garrison at Fort Pillow” had taken place. He also wrote:

The river was dyed 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.

The story of Fort Pillow also reminds me of one of the great myths of the Civil War that is still being widely passed around as fact. The story goes that the breakdown in the prisoner exchange between North and South was because General Grant did not want to return Confederate prisoners to refill the Southern ranks, and thus his policy led to the overcrowding in prisons North and South that led to so many deaths. Grant, often seen by his critics as being callous in his attitudes toward the lives of his soldiers, is blamed for the policy. Again, that is garbage, an attempt to shift blame for the breakdown to Grant rather than lay it at the feet of those to whom it belongs, i.e. the Confederate authorities.

In the movie Glory, there is a scene that explains what the Confederate Congress did.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis had originally issued a proclamation in late 1862 that basically stated that captured Union black troops (as well as their white officers) would not be treated the same as captured white troops and that they would not be exchanged. The Confederate Congress made Davis’ announcement official policy in May 1863. This was carried out for the first time in July 1863, when Confederates first captured members of the 54th Massachusetts. By the end of that July, President Lincoln formally announced that the previously existing exchange system was no longer valid, and that the exchange system would be halted until the Confederate government agreed to treat captured black soldiers the same as captured white soldiers. They refused, and so the prisoner exchange ended. It would not be resumed until the winter of 1864-1865. By that time, thousands upon thousands of prisoners had died.