A Brief History
On April 12, 1864, Confederate forces under Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest massacred a large part of the Federal troops defending Fort Pillow, Tennessee.
Digging deeper, we find Nathan Forrest well known as a founder of the Ku Klux Klan and renowned as a racist, leading about 7,000 Confederate cavalrymen.
Fort Pillow was an earthworks fort supposed to protect the Mississippi River, but it was not of a good design. The cracked layout of the fort actually favored attackers having better fields of fire than the hapless defenders who found it hard to fire at approaching troops and benefited little from the trenches and mounded earth.
The fort was staffed by about 600 Federal troops, half of which were African-American, or what at the time were referred to as “colored.” Months prior to this battle President Lincoln had issued a “Retaliation Order” that any time African-American troops were killed by southern forces instead of being treated like regular prisoners of war that a like number of Confederate soldiers taken prisoner by the Federal troops would be executed! Somehow, American school children just are not often taught about this order! The order went on to say that any African-American prisoners placed into slavery would have a corresponding number of Confederate prisoners placed into hard labor for as long as the African-Americans remained slaves.
Despite this order, the African-American troops feared they would be executed if captured, and the white Federal troops feared the same fate since they were fighting alongside the African-Americans. Thus, when Forrest ordered the surrender of the fort in the face of overwhelming odds, the Federal commander refused to surrender and the battle was on.
The Confederates easily swarmed the fort, and individual soldiers tried to surrender (there never was an organized surrender) but most of them were shot, bayoneted or slashed with swords! Exact figures are hard to come by as sources vary, but perhaps around 400 of the 600 defenders were killed, possibly more. Most of the survivors were Caucasian troops, and few African-American troops survived, even though accounts of African-Americans begging for their lives before being slaughtered were made by Confederate troops! Even an unknown number of African-American civilians are believed to have been murdered.
Of course, there have been plenty of contrary views expressed by southerners at the time and through to the present, but it seems the majority of historians call it the way it is described here.
Fort Pillow is remembered as a National Historic Landmark, as well as in the 1997 Tom Selleck film, The Last Stand at Saber River, a 1999 documentary, The Forgotten Battle of Fort Pillow, and counter-factual film and book (not related) where the South wins the Civil War, C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America (2004 “documentary”) and The Guns of the South (2006 novel).
Only 14 Confederate troops were killed in the battle! Despite hand wringing and tough talk, no retaliation ever took place. Both the white and African-American troops defending the Fort for the Union were from Tennessee, a Confederate State!
Question for students (and subscribers): Was this massacre justifiable? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
US Congress. Fort Pillow Massacre. Adena, 2006.