Forrest on Fort Pillow: 1868 Cincinnati Commercial Newspaper Interview

lelliott19

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This interview with General Nathan B Forrest appeared in The Daily News and Herald. (Savannah, Ga.), September 12, 1868, page 1. It was reprinted from the Cincinnati Commercial and also appeared in The Louisville Daily Journal. (Louisville, Ky.), September 8, 1868, page 1. I searched some key phrases from the interview, and did not see it posted before here at CWT..... or anywhere else, for that matter. If it has been previously discussed, I apologize.

[Correspondence Cincinnati Commercial]
Memphis, Tenn. September 3, 1868
<extensive excerpt detailing the circumstances of visit with General Forrest as well as the geography of Fort Pillow and the surrounding area>
“Before I describe to you the particulars of the fight of April 12, 1864, I must give you a little preface to the story. While at Jackson and other points in West Tennessee, I learned, from what I still believe to have been reliable sources, that the Tennessee troops under Major Bradford, at Fort Pillow, had pillaged the whole country, and under the pretext of looking for rebel arms, had insulted women, abused old men, and in several instances had committed the most brutal outrages upon highly respectable women. Many of these persons so abused, robbed and insulted were near relatives and friends of the Tennessee troops under my command. These men positively refused to leave Tennessee unless I would first take and destroy Fort Pillow. In addition to this a delegation of citizens from Jackson waited upon me and made the same request.

“Therefore, with the people opportuning, and my troops refusing to move, I had no alternative but to attack the place, although I did not consider of enough importance to waste the life of one of my men upon, for I was not so situated that I could hold it with my small force. This preface explains to you why I came here and made the fight which has given me a notoriety which, being unmerited, is very unpleasant to me.

“When I ordered the troops forward, only about 1400 in number, from Brownsville, I was at Jackson, about seventy-six miles east of here. I rode from there here in about twenty-six hours, and arrived upon the field about 9 o’clock in the morning. You see that line of old works running along the top of the ridge to the south of us, the right hand disappearing into the ravine next to the river. Well, behind that my men were sheltered somewhat, but my sharphooters were on those little knolls between here and there, and also along the ridge running along our front from the south up to those trees and intersecting Coal Creek.”

The point of intersection indicated by the General is about one hundred and fifty yards from the works we were sitting upon.

“From this point I advanced my lines through the hollows, until I had driven the enemy within their main works, and was within sixty yards at the south side and thirty yards of their works at the northeast corner over there, near the bank of Coal Creek. Just to the south here, where you see those barred spots, stood some hospital buildings in which some of their wounded were laid. These buildings the enemy fired to prevent my men from taking shelter behind them, and I think they burned up some of their own dead and wounded. That was the only fire made during or after the fight, that day, and, if anybody was burned, it was done then.

“Having my men this near and my sharpshooters in such position that they could pick off the gunners within the fort, and knowing that I could take it by storm, I desired to save all the lives I could, and therefore sent in a flag of truce, demanding the unconditional surrender of the garrison, at the same time assuring them that they would be treated as prisoners of war. My men were then so close to the works, here on the southwestern corner, that the flag of truce was halted before it passed my line, and the conference took place just to the left of my troops. The officers from the fort at first refused to surrender; and when this reply was brought to me I sent another demand, in which I stated that the animosity existing between the Tennessee troops in my command and the Tennessee troops in the fort was such that I could not be responsible for the fate of the garrison. To this demand Maj. Bradford returned an answer asking for an hour to consult with the officers of the gunboat New Era.

“I saw at once that this was a ruse to gain time, for I had learned, only a few minutes before, that a force had been landed below at Fulton, which could cross the country, get on the ridge in my rear, and leave me no line of retreat. Added to this, the smoke of boats above and below was seen approaching, and I therefore sent back an answer that I would give them twenty minutes; that I did not ask the surrender of the gunboat, but only of the Fort. During this time, the boat coming up the river was approaching, and we could plainly see that she was loaded with troops and artillery; but a shot across her bows sent her on up the river…..”

TO BE CONTINUED
Image from The Illustrated London News
 
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lelliott19

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......"And now I want you to observe where the flagstaff stood here in the fort. The pole was about sixty feet in heighth[sic], and stood so that the flag was plainly visible to those under the bluff there, next to the river, while they could not see any person or know what was going on up here in the fort. I also want you to see the road that leads up to the fort, from the river, from that ravine to the south there. It was along that road that the two companies of my troops came, who charged under the bluff after the fight again began.

“I waited until the twenty minutes had expired, and seeing no evidence of a surrender, I ordered a charge. My men at once charged into the ditch, and, by a hand to hand fight, drove the enemy, still fighting, over the bluff. When the charge was sounded a portion of my men went down there under the bluff, and charged those who jumped down the bank. As soon as we were in the works, I turned one of their six pieces of artillery upon the gunboats, which I saw was preparing to give us a volley, my shot striking her on the wheel-house. While this firing was going on, my men under the bluff, seeing the flag still waiving, kept up the fight, and it was not until the flag was cut down that they knew I had possession of the fort. The whole of the charge and capture did not occupy more than twenty minutes.

“This was the taking and now for the massacre. There were with me many citizens who had been wronged, and, I think, without waiting for the surrender of the men who had wronged them and their families, they shot them down. When I found out that they were doing this (understand this was during the twenty minutes of the engagement and not after the capture) I ordered it stopped; and was compelled to shoot one of my own men who did not obey me promptly.

“The whole force in the garrison numbered in all 557 troops, white and colored, when the fight began. After the fight, we sent seventy men who were wounded, on the gunboats, and then sent to Demopolis, Mississippi, for exchange seven officers and two hundred and fifteen men, making two hundred and ninety-two men in all who survived the capture. But in addition to this, forty-four or forty-five negroes were taken by my young men and returned to their masters, making a total of one hundred negroes who were left, or a total of three hundred and forty of all the troops surviving. The total number of colored troops in the garrison at first was two hundred and sixty-two. Some of these, as well as some of the whites, escaped from the works and into the woods and across Coal Creek. No man was killed after the capture by my order, and any killing that was done was without my knowledge."

This is the story of the capture of Fort Pillow, as told me by the principal actor upon the battlefield itself.

On the way down, he said he could not understand why the fight there had been called a massacre; that its result was only natural in war, and he thought the public should so regard it.
[The Daily News and Herald. (Savannah, Ga.), September 12, 1868, page 1.]

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Cavalry Charger

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#5
I think you will find that Hurst's biography on Nathan Bedford Forrest confirms these details, and also that the history does not go back far enough in stating that Sherman had ordered these colored troops to be sent elsewhere in the country as they were former slaves from that area. He could see the detriment in having these troops fighting in their own areas. This order was disobeyed and after the incident at Ft. Pillow Sherman was given cause to wonder why this had not been done.

This heightened tensions during this battle, and it has also been put forward that black troops had been given alcohol as a way of 'fortifying' them as their white officers did not believe they were up to the 'fight' (i.e. lacking courage, so 'dutch' courage was required). This, added into the mix of insults being traded between these black troops and Forrest's troops, paints a whole different picture of this incident. Both sides were riled up for this battle and, as stated, Forrest did indeed ask for surrender and offer POW status to all involved. Whether they believed him or not is a different matter. The Commander in charge of the Fort was also killed prior to Forrest's attack and a ruse made in his name to delay surrender.

So, I would say this article stands up in many ways to Forrest's impression of the fight. And he was behind the lines when it began, his men fearful of the aggressive nature of those in the Fort beforehand.
 
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diane

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#10
This is extremely interesting - thanks for posting it lelliot19! This is the follow-up article I've heard about but never located, that followed the one about the klan in August of 1868. That article Forrest protested was in error - supposedly they interviewed him again but I'd never found that. They must have sent somebody besides Bonek - this article is the fair shake Forrest wanted, and what he would have said in court if he'd been charged. To me, Forrest told the interviewer the battle truthfully from what he did and what he knew.
 

lelliott19

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That's great @diane I just happened across the interview when I was looking for something else entirely. When I saw it, I thought hmmmmm Ive never seen this before. I ran a quick search here and turned up empty. So I did a google search of a few key phrases from the interview and only turned up one result - the newspapers. com result for the Louisville Daily Journal. I dont have a subscription to newspapers .com so am not able to see if there are any differences between the two. Maybe someone who has it can check?
 
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#14
Thanks for sharing, this interview is news to me, and it confirms a lot of my suspicions of the battle, specifically the mention of "outrages" by the garrison towards the surrounding local population, which has always been the reason for the "massacre" in my mind more than any other reason. One body of troops targeting a population loyal to the other side in war is always a recipe for disaster when the enemy comes knocking no matter the war or era.

This is an awesome find!
 

19thGeorgia

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#15
"...two hundred and ninety-two men in all who survived the capture. But in addition to this, forty-four or forty-five negroes were taken by my young men and returned to their masters, making a total of one hundred negroes who were left, or a total of three hundred and forty of all the troops surviving. The total number of colored troops in the garrison at first was two hundred and sixty-two. Some of these, as well as some of the whites, escaped from the works and into the woods and across Coal Creek."
340 survivors and others who "escaped from the works and into the woods and across Coal Creek."

A member here (DixieRifles) did an exhaustive study of the casualties of Fort Pillow. He found about 400 survivors and
180 killed, drowned or missing instead of the 300 or 400 that is often claimed.
 

lelliott19

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#16
A member here (DixieRifles) did an exhaustive study of the casualties of Fort Pillow. He found about 400 survivors and
180 killed, drowned or missing instead of the 300 or 400 that is often claimed.
I wonder if @DixieRifles has seen this interview before? I just ran across it when looking for something else.
 

byron ed

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#20
Not that Forrest's account made any difference at all to those disarmed union soldiers that were massacred outside of Forrest's control, and not that it made any difference to those union soldiers who Forrest calmly mentions "were sent back to their masters."

Edited.
 
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