The Battle of Fort Pillow (Fort Pillow Massacre)

Buckeye Bill

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The Battle of Fort Pillow (Fort Pillow Massacre) was fought on April 12th, 1864. Fort Pillow is located on the Mississippi River in Henning, Tennessee. This American Civil War battle ended with a massacre of black Federal troops and their white officers attempting to surrender by soldiers under the command of Confederate Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest.
 
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Lost Cause

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5ED29691-C02D-4B21-8060-38C99CE46694.jpeg
 

leftyhunter

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los angeles ca
If you are interested in the full story it is helpful to read the appendix of "An Unerring Fire." Among other things it says there were cases of Colored Troops surrendering, then after being left in place they would pick up a musket and start fighting again. After that happened the Confederates stopped taking prisoners.
Based on the two reports written by the Union Naval officers of the Silver Cloud USCT troops were certainly justified in getting some payback at the battle of Ft.Bkakely.
Leftyhunter
 

diane

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Jan 23, 2010
Location
State of Jefferson
True that no massacre is justified and the battle was bad enough even Forrest referred to it as a massacre - which he very quickly withdrew. He knew it would be a nasty fight but I think he was surprised by the sheer venom involved. As I've mentioned before, the race relationships need to be understood before Ft Pillow can be understood. If anybody lost control of the men, it was Chalmers - and it may be he sorta-kinda just dropped the reins a little, maybe because he wasn't that interested in what happened to black soldiers. After the war, when he was leading some veterans to quell a race riot outside of Memphis, he hollered to his men, "Don't kill too many n-rs, boys! We need cotton pickers!" It's seldom noted what Chalmers had to say about Ft Pillow, but he certainly didn't think any unnecessary killing was done - which begs an explanation of what he considered that term to mean. The question of why did Forrest not lead the charge and why did it take around an hour for him to learn what was happening and arrive to stop it may be partly answered by his needing medical attention. He had, unknown to himself, broken or cracked three ribs much earlier in the day when his horse was struck by a cannonball and reared back, falling on him. Being uncommon tough, he figured it was hard bruises and was seen about the field until the time of the charge. This is the mystery part. Did he realize he was not physically fit to lead the charge as was his custom, or did he find it 'convenient' to absent himself at this time with a perfectly legitimate excuse? It's really hard to know at this point, but this is the event that is critical as to who was responsible.
 
Joined
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Location
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The Battle of Fort Pillow (Fort Pillow Massacre) was fought on April 12th, 1864. Fort Pillow is located on the Mississippi River in Henning, Tennessee. This American Civil War battle ended with a massacre of black Federal troops and their white officers attempting to surrender by soldiers under the command of Confederate Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest.
As usual, great photo tour.

Thanks for bringing us along!

If anyone is interested in more detailed information, I encourage a visit to our Fort Pillow subforum:

https://civilwartalk.com/forums/ft-pillow.177/
 
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Patrick H

Lt. Colonel
Joined
Mar 7, 2014
True that no massacre is justified and the battle was bad enough even Forrest referred to it as a massacre - which he very quickly withdrew. He knew it would be a nasty fight but I think he was surprised by the sheer venom involved. As I've mentioned before, the race relationships need to be understood before Ft Pillow can be understood. If anybody lost control of the men, it was Chalmers - and it may be he sorta-kinda just dropped the reins a little, maybe because he wasn't that interested in what happened to black soldiers. After the war, when he was leading some veterans to quell a race riot outside of Memphis, he hollered to his men, "Don't kill too many n-rs, boys! We need cotton pickers!" It's seldom noted what Chalmers had to say about Ft Pillow, but he certainly didn't think any unnecessary killing was done - which begs an explanation of what he considered that term to mean. The question of why did Forrest not lead the charge and why did it take around an hour for him to learn what was happening and arrive to stop it may be partly answered by his needing medical attention. He had, unknown to himself, broken or cracked three ribs much earlier in the day when his horse was struck by a cannonball and reared back, falling on him. Being uncommon tough, he figured it was hard bruises and was seen about the field until the time of the charge. This is the mystery part. Did he realize he was not physically fit to lead the charge as was his custom, or did he find it 'convenient' to absent himself at this time with a perfectly legitimate excuse? It's really hard to know at this point, but this is the event that is critical as to who was responsible.
Thank you for what I believe is a very fair-minded, balanced reply. We'd all like to imagine we truly know everyone's motives at an incident like this, but we don't. Most people just parrot the opinions of the authors who agree with their preconceived notions. Here, I think we have an objective effort to give all of us a balanced response--warts and all. Thanks again, Diane.
 

trice

Lt. Colonel
Joined
May 2, 2006
Forrest did not normally lead attacks on fortified positions. Even if he had wanted to do so here, he would have had to move to the flank and infiltrate into the ditch (as the 1200 or so troops making the assault did to avoid the Yankee fire) before climbing out of the ditch and over the rampart. For a man who was pretty banged up and not moving well, that would be pretty difficult and hard to do.

A few points:
  • According to Union accounts, the firing stopped about 20 minutes after the Union flag went down.
  • The fort was not surrendered (the Confederates cut the flag down as they swarmed over the fort).
  • Forrest and Chalmers were together when the assault started, about 400 yards from the fort (on a small rise, far enough back to see what was going on).
  • When it became obvious the fort was falling, Forrest and Chalmers came forward to establish control.
  • By several Confederate accounts, the reason the firing stopped was that Forrest came into the fort and ordered the firing to stop.
No one should doubt that there were definitely men killed and wounded who should have not become casualties. There were definite murders committed here, just fewer than are often claimed -- and some of those were white men killing white men (there were locals here on both sides and the Union cavalry had been riding about the county flying a literal black flag in the weeks before the battle, getting payback for even earlier abuses by Confederates in the county). There is testimony about Yankees being called out of the milling mob by name and then shot when they stepped forward.

Another thing to note is that the assault is at 4 PM and fight has been going on since early morning. The commander of the post, Major Booth, was killed about 9 AM; his adjutant was then shot while standing over him. The USCT sortied out against the Rebels at about 10 AM and (according to USCT testimony) the USCT took heavier casualties than the white cavalry before 4 PM. None of the men killed before the 4 PM close assault could possibly be "massacred".

You'll see stories of live men being nailed to the walls of burning buildings by Rebels. There actually is a verifiable report of a Yankee burial party finding ***one*** corpse with his clothes nailed to the floor of a burned-out building during a truce the next morning.

A lot of people died who, in controlled circumstances, would have lived. Even if the circumstances were perfectly controlled, many would have died in the assault. Some were dead before the assault started. No one can say how many were "massacred". No one can say how many died unnecessarily.
 

leftyhunter

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Joined
May 27, 2011
Location
los angeles ca
No massacre is justified.
Since when? Ever been to Sunday School? Massacres are fine if it helps your side vs the other guys side.
I can definitely see that a people subject to racial oppression all their lives and now finally getting a chance to fight their oppressors would after hearing of Ft. Pillow decide it's pay back time.
As Henry Hill said in "Goodfellas" everybody has to take a beating some times. In history every major racial,religious, ethnic group gets massacred and commits massacre's.
Maybe it's right and maybe it's wrong but it is what it is.
Leftyhunter
 

leftyhunter

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Joined
May 27, 2011
Location
los angeles ca
Understanding a heated battle is at best difficult. Second guessing the motives of situations from over a century and a half ago is probably impossible.
Maybe we just have to accept that in war "stuff happens". I remember speaking about 18 years ago to an 82nd Airborne Vet who had Steven Spielberg actually visit him at his house for the TV series "Band if Brothers" and he told me about the 82nd killing German POWs and even French Civilians to make sure that their positions were not revealed when they landed just prior to D Day.
War is messy and Ft.Pillow is a good example.
Leftyhunter
 

diane

Retired User
Joined
Jan 23, 2010
Location
State of Jefferson
Forrest did not normally lead attacks on fortified positions. Even if he had wanted to do so here, he would have had to move to the flank and infiltrate into the ditch (as the 1200 or so troops making the assault did to avoid the Yankee fire) before climbing out of the ditch and over the rampart. For a man who was pretty banged up and not moving well, that would be pretty difficult and hard to do.

A few points:
  • According to Union accounts, the firing stopped about 20 minutes after the Union flag went down.
  • The fort was not surrendered (the Confederates cut the flag down as they swarmed over the fort).
  • Forrest and Chalmers were together when the assault started, about 400 yards from the fort (on a small rise, far enough back to see what was going on).
  • When it became obvious the fort was falling, Forrest and Chalmers came forward to establish control.
  • By several Confederate accounts, the reason the firing stopped was that Forrest came into the fort and ordered the firing to stop.
No one should doubt that there were definitely men killed and wounded who should have not become casualties. There were definite murders committed here, just fewer than are often claimed -- and some of those were white men killing white men (there were locals here on both sides and the Union cavalry had been riding about the county flying a literal black flag in the weeks before the battle, getting payback for even earlier abuses by Confederates in the county). There is testimony about Yankees being called out of the milling mob by name and then shot when they stepped forward.

Another thing to note is that the assault is at 4 PM and fight has been going on since early morning. The commander of the post, Major Booth, was killed about 9 AM; his adjutant was then shot while standing over him. The USCT sortied out against the Rebels at about 10 AM and (according to USCT testimony) the USCT took heavier casualties than the white cavalry before 4 PM. None of the men killed before the 4 PM close assault could possibly be "massacred".

You'll see stories of live men being nailed to the walls of burning buildings by Rebels. There actually is a verifiable report of a Yankee burial party finding ***one*** corpse with his clothes nailed to the floor of a burned-out building during a truce the next morning.

A lot of people died who, in controlled circumstances, would have lived. Even if the circumstances were perfectly controlled, many would have died in the assault. Some were dead before the assault started. No one can say how many were "massacred". No one can say how many died unnecessarily.

It's very difficult to sort out because the initial investigation, which should have been able to find a lot, was incredibly biased. Forrest claimed that many of the deaths, particularly the torture stuff, was done by civilians who were not under his control. That wasn't looked into, either. I think Forrest was right in demanding a trial, where the facts could be sorted out in the light and without anyone's agenda in the way. He was willing to take the consequences if he was found guilty, too. Many former Confederates wanted a trial for political reasons but Forrest genuinely wanted to, as he wrote to a friend, "clear my name of charges as black as the hearts of the men who made them."
 

Buckeye Bill

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True that no massacre is justified and the battle was bad enough even Forrest referred to it as a massacre - which he very quickly withdrew. He knew it would be a nasty fight but I think he was surprised by the sheer venom involved. As I've mentioned before, the race relationships need to be understood before Ft Pillow can be understood. If anybody lost control of the men, it was Chalmers - and it may be he sorta-kinda just dropped the reins a little, maybe because he wasn't that interested in what happened to black soldiers. After the war, when he was leading some veterans to quell a race riot outside of Memphis, he hollered to his men, "Don't kill too many n-rs, boys! We need cotton pickers!" It's seldom noted what Chalmers had to say about Ft Pillow, but he certainly didn't think any unnecessary killing was done - which begs an explanation of what he considered that term to mean. The question of why did Forrest not lead the charge and why did it take around an hour for him to learn what was happening and arrive to stop it may be partly answered by his needing medical attention. He had, unknown to himself, broken or cracked three ribs much earlier in the day when his horse was struck by a cannonball and reared back, falling on him. Being uncommon tough, he figured it was hard bruises and was seen about the field until the time of the charge. This is the mystery part. Did he realize he was not physically fit to lead the charge as was his custom, or did he find it 'convenient' to absent himself at this time with a perfectly legitimate excuse? It's really hard to know at this point, but this is the event that is critical as to who was responsible.

I always enjoy your input, Diane!

Bill
 

trice

Lt. Colonel
Joined
May 2, 2006
It's very difficult to sort out because the initial investigation, which should have been able to find a lot, was incredibly biased. Forrest claimed that many of the deaths, particularly the torture stuff, was done by civilians who were not under his control. That wasn't looked into, either. I think Forrest was right in demanding a trial, where the facts could be sorted out in the light and without anyone's agenda in the way. He was willing to take the consequences if he was found guilty, too. Many former Confederates wanted a trial for political reasons but Forrest genuinely wanted to, as he wrote to a friend, "clear my name of charges as black as the hearts of the men who made them."

Yes, that investigation was biased and many things in the testimony there are unreliable. Example: one witness testifies that a particular man, known to him, was murdered out of hand after 4 PM. Another witness says that same man was shot through the head and killed at 10 AM. Which one is correct?

Close assaults are horrible, nightmare events. Any experienced soldier seeing the naked anger between the sides, the shouted insults and threats, during the parlay-truce before the assault would have known this one could get out of control quickly. When that happens, rules are meaningless and the heat of violence takes over. It has always been like that and still is -- it doesn't matter if we are talking ancient warriors or modern ones. Lives vanish in the flames of battle in an instant. Mercy is forgotten.

The attack seems to have started about 4 PM and the main combat was stopped about 4:40 PM. In those minutes the fort was overrun, the Yankees retreated down onto the riverbank (to find the gunboat New Era had abandoned them), and the fight continued with the Yankees exposed on the shore with the Mississippi behind them. They tried to get out up and down the river -- they ran into fire from the blocking forces of Rebels Forrest had placed there. They were exposed to a plunging fire from the victorious Rebels in the fort. They tried to hide behind a few beached barges. Their blood, it is said, stained the muddy Mississippi red.

Among all that, there were certainly atrocities, murders, men shot as the assault swept over the rampart and through the makeshift hospital, men singled out and killed or wounded. Later, in the night and morning, there are reports of other things, some probably true and some probably false.

Throw in with that testimony by the USCT that the white Yankee cavalry fought less, exposed themselves less, during the first seven hours of the fight -- and fled first when the Rebels came over the wall. Maybe they did. Maybe some USCT casualties came just because of that.

Ft. Pillow is a mess, a horror of war. There really is no evidence it was deliberate on Forrest's part. As Sherman said, Forrest's commands fought the USCT many times and the reports were always that the men were well-treated as POWs by Forrest. Here, at Ft. Pillow, it was different.
 
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Patrick H

Lt. Colonel
Joined
Mar 7, 2014
Forrest did not normally lead attacks on fortified positions. Even if he had wanted to do so here, he would have had to move to the flank and infiltrate into the ditch (as the 1200 or so troops making the assault did to avoid the Yankee fire) before climbing out of the ditch and over the rampart. For a man who was pretty banged up and not moving well, that would be pretty difficult and hard to do.

A few points:
  • According to Union accounts, the firing stopped about 20 minutes after the Union flag went down.
  • The fort was not surrendered (the Confederates cut the flag down as they swarmed over the fort).
  • Forrest and Chalmers were together when the assault started, about 400 yards from the fort (on a small rise, far enough back to see what was going on).
  • When it became obvious the fort was falling, Forrest and Chalmers came forward to establish control.
  • By several Confederate accounts, the reason the firing stopped was that Forrest came into the fort and ordered the firing to stop.
No one should doubt that there were definitely men killed and wounded who should have not become casualties. There were definite murders committed here, just fewer than are often claimed -- and some of those were white men killing white men (there were locals here on both sides and the Union cavalry had been riding about the county flying a literal black flag in the weeks before the battle, getting payback for even earlier abuses by Confederates in the county). There is testimony about Yankees being called out of the milling mob by name and then shot when they stepped forward.

Another thing to note is that the assault is at 4 PM and fight has been going on since early morning. The commander of the post, Major Booth, was killed about 9 AM; his adjutant was then shot while standing over him. The USCT sortied out against the Rebels at about 10 AM and (according to USCT testimony) the USCT took heavier casualties than the white cavalry before 4 PM. None of the men killed before the 4 PM close assault could possibly be "massacred".

You'll see stories of live men being nailed to the walls of burning buildings by Rebels. There actually is a verifiable report of a Yankee burial party finding ***one*** corpse with his clothes nailed to the floor of a burned-out building during a truce the next morning.

A lot of people died who, in controlled circumstances, would have lived. Even if the circumstances were perfectly controlled, many would have died in the assault. Some were dead before the assault started. No one can say how many were "massacred". No one can say how many died unnecessarily.
Thanks for this overview.
 

Will Carry

First Sergeant
Joined
Jun 1, 2015
Location
The Tar Heel State.
Studying The Battle of Fort Pillow is like watching a train wreck. It is terrible to behold but you can't take your eyes off of it. I have read every book I could find on Fort Pillow, magazine articles and posts on this web site. I think I have an understanding of Forrest's men. What I am trying to understand now is what were the Union soldiers in Fort Pillow like? Booth is a very interesting character, maybe I will start a post on him. You guys know more about the war than I ever will................
 
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