What actually happened at Fort Pillow?

Sam Grant

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Apologies in advance for starting a thread on what may prove a highly controversial topic...

I've read conflicting reports on just what happened during/after Nathan Bedford Forrest's attack on Fort Pillow in 1863 - some, that the Union soldiers refused to surrender and most were killed fighting, others, that they did surrender but Forrest ordered the execution of all of the black soldiers.

Was curious if anyone could shed any light on just what happened here.
 

Nathanb1

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Apologies in advance for starting a thread on what may prove a highly controversial topic...

I've read conflicting reports on just what happened during/after Nathan Bedford Forrest's attack on Fort Pillow in 1863 - some, that the Union soldiers refused to surrender and most were killed fighting, others, that they did surrender but Forrest ordered the execution of all of the black soldiers.

Was curious if anyone could shed any light on just what happened here.


We do have a member doing meticulous research on just how many men were killed and how/where they may have died. Hopefully he'll be giving us a progress report some time in the near future. It will always be a controversial topic, but I believe if you'll look at some of the older threads we have available on the subject (use the search function at the top of the page) you may see some very interesting information.
 

diane

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I think this is the thread Nathanb1 was suggesting - I'm hoping there is more added to it soon!

http://civilwartalk.com/forums/showthread.php?30054-Fort-Pillow-After-the-battle&highlight=pillow

Forrest spent a lot of time after the war trying to clear his name of what he called 'charges as black as the hearts of the men who made them'. I think it was a horrible tragedy but it also proved to be a useful tool for Lincoln to force Davis to recognize black Union soldiers as POWs equal to white Union soldiers.
 

bama46

Captain
I think Larry Cockerham gave us the best clue to understanding the events of Ft. Pillow as the relate to what General Forrest may or may not have done. larry said, and this is a paraphrase... If you look at Nathan Bedford Forrest both before and after the war, the character of the man does not support the charges... The charges leveled at Forrest are completely inconsistant with his character.
 

K Hale

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I think Larry Cockerham gave us the best clue to understanding the events of Ft. Pillow as the relate to what General Forrest may or may not have done. larry said, and this is a paraphrase... If you look at Nathan Bedford Forrest both before and after the war, the character of the man does not support the charges... The charges leveled at Forrest are completely inconsistant with his character.
This wound up becoming the most convincing aspect for me.

People on both sides of a controversial event are capable of stretching the truth about what happened, but they generally do not behave in ways out of character.
 

ole

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Nobody has said Forrest participated. In fact, he might have ended it. But 50 percent dead? Wasn't that kind of slaughter in front of the Hornet's Nest, or Grant's abortive assaults in May of '63.
 

khalleron

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I think Larry Cockerham gave us the best clue to understanding the events of Ft. Pillow as the relate to what General Forrest may or may not have done. larry said, and this is a paraphrase... If you look at Nathan Bedford Forrest both before and after the war, the character of the man does not support the charges... The charges leveled at Forrest are completely inconsistant with his character.

I know Larry held Forrest in high esteem, so he wouldn't think so, but I've never found it in me to admire a slave trader and KKK founder.

So that argument doesn't work with me, sorry.

Whatever happened, Forrest was responsible for it - he was in command. Either he ordered it, or his leadership was lacking, one or the other.

No way does he get a 'by' because he has his admirers here (much as I respect the members here who do).

It certainly bears more investigation.
 

ole

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Didn't we have a poll or thread on here a while ago where the general concensus was that if Forrest were guily of anything it was losing control of his men?
We might have, but there is nothing in the rules against resurrection.

And, by the way, that's the way I see it. He was too far away to maintain control.
 

Nytram01

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We might have, but there is nothing in the rules against resurrection.

And, by the way, that's the way I see it. He was too far away to maintain control.

Oh, I wasn't saying anything about bringing up an old topic, I was just seeing if anyone else remembered that other thread or if I imagined it. Maybe I'll have a look for it in a while and get a link up to it. Cross-referencing and all that...
 

Sam Grant

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If you look at Nathan Bedford Forrest both before and after the war, the character of the man does not support the charges... The charges leveled at Forrest are completely inconsistant with his character.

While I can't say I am well acquainted with Forrest's personal character, I don't find it a difficult stretch of the imagination to envision a future Grand Wizard of the KKK ordering the murder of some black POW's, or at least turning a blind eye to such an occurence.
 

K Hale

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Sam Grant said:
While I can't say I am well acquainted with Forrest's personal character, I don't find it a difficult stretch of the imagination to envision a future Grand Wizard of the KKK ordering the murder of some black POW's, or at least turning a blind eye to such an occurence.
You really ought to read that other thread. Especially given the quote in your sig. :smile:

I came to this board believing Forrest was a nasty piece of work. The facts wound up indicating otherwise.
 

Sam Grant

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You really ought to read that other thread. Especially given the quote in your sig. :smile:

I came to this board believing Forrest was a nasty piece of work. The facts wound up indicating otherwise.

I've come to the board under a very similar impression, so perhaps I too will undergo a sort of conversion. I will definitely look through the thread shortly :smile:
 

Borderruffian

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While I can't say I am well acquainted with Forrest's personal character, I don't find it a difficult stretch of the imagination to envision a future Grand Wizard of the KKK ordering the murder of some black POW's, or at least turning a blind eye to such an occurence.

You might want to look at some of Larry Cockerham's threads in relation to NBF, he devouted alot of time an energy to researching NBF and knew more than most of us could ever hope to about the subject.
 

richard

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There have a multitude of threads about Forrest and Ft Pillow in the past. A former board member has made a life time study of the General and his civil war service. Some very interesting "facts" have come to light over the years. The problem is this, people bend the truth to make it fit what that want to think is true. The facts don't lie. Finding the facts in some instances are impossible.

Shortly after Ft Pillow, Forrest was involved in another action where the Union controled fort was maned by some 600 USTC troops and only 400 white union troops. At the end of a 3 hour battle and some 800 artillery shells flying into the fort, only 16 union deaths were counted and 900 union POW were taken. The day before, Forrest captured another fort with out firing a shot.

So, go figure. When people study the AMC , one thing that they forget to do is this, they need to remember that 150 years ago things were different. The people, both North and South had different standards that they lived by. Even the church had different standards for the north and the south.

Welcome to the board and may your search be informative.
 

cash

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Without a doubt there was a massacre at the fort. There's no doubt soldiers were murdered after they had surrendered.

Forrest's responsibility, over and above his command responsibility, is an open question. It's certainly plausible he could have ordered it, just as it's equally plausible he didn't intend for it to happen, and just as plausible he didn't care if it happened or not. We have testimony from at least one of his soldiers that he ordered it, and we have testimony from some Union soldiers that he ended it.
 

diane

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Do read through as many of Larry Cockerham's posts on Forrest as you can. I don't think Forrest himself knew as much! One you might try is "The Brothers Forrest". That tells a lot about Forrest's family and his background. You'll get a good idea of who he really was. One must remember that right after the war there was an effort to smear all the former Confederate commanders - Forrest was a particularly good target.

Yes, I concur that a massacre did happen - a whole lot of people ended up dead who shouldn't have. Forrest knew it would be a nasty battle - that's why his son was off with Uncle Jesse raiding a train. The men with Forrest were a green bunch and rough - Bragg had taken two well-trained veteran brigades away from Forrest and Forrest had been forced to literally beat the brush to come up with another. He had a lot of men with him he would never have looked at twice before. These men and their families had suffered a good deal from the activities of the people in the fort, both military and civilian. The notorious Fielding Hurst and his troops based out of there, and Bradford and his boys were not known for their good behavior. In fact, Hurst was likely Forrest's real target.

You had a lot of elements of visceral hatred present, going beyond racism - which was certainly present. Many of the black soldiers had been recruited from the local area, which meant many of the local men in Forrest's command knew them as well. (Forrest recognized several of the dead himself as having been through his market.) Some of the nastiest stuff was likely done during the night by outsiders - Forrest said there were locals who had sneaked into the fort to do dirty deeds and, no doubt, some of his troops sneaked away with them. But he did not order any of this, nor did he order the killing of blacks or of POWs. Forrest was noted for the humane treatment of all POWs regardless of color, although he followed Confederate policy and sent the blacks either to their masters or back to be sold. Quite a few black POWs could state that he treated them well. As cash notes, Forrest did not intend a massacre to happen, or that it should get as bad as it did BUT he did know it would be an ugly battle.

Forrest was well in the rear getting some broken ribs tended to. His horse had fallen on him - there were three shot out from under him that day - and he was about 400 yards back. As Sherman said, he couldn't see or hear what was transpiring in the fort. Chalmers was the officer in charge inside the fort, and he was the one who lost control of the men. He either could not or would not stop the killing, and the surrender flag went up and down a time or two. Forrest admitted a white flag flew at one point but he could not recognize it because his men were still under heavy fire. Finally, Chalmers cut the Union flag down with his sword. When Forrest learned of what was happening, he mounted his horse despite the doctor's warning his ribs might puncture a lung or something and kill him, and rode into the fort. Even he could not gain control until he drew both sword and pistol and promised to kill the next man who fired a shot. They knew he'd do it, too, and they stopped.

There were two Congressional investigations into the matter. One was pretty hysterical and the other much less so. Neither found sufficient evidence to charge Forrest with any crime. Forrest several times demanded to be charged and tried but never got his day in court.

"Fort Pillow" by Harry Turtledove is a good fictional account of this incident. It puts some things in perspective.
"The Diary of Belle Edmonson" is another good read for this. She was a spy for Forrest, her brother being one of his scouts, and the diary gives a very good impression of just what was going on in the vicinity of Ft Pillow at this time.
 

bama46

Captain
I know Larry held Forrest in high esteem, so he wouldn't think so, but I've never found it in me to admire a slave trader and KKK founder.

So that argument doesn't work with me, sorry.

Whatever happened, Forrest was responsible for it - he was in command. Either he ordered it, or his leadership was lacking, one or the other.

No way does he get a 'by' because he has his admirers here (much as I respect the members here who do).

It certainly bears more investigation.

I completely understand your position.. the problem is that you do not know enough about Forrest... go and learn about the man and you will see what Larry was talking aobut.
 
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