Massacre at Fort Pillow by General Nathan Bedford Forrest

Submitted byFHMaster onSat, 01/07/2017 - 00:04

Massacre of (mostly) black Union soldiers at Fort Pillow, TN, by Gen. Forrest, later creator of the Klu Klux Klan.

"Introduction: On April 30, 1864, Harper's Weekly, the most widely circulated magazine in the remaining United States, carried this story:

On the 12th April, the rebel General [Nathan Bedford] Forrest appeared before Fort Pillow. . . attacking it with considerable vehemence. This was followed up by frequent demands for its surrender, which were refused by Major Booth, who commanded the fort. The fight was then continued up until 3 p.m., when Major Booth was killed, and the rebels, in large numbers, swarmed over the intrenchments. Up to that time comparatively few of our [i.e., Union] men had been killed; but immediately upon occupying the place the rebels commenced an indiscriminate butchery of the whites and blacks, including the wounded. Both white and black were bayoneted, shot, or sabred; even dead bodies were horribly mutilated, and children of seven and eight years, and several negro women killed in cold blood. Soldiers unable to speak from wounds were shot dead, and their bodies rolled down the banks into the river. The dead and wounded negroes were piled in heaps and burned, and several citizens, who had joined our forces for protection, were killed or wounded. Out of the garrison of six hundred only two hundred remained alive. Three hundred of those massacred were negroes; five were buried alive. Six guns were captured by the rebels, and carried off, including two 10-pound Parrotts, and two 12-pound howitzers. A large amount of stores was destroyed or carried away.

Accompanying the story was a full-page illustration which graphically detailed the alleged massacre.

Frank Leslie's Illustrated Weekly, the second-leading magazine in the Union states, carried a similar illustration [shown at left]. In both rebel soldiers brutally bayonetted, shot, and battered fallen and helpless Union soldiers, most of them African Americans. What had happened at Fort Pillow? Union survivors claimed that Confederate cavalry, under the command of Nathan Bedford Forrest, indiscriminately killed Union troops, even as they tried to surrender. Forrest and his officers stoutly denied that a massacre had occured and offered their own explanations of why so few Union soldiers survived. A commission, appointed by Lincoln to investigate issues of military misconduct, North and South, concluded that there had been a massacre. Historians, for the most part, accept this verdict. But Forrest still has his defenders.

What makes the issue so controversial is that so many of the Union dead were African Americans. Lincoln had initially resisted calls for using black soldiers, in part because he feared that the Confederates would not treat captured African Americans as prisoners of war. Jefferson Davis and the Confederate Congress confirmed Lincoln's fears in 1863 by pledging to treat black troops as fugitive slaves. Such troops, if captured, would be "returned" to slavery. Nonetheless, Lincoln accepted the arguments in favor of using black soldiers. One argument was the need for manpower. Another, made by African-American spokesmen like Frederick Douglass, was that blacks needed to participate in their own emancipation. Freedom should be something they won for themselves."

Fort Pillow
Event Type