|Artist's rendition of the 'Fort Pillow Massacre'|
One of the cornerstones of Confederate mythology is the notion that Southerners were more "gallant" than their crude Yankee enemies, and thus more honorable fighters. Of course, we have already seen the limits of that gallantry in the horrifying mass war crime that was Andersonville.
Those limits were also on display at a notorious incident that in fact was an important precursor to Andersonville -- namely, the Battle of Fort Pillow. The most observable limit there was that if the Confederates indeed had any reserves of human decency and gallantry, they simply did not exist at all in their treatment of black people.
Because the Confederates -- led by none other than Nathan Bedford Forrest himself, the later founder of the Ku Klux Klan -- simply ignored the ordinary laws of war by massacring nearly every black soldier they found in the garrison.
History Channel has the background:
In March 1864, Confederate Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest (1821-77) launched a cavalry raid in western Tennessee and Kentucky that was aimed at destroying Union supply lines and capturing federal prisoners. In early April, he determined to move on Fort Pillow, located 40 miles north of Memphis. At the time, Fort Pillow was being held by a garrison of around 600 men, approximately half of whom were black soldiers.Encyclopedia Britannica:
On April 12, Forrest’s force, estimated at 1,500 to 2,500 troops, quickly overran the fort, suffering only moderate casualties. Though most of the Union garrison surrendered, and thus should have been taken as prisoners of war, some 300 soldiers were killed, the majority of them black. The Confederate refusal to treat these soldiers as traditional POWs infuriated the North, and led to the Union’s refusal to participate in prisoner exchanges.
Forrest’s men quickly gained the upper hand. The situation within the fort’s walls degenerated into chaos, and command and control on both sides vanished. Some Union soldiers doggedly continued to resist; others threw down their arms in an attempt to surrender; and others—including Major Bradford—fled toward the Mississippi River.
Nathan Bedford Forrest
The actual final assault on the fort’s walls and the subsequent fighting lasted less than half an hour. By that time Forrest and his staff had arrived in the fort to restore some semblance of order. Both Confederate and Union witnesses claimed that an unknown number of Federal soldiers—most of whom were African American—were gunned down after attempting to surrender. Many more were shot as they fled, while others drowned in the Mississippi River. While it is impossible to determine how many were killed in the battle as opposed to the massacre, between 277 and 295 Union troops—the majority of whom were African American—were killed in total. Only 14 Confederates were killed.
Historians and official reports emphasize a delibertae massacre took place. Confederate sources say they kept firing in self defense. Survivors claimed that even though the Union troops surrendered, Forrest's men massacred them in cold blood. Surviving members of the garrison said that most of their men surrendered and threw down their arms, only to be shot or bayoneted by the attackers, who repeatedly shouted, "No quarter! No quarter!" The Joint Committee On the Conduct of the War immediately investigated the incident and concluded that the Confederates shot most of the garrison after it had surrendered. A 2002 study by Albert Castel concluded that the Union forces were indiscriminately massacred after Fort Pillow "had ceased resisting or was incapable of resistance." Historian Andrew Ward in 2005 reached the conclusion that an atrocity in the modern sense occurred at Fort Pillow, including the murders of fleeing black civilians, but that the event was not premeditated nor officially sanctioned by Confederate commanders.Ulysses Grant mentions Fort Pillow in his memoirs, though he was not there; rather, he cites Forrest's dispatches:
Recent histories generally concur that a massacre occurred. Historian Richard Fuchs, the author of An Unerring Fire, concludes, "The affair at Fort Pillow was simply an orgy of death, a mass lynching to satisfy the basest of conduct—intentional murder—for the vilest of reasons—racism and personal enmity." Ward states, "Whether the massacre was premeditated or spontaneous does not address the more fundamental question of whether a massacre took place... it certainly did, in every dictionary sense of the word." John Cimprich states, "The new paradigm in social attitudes and the fuller use of available evidence has favored a massacre interpretation.... Debate over the memory of this incident formed a part of sectional and racial conflicts for many years after the war, but the reinterpretation of the event during the last thirty years offers some hope that society can move beyond past intolerance."
Lieutenant Daniel Van Horn of the 6th U.S. Heavy Artillery (Colored) stated in his official report, "There never was a surrender of the fort, both officers and men declaring they never would surrender or ask for quarter." Another officer of the unit, however, and the only surviving officers of the 13th Tennessee Cavalry attested to the characterization that unarmed soldiers were killed in the act of surrendering. A Confederate sergeant, in a letter written home shortly after the battle, said that "the poor, deluded negroes would run up to our men, fall upon their knees, and with uplifted hand scream for mercy, but were ordered to their feet and then shot down." This account is consistent with the relatively high comparative casualties sustained by race of the defenders.
"The river was dyed," he [Forrest] says, "with the blood of the slaughtered for two hundred yards. The approximate loss was upward of five hundred killed, but few of the officers escaping. My loss was about twenty killed. It is hoped that these facts will demonstrate to the Northern people that negro soldiers cannot cope with Southerners."Grant himself, as Wikipedia explains, immediately took action after the massacre to try to prevent it from occurring again:
On April 17, 1864, in the aftermath of Fort Pillow, General Grant ordered General Benjamin F. Butler, who was negotiating prisoner exchanges with the Confederacy, to demand that black prisoners had to be treated identically to whites in the exchange and treatment of prisoners. He directed that a failure to do so would "be regarded as a refusal on their part to agree to the further exchange of prisoners, and [would] be so treated by us."The resulting breakdown in prisoner exchanges in turn produced the atrocity of Andersonville, where the numbers for the stockade swelled to three times their intended capacity because the exchanges ceased.
This demand was refused; Confederate Secretary of War Seddon in June 1864 wrote:
I doubt, however, whether the exchange of negroes at all for our soldiers would be tolerated. As to the white officers serving with negro troops, we ought never to be inconvenienced with such prisoners.
All for one root cause: White Southerners' hatred of black people.
Confederate Heritage Month:
Day 1: Strange Fruit
It Was About Slavery
That Peculiar Institution
How Poor Whites Got Suckered
The First American War Criminals