Cleaveland: The massacre at Fort Pillow during the Civil War was Tennessee's day of infamy

Cleaveland: The massacre at Fort Pillow during the Civil War was Tennessee's day of infamy

April 7th, 2019 by Clif Cleaveland in Opinion Columns

In this Aug. 18, 2017, photo, a statue of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest sits in a park in Memphis, Tenn.

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

The worst atrocity of a single day during our Civil War occurred on April 12, 1864, at Fort Pillow, Tennessee. The date marked the third anniversary of the outbreak of the war with the shelling of Fort Sumter in South Carolina. This may have contributed to the ferocity of the Confederate attack.

Constructed in 1861 by the Confederate Army on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, 49 miles north of Memphis, the fort safeguarded a vital route for supplies. As Union forces gained control of West Tennessee and most of the bordering river in 1862, Confederates abandoned the fort, which became a supply and recruitment center for the Union Army. Because of the fort's isolation, senior commanders ordered its closure in early 1864, but the orders were soon canceled.

Clif Cleaveland

Clif Cleaveland

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

In the early months of 1864, Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest had created havoc in western Tennessee and Kentucky with lightning cavalry raids against supply Union depots, fortifications and rail lines. His force struck quickly and disappeared, moving swiftly to another target before a Union response could be organized.

Forrest led a force of 1,500 to 2,500 soldiers in a mid-morning attack against Fort Pillow, which was defended by 557 Union troops, half of whom were black, many former slaves. Many of the white defenders were Unionist Southerners.

By mid-afternoon, after hours of sniper and artillery fire directed at the fort, Forrest offered under a flag of truce unconditional surrender to Union troops whose defenses had been breached. The Union commander rejected the offer. Fighting resumed with Union forces quickly overwhelmed. Unionists fleeing down the bluff to the river died in a crossfire. Those who reached the water to swim to safety were quickly killed by snipers. A witness described a wounded Union soldier who was pulled from the water only to be shot in the head. Observers described a river turned red with blood.

The reluctance of Union soldiers to surrender may have resulted from Confederate doctrine to treat white, Southerners who served in the Union army as traitors, who could be executed, rather than be prisoners of war. Black Union soldiers feared a similar fate or a return to slavery.

Facing defeat, Union soldiers trapped in the fort threw down their arms and sought to surrender. Many were gunned down or bayonetted. Black soldiers were disproportionately killed. Some were lynched. Wounded soldiers in the fort's hospital were killed. Eyewitness accounts of horrible atrocities against black soldiers came from both Union and Confederate survivors of the battle as well as a civilian farmer.

By the end of the day, 350 Union soldiers — two-thirds black — had been killed. Fifty-eight of 168 prisoners were black. Fourteen Confederate soldiers died in the fighting.

Confederate troops withdrew that evening. Burial details and volunteers arrived to dig graves for corpses at the site. Some of the bodies had been burned. Two Union soldiers who had been buried alive had managed to dig themselves out. In 1867, bodies of Union soldiers were transferred to the National Cemetery in Memphis. In 2017, a wreath-laying and a 21-gun salute honored the men.

Forrest described "the wholesale slaughter of the garrison at Fort Pillow." He wrote in a dispatch, "It is hoped that these facts will demonstrate to the Northern people that Negro soldiers cannot cope with Southerners."

News of the atrocities at Fort Pillow spread rapidly in the northern press. Outrage over the killings prompted President Lincoln, his cabinet and Congressional leaders to consider retaliation against Confederate prisoners. No action was taken. Support for the war grew in northern states as residents learned of the massacre. "Remember Fort Pillow" became a rallying cry, especially for black soldiers in the Union army.

Did Forrest order the killings of prisoners or ignore the actions of his troops or was he unaware of the carnage, as he later claimed? A formal report by Union Gen. William T. Sherman acknowledged that a massacre had taken place but deflected blame from Forrest. Critics argue that Forrest was ultimately responsible for the actions of his men.

Many monuments celebrate Forrest. No Tennessee monuments, to my knowledge, commemorate the victims of the Fort Pillow massacre. Names of those killed are preserved at Fort Pillow State Historical Park.

Contact Clif Cleaveland at

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