April 12, 1864: Fort Pillow

 

 

Fort Pillow

 Northern casualties were more than 63 percent, and the number of black soldiers killed was disproportionately high. There is no doubt there was a massacre of some kind. But I think he (Forrest) did everything he could to stop it. Next day, when the Federals came in and shelled the place, he sent a captured Union captain and a Confederate soldier back with a white flag to tell ’em to stop shootin’ their own wounded men because that’s all that was left at the fort.

Civil War historian Shelby Foote on Fort Pillow

Easily the most controversial engagement of the Civil War, the storming of Fort Pillow by forces under Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest and what happened in the aftermath have been hotly contested for the past one hundred and fifty years.  Fort Pillow was a Union fort on the Mississippi 40 miles north of Memphis, Tennessee.  It was garrisoned by around 600 Union troops, equally divided between blacks and whites.  The black units were the 6th United States Regiment Heavy Artillery and the 2nd United States Colored Light Artillery.  The whites were recent recruits of the 14th Tennessee Cavalry consisting of  Tennessee Unionists.  Both groups had every reason to fear falling into Confederate hands.

Forrest, commanding about 1500 men, summoned the garrison to surrender at 3:30 PM:

“The conduct of the officers and men garrisoning Fort Pillow has been such as to entitle them to being treated a prisoners of war. I demand the unconditional surrender of the entire garrison, promising that you shall be treated as prisoners of war. My men have just received a fresh supply of ammunition, and from their present position can easily assault and capture the fort. Should my demand be refused, I cannot be responsible for the fate of your command.”

This was a typical demand for surrender by Forrest, promising good treatment if the force surrendered and indicating that he could not guarantee good treatment if the fort was taken by storm.  This was common practice, with commanders understanding that if a fort was taken by storm it was not unusual for the storming force, maddened by sustaining what they usually perceived as unnecessary casualties, exacting vengeance upon the garrison.  The Union commander refused, and the fort was taken by storm about 5:00 PM.

Whether what followed was a deliberate massacre is open to question, but that a massacre occurred is not.  Union dead consisted of 277-297, two-thirds of them black, while Confederate casualties were 14 killed and 86 wounded.  Such a disparity in casualties clearly indicates that Union troops were killed after they ceased to be an effective fighting force.

One problem in assessing blame for this, is that most Union sources claim that the garrison never surrendered.  Typical is the account of  2nd Lieutenant Daniel Van Horne, Second Lieutenant Daniel Van Horne, Sixth Heavy Artillery:

 

 

HDQRS. SIXTH U.S. HEAVY ARTILLERY (COLORED), Fort Pickering, Memphis, Tenn., April 14, 1864.

Lieut. Col. T. H. HARRIS, Assistant Adjutant-General.

        COLONEL: I have the honor to submit the following report of the battle and capture of Fort Pillow, Tenn.:        

At sunrise on the morning of the 12th of April, 1864, our pickets were attacked and driven in, they making very slight resistance. They were from the Thirteenth Tennessee Cavalry.        

Major Booth, commanding the post, had made all his arrangements for battle that the limited force under his command would allow, and which was only 450 effective men, consisting of the First Battalion of the Sixth U.S. Heavy Artillery, five companies of the Thirteenth Tennessee Cavalry, and one section of the Second U.S. Light Artillery (colored), Lieutenant Hunter.        

Arrangements were scarcely completed and the men placed in the rifle-pits before the enemy came upon us and in ten times our number, as acknowledged by General Chalmers. They were repulsed with heavy loss; charged again and were again repulsed. At the third charge Major Booth was killed, while passing among his men and cheering them to fight.        

The order was then given to retire inside the fort, and General Forrest sent in a flag of truce demanding an unconditional surrender of the fort, which was returned with a decided refusal.        

During the time consumed by this consultation advantage was taken by the enemy to place in position his force, they crawling up to the fort.        

After the flag had retired, the fight was renewed and raged with fury for some time, when another flag of truce was sent in and another demand for surrender made, they assuring us at the same time that they would treat us as “prisoners of war.”        

Another refusal was returned, when they again charged the works and succeeded in carrying them. Shortly before this, however, Lieut. John D. Hill, Sixth U. S. Heavy Artillery, was ordered outside the fort to burn some barracks, which he, with the assistance of a citizen who accompanied him, succeeded in effecting, and in returning was killed.         Major Bradford, of the Thirteenth Tennessee Cavalry, was now in command. At 4 o’clock the fort was in possession of the enemy, every man having been either killed, wounded, or captured.        

There never was a surrender of the fort, both officers and men declaring they never would surrender or ask for quarter.        

As for myself, I escaped by putting on citizens clothes, after I had been some time their prisoner. I received a slight wound of the left ear.        

I cannot close this report without adding my testimony to that accorded by others wherever the black man has been brought into battle. Never did men fight better, and when the odds against us are considered it is truly miraculous that we should have held the fort an hour. To the colored troops is due the successful holding out until 4 p.m. The men were constantly at their posts, and in fact through the whole engagement showed a valor not, under the circumstances, to have been expected from troops less than veterans, either white or black.        

The following is a list of the casualties among the officers as far as known: Killed, Maj. Lionel F. Booth, Sixth U.S. Heavy Artillery (colored); Maj. William F. Bradford, Thirteenth Tennessee Cavalry; Capt. Theodore F. Bradford, Thirteenth Tennessee Cavalry; Capt. Delos Carson, Company D, Sixth U.S. Heavy Artillery (colored); Lieut. John D. Hill, Company C, Sixth U.S. Heavy Artillery (colored); Lieut. Peter Bischoff, Company A, Sixth U.S. Heavy Artillery (colored). Wounded, Capt. Charles J. Epeneter, Company A, prisoner; Lieut. Thomas W. McClure, Company C, prisoner; Lieut. Henry Lippett, Company B, escaped, badly wounded; Lieutenant Van Horn, Company D, escaped, slightly wounded.        

I know of about 15 men of the Sixth U.S. Heavy Artillery (colored) having escaped, and all but 2 of them are wounded.

I have the honor to be, very respectfully, &c.,

DANIEL VAN HORN, 2d Lieut. Company D, Sixth U.S. Heavy Artillery (colored).

Resisting to the end is very brave, but if a defending force does not surrender I have a difficult time in holding the attacking force morally culpable for treating the Union force as unsurrendered combatants.

This letter I think from a Confederate surgeon to his wife gets to the truth of what occurred:

Letter of Surgeon Samuel H. Caldwell, Sixteenth Tennessee Cavalry:

Camp Near Brownsville, April 15, 1864.

My Dear Darling Wife,
…..
We are just from Fort Pillow which fort we attacked on Tuesday the 13th.
1864 & carried by storm. It was garrisoned by 400 white men and 400 negroes
& out of the 800 only 168 are now living So you can guess how terrible was
the slaughter. It was decidedly the most horrible sight that I have ever
witnessed—
They refused to surrender—which incensed our men & if General Forrest had
not run between our men & the Yanks with his pistol and sabre drawn not a
man would have been spared—We took about a hundred & 25 white men & about 45
negroes the rest of the 800 are numbered with the dead—They sure [lay]
heaped upon each other 3 days—…

Nothing more but remain your devoted husband.
S. H. Caldwell.”

Forrest had been injured by having two horses shot out from under him and was not present with the storming force.  Most accounts state that he attempted to regain control of his force after the storming and his intervention saved the lives of many Union troops.

Fort Pillow became a cause celebre in the North, with a Congressional hearing by the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War unsurprisingly concluding that Forrest was completely at fault and that a deliberate massacre occurred.  Go here to read the report.

The battle over Fort Pillow was concluded on April 12, 1864.  The battle over what actually happened rages to this day.  Here is Forrest’s report.

 

 

 

HEADQUARTERS FORREST’S CAVALRY DEPARTMENT,
Jackson, Tenn., April 26, 1864.

Lieut. Col. THOMAS M. JACK,
Assistant Adjutant-General.

        COLONEL: I have the honor respectfully to forward you the following report of my engagement with the enemy on the 12th instant at Fort Pillow:
My command consisted of McCulloch’s brigade, of Chalmers’ division, and Bell’s brigade, of Buford’s division, both placed for the expedition under the command of Brig. Gen. James R. Chalmers, who, by a forced march, drove in the enemy’s pickets, gained possession of the outer works, and by the time I reached the field, at 10 a.m., had forced the enemy to their main fortifications, situated on the bluff or bank of the Mississippi River at the mouth of Coal Creek. The fort is an earth-work, crescent shaped, is 8 feet in height and 4 feet across the top, surrounded by a ditch 6 feet deep and 12 feet in width, walls sloping to the ditch but perpendicular inside. It was garrisoned by 700 troops with six pieces of field artillery. A deep ravine surrounds the fort, and from the fort to the ravine the ground descends rapidly. Assuming command, I ordered General Chalmers to advance his lines and gain position on the slope, where our men would be perfectly protected from the heavy fire of artillery and musketry, as the enemy could not depress their pieces so as to rake the slopes, nor could they fire on them with small-arms except by mounting the breast-works and exposing themselves to the fire of our sharpshooters, who, under cover of stumps and logs, forced them to keep down inside the works. After several hours’ hard fighting the desired position was gained, not, however, without considerable loss. Our main line was now within an average distance of 100 yards from the fort, and extended from Coal Creek, on the right, to the bluff, or bank, of the Mississippi River on the left.


During the entire morning the gun-boat kept up a continued fire in all directions, but without effect, and being confident of my ability, to take the fort by assault, and desiring to prevent further loss of life, I sent, under flag of truce, a demand for the unconditional surrender of the garrison, a copy of which demand is hereto appended, marked No. 1, to which I received a reply, marked No. 2. The gun-boat had ceased firing, but the smoke of three other boats ascending the river was in view, the foremost boat apparently crowded with troops, and believing the request for an hour was to gain time for re-enforcements to arrive, and that the desire to consult the officers of the gun-boat was a pretext by which they desired improperly to communicate with her, I at once sent this reply, copy of which is numbered 3, directing Captain Goodman, assistant adju-tant-general of Brigadier-General Chalmers, who bore the flag, to remain until he received a reply or until the expiration of the time proposed.


My dispositions had all been made, and my forces were in a position that would enable me to take the fort with less loss than to have withdrawn under fire, and it seemed to me so perfectly apparent to the garrison that such was the case, that I deemed their [capture] without further bloodshed a certainty. After some little delay, seeing a message delivered to Captain Goodman, I rode up myself to where the notes were received and delivered. The answer was handed me, written in pencil on a slip of paper, without envelope, and was, as well as I remember, in these words: “Negotiations will not attain the desired object.” As the officers who were in charge of the Federal flag of truce had expressed a doubt as to my presence, and had pronounced the demand a trick, I handed them back the note saying: “I am General Forrest; go back and say to Major Booth that I demand an answer in plain, unmistakable English. Will he fight or surrender ?” Returning to my original position, before the expiration of twenty minutes I received a reply, copy of which is marked No. 4.
While these negotiations were pending the steamers from below were rapidly approaching the fort. The foremost was the Olive Branch, whose position and movements indicated her intention to land. A few shots fired into her caused her to leave the shore and make for the opposite. One other boat passed up on the far side of the river, the third one turned back.
The time having expired, I directed Brigadier-General Chalmers to prepare for the assault. Bell’s brigade occupied the right, with his extreme right resting on Coal Creek. McCulloch’s brigade occupied the left, extending from the center to the river. Three companies of his left regiment were placed in an old rifle-pit on the left and almost in the rear of the fort, which had evidently been thrown up for the protection of sharpshooters or riflemen in supporting the water batteries below. On the right a portion of Barteau’s regiment, of Bell’s brigade, was also under the bluff and in rear of the fort. I dispatched staff officers to Colonels Bell and McCulloch, commanding brigades, to say to them that I should watch with interest the conduct of the troops; that Missourians, Mississippians, and Tennesseeans surrounded the works, and I desired to see who would first scale the fort. Fearing the gun-boats and transports might attempt a landing, I directed my aide-de-camp, Capt. Charles W. Anderson, to assume command of the three companies on the left and rear of the fort and hold the position against anything that might come by land or water, but to take no part in the assault on the fort. Everything being ready, the bugle sounded the charge, which was made with a yell, and the works carried without a perceptible halt in any part of the line. As our troops mounted and poured into the fortification the enemy retreated toward the river, arms in hand and firing back, and their colors flying, no doubt expecting the gun-boat to shell us away from the bluff and protect them until they could be taken off or re-en-forced. As they descended the bank an enfilading and deadly fire was poured into them by the troops under Captain Anderson, on the left, and Barteau’s detachment on the right. Until this fire was opened upon them, at a distance varying from 30 to 100 yards, they were evidently ignorant of any force having gained their rear. The regiment who had stormed and carried the fort also poured a destructive fire into the rear of the retreating and now panic-stricken and almost decimated garrison. Fortunately for those of the enemy who survived this short but desperate struggle, some of our men cut the halyards, and the United States flag, floating from a tall mast in the center of the fort, came down. The forces stationed in the rear of the fort could see the flag, but were too far under the bluff to see the fort, and when the flag descended they ceased firing. But for this, so near were they to the enemy that few, if any, would have survived unhurt another volley. As it was, many rushed into the river and were drowned, and the actual loss of life will perhaps never be known, as there were quite a number of refugee citizens in the fort, many of whom were drowned and several killed in the retreat from the fort. In less than twenty minutes from the time the bugles sounded the charge firing had ceased and the work was done. One of the Parrott guns was turned on the gun-boat. She steamed off without replying. She had, as I afterward understood, expended all her ammunition, and was therefore powerless in affording the Federal garrison the aid and protection they doubtless expected of her when they retreated toward the river. Details were made, consisting of the captured Federals and negroes, in charge of their own officers, to collect together and bury the dead, which work continued until dark.


I also directed Captain Anderson to procure a skiff and take with him Captain Young, a captured Federal officer, and deliver to Captain Marshall, of the gun-boat, the message, copy of which is appended and numbered 5. All the boats and skiffs having been taken off by citizens escaping from the fort during the engagement, the message could not be delivered, although every effort was made to induce Captain Marshall to send his boat ashore by raising a white flag, with which Captain Young walked up and down the river in vain signaling her to come in or send out a boat. She finally moved off and disappeared around the bend above the fort. General Chalmers withdrew his forces from the fort before dark and encamped a few miles east of it.


On the morning of the 13th, I again dispatched Captain Anderson to Fort Pillow for the purpose of placing, if possible, the Federal wounded on board their transports, and report to me on his return the condition of affairs at the river. I respectfully refer you to his report, numbered 6.


My loss in the engagement was 20 killed and 60 wounded. That of the enemy unknown. Two hundred and twenty-eight were buried on the evening of the battle, and quite a number were buried the next day by details from the gun-boat fleet.


We captured 6 pieces of artillery, viz., two 10-pounder Parrott guns, two 12-pounder howitzers, and two brass 6-pounder guns, and about 350 stand of small-arms. The balance of the small-arms had been thrown in the river. All the small-arms were picked up where the enemy fell or threw them down. A few were in the fort, the balance scattered from the top of the hill to the water’s edge.


We captured 164 Federals, 75 negro troops, and about 40 negro women and children, and after removing everything of value as far as able to do so, the warehouses, tents, &c., were destroyed by fire.


Among our severely wounded is Lieut. Col. Wiley M. Reed, assigned temporarily to the command of the Fifth Mississippi Regiment, who fell severely wounded while leading his regiment. When carried from the field he was supposed to be mortally wounded, but hopes are entertained of his ultimate recovery. He is a brave and gallant officer, a courteous gentleman, and a consistent Christian minister.


I cannot compliment too highly the conduct of Colonels Bell and McCulloch and the officers and men of their brigades, which composed the forces of Brigadier-General Chalmers. They fought with courage and intrepidity, and without bayonets assaulted and carried one of the strongest fortifications in the country.


On the 15th, at Brownsville, I received orders which rendered it necessary to send General Chalmers, in command of his own division and Bell’s brigade, southward; hence I have no official report from him, but will, as soon as it can be obtained, forward a complete list of our killed and wounded, which has been ordered made out and forwarded at the earliest possible moment.


In closing my report I desire to acknowledge the prompt and energetic action of Brigadier-General Chalmers, commanding the forces around Fort Pillow. His faithful execution of all movements necessary to the successful accomplishment of the object of the expedition entitles him to special mention. He has reason to be proud of the conduct of the officers and men of his command for their gallantry and courage in assaulting and carrying the enemy’s work without the assistance of artillery or bayonets.


To my staff, as heretofore, my acknowledgments are due for their prompt and faithful delivery of all orders.

I am, colonel, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
N. B. FORREST,
Major-General, Commanding.

Published in: on April 12, 2022 at 5:30 am  Comments (2)  
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