The Richmond Examiner Remembers Fort Pillow

I am in the process of reviewing the final edits of my Crater book.  As I made my way through chapter 1 I came across one of my favorite quotes that appears in the section that explores how white Southerners assessed reports of the massacre of black Union soldiers.  The quote comes from the Richmond Examiner, which appeared on August 2, 1864:

We beg him [Mahone], hereafter, when negroes are sent forward to murder the wounded, and come shouting “no quarter,” shut your eyes, General, strengthen your stomach with a little brandy and water, and let the work, which God has entrusted to you and your brave men, go forward to its full completion; that is, until every negro has been slaughtered.—Make every salient you are called upon to defend, a Fort Pillow; butcher every negro that Grant sends against your brave troops, and permit them not to soil their hands with the capture of a single hero.

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that some of the men in the Fourth Division charged into battle screaming “No quarter” and/or “Remember Fort Pillow.”  Reports of this battle cry can be found in the letters and diaries of Confederate soldiers who were present during the battle as well as those who were not.  They can also be found in many Southern newspapers, including the Examiner.  It is fairly easy to judge who was positioned to hear such a battle cry, which raises the question of why the reference is so pervasive in southern accounts.

I uncovered a couple of examples of black soldiers killing Confederate soldiers after they attempted to surrender.  This was not systematic, but more a function of the confusion of battle as Union and Confederate soldiers faced off against one another in the complex chain of earthworks that extended out from the crater itself.  I say this in reference to the first sentence of the quote above since most of the Confederate soldiers taken prisoner in the section of the battlefield occupied by the Fourth Division were escorted to the rear.

To the extent that soldiers and civilians feared “No quarter” from black soldiers ultimately reflects their approval of what took place at Fort Pillow, Tennessee on April 12, 1864.  What it tells us is that both soldiers and civilians were united around the following:

  • United States Colored Troops were not considered to be soldiers.
  • USCTs were executed after the battle as they had been at Fort Pillow.
  • Their execution was justified as part of God’s “work”.
  • The same actions ought to be taken in the future

I am curious as to that final reference: “…and permit them not to soil their hands with the capture of a single hero.”  What do you make of it?  Is the writer simply encouraging Confederate soldiers to do everything they can to rescue a captured comrade or is he suggesting more extreme measures?

Finally, I am struck by the confusion that many express when the topic of Nathan Bedford Forrest and Fort Pillow arises and the lengths they will go to deny that a massacre took place.  While some people today may be confused, the Richmond Examiner was quite clear as to what took place.

More importantly, it embraced it.

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22 comments… add one
  • Andy Hall Jan 6, 2012 @ 10:57

    For grins, I decided to see what my local paper wrote about Fort Pillow, and found this clarification in the Galveston Weekly News of June 8, 1864, quoting a correspondent from the Memphis Appeal:

    And here I wish to correct an erroneous impression in regard to Gen. Forrest’s views in relation to the negroes [sic.]. He is opposed to killing them at all. He thinks they should be treated as captured property.

    Glad we cleared that up!

  • Allen Jan 6, 2012 @ 8:10

    “I only recollect what the newspapers said about it, and you know that a newspaper always tells the truth.” – Samuel R. Watkins

  • cg Jan 5, 2012 @ 14:36

    “…and permit them not to soil their hands with the capture of a single hero.”

    If by “them” the editor means the USCTs, then this might mean that Confederates should die before surrendering to black troops. But I don’t think that’s what he meant. By suggesting that the subjects might “soil their hands”, it likely refers to the clean hands of the Confederate. But in that case, “hero” means the black soldier. That’s not entirely incongruous if you read it as dripping with sarcasm, a common voice of the 19th century newspaper editor, and one this editorial had already used in its admonition of Mahone. Kind of the same way as right-wingers often call President Obama “The Chosen One,” in a tone intended to mock left-wingers’ adoration of the man.

    That’s my guess.

  • Eric A. Jacobson Jan 5, 2012 @ 13:50

    Simply put – the article advocates killing every black soldier who was found to be engaged in combat. Period. That said, this type of animalistic rage is somewhat understandable, and also applicable to the Ft Pillow situation. For countless Southern soldiers, the very sight of a black man in a blue uniform, daring to bear a weapon and defiantly acting as a white man’s equal, sent them into a rage. Ft. Pillow, like the Crater, was that rage unleashed. Even Dalton, Georgia is an example. Several officers there said elements of Pat Cleburne’s Division had to be physically restrained by some of their officers to prevent them from assaulting the USCT garrison while surrender negotiations were underway.

    The Examiner article is an honest statement. I could only hope some would be so honest today, as they twist and contort such contempoary documents to fit their emotionally charged modern interpretations.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 5, 2012 @ 13:56

      It’s nice to hear from you, Eric.

      One of the things that I try to do in the first chapter of my Crater book is make some sense of the rage that was expressed at the Crater, Fort Pillow and elsewhere. All too often their response is reduced simply to that of anger or rage without any attempt at analyzing its historical and cultural framework. What is clear is that their reaction fits into a broader narrative of how white southerners responded to both real and potential slave rebellions throughout the antebellum period. They also paid very close attention to slave rebellions and how they were handled within the broader Atlantic World. Thanks again for the comment.

      • Ray O'Hara Jan 5, 2012 @ 14:07

        The bit about not allowing Southerners to be captured is imo just an exhortation to fight to the death. not a call for one Reb to shoot a fellow who might capitulate.

        the reaction to the USCT shows the underlying fear of emancipation that the Southern White had, the spectre of Blacks marauding around massacring White men and ‘outraging” White women. This fear even more than the planters losing his labor force drove secession. White fear is an issue rarely discussed but it is there in every action by the Southerner.

      • Eric A. Jacobson Jan 5, 2012 @ 14:15

        Agreed. That type of rage was not a manifestation of them being some awful set of human beings. Rather it rippled out a deep well of feeling that had settled into much of the white population simply because of the time in which they lived and the influence of prior generations.

        This is actually a perfect example of how those who howl and wail about revisionism are actually, in many cases, themselves the revisionists. They believe because someone interprets the Examiner or any other similar source exactly as it was written that somehow such an approach is revisionism, or doesn’t tell the “full story.” Frankly, the folks who do that, I believe, find such accounts so abhorrent because they are applying modern thoughts and views that they have to produce excuses or deflective labels to try and distract from what the truth is or the facts indicate.

        • Kevin Levin Jan 5, 2012 @ 14:32

          We should have the courage to consider them on their own terms through our ability to emphasize. I have no interest in rescuing people from the social and cultural environments in which they found themselves. My interest in the past stems from an appreciation of the role that luck plays in each of our lives. I did not choose when I was born nor did I choose my family, which means that I can easily imagine having been born at a different time and in a very different environment. That thought is both liberating and unsettling to me. As a result I feel much closer to those who came before me.

          I don’t mean to get all philosophical on you, but it’s one reason why I think we have a moral responsibility to remember the past as individuals and as communities.

      • Margaret D. Blough Jan 5, 2012 @ 15:55

        There were certainly instances of rage, but the fact remains that the Confederate response to black men in US military ranks was also cold and calculated as a matter of policy, not just spontaneous reactions. The infamous “no quarter” correspondence from Gen. Kirby Smith to Maj. Gen. Richard Taylor (Jefferson Davis’s former brother-in-law) regarding the fate of “negroes and their officers captured in arms” (Smith’s wording) is dated June 13, 1863, 10 months BEFORE Fort Pillow. What occurred was the long-established white Southern response to anything than even hinted at Blacks engaged in or even thinking of what the Southern whites perceived as servile insurrection with the punitive action also directed at any whites perceived as inciting such insurrection.

        • Kevin Levin Jan 5, 2012 @ 16:13

          All very relevant, Margaret. The Kirby-Taylor correspondence, the Confederate government’s proclamation relating to black soldiers, and the battles themselves are part of a much larger narrative that extends back into the antebellum period.

  • Ben Railton Jan 5, 2012 @ 12:40

    Hi Kevin,

    Good stuff as ever. Just chiming in on that confusion about Forrest: when I wrote this blog post on Forrest,,

    I had a few different folks write me to make the case for him, and to try to deny Fort Pillow in the process. Mostly it was irrelevant changes of topic, though–he famously hugged an elderly black woman later in his life! How could be a racist? and so on. Sure would be good to make documents like this newspaper article more widely known.


    • James F. Epperson Jan 5, 2012 @ 13:04

      The evidence that a massacre occurred at Fort Pillow is rather extensive, as are the whitewash attempts by modern folks who try to excuse/deny what happened. I’ve had many of these discussions in my time.

      • Kevin Levin Jan 5, 2012 @ 13:06

        No doubt. Those denials tell us much more about our own chosen narratives of the war than they do about the actual history.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 5, 2012 @ 13:08

      You will also hear some people emphasize his religious conversion later in life as somehow relevant to the story. I know plenty of people who have claimed to have had conversion experiences and/or have gone through a formal process. I am still uncertain as to the moral import of “finding God.”

      • Andy Hall Jan 5, 2012 @ 14:07

        Forrest’s purported religious conversion late in life should be of interest to the historian because it opens another window into his personality, and how he changed over time. How it influenced his relations with others, his view of his own history, and so on, are legitimate avenues of historical inquiry. Would it be useful for the historian to know whether Forrest really felt guilt or regret over his actions, and to know which actions of his those were? Absolutely, because those things would tell us a lot about the man.

        But it also does nothing to change the facts of his life, as best they can be known. Slave trading, Fort Pillow, Grand Wizard of the Invisible Empire, all of these things remain unchanged. Baptists like me love a good redemption story — it’s an essential cornerstone of our faith — but the fate of Forrest’s soul is not a concern for the historian.

        • Kevin Levin Jan 5, 2012 @ 14:10

          I completely agree with you, Andy. As evidence for how his personality evolved during the postwar period it is very relevant, but all too often it is put forward as sufficient evidence for a metaphysical claim about the man’s soul. I was never trained to make such judgments. 🙂

          • James F. Epperson Jan 6, 2012 @ 4:36

            The fact that he underwent such a conversion late in life is almost totally irrelevant to an historical analysis of what he did during the war. (And maybe my use of “almost” is incorrect!)

            And I say this as a practicing and believing Lutheran. Whatever the theological implications of his conversion, they don’t bear on our understanding of his wartime actions.

        • Margaret D. Blough Jan 6, 2012 @ 5:47

          It does have some historical relevance to the extent that it represents admissions by Forrest of the occurrences of certain events and that he felt guilt about his actions during them.

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