A Massacre of Biblical Proportions

Listening to these two knuckleheads talk Civil War history on a recent show is both entertaining and disturbing at the same time. By the way, David Barton’s new book on Thomas Jefferson was recently voted “Least Credible Book in Print” at the History News Network.  I have no doubt that the recognition is well deserved.

9 thoughts on “A Massacre of Biblical Proportions

  1. Jim Dick

    Skinned alive? I’m not an expert on Fort Pillow but I’ve never seen that brought up. Are we seeing more Beck sensationalism for the purpose of teaching his distorted history? Barton and Beck are both shining examples of how psuedo-historians really mess up what happened in history.

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  2. cg

    This fits a larger historical narrative that Beck, et. al., are pushing, that is ironic, amusing, and horrifying, all at the same time. That is, that slaveholders and southerners, because of their autocratic…and, um, slaveholding…tendencies, represent the “socialistic” desire to run people’s lives through overpowering government. Abolitionists, on the other hand, represent true conservative values because they stood up for individual rights, against that slaveholding/socialist power.

    Ironic, because not a generation ago…hell, within my own memory…conservative types defended slavery, condemned abolitionists, and did things like deny Fort Pillow and equivocate on Forest’s legacy. (Many of my conservative friends, who aren’t as plugged in to Beck/Barton as we are, still hold this line. I tell them they need to get caught up with their revisionist compatriots.)

    Amusing, because these conservative revisionists stumble over themselves to express moral outrage about slavery. The cartoonish indignation is hilarious, and leads them to say dumb things like “a massacre of Biblical proportions.”

    Horrifying, because, well… that cartoonish indignation is not actually hilarious. The faulty logic on top of the real bad history and historical reasoning represents a sensibility of irrationality that is not helpful (to say the least) to healthy civic discourse in general. (Man, talk about cartoonish indignation…I am learning from the best!)

    Then again, much of that irony might be self-generated. Beck’s particularly Utah-based historical inspirations (Skousen, etc.) are from outside the south and outside the conservative-history tradition that most of us here are accustomed to hearing about. They are not freighted with the baggage of having to defend slavery, and so slipping over to the abolitionist perspective might not be as great a leap as it seems to us.

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  3. Andy Hall

    This is the report of Acting Master William Ferguson, commanding officer of U.S.S. Silver Cloud, the first Union officer on the scene after the massacre. His report is dated April 14, two days after the assault on the fort, long before the incident became widely known.

    Our garrison at Fort Pillow, consisting of some 350 colored troops and 200 of the Thirteenth Tennessee Cavalry, refusing to surrender, the place was carried by assault about 3 p.m. of 12th instant.

    I arrived off the fort at 6 a.m. on the morning of the 13th instant. Parties of rebel cavalry were picketing on the hills around the fort, and shelling those away I made a landing and took on-board some 20 of our troops (some of them badly wounded), who had concealed themselves along the bank and came out when they saw my vessel. While doing so I was fired upon by rebel sharpshooters posted on the hills, and 1 wounded man limping down to the vessel was shot.

    About 8 a.m. the enemy sent in a flag of truce with a proposal from General Forrest that he would put me in possession of the fort and the country around until 5 p.m. for the purpose of burying our dead and removing our wounded, whom he had no means of attending to. I agreed to the terms proposed, and hailing the steamer Platte Valley, which vessel I had convoyed up from Memphis, I brought her alongside and had the wounded brought down from the fort and battle-field and placed on board of her. Details of rebel soldiers assisted us in this duty, and some soldiers and citizens on board the Platte Valley volunteered for the same purpose.

    We found about 70 wounded men in the fort and around it, and buried, I should think, 150 bodies. All the buildings around the fort and the tents and huts in the fort had been burned by the rebels, and among the embers the charred remains of numbers of our soldiers who had suffered a terrible death in the flames could be seen.

    All the wounded who had strength enough to speak agreed that after the fort was taken an indiscriminate slaughter of our troops was carried on by the enemy with a furious and vindictive savageness which was never equaled by the most merciless of the Indian tribes. Around on every side horrible testimony to the truth of this statement could be seen. Bodies with gaping wounds, some bayoneted through the eyes, some with skulls beaten through, others with hideous wounds as if their bowels had been ripped open with bowie-knives, plainly told that but little quarter was shown to our troops. Strewn from the fort to the river bank, in the ravines and hollows, behind logs and under the brush where they had crept for protection from the assassins who pursued them, we found bodies bayoneted, beaten, and shot to death, showing how cold-blooded and persistent was the slaughter of our unfortunate troops.

    Of course, when a work is carried by assault there will always be more or less bloodshed, even when all resistance has ceased; but here there were unmistakable evidences of a massacre carried on long after any resistance could have been offered, with a cold-blooded barbarity and perseverance which nothing can palliate.

    As near as I can learn, there were about 500 men in the fort when it was stormed. I received about 100 men, including the wounded and those I took on board before the flag of truce was sent in. The rebels, I learned, had few prisoners; so that at least 300 of our troops must have been killed in this affair.

    What happened at Fort Pillow was horrific enough without Beck and Barton’s hyperbole.

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  5. Bob Huddleston

    There was a massacre of the surrendering troops at Fort Pillow and the “massacre” was not an invention of Yankee propaganda. Forrest was responsible, both as the commanding officer and because the blood-lust that got out of control was an expression of his own personality. “[It] was brutal slaughter beyond what should have occurred. People died who were attempting to surrender to surrender and should have been spared. … Although he lost control over the fighting at Fort Pillow, the Confederate cavalry commander clearly did not disapprove of the results.” (Wills, p. 196)

    There are four well written and, more importantly, well-researched accounts of the massacre at Fort Pillow: the oldest was Albert Casteel’s first published work, “The Fort Pillow Massacre: A Fresh Examination of the Evidence,” _Civil War History_ March 1958. The second is an article by John Cimprich and Robert C. Mainfort, Jr published also in _Civil War History_ (December 1982), “Fort Pillow Revisited: New Evidence about an Old Controversy,”. See also Cimprich’s book, _Fort Pillow: A Civil War Massacre and Public Memory_ (Baton Rogue, 2005). The fourth is _An Unerring Fire: The Massacre at Fort Pillow_ by Richard Fuchs (Stackpole, $22.95) (See the review at http://www.civilwarnews.com/reviews/bookreviews.cfm?ID=341 ). To quote the reviewer, “this tragic episode could have easily been avoided, but that racial hatred prevailed and that the demons that drove Nathan Bedford Forrest all his life were unleashed in a climactic feeding frenzy hitherto not seen on an American battlefield.”

    If you are interested, I can post several of the Confederate letters written home shortly after the “battle,” which John Cimprich and Robert C. Mainfort, Jr reprinted in their article. The essence of their arguments is that the historian should be cautious about anything written after the allegations of massacre began, but that we can learn a lot by seeing what participants wrote before those charges were made.

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    1. Andy Hall

      The essence of their arguments is that the historian should be cautious about anything written after the allegations of massacre began, but that we can learn a lot by seeing what participants wrote before those charges were made.

      That’s why, to me, Ferguson’s account is so powerful. He was a naval officer, not directly involved in either the defense or assault on Fort Pillow, but spent a full day dealing with the immediate aftermath, and wrote about it within 24 hours in his report to his superiors. This was before the event became common public knowledge, before it became a topic of heated debate. Ferguson’s account was, I believe, later incorporated into the congressional investigation of the event, but at the time he was only writing it with the intent that it be read by his superiors in the chain of command.

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