Remember Fort Pillow (yes but how?)

fort-pillowToday is the 150th anniversary of the Fort Pillow Massacre. Should it be remembered as a Confederate massacre of black soldiers, a moment in the long history of racial violence between black and white Americans or both?

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62 comments… add one
  • J. H. Walker Jul 24, 2018 @ 19:43

    How Blacks help win the war!

  • Andy Hall Jul 23, 2018 @ 19:34

    When they do teach those things, though, they sometimes get pilloried for being “anti-American” or some such nonsense. There are a great many people who seem to believe that the role of the historian is to affirm the United States’ greatness, moral and otherwise.

  • James H Walker Jul 23, 2018 @ 13:16

    I Vote for H.R. 5209

  • James H Walker Jul 23, 2018 @ 13:12

    We fought very hard for our Civil Rights and without us there would have not been a winer for the rights of God’s real democracy!

  • James H Walker Jul 23, 2018 @ 13:07

    I would like to save and support the history of this National Park as one of the Proud Black History of our past for the knowledge of our young people for our proud further to go on to fight for our excitations.

  • Julian Apr 17, 2014 @ 8:37

    “The commission of war crimes by American soldiers.” – an earlier comment on this post which has sort of moved on – but I would agree that this is a further reason that Fort Pillow will keep raising controversy. The acknowledgement that both sides – including the one that one identifies emotionally and politically with – do wrong is a complex one and even being able to make a construct of war that is not one sided like some world war one recruiting posters with apes in pickelhaubes eating babies where good and bad can be neatly ascribed to the combatants seems hard. War and the pressures of the moment bring out the worst in people.

    You could also not only raise the issue of massacres of Confederate soldiers but also whether the US army within a few years of Fort Pillow committed atrocities on Native Americans… none of these events are isolated

    I think also of the older [1990s?] conflict about museum signage around the Enola Gay in which veterans thought that they were being maligned – that was one of the key incidents in the so-called history wars (and there were similar public disputes in Germany and Australia between academic and popular understandings of historical guilt/blame) The CBC ran a revisionist documentary series about negative aspects of the allied war experience including racism in the allied armies and questions as to whether allied bombing campaigns were war crimes. A group of airforce veterans sued the CBC in a class action and the ruling was that defining the action as a war crime did not impugn the honour of individual Canadian airforce veterans.

    I also think of some of the intense debate around the Feb 14th 1945 bombing of Dresden which segues back and forth where we have this strange modern positioning whereby to argue down the neo-Nazi and Nazi uses of the event, responsible history has to in effect normalise or play down stories of human cost and suffering. Is doing bad i.e. killing civilians – for the right ends – doing good or just another variant of doing bad? How do you process and avoid neo Nazi tropes without diminishing the experiences of those who were victims
    World War Two is not a divergence here
    The landscape of civil war debate is changing rapidly – and more recently than the Civil Rights movement and I think many people – especially historians without an academic or educational background have not read the changes – Ken Burn’s series was consensual and uplifting, all that horror and bloodshed made the nation what it was and delivered a more equal America, and the Jungian mythopoesis of the world of Shelby Foote – a great admirer of Forrest – captured viewers’ imaginations around the world. Two decades on the conclusions reached by Burns seem increasingly untenable. The Civil War has been “Europeanised” so to speak. There is signs of a splitting into increasingly unresolvable factions with opposed even mutually exclusive narratives and claims on memory and no sense of a possibility of exchange of sympathy or reconciliation. Moreover some sense of the moral absolutes that are the a priori shaping of understanding world war two is making the narrative far more fixed than it was when Burns’ documentary was produced –

    • Mike Hawthorne Jul 23, 2018 @ 15:15

      As serious students of history, it beggars belief that some US scholars are reluctant to acknowledge atrocities comitted by their armed forces. A cursory glance at the Mexican War or the invasion of the Phillipines, major aggressive wars that framed the 1860s, reveals shocking barbarity as an everyday normality. When fighting ‘their own’, the soldiers were more restrained. However, blacks were not ‘their own kind’ for the Confederates, but dehumanised property, to be disposed of like dogs that had bared their teeth at their masters.

  • Steve Apr 15, 2014 @ 16:39

    The proof is in Nathan Bedford testimony, why would I believe an author over the actual statement of the individual? There is nothing to analyze. The testimony also states while a member of the white camellia he was not an active member.

  • Steve Apr 15, 2014 @ 6:58

    J.W. Morton may claim General Forrest was a member of the Klan, Nathan Bedford Forrest clearly states he was not a member of the Klan in his testimony. Nathan. Bedford Forrest claims he was a member of the ” white camellia.”
    Brian Steel Will’s book does not provide any real proof Nathan Bedford Forrest was in the Klan.
    Many neo-federalist will claim Nathan Bedford Forrest was lying in his testimon. General Forrest had no reason to lie, he was not under investigation and charged for any offense, he had no reason to lie.
    If General Forrest was a “racist” why did 44 of his freed slaves continue to fight with him?

    • Kevin Levin Apr 15, 2014 @ 7:03

      Brian Steel Will’s book does not provide any real proof Nathan Bedford Forrest was in the Klan.

      What you should say is that you disagree with the analysis that BSW provides in reference to certain evidence. You haven’t done that. In fact, you have said nothing about evidence one way or the other.

    • Jerry McKenzie Apr 15, 2014 @ 10:00

      The Wikipedia entry on the Knights of the White Camellia. I am sure Google will provide even more historical and current affairs on the White Camellias.

    • Jerry McKenzie Apr 15, 2014 @ 15:05

      Why did 44 of his freed slaves continue to fight with him? 1.) We will never know for sure as you have not presented any evidence as to their motivation (if any exists); 2.) Maybe those 44 were the teamsters who were banking on the paper and Forrest’s word they would be free after the war; 3.) Did they really fight?

  • Bob Huddleston Apr 14, 2014 @ 6:59

    It is also important to consider Fort Pillow as part of the Myth of Bedford Forrest

    Tennessee has produced three American presidents. But in the state there are more monuments to Nathan Bedford Forrest than there for the three chief executives combined.

    However, this has not always been true. Some years ago while visiting that small skirmish in Southern Pennsylvania, I purchased a color reprint of a 22 X 8.5 lithograph evidently originally printed when money was being raised for the Lee/Virginia monument. It is copied from one at the Museum of the Confederacy.

    The center shows the caption, “Our Heroes and Our Flags,” with a picture of Lee flanked by a marching Rebel and a mounted one. Above is a medal (UCV?) and below, they are surrounded by the four Confederate flags, incorrectly labeled as “No. 1,” “No. 2,” “No. 3” and “No. 4.” “Two” is the battle flag, and one, three and four are the seven star “Stars and Bars,” “Stainless Banner” and the final one with the red band. In the middle is a prototype of the Virginia monument, with a fancy base and no statues around it. The Monument was dedicated in June 1917, so the lithograph must be earlier than that, and was printed before the final monument was finalized. Let us date it as circa 1910.

    What is interesting is that around the perimeter are eighteen Confederate leaders. Across the top are, from left to right, Bragg, Beauregard, Davis, Alexander Stephens and Stonewall Jackson. Down the left margin, under Bragg, are Hood, Powell Hill, Longstreet, and Samuel Cooper. On the right side, under Stonewall, we find Sterling Price, Polk, Hardee and JEB Stuart. Across the bottom, from under Cooper to under Stuart, we find Wade Hampton, Ewell, John Morgan, Kirby Smith and Joe Johnston.

    There are several surprising things about the choice of people to commemorate: first, is the inclusion of Old Peter – one would have thought that, since this was the height of the Lost Cause, Longstreet would have been boycotted. Second, is the division of the men between the East and the West: two politicians, one general staff officer, and, by my count, five ANV leaders, six AoT and Trans-Mississippi, and four who had notable leadership in both (rather arbitrary, my choice of “both” is Beauregard, Hood, Longstreet and Joe Johnston.) Without arguing about my divisions, the selections are well balanced – but stronger on Westerners.

    And third, who they included. Beside the anathematized Longstreet, why John Morgan? The others are all corps and army commanders, except for Morgan.

    And, finely, of relevance here, why was Forrest not included? He was a corps commander and a lieutenant general. In the early years of the twentieth century, was Bedford Forrest not considered to be in the Confederate pantheon? If not, when did he become one of the Most Famous Civil War Generals? I can not imagine a similar poster today not including Forrest.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 14, 2014 @ 7:02

      Here is a short essay I wrote about Forrest and memory for the Atlantic last year.

      • Dave Sanders Apr 14, 2014 @ 8:34

        Your article states: “Finally, in 1867, the Ku Klux Klan selected Forrest as its first Grand Wizard. Forrest served for a short period before losing interest, but during that time, the Klan and other white supremacy organizations committed ferocious acts of violence against newly freed slaves in an attempt to maintain antebellum social and racial norms.”

        Where is your evidence that Forrest was even a member of the Klan? The only documentation regarding any memberships was the Congressional inquiry where he stated he was a member of the White Camelia. And if he was an ardent racist why was he asked to speak at a gathering of the Independent Order of Pole-Bearers Association, a forerunner to the NAACP on July 5, 1875?

        The false narrative continues…

        • Kevin Levin Apr 14, 2014 @ 8:39

          I consulted Brian Steel Wills’s biography of Forrest (pp. 335-38) as well as an essay in the Journal of Southern History.

          • Dave Sanders Apr 14, 2014 @ 8:55

            Of course we know those are not primary sources of which you know none exists except the testimony of one man 40 years after the fact which would not hold up in a court of law.

            • Kevin Levin Apr 14, 2014 @ 8:58

              You obviously are not familiar with the relevant primary sources on this battle.

              • Dave Sanders Apr 14, 2014 @ 9:10

                I was referring to the the accusations of Forrest being associated with the Klan.

                • Eric A. Jacobson Apr 14, 2014 @ 10:01

                  Well I’m sure Kevin can speak for himself, but J. W. Morton’s account that Forrest was a member of the “Ku Klux” is more than enough for me. Morton was Forrest’s wartime artillery chief and had no reason to fabricate such an allegation. His account of their meeting at the Maxwell House in Nashville is quite thorough. This ongoing denial that Forrest was in the Klan is really quite silly. Of course, Forrest would deny his involvement in front of Congress. I likely would have done the same.

            • Eric A. Jacobson Apr 14, 2014 @ 10:05

              Also, I might add, that the insistence of “primary” sources is almost laughable in this instance. James R. Crowe was a Klan co-founder and was quite explicit that Forrest was not only in the Klan, but led it for a time. Why would Crowe lie? To obfuscate? To label Forrest as the leader when in actuality it was someone else? Why would Crowe say J. W. Morton administered the Klan oath to Forrest? Why would Morton confirm Crowe’s story? I think any objective researcher knows the answers.

              • Dave Sanders Apr 14, 2014 @ 11:58

                Because you believe that Crowe was not lying does that mean he did not? If he Forrest was what James Crowe claims why did blacks invite him to speak at their event? Why was he well respected by blacks who served with him in the war? Why does Forrest claim he has been accused of things he’s not guilty of and states he has whites and blacks to confirm that? As I stated earlier a witness testimony after 40 years would not hold up in court. I too believe any objective researcher knows the answers.

                • Eric A. Jacobson Apr 14, 2014 @ 12:16

                  Crowe would have no reason to lie. Let’s face it, if he was, labeling Forrest as the Klan leader wasn’t the most brilliant thing he could have done. But surprisingly no one contemporarily denied it. Not even Forrest gave a blanket denial. He just side-stepped the issue and said he knew this and that, but claimed he didn’t really know anything. Sounds like familiar congressional testimony to me.

                  As for Forrest being invited to speak, one has nothing to do with the other. Beside, it is pretty well documented that Forrest did have a sort of conversion late in life, so I’m comfortable chalking it up to that.

                  As for Forrest’s claims of not being guilty, well, plenty of folks have employed such tactics through the years.

                  All this being said, there is ample evidence that points to Forrest not only being in the Klan, but running it for a time in the late 1860s. His denials pale in comparison to the evidence. Moreover, this isn’t a court of law, but cases with less evidence have still ended up with up with convictions.

                  Morton and Crowe knew Forrest intimately. You did not. They had no reason to fabricate such a tale.

                  • Ken Noe Apr 14, 2014 @ 12:40

                    Eric, you could also add Brian Wills’ observation that as Forrest traveled around the south on business, Klan groups had a remarkable tendency of popping up along his path after he left town.

                    • Eric A. Jacobson Apr 14, 2014 @ 12:57


                      Very true. It is also widely documented that on July 4, 1867, parades were held in a variety of Southern towns in which the Klan marched in full regalia. The order for these parades came directly from Forrest, as a way of putting people on notice that the Klan was watching carefully the actions of those deemed as enemies.

                  • Dave Sanders Apr 15, 2014 @ 6:54

                    As I read it only Crowe states that Forrest was chosen as a leader and Morton swore him in. Nowhere do I read Morton stated anywhere that Forrest was a member of the Klan. If this is true you have one witness 40 years after the fact with no other witnesses to confirm Crowe’s testimony. You ask “Why would Crowe lie?” False name dropping happens all the time, as does embellishing a story to make it more popular. Is there another eyewitness? Forrest admitted under oath he was a member of the White Camelia another pro-Confederate vigilante group. He also admitted he knew people in the Klan and their activities. He also stated that those in the Klan were both white and black.

                    • Andy Hall Apr 15, 2014 @ 7:08

                      “Nowhere do I read Morton stated anywhere that Forrest was a member of the Klan.”

                      Morton included an addendum to his memoir of the war that described Forrest’s recruitment and swearing-in in considerable detail. You can choose to believe him or not, as you wish, but he certainly wanted people to believe it true.

    • Andy Hall Apr 14, 2014 @ 7:47

      Forrest figures far more prominently in modern Confederate heritage circles today than he did in his lifetime, or for a long time after, largely because he is viewed as the ultimate “unreconstructed” Confederate, a sort of southern pit bull. Like much of Confederate heritage, this largely ignores the historical reality that, near the end of his life, Forrest (along with Gideon Pillow) publicly urged his fellow former Confederates to honor the Union dead on Decoration Day, and “to honor the government for which they died, and if called upon, to fight for the flag we could not conquer.”

      • Dave Sanders Apr 14, 2014 @ 8:47

        Andy that was a very perceptive comment. Although we in the Sons of Confederate Veterans honor Forrest and believe him to be one of the greatest cavalry officers in the Confederate Army, we DO promote his work in trying to get his former comrades to re-enter the political process. He even spoke to the black community here is an excerpt from his speech to the Independent Order of Pole-Bearers Association July 5, 1875:

        “) I came here with the jeers of some white people, who think that I am doing wrong. I believe I can exert some influence, and do much to assist the people in strengthening fraternal relations, and shall do all in my power to elevate every man to depress none. (Applause.) I want to elevate you to take positions in law offices, in stores, on farms, and wherever you are capable of going. I have not said anything about politics today. I don’t propose to say anything about politics. You have a right to elect whom you please; vote for the man you think best, and I think, when that is done, you and I are freemen. Do as you consider right and honest in electing men for office. I did not come here to make you a long speech, although invited to do so by you. I am not much of a speaker, and my business prevented me from preparing myself. I came to meet you as friends, and welcome you to the white people. I want you to come nearer to us. When I can serve you I will do so. We have but one flag, one country; let us stand together. We may differ in color, but not in sentiment Many things have been said about me which are wrong, and which white and black persons here, who stood by me through the war, can contradict. Go to work, be industrious, live honestly and act truly, and when you are oppressed I’ll come to your relief. I thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for this opportunity you have afforded me to be with you, and to assure you that I am with you in heart and in hand. “

        • Andy Hall Apr 14, 2014 @ 8:56

          I’m familiar with the Pole Bearers’ speech, thanks. I do wonder why you would assume otherwise, though.

          • Dave Sanders Apr 14, 2014 @ 9:15

            Please forgive me. That was not my intention. I placed it there for those who are not familiar with it. I might add that “unreconstructed” at least for me and many of my compatriots in the SCV means State’s rights.

            • Michael Rodgers Apr 14, 2014 @ 9:55

              You quoted Forrest, whom you honor, saying, “We have but one flag, one country; let us stand together.” Yet you have more than one flag. And you call the SCV your compatriots. And… Heavy sigh. Have a nice day.

  • Bob Huddleston Apr 14, 2014 @ 6:55

    Missing in this discussion is what was Forrest doing, riding through Western Tennessee when he should have been attacking Sherman’s rear areas as Uncle Billy headed towards Atlanta. Forrest found it easy to attack rear echelon untrained troops. He stayed away from the First Team.

  • Bob Huddleston Apr 14, 2014 @ 6:53

    The US Congress’ Committee on the Conduct of the War investigated Fort Pillow and correctly concluded it was a massacre. Easy to ignore their war-time biased conclusions. But they also investigated Sand Creek, something done by United States’ soldiers, and the CCW correctly said *that* was also a massacre. No matter how one wants to excuse what Forrest and his men did, it was a massacre.

  • Bob Huddleston Apr 14, 2014 @ 6:48

    Joel Chandler Harris spent the Civil War years as a printer’s devil on the Georgia plantation owned by his boss. He would remember the real Uncle Remus waiting patiently along the road for the arrival of Uncle Billy’s army. To the old man, Sherman’s arrival meant he would die as a free man. Uncle Remus knew the difference between the March to the Sea and Fort Pillow.

  • Uncle Remus Apr 13, 2014 @ 20:18

    Bob, it is also useful to remember that you were the one who cheerfully exulted “Uncle Billy made Georgia howl”! when discussing Sherman’s Georgia campaign. Well, guess what? “Uncle Nathan” made Ft. Pillow howl!

    • Jerry Sudduth Jr. Apr 14, 2014 @ 5:33

      There’s a rather large difference. Sherman making “Georgia howl” was war as it had been practiced for centuries. It demonstrated to the people in Sherman’s path that the rebel government couldn’t defend them and it cleared out a lot of resources of value to the Confederates. It hastened the conclusion of the war.

      The people who claim United States soldiers on that march were nothing but rapists and murderers cannot provide primary source evidence to mass incidents such as this. Did bad things happen, sure, but certainly not to the degree that is claimed. They’ve made the claim numerous times yet cannot back up the statement. The claims are nothing but Lost Cause hogwash.

      Did bad things occur on that march? Sure, but it wasn’t a systematic policy. Fort Pillow was another matter entirely.

      We have primary resource information from witnesses of the battle and it’s aftermath who attest to the brutality shown that day. The conduct of the rebels that day was worse than disgraceful.

      This wasn’t war but sorry conduct based on moral cowardice and the lowest depths of human depravity. It’s my opinion that “Uncle Nathan” is a hero to many neo-Confederates speaks volumes as to what they are and what they truly believe.

      • Ken Noe Apr 14, 2014 @ 6:58

        Glenn Miller, the accused Overland Park shooter, published a book in 1999 entitled “A White Man Speaks Out.” The cover features him standing in front of a portrait of Forrest, not Sherman.

  • Bob Huddleston Apr 13, 2014 @ 18:02

    It is useful to compare the dead and wounded ratio at Fort Pillow with similar casualties in other Civil War battles.

    Battle statistics are a notoriously slippery slope! That said, the closest thing to a definitive study of numbers engaged and the losses incurred in a Civil War battle is Busey and Martin, _Regimental Strengths and Losses at Gettysburg _.

    The epitome of destruction surely is the Charge of Pickett’s Division on July 3. It is useful here because almost all, if not all, of their losses were in the fabled charge – the division arrived on the night of July 2 and did not participate in any of the other fighting.

    Here are the numbers from Busey and Martin for the division and the three infantry brigades. The totals do not tally because I left off Dearing’s artillery battalion, and the division field and staff which are included in the division totals.

    Pickett’s Division at Gettysburg had 5,473 officers and men engaged.
    Armistead’s Brigade: “ 1,950 “ “ “
    Kemper’s Brigade “ 1,634 “ “ “
    Garnett’s Brigade “ 1,459 “ “ “

    Pickett’s Division lost 2,904 – 53%. But that was 599 KIA, 1223 WIA, 1082 Missing/Captured (M/C)

    Armistead Brigade 1223 – 62.7%. 187 KIA, 447 WIA, 589 M/C
    Kemper’s Brigade 703 – 43.0% 171 KIA, 367 WIA, 165 M/C
    Garnett’s Brigade 948 – 65% 231 KIA, 393 WIA, 324 M/C

    The heaviest overall loss by any regiment in Pickett’s division was in the Eighth Virginia of Garnett’s Brigade. Indeed, it suffered the greatest percentage loss of either army in the Battle of Gettysburg.

    The Eighth Virginia went in with 193 officers and men and lost 178, 92.2%. But only 39 were killed, 79 wounded and 60 M/C

    Note that Garnett’s Brigade lost 24% KIA. And the Eighth Virginia lost 20% KIA.

    The division as a whole lost 11% KIA and roughly two were wounded for every dead.

    To determine whether or not there was a massacre at Fort Pillow, Cimprich and Mainfort examined the individual CMRSs of the units present.

    They concluded that 495 to 505 Union soldiers, black and white, were present at Fort Pillow on April 12, 1864. The discrepancy is over the exact numbers of Maj. William Bradford’s battalion of Tennessee Unionists.

    They determined the casualties were as follows:

    Troops present

    Bradford’s Bn 6th US Col. Inf 2d US Col. Light Arty
    280-300 270 35

    Killed, missing and presumed dead or died of wounds:
    82 177 18

    149 29 12

    Wounded and escaped:
    39 1 5

    Escaped uninjured:
    7-22 29 0

    Dead as percentage:
    White: Black:
    31-34% 64%

    White wounded were about 1 for every 2 dead – compare with Pickett’s exact opposite of 2 wounded for every dead.

    The USCT wounded were 1 for 179 dead!

    Pickett had about 11% of his men killed.

    Fort Pillow was a massacre!

    John Cimprich and Robert C. Mainfort, Jr., “The Fort Pillow Massacre: A Statistical Note,” _Journal of American History _, 76:3 (December, 1989), 830-837

  • Dave Sanders Apr 13, 2014 @ 12:49

    Let’s set the record straight. Read the article from Lt. Col. Ed Kennedy US Army (Ret.). Here is the link –

    • Kevin Levin Apr 13, 2014 @ 13:23

      Thanks for the link, but how can you declare an essay on this topic to set the record straight when it completely ignores what Confederate themselves said occurred at Fort Pillow?

      • Dave Sanders Apr 14, 2014 @ 8:23

        Gee Kevin don’t you want to read anything that contradicts your opinion? I offered you a book with a compilation of blacks who served in the Confederacy, information compiled by a Mexican-American with “no dog in the fight” and you shrugged it off a “shoddy research” without reading it. Now you discount an essay without reading it. So am I to understand that everything you accept as fact has to agree with your opinion? Try reading the information before criticizing it.

        • Kevin Levin Apr 14, 2014 @ 8:29

          I did read it and I offered a response. Like I said, I find it strange that an essay on Fort Pillow would ignore entirely what Confederates themselves stated what occurred.

          • Dave Sanders Apr 14, 2014 @ 8:51

            Please direct me to that information. I will be glad to read it. I find it strange that Forrest denied it was a massacre all the way up to the end of his life, especially since he was a “deathbed” Christian.

            • Kevin Levin Apr 14, 2014 @ 8:56

              There are plenty of scholarly studies that you can consult. Try John Cimprich’s Fort Pillow: A Civil War Massacre, and Public Memory. Brian Steel Wills just published a new book on Fort Pillow with the University of Oklahoma Press.

              • Dave Sanders Apr 14, 2014 @ 9:05

                Thanks. I’ll check them out.

            • Dave Sanders Apr 14, 2014 @ 9:02

              Here is part of a speech by Forrest which I believe he is referring to Ft. Pillow:

              ” Many things have been said about me which are wrong, and which white and black persons here, who stood by me through the war, can contradict.”-to the Independent Order of Pole-Bearers Association July 5, 1875

              Here he claims both “white and blacks” who were with him in the war that “can contradict” claims made against him.

              • Kevin Levin Apr 14, 2014 @ 9:04

                Fascinating analysis, Mr. Sanders.

  • Uncle Remus Apr 13, 2014 @ 11:30

    Ft. Pillow is just an example of the Confederates engaging in “Total War”. The Unionists have no cause for complaint.

  • Brendan Bossard Apr 13, 2014 @ 11:24

    In my opinion, it cannot be remembered as either, because blacks were not the sole victims, although after the initial moments of slaughter the Confederates showed much less mercy to blacks. It would be unfair to the whites who died alongside them.

    It may be more helpful to remember it as an angry outburst by a dying slave-culture.

    On a side-note: I consider it ironic that there are those who commemorate Forrest while condemning Sherman. Nothing like the deliberate slaughter of Fort Pillow occurred during the March to the Sea, as far as I can tell.

  • Johnny Reb Apr 13, 2014 @ 8:19

    The confederate officers lost control of their men plain and simple this is what happened at fort pillow.
    It is a common thing that happens though out history soldiers getting excited and then loseing all sense of reality.
    You can ask any war veteran this and they will tell you that this is what happens.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 13, 2014 @ 11:18

      No, they didn’t lose control of their men. The response of Confederates at Fort Pillow to black Union soldiers was a measured response that was repeated on a number of occasions. Your analysis gets us nowhere in understanding how Confederates interpreted the presence of black soldiers on the battlefield.

      • Will Hickox Apr 13, 2014 @ 11:33

        Also, to say “the Confederate officers lost control of their men” doesn’t exactly place neo-Confederate hero Forrest in the best light.

        Forrest’s command included a large number of new recruits, and there is evidence that they disregarded their orders on several occasions at Ft. Pillow and elsewhere during the West Tennessee raid. But there are other accounts indicating that many of their officers fully condoned and participated–even insisted on–the atrocities at Pillow and elsewhere.

        It isn’t clear that Forrest himself ordered a massacre, as some have charged. And he appears to have been preoccupied with citing artillery guns against a Union gunboat during the initial stages of the massacre, so one could perhaps make a claim that he wasn’t totally responsible. But he didn’t exactly do everything he could to halt it (as his apologists would have us believe), and it appears to have continued during that night and possibly the next morning. And in any case, officers bear ultimate responsibility for the behavior of their soldiers.

    • Jimmy Dick Apr 13, 2014 @ 16:23

      Leaders only lose control of their men when they are poor leaders. The massacres in the Vietnam War were a result of poor leadership on multiple levels. In the case of Ft. Pillow it was a deliberate lack of leadership in preventing the massacre because that leadership wanted the massacre to happen.

  • Patrick Young Apr 13, 2014 @ 7:21

    “Should it be remembered as a Confederate massacre of black soldiers, a moment in the long history of racial violence between black and white Americans or both?”

    Perhaps there is another frame as well “The commission of war crimes by American soldiers.” Not something we like to acknowledge, but we are more likely to see elements of this frame in the future than we are to confront the two you suggest.

  • Richard Apr 13, 2014 @ 4:56

    Remembering Elbert Jones
    Sgt., Bradford’s Battalion 13th Tennessee Cavalry
    Andersonville Prison casualty

  • Will Hickox Apr 12, 2014 @ 17:12

    William Dobak’s “Freedom By the Sword” has a good description of reprisals by black troops after Ft. Pillow, which their officers often condoned, and the apprehension that Confederates sometimes felt when they realized they were facing black troops.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 12, 2014 @ 17:15

      I agree. Dobak is well worth looking at on this subject.

  • Michael Williams Apr 12, 2014 @ 15:25


    If you are going to cut and paste from another website in its entirety you should at least cite the source. Plagiarism is not tolerated on this site and you should know better.



  • James Harrigan Apr 12, 2014 @ 8:26

    Will, I really enjoyed your Disunion post. I knew about Fort Pillow but had never read a detailed description of what actually happened. I was particularly fascinated to read about the motley collection of Union troops (blacks, Unionists, and Confederate deserters) that seemed almost scientifically designed to provoke Forrest’s men. I agree with you that the most striking part of the story is the difference between what the Confederates expected the reaction to be and what it actually was.

    I know this is beyond the scope of a Disunion post, but you sort of left hanging an implication, and a hint of a justification, of future reprisals by USCT’s for the Fort Pillow war crimes. How common was it for USCT’s to murder surrendering Confederates? Were such war crimes condoned by white officers?

  • mike hawthorne Apr 12, 2014 @ 8:16

    Apart from combat frenzy and the generally accepted, dehumanizing racism of the period, Forrest’s command brought its own particular subculture to the battlefield. The ex-slave trader’s artillery train relied heavily on black teamsters. These were given ‘freedom papers’, which were to be honored when the Confederacy won the war. Lincoln’s emancipated colored regiments, offering immediate liberty, posed a direct threat to Forrest’s ploy. An unforgettable example had to be made to keep the slaves in line. How well this worked is another matter.

  • Will Hickox Apr 12, 2014 @ 5:59

    Kevin, thanks for linking to my post. As you know, having written for the “Disunion” series, space is very limited and an author has to make choices on what aspects of the story to include. As the series follows the war day by day, I decided to concentrate on the human drama of the people who experienced the massacre and the fallout afterward.

    Regarding your question of whether Ft. Pillow should “be remembered as a Confederate massacre of black soldiers, a moment in the long history of racial violence between black and white Americans or both,” I think there’s room for both interpretations, with the latter possibly being somewhat more important in teasing out the greater significance of the event, which is what we strive to do as educators of high schoolers and undergrads.

    One thing that really struck me in my research on the event, and which I indicate at the end of the post, was the clash between what Forrest and other Confederates expected would be the result, and the very different conclusions that many Northerners–black and white–derived from it.

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