Roots, Fort Pillow, and the Legacy of Racial Violence

Roots, Fort PillowI thoroughly enjoyed the re-make of Roots. Rather than comment on the entire series, which plenty of others have already done, I want to say a quick word about the inclusion of the massacre of black soldiers at Fort Pillow, Tennessee in the final episode. The original series did not include this scene nor as far as I can recall did it include any reference to the massacre of black soldiers during the war.

For the purposes of this post I am not going to quibble with whether the scene accurately captured the battle or the massacre specifically. Those of you looking for a solid history should read Brian S. Wills’s recent book, The River Was Dyed with Blood: Nathan Bedford Forrest and Fort Pillow. What matters is that it occurred and that it was included. For many viewers it will likely be their first exposure to this aspect of the war. The scene plays a crucial role in the series and it is essential to understanding the antebellum roots of wartime violence and its anticipation of extra-legal and state-sanctioned violence throughout the postwar period.

As I argue in my book about the massacre of black soldiers at the Crater in Petersburg, Virginia, the massacre of black soldiers did not happen in a vacuum. White soldiers (slave and non-slaveowners alike) understood their actions as putting down a slave rebellion. Their written testimony makes clear that they did not view black men as legitimate soldiers. Their response on the battlefield manifested long-standing fears of slave rebellions and the threat to a society built on white supremacy. The massacres at Fort Pillow, the Crater and elsewhere helped to unite white southerners fighting for the Confederacy and clarified exactly what was at stake if defeated.

The writers and producers of Roots made the right decision to include this scene to help drive home the point that the war unleashed the kind of racial violence that had always been a staple of the Slaveholding South. The violence witnessed by Chicken George at Fort Pillow was the same violence experienced by Kunta Kente.

Just as important is the final scene, when Tom, Chicken George, and the rest of the family confront Frederick Murray one final time. George is still wearing his uniform as does Frederick, who dons his Confederate uniform. In response to the family’s decision to leave the plantation a disgruntled Frederick says the following:

Do you think anything has changed cause the war is over? …We will redeem this country and put you people back where you belong. Its natural law.

The shooting that follows anticipates the violence of Reconstruction, Jim Crow and beyond. But the decision to depict Frederick in his Confederate uniform has implications for our own debate over the public display of the Confederate flag and monuments to Confederate leaders.

It has been close to a year since Dylann Roof attempted to “redeem this country” in the name of those who once fought around that battle flag and for a nation pledged to protect white supremacy. Make no mistake, regardless of your position on the public display of Confederate iconography, the words of Frederick Murray and the actions of Dylann Roof clarify just what is at stake for all of us.

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34 comments… add one
  • bob carey Jun 8, 2016 @ 6:10

    Yes Matt, War Is HELL! and murder is murder!!!

  • Matt Jun 8, 2016 @ 3:49

    War is HELL! Get over it

  • TFSmith Jun 4, 2016 @ 14:15

    Hit send too soon – it was in”Cold Mountain” IIRC.


  • TFSmith Jun 4, 2016 @ 14:14

    True. There was a depiction of the Battle of the Crater that, IIRC, portrayed USCTs being murdered as POWs.


  • Bryan Cheeseboro Jun 4, 2016 @ 4:24

    I saw the original version when it came on TV in 1977 and I think the remake was very well done. Excellent idea to hit the “refresh” button on this powerful American story with new actors and new technology for viewers today, especially young people. Many of the stars of the old version are deceased or not primary faces onscreen anymore.

    I’m glad Fort Pillow was included as well but my one question is, was Chicken George actually there? I seem to recall in Roots 1977 in a postwar scene, George said something about having fought. But I’m thinking he would have been too old to fight. I don’t think either Roots miniseries said exactly when George was born. A timeline I googled says he was born around 1809… the same age as Lincoln. I suppose they put George at Fort Pillow to keep the story focused on the family; that is, ubless he was actually there.

  • David Doggett Jun 3, 2016 @ 16:22

    I think adding the Fort Pillow scene was useful poetic license. That may be the first depiction, but I seem to remember it being mentioned somewhat cryptically in some previous TV drama or Hollywood movie. Seems like the main controversy now is whether Forrest ordered the massacre of black soldiers, or merely allowed it with no repercussions. My impression is that the Confederate policy to take no black prisoners alive, whether official or informal, was widely spread to discourage blacks from joining the Union effort. The attitude of Frederick Murray and his killing was a useful way to dramatically condense the extreme awkwardness between slavers and their newly freed slaves at the end of the war. But I’m not sure how much, or if ever, it happened that way, or if George would be allowed to walk away. Seems like most of the violence in the aftermath of the war went the other way. Some of my ancestors in Mississippi owned slaves, others didn’t; and some willingly fought and died for the Confederacy, while others stayed out of the fight until they were conscripted (by Forrest), and left at the first opportunity (pneumonia). In the aftermath of Reconstruction, some of my ancestors had their home burned down because they refused to join the Ku Klux Klan. Much of the white Southern opposition to slavery, secession, Jim Crow, and segregation has been lost, forgotten, or hidden. But it is important to research it and teach it as just as real a part of “Southern heritage” as the Confederacy and its flags and monuments. Things were always much messier than the revisionist post-war white Southern historians pretend. Maybe the upcoming movie about the Free State of Jones will help correct this, although it remains to be seen how historical it will be. I look forward to reading your blog.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 3, 2016 @ 17:02

      My impression is that the Confederate policy to take no black prisoners alive, whether official or informal, was widely spread to discourage blacks from joining the Union effort.

      Spend enough time with the primary sources and you get the sense that Confederate soldiers did not need an official policy to know what to do in response to black soldiers.

      • Margaret D. Blough Jun 4, 2016 @ 7:04

        However, it WAS official policy as evidenced by this gem (sarcasm alert) from the OR:

        >>O.R.–SERIES II–VOLUME VI [S# 119]

        Shreveport, La., June 16, 1863.
        General S. COOPER,
        Adjutant and Inspector General, Richmond, Va.:
        GENERAL: I have the honor to inclose you two letters, addressed to Major-General Taylor, in regard to the disposition to be made of negroes and their officers captured in arms. Unfortunately such captures were made by some of Major-General Taylor’s subordinates. I have heard unofficially that the last Congress did not adopt any retaliatory legislation on the subject of armed negroes and their officers, but left the President to dispose of this delicate and important question. In the absence of any legislation and of any orders except those referred to in the inclosed letters, I saw no other proper and legal course for me to pursue except the one which I adopted.
        I have the honor to be, general, your obedient servant,
        E. KIRBY SMITH.
        [Inclosure No. 1.]
        Shreveport, La., June 13, 1863.
        Maj. Gen. R. TAYLOR, Commanding District of Louisiana:
        GENERAL: I have been unofficially informed that some of your troops have captured negroes in arms. I hope this may not be so, and that your subordinates who may have been in command of capturing parties may have recognized the propriety of giving no quarter to armed negroes and their officers. In this way we may be relieved from a disagreeable dilemma. If they are taken, however, you will turn them over to the State authorities to be tried for crimes against the State, and you will afford such facilities in obtaining witnesses as the interests of the public service will permit. I am told that negroes found in a state of insurrection may be tried by a court of the parish in which the crime is committed, composed of two justices of the peace and a certain number of slave-holders. Governor Moore has called on me and stated that if the report is true that any armed negroes have been captured he will send the attorney-general to conduct the prosecution as soon as you notify him of the capture.
        I have the honor to be, general, your obedient servant,
        E. KIRBY SMITH,
        Lieutenant-General, Commanding.
        [Inclosure No. 2. ]
        Shreveport, La., June 13, 1863.
        Maj. Gen. R. TAYLOR,
        Commanding District of Louisiana:
        GENERAL: In answer to the communication of Brigadier-General Hébert, of the 6th instant, asking what disposition should be made of negro slaves taken in arms, I am directed by Lieutenant-General Smith to say no quarter should be shown them. If taken prisoners, however, they should be turned over to the executive authorities of the States in which they may be captured, in obedience to the proclamation of the President of the Confederate States, sections 3 and 4, published to the Army in General Orders, No. 111, Adjutant and Inspector General’s Office, series of 1862. Should negroes thus taken be executed by the military authorities capturing them it would certainly provoke retaliation. By turning them over to the civil authorities to be tried by the laws of the State no exception can be taken.
        I am, general, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
        S.S. ANDERSON,
        Assistant Adjutant-General.

        • Kevin Levin Jun 4, 2016 @ 7:07

          Thanks, Margaret. I was certainly not denying that Richmond had issued orders regarding black soldiers.

        • TFSmith Jun 4, 2016 @ 14:16

          Nice find. Says volumes about the gray clad cavaliers and their fans…

  • Dana Talbot Jun 3, 2016 @ 14:00

    Wonder why they don’t mention the even BIGGER Massacer by Sherman????

    • Kevin Levin Jun 3, 2016 @ 14:03

      I suspect because none took place.

      • Dandydon Jun 6, 2016 @ 9:05

        If you don’t think Sherman’s troops committed massacre(s) of their own, you have your head in the sand.

        • David Doggett Jun 6, 2016 @ 17:20

          Dandydon, do tell about Sherman’s “massacres?” Outside of routs in legitimate combat, I’ve never heard of any such thing. He of course did pillage and destroy material goods and crops to disrupt the Southern economy and war support. Of course, on the march to Gettysburg through Maryland and Pennsylvania, Lee’s troops grabbed free blacks and sent them South into slavery.

          • Dandydon Jun 7, 2016 @ 3:33

            Let’s start with a simple one, go lookup the “Roswell Women”.
            Here is another
            “General Sherman also issued the following military order at Big Shanty, Georgia (presently Kennesaw) on June 23, 1864: “If torpedoes (mines) are found in the possession of an enemy to our rear, you may cause them to be put on the ground and tested by a wagon load of prisoners, or if need be a citizen implicated in their use. In like manner, if a torpedo is suspected on any part of the road, order the point to be tested by a carload of prisoners, or by citizens implicated, drawn by a long rope.”
            Do you need more, because I have them.
            And please tell me about a war when atrocities have NOT happened? It’s not right that Negros were killed, but these are things that happened. Generally war crimes are committed by the losing side of any war. The winners end up with heroes. Hence Forrest versus Sherman, all a point of view.

            • Kevin Levin Jun 7, 2016 @ 3:37

              The story of the Roswell women was certainly unfortunate, but I fail to see what about it ought to count as a massacre.

              What about the initial placement of mines?

              It’s not right that Negros were killed, but these are things that happened.

              The issue is not that they were “killed.” Many Americans were killed during the war. The reason it is described as a “massacre” has to do with the way they were killed.

            • Al Mackey Jun 7, 2016 @ 7:02

              “go lookup [sic] the ‘Roswell Women.’ ”

              The full story or the SCV half story?

              The full story includes this:
              From the book, Charged With Treason: Ordeal of 400 Mill Workers During Military Operations in Roswell, Georgia, 1864-1865, by Michael D. Hitt, section titled, “July 1865”, page 152:

              “…With the war over, most of the mill workers, charged with treason, returned home. Samuel Farr and his family returned to Roswell and they are buried in the Roswell Methodist Cemetery. Many others returned, according to S. H. Causey, a former Sweet Water Factory employee:

              “Great was the rejoicing when the smoke of battle had cleared, and by the end of the summer of 1865 practically all of them rejoined their husbands, fathers and sweethearts in their former Roswell and Sweetwater homes. … as soon as peace was declared they returned home, making the trip aboard the same train which had taken them north a year before.”

              Unlike the African-Americans in Pennsylvania kidnapped by the Army of Northern Virginia during the Gettysburg Campaign and taken south into slavery.

  • Luca Brasi Jun 3, 2016 @ 11:18

    I don’t like the fact that script writers deviated from the book: Chicken George wasn’t at Fort Pillow Furthermore, in the book , Chicken George talked like a field worker, not a smooth talker. That said, the movie was powerful with the circumcision, mutiny and duel scenes being my favorite. What the writer misses is that the power of the of the intact family unit is the real hero. His article promotes division as much as the new, proposed $20 bill.

  • BorderRuffian Jun 3, 2016 @ 10:08

    I believe that is the first portrayal of Fort Pillow on either the big screen or TV.
    And it’s a bad one too…
    Black troops sent into battle without arms? I wouldn’t even accuse the Feds of that.
    A white flag of surrender? Never happened.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 3, 2016 @ 10:11

      It should come as no surprise that you missed the most important fact and that is that it was included at all. No one disputes that it contains inaccuracies. As I suggested, the scene serves a specific function. One that no amount of hand wringing from you will erase.

      • Shoshana Bee Jun 3, 2016 @ 16:35

        My recent introduction to the Civil War was through a piece of fiction that had me running on about a certain cavalry officer busying himself with a joyride, rather than winning Gettysburg. Stumbling around forums and blogs got me pointed in the right direction, and off I went. Five months later, and I have reservations to actually see Gettysburg. Some of us find our way to the facts by way of fiction, and without that first story, the interest may never have been sparked. I have no time for fiction, now that I am engaged in a 30 year CW study plan, but I kept that little book as a reminder of where it all started.

      • TFSmith Jun 4, 2016 @ 14:12

        There is an interesting little sidelight here; Alex Haley was a USCG veteran, which was the first of the armed services to organize truly integrated crews (officers and enlisted, and all rates) aboard a US warship.

        Haley himself enlisted in 1939, initially as a steward, saw action in WW II, and then switched rates to journalist, retiring after 20 years as a chief petty officer.

        The point in this, of course, is that Haley wax well aware of the two steps forward, one step back history of African Americans in the United States military, and presumably would have been quite cognizant of the history of the USCTs, including the state volunteer and state militia units that preceded them.

        As a southerner of avowed African ancestry, he also presumably would have understood the caste system in which free people of color functioned in Louisiana and elsewhere, and so would have laughed at the current crop of NEI-confederates’ attempts to coopt organizations like the 1st LA NG to their agendas, as well as deriding the very concept of enslaved servants equating to volunteer or conscript soldiers.

        He certainly knew who Mike Healy was, and given his own mixed ancestry, presumably well understood why the Healy children self-identified as Irish-Americans.


  • Timothy Jones (@timbeejones) Jun 3, 2016 @ 6:49

    Great summary, Kevin. I first learned about Fort Pillow 20 years ago. I was amazed that after hearing about Little Big Horn, Malmedy, even Wereth, that Fort Pillow was not addressed in any formal history I’d read. We vilified and jailed Joachim Peiper, the SS Officer who executed POW’s at Malmedy and Wereth; we erected monuments and named schools, streets, and parks after Forrest.

    Even the most ardent Neo-Confederates seem to draw a blank at Ft. Pillow; it’s the pivotal event which demonstrated the fundamental, visceral hatred at the heart of the Confederate cause.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 3, 2016 @ 6:52

      Even the most ardent Neo-Confederates seem to draw a blank at Ft. Pillow[.]

      Not quite. What they usually do is flat out deny that a massacred took place and/or that Forrest was not responsible in any way. Thanks for the comment.

  • Yulanda Burgess Jun 3, 2016 @ 6:49


    I was pleasantly surprised about the inclusion of Fort Pillow in Roots. I think that incident is an important chapter in the Civil War that needs to be elevated to a wider public. I do, however, have concerns about the historical accuracy of connecting the Haley/Parker family with the massacre. It is given that the new and the old Roots are not documentaries. A lot of poetic license is given to drive the story and there is plenty of fractional information. I read Roots twice. Queen once, visited Henning, Tenn twice, and the Haley homesite and museum once and do not recall the connection with Fort Pillow. Maybe I’m having a brain hiccup. … Additionally, my god mother is a school teacher who grew up in Henning, was a good friend and church member with Alex Haley family and she never mentioned a connection. She claims her great grandfather possibly enlisted in the Union Army as many men from Lauderdale County did, but neither I nor her family historian can verify the family oral history. I mention this as I had gone through the muster roll trying to make military connection with men who had resided in Henning before and after the war. Also an invitation was distributed broadly for USCT descendants to attend the 150th anniversary with only two descendant families materializing and attending. So, I am really interested in the additional research that puts George with the 6th USCHA or 2nd USCLA at Fort Pillow on April 12, 1864. In the last two months Ive located two more descendant families of Fort Pillow USCTs, making a total of four. Adding another will be wonderful.

    Overall, I think that the new Roots will certainly bring further attention to the involvement of African Americans in the Civil War. That in itself is a saving grace for those who try to bring the USCT saga to the general public. Roots will now become part of our dialogue whether it will be corrective or confirming.

    I’m in Memphis right now and my invitation to take family members to Fort Pillow was earlier declined. I’m waiting to see if people have changed their minds.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 3, 2016 @ 10:35

      Hi Yulanda,

      Thanks for the comment. Based on everything that I have read it looks like the addition of Fort Pillow has no basis in the historical record. That’s fine with me for the reasons mentioned in the post.

      In the same way that the original Roots introduced much of the country to a new narrative of slavery, this new version introduces viewers to a new narrative of the Civil War.

      • Andersonh1 Jun 7, 2016 @ 6:40

        Kevin, in all honesty, if you’re fine with inaccurate history in order to promote a narrative you agree with, how is that any different than the Confederate heritage groups you criticize?

        • Kevin Levin Jun 7, 2016 @ 6:45

          I think that the movie “Glory” did a fabulous job of highlighting the history of United States Colored Troops at a time when many Americans were still unaware of their presence in the army. There were certainly historical flaws in it, which I have pointed out in numerous posts on this blog and which I use to teach students how to understand Hollywood movies about historical subjects. The same holds true for the “State of Jones”. I don’t expect that it will be perfect. In fact, I believe it is a mistake to hold writers and producers to the same standards of academic scholarship. My hope is that the movie offers a rich interpretation of the story of Newton Knight and Jones County – one that enriches our understanding of the Civil War and gives us something to talk about.

          Hope that helps.

  • Boyd Harris Jun 3, 2016 @ 6:29

    I’ve not watched the series because I do not have the History channel. Did they mention any of the connection between Fort Pillow and Alex Haley? His boyhood home is located in Henning, TN and he is buried there. The house is a state owned historic site. Fort Pillow is located nearby and both are in Lauderdale County, TN.

    I would also suggest reading John Cimprich’s Fort Pillow, A Civil War Massacre, and Public Memory. His work, along with Robert Mainfort, Jr., did much in the 1980s and 1990s to dispel the Lost Cause interpretation of Fort Pillow.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 3, 2016 @ 6:30

      No they didn’t, but that is very interesting.

      I agree that Cimprich’s book is well worth reading.

  • Rob Baker Jun 3, 2016 @ 6:25

    I did not get a chance to see it – the life of cutting the cable.

    I’m looking forward to purchasing it now. Thanks for the brief review.

  • Beth Kruse Jun 3, 2016 @ 5:36

    I too was very pleased to see Ft. Pillow included. The treatment of captured USCT was integral in POW policies which is not covered in this series, nor would I expect it to be. Any information about treatment of captured USCT though is better than none.

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