Fort Pillow Attack



 It is almost as difficult to find consistent information about the 
incident at Fort Pillow as it is to determine the moral significance 
of its outcome. Scholars disagree about exactly what transpired on 
April 12, 1864 at Fort Pillow, when General Nathan Bedford Forrest 
captured the fort with his 1,500 troops and claimed numerous Union 
lives in the process (Wyeth 250). It became an issue of propaganda for 
the Union, and as a result the facts were grossly distorted. After 
close examination it is clear that the ³Fort Pillow Massacre² (as it 
became known by abolitionists) was nothing of the sort. The 1,500 
troops under the command of General Nathan Bedford Forrest acted as 
men and as soldiers in their capture of Fort Pillow. 
 It is first necessary to understand what happened in the battle 
before any judgment can be made. A careful study performed by Dr. John 
Wyeth revealed the following information: from April 9-11, 1864, 
troops under the command of Ben McCulloch, Tyree Harris Bell, and 
Brig. General James Chalmers marched non-stop to Fort Pillow to begin 
their assault under the command of General Nathan Bedford Forrest. 
Confederate sharpshooters claimed the lives of several key Union 
officers during the morning assault on the fort. The losses included 
the commanding officer Major Loinel F. Booth, and his second in 
command shortly after that. These losses created a complete breakdown 
of order and leadership among the Union troops within the fort. (251) 
 During the morning engagement, the gun boat the New Era was 
continually attempting to shell the Confederate forces from the 
Mississippi, but with minimal success. The Union forces fought back 
heartily until around one o¹clock in the afternoon, when both sides 
slowed down. Around that time the New Era steamed out of range to 
cool its weapons. It had fired a total of 282 rounds, and its supplies 
were almost totally exhausted. During this hiatus in the firing, while 
Confederate troops waited for supplies that would arrive around three 
o¹clock, Forrestwas injured when his horse fell on him after being 
mortaily wounded (252). When the supplies arrived, Confederate troops 
under a flag of truce delivered a message from Forrest that said, ³My 
men have received a fresh supply of ammunition, and from their present 
position can easily assault and capture the fort,² (253). Forrest 
demanded ³the unconditional surrender of the garrison,² promising 
³that you shall be treated as prisoners of war² ( 253). This 
agreement was refused by Major William F. Bradford using the name of 
Major Booth, and Forrest was left with no option but to attack (Long & 
Long 484).
 Without a word, Forrest rode to his post, and a bugle call began the 
charge. The soldiers stormed the fort under the cover of sharpshooter 
fire. The Union spent their rounds on the charging mass, and the 
second wave was to all intents and purposes a ³turkey shoot.² As 
hordes of soldiers came over the wall, a considerable number of Union 
lives were lost to point blank fire, an action that was deemed murder 
by the northern press. (255) However, it must not be forgotten that 
those Union troops who died were in the process of reloading their 
rifles. Even knowing that they were severely outnumbered, they had 
demanded the fight (Henry 255).
 By this point most of the Union officers in the fort had been killed, 
and the remaining troops fled the fort toward the river where they had 
provisions waiting . There was also a plan for the New Era to shell 
the Confederate troops in the fort with canister, but the shelling 
never happened(. Confederate troops were waiting at the bottom of the 
fort to prevent access to the supplies by the Union forces. With the 
Union flag still flying upon the fort and Union forces still firing on 
the run, Confederate troops claimed many more lives on the river bank. 
It was reported by Colonel FIRST NAME Barteau that 
 they made a wild, crazy, scattering fight. They acted like 
 a crowd of drunken men. They would at one moment 
 yield and throw down their guns, and then would rush 
 again to arms, seize their guns and renew the fire. If 
 one squad was left as prisoners ... it would soon 
 discover that they could not be trusted as having 
 surrendered, for taking the first opportunity they 
 would break lose again and engage in the contest. 
 Some of our men were killed by Negroes who had 
 once surrendered (256). 
 With this type of activity, it is understandable how a superior 
force could claim so many casualties. However, the issue is not so 
clear to Civil War historians. The first and biggest problem has to do 
with the information that different historians base their opinions on. 
For example, in a historical account written by Carl Sandburg it is 
reported that Forrest¹s troops stood 6,000 strong. This is slightly 
inflated from the actual 1,500 that were present. In this same account 
Sandburg claims that the ³battle ended as a mob scene with wholesale 
lynching²(Sandburg 247). It was distorted information such as this 
that was used by the Union as propaganda against the South. After the 
incident General FIRST NAME Kilpatrick was quoted saying Forrest had 
³nailed Negroes to the fences, set fire to the fences, and burned the 
Negroes to death²(Hurst 321). With reports like this, it is 
understandable why abolitionist were outraged. 
 The Congressional Committee released a summary after the event. It 
 ³that the rebels took advantage of a flag of truce to place 
themselves in ³position from which the more readily to charge the 
upon the fort²; that after the fall of the fort ³the rebels 
 commenced in an indiscriminate slaughter sparing 
 age nor sex, white or black, soldier or civilian²; 
 that this was ³not the results passions excited by 
the heat 
 of conflict, but of a policy deliberation decided 
upon and 
 unhesitatingly announced²; that several of the 
 were intentionally burned to death in huts and tents 
 about the fort; and the ³the rebels buried some of
 the living the dead.² (Henry 260)
In the intensive studies performed by Dr. John Wyeth there were more 
than fifty soldiers that were present at this battle who gave sworn 
testimonies contradicting these findings.(260) This suggests that the 
Union fabricated the truth to aid in its own cause. 
 The fact is that most of what was said about Forrest¹s unethical 
actions were false accusations. Testimonies from several different 
sources (both Union and Confederate) claim that there were no 
movements under the flag of truce, but that they had their positions 
hours before. (Henry 260) It is true that the losses were huge in this 
battle, but that is typical of many significantly unbalanced battles. 
According to Wyeth there was only one incident of force against the 
Union after the Union flag came down, and that resulted in an on the 
spot arrest . 
 This entire incident was blown totally of proportion. It is tragic to 
lose even one life, but on a battle field, death is inevitable. This 
event became a monumental point in the war because of exaggeration 
and lies told by Union supporters. These lies strengthened the Union 
cause and further blemished the reputation of Confederate forces. 
Morally, there is no fault in Forrest¹s actions.

Subject: Works Cited for Fort Pillow Attack paper
Works Cited

 Henry, Robert Selph. ³First the Most²-Forrest. . New York: The 
Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1944.

 Hurst, Jack. Nathan Bedford Forrest-A Biography. New York: Alfred 
Knoph, 1993.

 Lee, Guy Carleton. The True History of the Civil War. Philadelphia: 
I.B. Lippincott, 1903.

 Long, E. B. and Barbara Long. The Civil War Day by Day-An Almanac. 
New York: Doubleday, 1971.
 Sandburg, Carl. Storm over the Land--A Profile of the Civil War. New 
York: Harcourt Brace: 1939.

 Wyeth, John Allan. That Devil Forrest -The Life of Gen. Nathan 
Bedford Forrest. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1959.


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