I once had my doubts, but then so did General William Tecumseh Sherman (above). He wrote in his memoirs, 25 years later, “At first I discredited the story of the massacre, because,...I had ordered Fort Pillow to be evacuated...” Sherman had ordered the Hoosiers and New Yorkers garrisoning the river fort to join his February 1864 raid on Meridian, Mississippi. After he left the rail head's supply depots burning, southern Mississippi and Alabama could no longer support a rebel army, leaving “Uncle Billy”' free to organize his summer campaign against Atlanta, in which the Indiana and New York boys would play an important part. And then, behind his lines, western Tennessee was reignited, inspiring Sherman to declare, “There will never be peace in Tennessee till Forrest is dead.”
It can be argued the 750,000 Americans killed in the Civil War were sacrificed so men like Bedford Forrest could succeed. When the war broke out Forrest's personal fortune was $1.5 million, mostly in human property. Bedford, as he preferred to be called, was a slave trader, who could neither read nor write. But politicians saw the 6'2”, 210 pound Forrest as a walking recruiting poster, and made him first a colonel and then a major general. And white Tennesseans flocked to serve him.
He was a brutal man, often governed by his quick temper. He killed at least 30 men with his own hands. In 1863 an argument with a subordinate escalated to a personal confrontation, and Forrest stabbed a fellow Confederate officer to death with a knife. But as a commander of light cavalry, Forrest proved to be a genius. And in the wake of the Meridian debacle Forrest set out with 1,500 men on his third raid behind union lines, seeking to feed, clothe and mount his hungry men, and to replace those who were no longer volunteering behind Confederate lines with naive civilians, determined to believe in the romance of the southern cause.
Just after it succeeded, in July of 1861, the state of Tennessee built Fort Pillow on the first of the Chickasaw Bluffs coming south on the Mississippi River. It was laid out by soldiers trained to think expansively. The fort's horse shoe outer defense line enclosed 1,600 acres, anchored on the big river to the south, and tiny Cold Creek on the north. One hundred-fifty yards inside this was the main defensive position, cut through the high ground, about 800 yards long. All this was to defend artillery positions 100 yards behind, on the lower riverside bluff, looming over a narrowing on Mississippi River. The only problem was it would require 4 – 5,000 men to man these defenses,.and neither the Provisional Army of Tennessee, nor the Confederacy, could spare such numbers. As soon as Memphis, 40 miles to the south, fell to Federal naval forces on June 6, 1862, Fort Pillow was evacuated, and western Tennessee became occupied territory.
Once the federal regiments were established in Fort Pillow, the profiteers poured in. By 1864, there were 14 federally licensed cotton traders alone in the nearby village of Fulton. Typical was Edward Benton, representing Chicago based investors, who bought 215 acres of rich bottom land, paying 50 newly freed slaves $10 a month to tend the valuable crop. There were also corn and livestock traders, supplying the federal armies pushing south. So when Sherman ordered the evacuation of Fort Pillow, he was endangering a substantial and growing investment. Which may explain why, on February 3, 1864, the commander at Memphis, General Stephen Hurlbut, ordered still green cavalrymen to reoccupy Fort Pillow.
Thirty-six year old west Tennessee attorney, William “Bill” Braford became a major in the Union army for the same reason Bedford Forrest had been made a General in the rebel army - to attract volunteers. Some 120,000 Tennesseans served in Confederate armies during the war, but another 42,000 served in Union forces. Four companies of “Bradford's Brigade” were mustered into service two miles south of the Kentucky border, in Union City, Tennessee, the day after Christmas, 1863. A little over a month later, on February 8, 1864, the as yet unmounted cavalrymen occupied the now abandoned Fort Pillow. They were ordered to “...use all diligence in recruiting and mounting...”, and were “...authorized to impress horses from both the loyal and disloyal, giving vouchers...” And by April 1st, enough volunteers had turned up to form a fifth company, giving Bradford's Brigade a total strength of 295 troopers.
It was not nearly enough to hold the fort's main defensive line, so on the final bluff Bradford ordered an “L” shaped earthen barricade constructed, with soil from a ditch in front used to raise the parapet even higher. And General Hurlbut promised to send reinforcements.
They arrived on March 29th, in the form of twenty-five year old Major Lionel Booth and 265 artillery men. But the arrivals brought problems. First, Major Booth's commission was a few weeks older than Major Bradford's, making the younger man post commander. And Booth had a confusing past. In 1861 and under the name George Lanning, he had escaped an abusive, alcoholic stepfather by joining the federal army, as a private. He was promoted to sergeant of artillery for his actions in the 1862 Battle of Wilson's Creek, in Missouri, and was then promoted to Major when he accepted command of negro troops, which was the second problem.
The black artillery men were a section of the Second U.S. Colored Light Artillery regiment ,who manned the fort's two 6 pound rifled cannon and brought with them two 12 pound howitzers, and the First Battalion Sixth U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery battery which brought with them two 10-pound Parrott guns . None of the now 560 members of the garrison had ever functioned as a unit, and they were burdened with 100 civilians, both white businessmen and escaped slaves. The white Tennessean soldiers were uneasy with black men carrying guns, and the African-American soldiers were uneasy dealing with whites on an equal bases. To have called these 560 men a unit would be extraordinarily optimistic.
Bedford Forrest set out on this third raid on March 15, 1864, with 1,500 men. A month after Bradford's Brigade had been ordered south, Forrest captured Union City, took 475 union prisoners but captured only 300 horses to replace his 1,500 weary mounts. He quickly moved into Kentucky, added another 200 volunteers to his own force, and on March 25th, threatened the vital union supply depot at the mouth of the Tennessee river - Paducah, Kentucky.
Forrest's standard approach was to throw skirmishers at the defenses, and then threaten to slaughter the garrison if they did not immediately surrender. Usually isolated rear echelon units folded under the pressure, but if they did not Forrest rarely risked his men's lives, preferring to steal horses and supplies to fighting for them. But in a troubling breakdown of discipline, after the federals rejected his surrender demand, one rebel officer led an unauthorized charge against the federals, losing almost 50 men. His nose uncharacteristically bloodied, Forrest then retreated back into Tennessee.
For the first time Forrest's raid had not made him stronger. There was the lapse in discipline, and a scarcity of fresh horses which slowed his retreat. Union politicians might be panicking, but Bedford Forrest was frustrated and his men tired and hungry as they approached Fort Pillow. Inside they knew were horses and weapons, and food. Advance parties opened fire on the fort's pickets before dawn on April 12th.
Unknown to the rebels, about 9 that morning, as Major Booth was making a reconnaissance of the assault, and after he had sent a fast boat to Memphis seeking reinforcements, the union commander was struck in the chest by a ball and killed. By the time Forrest arrived with his 90 man personal guard an hour later, the union pickets had retreated into the main defense line trenches atop the high ground. As he scouted the perimeter, placing his weary men as they slowly arrived, Forrest had two horses shot and killed out from under him, both times throwing the commander to the ground and bruising his ribs.
Finally, about 3:30 p.m., after having outflanked and overrun the defensive line on the high bluffs, Forrest sent his standard demand under a flag of truce. “...I demand the unconditional surrender of the entire garrison, promising that you shall be treated as prisoners of war. My men have just received a fresh supply of ammunition, and from their present position can easily assault and capture the fort. Should my demand be refused, I cannot be responsible for the fate of your command.” It was a lie, as usual. His men were short of ammo, short of horses, and exhausted, having ridden all night to get ahead of pursuing federal cavalry.
Inside the fort, William Bradford was convinced Forrest had 6,000 fresh, well arm battle hardened men on three sides, now attacking him from high ground. But since his casualties to this point were light, Bradford decided to hold out for reinforcements from Memphis. He ordered Captain John Young to the river bank with boxes of ammunition, for a possible last stand. While the truce held, both black and white soldiers taunted the rebels from the walls, shouting, “If you want the fort, come and take it.” And only when he could delay no further, after an hour and 20 minute delay, did Major Bradford respond to General Forrest's demand. “I will not surrender.”
The end took just about 20 minutes. A bugler sounded the charge. And while snipers on the high ground suppressed the union gunners, rebels who had used the truce to filter unseen into the ditch, now boosted each other onto the parapet, and swarmed the defenders. The fighting was for the most part, short lived. A wounded Bradford told his men, “Save yourself boys”. And then the slaughter began.
The next day a Confederate trooper in the 20th Tennessee cavalry, Achilles Clark, described what happened in a letter to his sister. “The slaughter was awful,” he wrote. “The poor, deluded, Negroes would run up to our men...and...scream for mercy, but they were ordered to their feet and then shot down. The white men fared but little better. Their fort turned out to be a great slaughter pen....General Forrest ordered them shot down like dogs...Finally our men became sick of blood and the firing ceased."
Private George Shaw, one of the black artillery men, sought escape at the riverbank, where he was grabbed by a rebel soldier. The unarmed Shaw begged, “Please don't shoot me. The rebel answered, “Damn you, you are fighting against your master,” and shot Shaw in the mouth. The union soldier was left bleeding and floating downstream in the Mississippi River.
Charles Robinson, a white civilian from Minnesota, had come to Fort Pillow to practice his trade as a photographer, taking photos the soldiers sent home to their families. He wrote his own family five days after the fight. “Our boys...threw down their arms...but no sooner were they seen than they were shot down, ...I...could see our poor fellows bleeding and hear them cry “surrender...I surrender”...The rebels ran down the bank and putting their revolvers right up to their heads would blow their brains out or lift them up on bayonets and thrown them headlong into the river below. One of them soon came to where I was laying with one of the “C Company” boys. He...shot the soldier in the head...scattering the blood and brains in my face and then putting the revolver right against my breast he said, “You'll fight with the niggers again, will you? You damn Yankee!” He snapped the revolver but she didn't go off”. The break seemed to break the rebels fury, and he took Robinson prisoner, later stealing his watch. Robinson added, “I saw them laugh and cheer when they were shooting our boys who had jumped in the river.”
Dr. Charles Fitch had set up a field hospital just below the bluff, and saw his patients shot and “chopped to pieces by sabres”. He watched as 20 surrendered black union soldier were ordered into a line and neatly cut down by a single volley of musket fire. Spotting General Forrest, Fitch demanded he stop the slaughter. Forrest responded by asking if Fitch was a doctor for the black or the white soldiers. And when Fitch refused to choose between them, Forest shouted, “I have a great mind to have you killed for being down there!” Instead, Forrest assigned a soldier to guard the doctor, and finally ordered a halt to the butchery, even shooting one Confederate soldier who continued the killing. Three days later Forrest himself admitted in an official dispatch, “The river was dyed with the blood of the slaughtered for 200 yards” He went on to hope this would show, “negro soldiers cannot cope with Southerners.”
Union witnesses reported some rebels hunted for black union survivors through the night, killing those they found. The wounded Major Bradford was taken prisoner, but was shot and killed several days later “while trying to escape.” Of the entire garrison of 560 men, about 285 survived, 61 with wounds. But among those wearing blue, 69% of the whites survived, while just 35% of the African-American soldiers survived.
Northern newspapers and politicians labeled it a war crime. Southern newspapers and politicians downplayed the slaughter or denied it. But the truth is that slavery had so twisted southern culture, that after the war Bedford Forrest could insist, “I am not an enemy of the negro. We want him here among us; he is the only laboring class we have.”
And if you talk to the current residents of Ferguson, Missouri, or Staten Island, New York, or police officers in almost any American city, the shooting of unarmed African American males, is a continuing theme in America. The Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court may believe we live in a post-racial United States, but that ideological driven contention is as absurd as Bedford Forrest's contention that he was in any way shape or form, the Negro's friend.
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