Introduction: On April 30, 1864, Harper's Weekly, the most widely circulated magazine in the remaining United States, carried this story:
On the 12th April, the rebel General [Nathan Bedford] Forrest appeared before Fort Pillow. . . attacking it with considerable vehemence. This was followed up by frequent demands for its surrender, which were refused by Major Booth, who commanded the fort. The fight was then continued up until 3 p.m., when Major Booth was killed, and the rebels, in large numbers, swarmed over the intrenchments. Up to that time comparatively few of our [i.e., Union] men had been killed; but immediately upon occupying the place the rebels commenced an indiscriminate butchery of the whites and blacks, including the wounded. Both white and black were bayoneted, shot, or sabred; even dead bodies were horribly mutilated, and children of seven and eight years, and several negro women killed in cold blood. Soldiers unable to speak from wounds were shot dead, and their bodies rolled down the banks into the river. The dead and wounded negroes were piled in heaps and burned, and several citizens, who had joined our forces for protection, were killed or wounded. Out of the garrison of six hundred only two hundred remained alive. Three hundred of those massacred were negroes; five were buried alive. Six guns were captured by the rebels, and carried off, including two 10-pound Parrotts, and two 12-pound howitzers. A large amount of stores was destroyed or carried away.
Accompanying the story was a full-page illustration which graphically detailed the alleged massacre.
Frank Leslie's Illustrated Weekly, the second-leading magazine in the Union states, carried a similar illustration [shown at left]. In both rebel soldiers brutally bayonetted, shot, and battered fallen and helpless Union soldiers, most of them African Americans. What had happened at Fort Pillow? Union survivors claimed that Confederate cavalry, under the command of Nathan Bedford Forrest, indiscriminately killed Union troops, even as they tried to surrender. Forrest and his officers stoutly denied that a massacre had occured and offered their own explanations of why so few Union soldiers survived. A commission, appointed by Lincoln to investigate issues of military misconduct, North and South, concluded that there had been a massacre. Historians, for the most part, accept this verdict. But Forrest still has his defenders.
What makes the issue so controversial is that so many of the Union dead were African Americans. Lincoln had initially resisted calls for using black soldiers, in part because he feared that the Confederates would not treat captured African Americans as prisoners of war. Jefferson Davis and the Confederate Congress confirmed Lincoln's fears in 1863 by pledging to treat black troops as fugitive slaves. Such troops, if captured, would be "returned" to slavery. Nonetheless, Lincoln accepted the arguments in favor of using black soldiers. One argument was the need for manpower. Another, made by African-American spokesmen like Frederick Douglass, was that blacks needed to participate in their own emancipation. Freedom should be something they won for themselves.
November 6, 1860 Abraham Lincoln elected president
12 Civil War begins with Confederate attack on federal garrison at Fort Sumter, South Carolina
6 First Confiscation Act nullifies owners' claims to fugitive slaves who had been employed in the Confederate war effort
12 President Lincoln appeals to congressmen from the border states to support gradual, compensated emancipation, with colonization of freed slaves outside the United States, warning that if they do not act soon, slavery in their states "will be extinguished by mere friction and abrasion--by the mere incidents of the war"; two days later, a majority of the congressmen reject Lincoln's appeal
17 Second Confiscation Act frees the slaves of persons engaged in or assisting the rebellion and provides for the seizure and sale of other property owned by disloyal citizens; it also forbids army and navy personnel to decide on the validity of any fugitive slave's claim to freedom or to surrender any fugitive to any claimant, and authorizes the president to employ "persons of African descent" in any capacity to suppress the rebellion
17 Militia Act provides for the employment of "persons of African descent" in "any military or naval service for which they may be found competent," granting freedom to slaves so employed (and to their families if they belong to disloyal owners)
22 Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Lincoln; it announces that all slaves in those states or portions of states still in rebellion as of January 1, 1863, will be declared free, pledges monetary aid for slave states not in rebellion that adopt either immediate or gradual emancipation, and reiterates support for the colonization of freed slaves outside the United States
23 Confederate President Davis issues proclamation ordering that black Union soldiers and their officers captured by Confederate troops are not to be treated as prisoners of war; instead, they are to be remanded to Confederate state authorities
1 Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Lincoln; it declares free all slaves in the Confederate states (except Tennessee, southern Louisiana, and parts of Virginia) and announces the Union's intention to enlist black soldiers and sailors. By late spring, recruitment is under way throughout the North and in all the Union-occupied Confederate states except Tennessee
30 President Lincoln pledges that Union soldiers, black or white, are entitled to equal protection if captured by the enemy and threatens retaliation for Confederate enslavement of black prisoners of war
3 War Department orders full-scale recruitment of black soldiers in Maryland, Missouri, and Tennessee, with compensation to loyal owners
8 Senate approves constitutional amendment abolishing slavery
12 Confederate troops under General Nathan B. Forrest allegedly massacre black and white soldiers (and several civilians) captured at Fort Pillow, Tennessee
7 Enlistment in Kentucky opened to slave men irrespective of their owners' consent, with compensation to loyal owners
15 House of Representatives fails to approve constitutional amendment abolishing slavery
15 Congress makes pay of black soldiers (which had been $10 per month for all ranks) equal to that of white soldiers ($13 per month for privates, larger amounts for higher ranks); the change is retroactive to January 1, 1864, or, for men who were free before the war, to the time of enlistment
20 Congress increases the pay of all privates, black and white, to $16 per month, with corresponding increases for higher ranks
Nathan Bedford Forrest's official report of the action contains a detailed description of the fort and of the disposition of the opposing forces:
My command consisted of McCulloch's brigade, of Chalmers' division, and Bell's brigade, of Buford's division, both placed for the expedition under the command of Brig. Gen. James R. Chalmers, who, by a forced march, drove in the enemy's pickets, gained possession of the outer works, and by the time I reached the field, at 10 a.m., had forced the enemy to their main fortifications, situated on the bluff or bank of the Mississippi River at the mouth of Coal Creek. The fort is an earth-work, crescent shaped, is 8 feet in height and 4 feet across the top, surrounded by a ditch 6 feet deep and 12 feet in width, walls sloping to the ditch but perpendicular inside. It was garrisoned by 700 troops with six pieces of field artillery. A deep ravine surrounds the fort, and from the fort to the ravine the ground descends rapidly. Assuming command, I ordered General Chalmers to advance his lines and gain position on the slope, where our men would be perfectly protected from the heavy fire of artillery and musketry, as the enemy could not depress their pieces so as to rake the slopes, nor could they fire on them with small-arms except by mounting the breast-works and exposing themselves to the fire of our sharpshooters, who, under cover of stumps and logs, forced them to keep down inside the works. After several hours' hard fighting the desired position was gained, not, however, without considerable loss. Our main line was now within an average distance of 100 yards from the fort, and extended from Coal Creek, on the right, to the bluff, or bank, of the Mississippi River on the left.
A Union gunboat attempted to assist the Pillow defenders, but Forrest's troops were able to fire down into it and drive it away. At this point, all accounts agree, Forrest demanded the Union forces surrender unconditionally. They requested an hour to consider. During this time, according to Forrest, several additional gunboats made their way toward the fort. One, he alleged, was filled with reinforcements. If so, this would have been a violation of the one-hour truce. Forrest continued his report:
My dispositions had all been made, and my forces were in a position that would enable me to take the fort with less loss than to have withdrawn under fire, and it seemed to me so perfectly apparent to the garrison that such was the case, that I deemed their [surrender] without further bloodshed a certainty. After some little delay, seeing a message delivered . . ., I rode up myself to where the notes were received and delivered. The answer was handed me, written in pencil on a slip of paper, without envelope, and was, as well as I remember, in these words: "Negotiations will not attain the desired object." As the officers who were in charge of the Federal flag of truce had expressed a doubt as to my presence, and had pronounced the demand [for surrender] a trick, I handed them back the note saying: "I am General Forrest; go back and say . . . that I demand an answer in plain, unmistakable English. Will he fight or surrender?" . . .
While these negotiations were pending the steamers from below were rapidly approaching the fort. The foremost was the Olive Branch, whose position and movements indicated her intention to land. A few shots fired into her caused her to leave the shore and make for the opposite. One other boat passed up on the far side of the river, the third one turned back.
The time having expired, I directed Brigadier-General Chalmers to prepare for the assault.
Forrest's military judgment, that his forces were in position to take the fort without much additional loss to themselves, was correct. The Union forces were outnumbered, pinned down by sharpshooters, and unable to use their field artillery. Again, Forrest describes the action:
Everything being ready, the bugle sounded the charge, which was made with a yell, and the works carried without a perceptible halt in any part of the line. As our troops mounted and poured into the fortification the enemy retreated toward the river, arms in hand and firing back, and their colors flying, no doubt expecting the gun-boat to shell us away from the bluff and protect them until they could be taken off or re-enforced. As they descended the bank an enfilading and deadly fire was poured into them by the troops under Captain Anderson, on the left, and Barteau's detachment on the right. Until this fire was opened upon them, at a distance varying from 30 to 100 yards, they were evidently ignorant of any force having gained their rear. The regiment who had stormed and carried the fort also poured a destructive fire into the rear of the retreating and now panic-stricken and almost decimated garrison. Fortunately for those of the enemy who survived this short but desperate struggle, some of our men cut the halyards, and the United States flag, floating from a tall mast in the center of the fort, came down. The forces stationed in the rear of the fort could see the flag, but were too far under the bluff to see the fort, and when the flag descended they ceased firing. But for this, so near were they to the enemy that few, if any, would have survived unhurt another volley. As it was, many rushed into the river and were drowned, and the actual loss of life will perhaps never be known, as there were quite a number of refugee citizens in the fort, many of whom were drowned and several killed in the retreat from the fort. In less than twenty minutes from the time the bugles sounded the charge firing had ceased and the work was done.
Forrest then, according to his report, attempted with a white flag to signal to the gunboat to send a boat to the shore to take away the Union wounded. The boat ignored the signal, he claimed, and it was not until the following morning that a Union vessel arrived to take off the wounded. Only towards the very end of his report did Forrest even mention the African Americans among the fort's garrison:
We captured 164 Federals, 75 negro troops, and about 40 negro women and children, and after removing everything of value as far as able to do so, the warehouses, tents, &c., were destroyed by fire.
At no point in his report did Forrest so much as hint at a massacre. Indeed he noted that Federal casualties could have been higher, had his troops not cut down the U.S. flag which caused the Confederates to cease firing. He explained the high number of Union dead by pointing to the crossfire into which they fled and by the desparation of some who jumped into the river.
Very different is the report of the U.S. naval officer, Acting Master William Ferguson, who took off the wounded on the day after the battle:
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.
Ferguson took his small convoy upriver to Cairo, Illinois where word of the events at Fort Pillow reached the northern press and rapidly spread. Here is the way the Franklin (PA) Repository told the tale:
Immediately upon the surrender, there ensued a scene which utterly baffles description. Up to that time comparatively few of our men were killed, but, insatiate as fiends and bloodthirsty as devils incarnate, the Confederates commenced an indiscriminate butchery of the whites and blacks including those of both colors who had been previously wounded.
The dead and wounded negroes were piled in heaps and burned, and several citizens who joined our forces for protection, were killed or wounded.
The black soldiers, becoming demoralized, rushed to the rear, their white officers having thrown down their arms. Both white and black were bayonetted, shot or sabred, and even dead bodies were horribly mutilated. Children of seven or eight years of age, and several negro women were killed in cold blood. Soldiers unable to speak, from their wounds, were shot dead and their bodies rolled down the banks into the river. [at right is an 1892 illustration, evidence of Fort Pillow's continuing notoreity.]
Stop and Consider:
- What evidence is there, based upon Acting Master Ferguson's official report, of a massacre?
- What details of the alleged massacre were contained in the Repository account that are not in Ferguson's report?
- What details of the Ferguson and Forrest reports are contradictory?
Confederate Brig. General James Chalmers, who commanded the charge that took Fort Pillow, wrote his official report of the engagement in early May. Despite the growing controversy, he followed the example of his commanding general, Nathan Bedford Forrest, and made no mention of the alleged massacre:
Affairs were in this condition, with the main fort completely invested, when Major-General Forrest arrived with Colonel Wisdom's regiment of Buford's division. After carefully examining the position he ordered a general charge to be made. The troops responded with alacrity and enthusiasm, and in a short time took possession of all the rifle-pits around the fort, and closed up on all sides within 25 or 30 yards of the outer ditch. Here a considerable delay occurred from the ammunition being exhausted. A supply, however, was obtained as quickly as possible from the ordnance train and everything was made ready for another advance. To prevent the unnecessary effusion of blood Major-General Forrest now demanded, under flag of truce, the surrender of the place, which after a parley of about thirty minutes was refused. The bugle then sounded the charge, a general rush was made along the whole line, and in five minutes the ditch was crossed, the parapet scaled, and our troops were in possession of the fort.
The enemy made no attempt to surrender, no white flag was elevated, nor was the U.S. flag lowered until pulled down by our men. Many of them were killed while fighting, and many more in the attempt to escape. The strength of the enemy's force cannot be correctly ascertained, though it was probably about 650 or 700. Of these, 69 wounded were delivered to the enemy's gun-boats next day, after having been paroled. One hundred and sixty-four white men and 40 negroes were taken prisoners, making an aggregate of 273 prisoners. It is probable as many as half a dozen may have escaped. The remainder of the garrison were killed.
Efforts to ignore the charges of massacring Union troops failed, and Forrest had to address the subject. He did so in a letter to the commanding Union General in Tennessee, Major General C.C. Washburn. He was alarmed, he wrote Washburn, that false reports of what happened at Pillow were enflaming Negro troops. On June 14 he wrote:
It has been reported to me that all the negro troops stationed in Memphis took an oath on their knees, in the presence of Major-General Hurlbut and other officers of your army, to avenge Fort Pillow, and that they would show my troops no quarter. Again, I have it from indisputable authority that the troops under Brigadier-General Sturgis, on their recent march from Memphis, publicly and in various places proclaimed that no quarter would be shown my men. As his troops were moved into action on the 11th [10th] the officers commanding exhorted their men to remember Fort Pillow, and a large majority of the prisoners we have captured from that command have voluntarily stated that they expected us to murder them; otherwise they would have surrendered in a body rather than taken to the bush after being run down and exhausted. The recent battle of Tishomingo Creek was far more bloody than it would otherwise have been but for the fact that your men evidently expected to be slaughtered when captured, and both sides acted as though neither felt safe in surrendering, even when further resistance was useless. The prisoners captured by us say they felt condemned by the announcement, &c., of their own commanders, and expected no quarter.
In all my operations since the war began I have conducted the war on civilized principles, and desire still to do so, but it is due to my command that -they should know the position they occupy and the policy you intend to pursue. I therefore respectfully ask whether my men now in your hands are treated as other Confederate prisoners; also, the course intended to be pursued in regard to those who may hereafter fall into your hands.
On June 19, Washburn retorted:
You say in your letter that it has been reported to you "that all the negro troops stationed at Memphis took an oath on their knees, in the presence of Major-General Hurlbut and other officers of our army, to avenge Fort Pillow, and that they would show your troops no quarter." I believe that it is true that the colored troops did take such an oath, but not in the presence of General Hurlbut. From what I can learn, this act of theirs was not influenced by any white officer, but was the result of their own sense of what was due to themselves and their fellows, who had been mercilessly slaughtered. I have no doubt that they went into the field as you allege, in the full belief that they would be murdered in case they fell into your hands. The affair of Fort Pillow fully justified that belief. I am not aware as to what they proclaimed on their late march, and it may be as you say, that they declared that no quarter would be given to any of your men that might fall into their hands. Your declaration that you have conducted the war on all occasions on civilized principles cannot be accepted, but I receive with satisfaction the intimation in your letter that the recent slaughter of colored troops at the battle of Tishomingo Creek resulted rather from the desperation with which they fought than a predetermined intention to give them no quarter. You must have learned by this time that the attempt to intimidate the colored troops by indiscriminate slaughter has signally failed, and that instead of a feeling of terror you have aroused a spirit of courage and desperation that will not down at your bidding.
I am left in doubt by your letter as to the course you and the Confederate Government intend to pursue hereafter in regard to colored troops, and I beg you to advise me with as little delay as possible as to your intention. If you intend to treat such of them as fall into your hands as prisoners of war, please so state. If you do not so intend, but contemplate either their slaughter or their return to slavery, please state that, so that we may have no misunderstanding hereafter. If the former is your intention, I shall receive the announcement with pleasure, and shall explain the fact to the colored troops at once, and desire that they recall the oath that they have taken. If the latter is the case, then let the oath stand, and upon those who have aroused this spirit by their atrocities, and upon the Government and the people who sanction it, be the consequences.
Washburn's question concerning how Forrest intended to treat African-American troops who fell into his hands as prisoners of war was of crucial import. Forrest's reply of June 25 was not particularly responsive:
You . . . assume the privilege of denouncing me as a murderer and as guilty of the wholesale slaughter of the garrison at Fort Pillow, and found your assertions upon the ex parte testimony of your friends, the enemies of myself and country.
I shall not enter into the discussion, therefore, of any of the questions involved nor undertake any refutation of the charges made by you against myself; nevertheless, as a matter of personal privilege alone, I unhesitatingly say that they are unfounded and unwarranted by the facts. But whether these charges are true or false, they, with the question you ask as to whether negro troops when captured will be recognized and treated as prisoners of war, subject to exchange, &c., are matters which the Government of the United States and Confederate States are to decide and adjust, not their subordinate officers.
I regard captured negroes as I do other captured property and not as captured soldiers, but as to how regarded by my Government and the disposition which has been and will hereafter be made of them, I respectfully refer you through the proper channel to the authorities at Richmond. It is not the policy nor the interest of the South to destroy the negro--on the contrary, to preserve and protect him--and all who have surrendered to us have received kind and humane treatment.
Since the war began I have captured many thousand Federal prisoners, and they, including the survivors of the Fort Pillow massacre (black and white), are living witnesses of the fact that with my knowledge or consent, or by my order, not one of them has ever been insulted or in any way maltreated.
Meanwhile the United States Commission on the Conduct of the War investigated. Here is some of the testimony (from pages 82-84 of James McPherson's Marching Toward Freedom (1994)):
Sergeant Benjamin Robinson, (colored) company D, 6th United States heavy artillery, sworn and examined:
QUESTION: Were you at Fort Pillow in the fight there?
ANSWER: Yes, sir.
QUESTION: What did you see there?
ANSWER: I saw them shoot two white men right by the side of me after they had laid their guns down. They shot a black man clear over into the river. Then they hallooed to me to come up the hill, and I came up. They said, "Give me your money, you damned nigger." I told him I did not have any. "Give me your money, or I will blow your brains out." Then they told me to lie down, and I laid down, and they stripped everything off me.
QUESTION: This was the day of the fight?
ANSWER: Yes, sir
QUESTION: Go on. Did they shoot you?
ANSWER: Yes, sir. After they stripped me and took my money away from me they dragged me down flat on my stomach; I laid there till night, and they took me down to an old house, and said they would kill me the next morning. I got up and commenced crawling down the hill; I could not walk.
QUESTION: When were you shot?
ANSWER: About 3 o'clock.
QUESTION: Before they stripped you?
ANSWER: Yes, sir. They shot me before they said, "come up."
QUESTION: After you had surrendered?
ANSWER: Yes, sir. They shot pretty nearly all of them after they surrendered.
Major Williams, (colored) private, company B, 6th United States heavy artillery, sworn and examined.
By the chairman:
QUESTION: Where were you raised?
ANSWER: In Tennessee and North Mississippi.
QUESTION: Where did you enlist?
ANSWER: In Memphis.
QUESTION: Were you in the fight at Fort Pillow?
ANSWER: Yes, sir.
QUESTION: What did you see done there?
ANSWER: We fought them right hard during the battle, and killed some of them. After a time they sent in a flag of truce.
QUESTION: When did you surrender?
ANSWER: I did not surrender until they all ran.
QUESTION: Were you wounded then?
ANSWER: Yes, sir. After the surrender.
QUESTION: Did you have any arms in your hands when they shot you?
ANSWER: No, sir. I was an artillery man. I had no arms.
Eli Carlton, (colored) private, company B, 6th United States heavy artillery, sworn and examined.
By the chairman:
QUESTION: Where were you raised?
ANSWER: In East Tennessee.
QUESTION: Have you been a slave?
ANSWER: Yes, sir.
QUESTION: Where did you join the army?
ANSWER: At Corinth, Mississippi, about a year ago.
QUESTION: Were you at Fort Pillow the time it was taken?
ANSWER: Yes, sir.
QUESTION: State what happened there.
ANSWER: I saw 23 men shot after they surrendered; I made 24; 17 of them laid right around me dead, and 6 below me.
QUESTION: Who shot them?
ANSWER: The Rebels; some white men were killed.
QUESTION: How many white men were killed?
ANSWER: Three or four.
QUESTION: Killed by privates?
ANSWER: Yes, sir; I did not see any officers kill any.
QUESTION: Were you shot with a musket or a pistol?
ANSWER: With a musket. I was hit once on the battlefield before we surrendered. They took me down to a little hospital under the hill. I was in the hospital when they shot me a second time. Some of our privates commenced talking. They said, "Do you fight with these God damned niggers?" They said, "Yes." Then they said, "God damn you, then, we will shoot you," and they shot one of them right down. They said, "I would not kill you, but, God damn you, you fight with these damned niggers, and we will kill you;" and they blew his brains out of his head.
Summary: Despite Forrest's protestations, Northerners became convinced that troops under his command, with his consent, engaged in the indiscriminate slaughter of wounded troops and of unarmed civilians. The official position of the Confederacy that captured black soldiers were "property" and not prisoners of war raised a practical question. How was the Union to protect its African-American soldiers? The decision by the black troops themselves, taken in their oath after Fort Pillow, to give no quarter to any Confederate soldier became the position of the Lincoln administration in early 1865 after the official report of the Commission on the Conduct of the War. Harper's Weekly hailed the decision:
The massacre at Fort Pillow had raised the question in every mind, does the United States mean to allow its soldiers to be butchered in cold blood? The President replies, that whoever is good enough to fight for us is good enough to be protected by us: and that in this case, when the facts are substantiated, there shall be retaliation. . . .
But if public opinion has justified a stronger policy from the beginning, if the criminally stupid promises of MClellan and Halleck to protect slavery and to repel the negroes coming to our lines had never been made, we should not now be confronted with this question, because the rebels would never have dared to massacre our soldiers after surrender. But yet to be deterred from retaliation from fear of still further crimes upon the part of the rebels is simple inhumanity. Let us either at once release every colored soldier and the officer of their regiments from duty, or make the enemy feel that they are our soldiers. It is very sad that rebel prisoners of war should be shot for the crimes of Forrest. But it is very sad, no less, that soldiers fighting for our flag have been buried alive after surrendering, and it is still sadder that such barbarities should be encouraged by refraining from retaliation. Do we mean to allow Mr. Jefferson Davis, or this man Forrest . . . to dictate who shall, and who shall not, fight for the American flag? The massacre at Fort Pillow is a direct challenge to our Government to prove whether it is in earnest or not in emancipating slaves and employing colored troops. There should be no possibility of mistake in the reply. Let the action of the Government be as prompt and terrible as it will be final. Then the battles of this campaign will begin with the clear conviction upon the part of the rebels that we mean what we say; and that the flag will protect to the last, and by every means of war, including retaliation of blood, every soldier who fights for us beneath it. -- Harper's Weekly, February 18, 1865
Reflect and Respond:
On June 28, 1864, Forrest's superior, Lieutenant General S.D. Lee offered this explanation of what happened at Fort Pillow in a letter to Union General Washburn:
As commanding officer of this department I desire to make the following statement concerning the capture of Fort Pillow, a statement supported in a great measure by the evidence of one of your own officers captured at that place:
The version given by you and your Government is untrue, and not sustained by the facts to the extent that you indicate. The garrison was summoned in the usual manner, and its commanding officer assumed the responsibility of refusing to surrender, after having been informed by General Forrest of his ability to take the fort, and of his fears as to what the result would be in case the demand was not complied with. The assault was made under a heavy fire and with considerable loss to the attacking party. Your colors were never lowered, and your garrison never surrendered, but retreated from the fort to the cover of the gun-boats with arms in their hands, and constantly using them. This was true, particularly of your colored troops, who had been firmly convinced by your teachings of the certainty of their slaughter in case of capture. Even under these circumstances many of your men, white and black, were taken prisoners.
I respectfully refer you to history for numerous cases of indiscriminate slaughter [after successful assault], even under less aggravated circumstances. It is generally conceded by all military precedent that where the issue has been fairly presented and the ability displayed, fearful results are expected to follow a refusal to surrender. The case under consideration is almost an extreme one. You had a servile race, armed against their masters and in a country which had been desolated by almost unprecedented outrages.
I assert that our officers, with all these circumstances against them, endeavored to prevent the effusion of blood, and as an evidence of this I refer you to the fact that both white and colored prisoners were taken, and are now in our hands.
- Did General Lee, in effect, concede that troops under Major General Forrest slaughtered Union troops after the fall of Fort Pillow?
- Lee cited the presence of "a servile race, armed against their masters" as a circumstance which made it more difficult for Confederate officers to control their troops. Was the fact that Forrest's troops did take "both white and colored prisoners" evidence that "our officers . . . endeavored to prevent the effusion of blood"?
- With this two-page illustration from Harper's Weekly from 1864 as your guide, describe how ardent Unionists regarded Confederate policy toward black troops?