THE CONFEDERACY’S REACTION TO REPORTS ON THE BATTLE OF FORT PILLOW

Astonishingly, in all the work discussing the Fort Pillow Massacre, few discuss the reactions of the South. Much of the discussion surrounding Fort Pillow focuses on the multiple controversies of the battle. Biographers of General Forrest argue that the massacre was not premeditated and that Forrest acted with the honor and respectability expected of a Southern gentleman and military leader. Historians of the incident have varied reactions to the battle and the controversies. Richard Fuchs lays the blame fully at General Forrest’s feet, while Andrew Ward and John Cimprich argue that the circumstances and prevailing Southern prejudices led to the bloody slaughter.2 Although the rage and shock of the North is prominent in discussions of the battle, it might seem that historians neglect the South in their analysis. Although some historians do point out that the Confederate government had little tolerance for the exchange of African American soldiers, in general, the Southern reaction is only mentioned in passing. Andrew Ward points out that the Memphis Daily Appeal considered “the capture of Fort Pillow [as] one of the most brilliant achievements of the war,”3 but then moves on quickly to discuss how the Northern outrage at the battle overshadowed the Southern reactions.

Born in Bedford County, Tennessee on July 13, 1821 to William and Mariam Forrest, Nathan Bedford Forrest grew up in the backwoods country of the antebellum South. At sixteen, with no more than six months of formal schooling, Nathan Bedford became the head of the family and took his duties seriously. Fiercely protective of his family and land, Forrest demonstrated on more than one occasion the hardiness grown on the frontier as well as the pride bred into the Southern man regardless of class or wealth. This time spent in the rough-and-tumble world of the backwoods country gave Forrest an arsenal of strategies that would prove useful in his military career. Brian Wills explains just how valuable this background would prove to be in Forrest’s future: “In a world of arbitrary violence, he learned to use any means at his disposal to disarm and defeat his foes.”4 By 1858, Forrest and his small family owned land in Tennessee, Mississippi, and Arkansas, including a plantation of close to three thousand acres in Coahoma County that housed 36 slaves and produced around one thousand bales of cotton annually.5 The once poor, backwoods farmer had pulled himself out of the dreary life of yeomanry and had built for himself and his family a wealthy life among the planter class.

When the Confederacy declared war, Forrest, along with one of his brothers and his son, enlisted together as privates in the Confederate army.6 Three years into the war, Forrest no longer held the rank of a lowly private but instead commanded a large fighting force with the title of Major-General. After routing a Union campaign into Mississippi, the Southern cavalry leader solidly impressed both Union generals Grant and Sherman. Sherman wished to destroy him, and Grant begrudgingly offered praise: “for the peculiar kind of warfare which Forrest had carried on neither army could present a more effective officer than he.”7 His shrewd mind and background in backwoods fighting gave him the means for strategizing numerous successful campaigns.

Members of perhaps one of the best cavalries in the Confederate Army, many of Forrest’s men had originally served as infantrymen before the Confederate army reorganized in 1862. This gave General Forrest’s cavalry an imposing picture, as many of his men were taller than professional cavalrymen, and Forrest was able to employ his men as both cavalry and infantry. One of his soldiers, J.P. Wilson, described his service as “mounted infantry armed with long guns.”8 Despite lacking traditional cavalry training, Forrest’s men were superb horsemen whom General Sherman described as the “best cavalry in the world” and declared that “war suits them” because of their innate ability to ride. 9 James D. Porter, in his history on the Confederate campaigns in Tennessee, argued that “the greatest achievements of the [Confederate] cavalry of the State were under the leadership of Gen. Nathan B. Forrest.”10

Early in March 1864, Forrest mobilized his troops in West Tennessee to gather supplies as well as round up deserters in the area.11 With orders to make a “short campaign” into West Tennessee and Kentucky while leaving the bulk of his force in Mississippi to hold Union movements in check, Forrest split his command between Brigadier Generals Chalmers and Buford. While scouring the countryside, the men of Forrest’s command heard word of Union Major Bradford’s Thirteenth Tennessee Cavalry and the grievances they had wreaked upon Tennesseans.12 Other citizens faced the harassments of “renegade Tennesseans” under the command of Union Colonel Fielding Hurst.13 Forrest spoke of the strains the region was forced to bear: “The whole of Tennessee is overrun by bands and squads of robbers, horse thieves and deserters, whose depredations and unlawful appropriations of private property are rapidly and effectually depleting the country.”14

Late in March, General Forrest, with his main force, marched to confront Colonel Samuel G. Hicks at Paducah in Kentucky. Forrest commanded the superior force but was unable to repeat the success of his subordinate. Forrest sent a demand for surrender and threatened no quarter, but Hicks refused and Forrest retreated after taking valuable supplies.15 Although unable to repeat Colonel William Lafayette Duckworth’s success in bluffing the Union commander at Paducah, the wording of the demands for surrender were almost identical to those in Forrest’s demand for Bradford’s surrender at Fort Pillow. The garrison at Paducah held African American troops, but because Forrest’s men never truly engaged in battle, Forrest and his cavalry would meet African American troops for the first time at Fort Pillow.

Early in April, after the successful campaigns to gather supplies at Union City and Paducah, Forrest recalled Chalmers and Buford and other commanders to discuss further the plans for the West Tennessee campaign. Forrest ordered concurrent attacks on Columbus, Paducah, and Memphis while he moved in on Fort Pillow on the Mississippi River, thus giving Union forces the impression that General Forrest raided everywhere at once. With the activity scattered across two states, the commanding officer, Major L.F. Booth, and his subordinate, Major Bradford, at Fort Pillow believed the command to be secure and “perfectly safe.”16 Unknown to Booth and Bradford, Confederate troops were headed in their direction with every intention of raiding the Union supplies and taking the strategically placed fort that the Confederates had originally built three years prior.

On April 12, 1864, Forrest’s superior cavalrymen met and battled the Union garrison at Fort Pillow. Although General Sherman ordered the post closed, General Hurlbut reopened the fort for its strategic position on the Mississippi River and sent Major William F. Bradford and his Thirteenth Tennessee cavalry to garrison the fort in early February 1864.17 By the end of February, a detachment of mostly contrabands from the Second U.S. Colored Light Artillery joined Bradford, and in March, Major Lionel F. Booth led the first battalion of the Sixth U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery to Fort Pillow and took command of the fort.18 While Bradford was disdainful of the local loyalties to the South, he began recruiting in the surrounding countryside. His lack of experience, however, caused desertions, and recruitment slowed to a trickle. By the end of March, Bradford’s battalion numbered 419 men, but only 292 were fit and able to fight.19

Fort Pillow sat on a bluff backing up to the Mississippi River and was partially bordered on one side by Coal Creek. Three lines of fortification, designed to hinder an attack from land, included long parapets surrounding the central fort at 600 and 300 yards.20 The geography surrounding the fort provided an added fortification, although several hills were higher than the fort’s parapets. East of the fort was a narrow gorge that set the fort apart from the hills, ridges, and ravines running down a slope. On the south side of the fort, a valley running parallel to the Mississippi River provided a weakness in the defenses and allowed Confederates within 150 yards of the fort. About 60 yards from the fort were cabins and tents that would provide cover for Forrest’s forces. The fort itself was fortified with a ditch six feet deep and 12 feet in width and parapets standing eight feet high. The Union garrison holding the fort consisted of about 580 men split equally between white and African American troops. Waiting to assist the garrison, if need arose, was the gun boat New Era.

Chalmers, taking command of a force that included Colonel McCulloch’s brigade and Colonel Bell’s brigade of Buford’s forces, arrived at Fort Pillow on April 11, 1864 and immediately implemented a strategy to take the fort. At dawn on April 12, Colonel McCulloch’s forces advanced from the south, hugging the water and fortress, while Colonel Bell attempted to bring his men around to the fort along Coal Creek. The Confederates soon found Bell’s approach unfeasible. When General Forrest arrived, the total Confederate forces consisted of 1,500 men. He proceeded to take stock of the situation while, unbeknownst to the Confederate forces, Major Booth was shot and killed by the Confederate sharpshooters placed strategically at highpoints around the fort. Forrest effectively placed his men in a semicircle around the fort, using the ravines to protect the Confederates from the fort’s artillery, which could not aim into the ravines.21

By around 3:30, Forrest had established a strong enough presence to demand the surrender of the Union garrison, closing his demand with “should my demand be refused, I cannot be responsible for the fate of your command.”22 These words echoed those he had used at Paducah and those Duckworth had used at Union City. Bradford, acting as Booth, asked for an hour to consult his officers. Forrest denied this request and granted only twenty minutes, fearing that any added delay would allow the garrison to receive reinforcements. Bradford refused to surrender, leading to an assault on the fort and its garrison.23

After receiving the fort’s refusal to surrender, Forrest returned to his position about 400 yards from the fort and ordered the charge. Chaos reigned after Confederates poured over the parapets of the fort. Without officers, the Federal troops broke quickly and fled down the bluff towards the river and the New Era. Major Booth had supposedly arranged with Captain Marshall a signal for the New Era to provide cover to the retreating troops. However, due to the positions of Captain Anderson and Colonel Barteau––on the southern side of the fort, along the trenches under the bluff, and north of the Coal Creek ravine––the retreating Union soldiers were caught in the crossfire of the Confederates.24 Confederate soldiers maintained that while some may have surrendered, others continued to turn and fire in the midst of the retreat.25 Many African American soldiers continued to fight, remembering Major Booth’s exhortation to them to never give up their colors.26 As some soldiers retreated, others, hoping to escape from the firing, raced into the Mississippi and consequently drowned. The battle continued for twenty to thirty minutes until Forrest ordered a cease-fire following the removal of the Federal flag.27

Described as an indiscriminate slaughter by both Union and Confederate accounts, the actions taken by Forrest and his soldiers remain under debate to this day. Biographers of Forrest, especially those writing around the turn of the twentieth century, defend the general’s actions and try to explain away the atrocities committed by the Confederate cavalry. For the most part, historians of the Civil War and the racial violence of the battles tend to be less forgiving and in some cases show just as much bias as the former Confederate biographers of Forrest.28

Despite its lack of military significance, the battle of Fort Pillow remains a debatable topic because of the incredibly lopsided casualty rates for the Union and Confederate units. The Union garrison of almost 600 men was roughly split between white and African American soldiers, many of whom the Confederate Army considered contrabands.29 A statistical analysis of the battle by John Cimprich and Robert Mainfort, Jr. argues that the Confederate soldiers killed or mortally wounded about 49% of the garrison. Among the Union troops, African American soldiers had a casualty rate of 64%, almost double the white casualty rate. On the other hand, Forrest lost only 20 men with 60 more wounded, according to his report to Lieutenant Colonel Thomas M. Jack.30

Confederate soldier Sergeant Achilles V. Clark described the battle as a “butcher[ing]” in a letter to his sisters two days afterwards. Unwilling and unable to describe the scene, Clark wrote that “our men were so exasperated by the Yankee’s threats of no quarter that they gave but little. The slaughter was awful…The poor deluded negroes would run up to our men, fall upon their knees and with uplifted hands scream for mercy, but they were ordered to their feet and then shot down. The white man fared but little better. Their fort turned out to be a great slaughter pen.”31 A surgeon of the Sixteenth Tennessee Cavalry, Samuel H. Caldwell, wrote in a letter to his wife that the battle had been a slaughter in which the Confederates were enraged by the refusal of the Union garrison to surrender.32 Although never admitting to an order to kill the Union African–American soldiers, General Forrest showed his own racial prejudices, as well as those of most of his men and the Confederate government, in his correspondence with Union Major General Washburn. Expressing the common sentiment of the Confederate government’s policy regarding African American soldiers, Forrest stated:

“[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.”

In further correspondence, General Forrest continued to rebuke General Washburn and reiterate that to the Southern government, African Americans were no more than property and would be treated as such under the laws of the Confederate States of America.33

Within days of Fort Pillow, the Northern press trumpeted the news of an intentional and deliberate slaughter of the African American troops. Reviling General Forrest and his men, a Kansas newspaper from Junction City contained the headline “Fort Pillow Taken––Women and Children Massacred.” The article opened with, “Our worst fears are realized. What we anticipated yesterday is true to-day. Our brave boys at Fort Pillow have been murdered by Forrest and his outlaws.” The editor also described the Confederates as “insatiable as fiends, and bloodthirsty as devils incarnate” who, after storming the fort, began to kill without regard to whether or not the Union soldiers had chosen to surrender. 34

Although just one example of the outrage felt throughout the North, this article shows the emphatically negative reaction of the North toward General Forrest, his cavalrymen, and the North’s disgust of the Confederacy.

In response to Fort Pillow, African American troops began to take oaths of retaliation, and Union newspapers reported the need for revenge against the atrocities committed. In his correspondence with General Forrest, General Washburn acknowledged that “all the negro troops stationed at Memphis took an oath on their knees…to avenge Fort Pillow, and that they would show your [Forrest’s] troops no quarter.” He seemed to encourage his men and African American troops in raising a black flag of retaliation and single-mindedly focusing on avenging the Fort Pillow garrison. When General Forrest objected to the reports of Union troops taking oaths, General Washburn merely brushed off Forrest’s worries and stated that his men would not treat Confederate soldiers with respect until the Confederate Government intended to treat all Union forces as men and soldiers.35

Newspapers in the North gleefully reported that the United States government planned to take steps towards avenging Fort Pillow. The Big Blue Union in Kansas reported at the end of April that the Union government would take steps towards retaliation “for the rebel barbarities perpetrated at the recent capture of Ft. Pillow.” The article proudly stated that a Joint Committee on the Conduct of War would determine that the Confederate actions were immensely inappropriate, and it would “take evidence in retaliation to the massacre at Ft. Pillow.” With these actions, the North could “rejoice” with pride in the actions of its government.36 The Daily National Republican in Washington, D.C., reporting on the thirty-eighth Congress, conveyed the feelings of the government for revenge. While one senator, Mr. Jacob Merritt Howard of Michigan, argued that the Union must retaliate “in the promptest and severest form” to ensure African American troops’ safety, Senator Reverdy Johnson of Maryland believed that Howard’s sentiments did not go far enough. In order to truly put the matter to rest, Johnson argued for action by the government itself and that “nothing less than life for a life is dictated by our [Union’s] reputation and our duty.”37

Although only a handful of accounts mention retaliation, these newspapers show that outrage spread across the Union from Kansas to Washington, D.C. and the Northern wishes for swift revenge against the barbaric Confederacy.

Despite Northern threats Confederates rallied around their flag and commanders. Just over a week after the battle, The Abingdon Virginian had already begun to refute the claims of Northern papers. Reprinting part of a Union article, The Abingdon Virginian derisively called the account “the Yankee version of the capture of Fort Pillow” and on the same page referenced an article in the Vidette in Mobile, Alabama, proudly stating that a “great slaughter of negroes and Yankees” occurred whereas the Confederate losses were a mere 75. Echoing accounts of soldiers, the paper reported that “the fort ran with blood. Many jumped into the river and were drowned or shot in the water.”38

Confederate newspapers continued their defense well into May. The Atlanta Memphis Appeal called the Union soldiers “defiant and insolent,” citing the insults and threats hurtling back and forth between the two sides, and considered it the fort’s commander’s own folly for not surrendering to General Forrest. Rather than express remorse over “the work of slaughter and death,” the article called the soldiers’ actions “courageous madness.”39 Indeed the report laid the blame at the feet of the Union troops, blaming the African American troops’ refusal to surrender as the reason for why so many were killed when the bloodshed could have been easily avoided. At the same time, The Abingdon Virginian again defended General Forrest’s cavalry. Giving a detailed account of the battle, the article defended the actions of the Confederate soldiers and refuted the “Yankee slanders.” Although the article admitted that some of the Union garrison may have been shot down after surrendering to Confederate forces, it attributed the event to the immense confusion of battle. It claimed the Union soldiers fled towards the river, leaving their colors still flying, which caused many of the Southern soldiers to pursue the retreating Yankees. Therefore, the article concluded, “there is not a semblance of a shadow of truth in the Federal exaggerations of wholesale slaughter.”40

In Alabama, the Jacksonville Republican also defended the actions of the Confederacy at Fort Pillow. Suggesting that the Yankees exaggerated their accounts of the battle, the article scoffed at the mention of Abraham Lincoln threatening retaliation. Because many supporters of the Confederacy believed that its army had in fact done no wrong in the battle, its newspapers only laughed at Union threats. The Jacksonville Republican even went so far as to suggest that Lincoln would not even be able to carry out his threat of retribution because none of his generals were good enough or smart enough to “storm a Southern garrison.”41 Even several years into the war, with more and more indication that the Union armies had better supplies, the Confederates refused to give up. The Confederacy would live as long as it had men courageous and brave enough to face the enemy. In Richmond, an editor for the Richmond Examiner argued that rather than backing down from the Northern threats of retaliation, the Confederacy should “mete out to them strict justice…repeat Fort Pillow. Repeat Fort Plymouth a few times and we shall bring the Yankees to their senses.”42

Civilian diaries and journals echoed the messages of the newspapers with stout claims in favor of the Confederacy. Living close enough to Fort Pillow to hear the firing of artillery back and forth between the fort’s garrison and General Forrest’s cavalry, Belle Edmundson expressed nothing but joy at the Confederate victory in her diary. Only four days after the battle, she reported that General Forrest continued to hold Fort Pillow and gleefully wrote that “the Yanks are frightened to death in Memphis” and prayed that the Confederacy would “humbly receive the blessings” of victory at Fort Pillow and “drive this wicked band from our Sunny land, give us liberty and peace!”43 Even after hearing reports of Northern threats of retaliation, Belle Edmundson continued to rejoice in the victory at Fort Pillow. Laughing at what she considered to be a pitiful attempt at retaliation, she wrote, “we are still victorious on all sides” even after “the negroes [raised] the black flag––gone out on raid after Forrest, and I bet, but few will ever return.” She expressed full confidence in the Confederate cause and its soldiers. There was no remorse in her contemplations of the battle, and she even went so far as to call the African American troops racing out after Forrests’ “cowardly dogs.”44

Much like Belle Edmundson, Kate Stone, recording the battles in West Tennessee while on her plantation in Louisiana, rejoiced in the Confederate victory. Remarking that the “whole country is in a state of delighted surprise,” Kate did not dwell on Northern accounts of the battle. Instead she stated that in his assault on Fort Pillow, General Forrest was doing “noble work.” Heaping praise on her country’s military leaders, she did not flinch at mentioning the death and capture of “thousands” and instead rejoiced that “everywhere Victory is perching on our banners and Peace, an honorable Peace, must be near.”45 Although both of these diaries are of young women, neither expressed fear of reprisal. In fact, it almost seems as though Belle and Kate would prefer to see the Yankees attempt retaliation if only in hopes of watching them fail.

Civilians were not alone in expressing this intense defiance. Louis Leon, a Confederate soldier from North Carolina, expressed such sentiments even while in captivity. While on the march across the Chancellorsville battlefield, Leon and his fellow prisoners listened to taunts thrown at them by the African American soldiers they passed. Rather than being cowed by the “terrible cursing and holler[ing of] ‘Fort Pillow,’” Leon expressed his wishes that this particular brigade of African American Union soldiers had been at Fort Pillow and that “they certainly would not curse [the Confederates] now.” Instead of fearing that Union troops might retaliate against defeated Confederate soldiers and prisoners, Leon scoffed at the threats and wished only for these Yankees to meet the same fate as those who met General Forrest at Fort Pillow.46

Although still proud of the Confederate victories, some Southerners reacted with much more restraint. The nonchalance of several diaries and articles indicates that, despite acknowledging the Yankee threats, these Southerners were not concerned with any foul consequences. Writing almost a week after the battle at Fort Pillow, Jason Niles seemed to carelessly mention that a wholesale slaughter of the Union garrison occurred. Nestled between entries in his diary about the weather and with whom he had dinner or discussed readings of William Shakespeare, Niles casually mentioned that a neighbor discussed the recent capture of Fort Pillow where “681 of the garrison killed, about 200 prisoners. Forrest’s loss 50 killed 100 wounded (about).” These entirely lopsided numbers come right after stating that April 23 marked the three hundredth year since Shakespeare was born and that Shakespeare had died on his birthday.47

The diary contains no other mention of Fort Pillow at a later date. This entirely cavalier attitude towards the battle shows that even without the explicit love of the Confederacy that Kate Stone and Belle Edmundson exhibited, some citizens were not concerned with the possible reactions of the North.

In a similarly casual manner, Samuel Agnew referenced the battle of Fort Pillow numerous times. Beginning only two days after the battle, Agnew mentioned that “another batch [of Union prisoners], 500 or 300, have been sent down from Forrest.” On April 17, Agnew mentioned the rainy weather and then immediately entered a discussion of Forrest and Fort Pillow, saying that the fort, garrisoned mostly by African Americans, “felt secure and at the outset hoisted the black flag and consequently no quarter given them and many were slaughtered.” He then followed this with the news that a neighbor married recently.48 Although there is clearly pride in the Confederacy, Agnew gave this news no more significance than he would the changing weather. The battle was not a concern for retaliation, but rather one more battle in a long war.

A staunchly Confederate newspaper in South Carolina, The Daily Phoenix, did not report that much on Fort Pillow during the war. In fact Fort Pillow and Forrest’s involvement is not mentioned until June 2, 1865. Giving the battle only a small amount of space on the page, The Daily Phoenix first mentioned Fort Pillow as a “negro attempt to assassinate the paroled rebel prisoners in Memphis…in revenge for the Fort Pillow massacre”49 Although reporting the event, the article did not seem to hint at any fear that these plots might be widespread. Instead, the paper noted how the white Union troops, in their efforts to stop the African Americans, ended up killing about 20 of the conspirators. There is no concern about Fort Pillow, merely a short article that would only reinforce Confederate feelings toward African Americans as inferior to themselves and needing the firm control of slavery.

The immediate reactions of the Southern press and Confederate citizens and soldiers only tell part of the story. In order to truly understand the impact that Fort Pillow had on the Confederacy, post war accounts need to be recognized. By looking at the newspaper accounts following the close of the war and the different accounts of General Forrest, we see the overall memories that the Confederacy had of Fort Pillow in relation to other battles and racial atrocities of the war like Milliken’s Bend, Poison Springs, Fort Wagner, and Plymouth.

By the end of the war, the Confederate press no longer concerned itself with the controversy of the battle of Fort Pillow and the Yankee threats of retaliation. In fact, in January 1866, The Anderson Intelligencer only mentioned Fort Pillow in reference to the “majestic [Mississippi] river.” With only the briefest mention of the massacre, the article reported that the river eroded away most of the earthen works of the fort and only half of the fort remained.50 Four months later The Semi-Weekly Times in Natchitoches, Louisiana simply reported that while the Union dead were being reinterred, “both friend and foe” ignored the dead Confederate soldiers.51 By the early 1870s, the southern press again only rarely mentioned Fort Pillow. In 1871, The Charleston News reported that the fort “has wholly disappeared under the abrading forces of the Mississippi.”52 The Daily Phoenix in Columbia, South Carolina reprinted an article from a Memphis newspaper that reported a fire “at the site of old Fort Pillow” that had been burning “like a volcano for a distance of several hundred yards.”53 There is no strong reference to the battle that caused such uproar among the Union press and within the ranks of the Yankee soldiers. From these articles it seems that the Confederacy was more concerned with rebuilding its livelihood than dwelling on a memory that upset few Southerners.

However, as the ideal of the Lost Cause began to rise, the press sought to preserve the memory of General Forrest’s service. The battle of Fort Pillow was not a memory that southerners wished to suppress; instead it became a rallying point for them. The Daily Phoenix and The Louisiana Democrat reprinted a letter Forrest wrote to the editor of the New York Times defending his conduct at Fort Pillow.54 Beginning with a quote from the New York Times article, Forrest immediately defended his honor by pointing out the inconsistencies with the official reports and the claims made by the New York Times article. After continuing on at length, Forrest concluded with:

“These facts are known to the Government of the United States, and acquit me, not only in the opinion of the President, Mr. Stanton, and Judge Holt, but in that of Congress, of any violation of the rules of civilized warfare. Otherwise, I would have been long ago arrested and tried upon that charge. For my own part, conscious of my innocence, and knowing perfectly well that I have always waged war with the strictest regard to the usages of civilized nations, I have never shunned any investigation to which the Executive or Congress might just subject my military conduct.”

Although neither newspaper offers any commentary on Forrest’s letter or the New York Times article, the fact that each paper reprinted it shows the love Southerners had for their military leaders. General Forrest’s defense of his conduct and that of his men spoke for itself throughout the South. Neither paper needed to offer commentary because former Confederates believed the truth as it was told by their trusted leaders instead of the slander of the Northern press. That each paper refused to refer to the battle as a “massacre” and instead referred it merely as the “Fort Pillow Affair” again shows the willingness of the Confederacy to stand behind its heroes.

In fact The Daily Phoenix went on to print two articles within two months of each other in 1868 that staunchly defended General Forrest and the conduct of the Confederates at Fort Pillow. In September, the paper reported a recollection of Forrest’s of the battle, which supported Confederate claims that the fort’s garrison never truly surrendered. By October, the relatively calm wording of the paper on the topic had changed drastically. In “Revamping an Old Story,” the author blasted the Washington Chronicle, arguing that the Northern press “finding the supply of fresh outrages in the South not equal to the demand, has lately gone back upon the so-called massacre at Fort Pillow during the war.”55 Defending the actions of the Confederacy with adamant language, the author implied that the North was so eager to punish the Southern rebels that it would continue to bring up subjects that the Confederacy itself had already resolved. This article implied that, rather than focusing on repairing the country, Northerners wished to continue to bring up grievances against Confederates, which in turn caused Southern rebels to more staunchly defend its actions and leaders.

By 1872, General Forrest was no longer the uncouth and brash backwoods upstart for whom many Southerners held little respect. To former Confederates, he was a national hero who deserved praise, not the foul and outrageous reports of the Northern press. Although it did not discuss the battle of Fort Pillow directly, an article in The Weekly Kansas Chief referred to General Forrest as “the hero of Fort Pillow.”56 The article did not focus on the extremely lopsided statistics of the battle but instead emphasized that the battle was a Confederate victory. By referring to Forrest as a hero of a highly controversial battle, the author revealed that the South loved its commander as a way of countering the unending Northern claims that Forrest was a murderous scoundrel. The controversy of the battle of Fort Pillow was not a true concern because Forrest and his cavalry decimated African American units. In the eyes of the Confederacy, the resulting increased desertions by African American soldiers and the slowing of African American recruitment would be reason enough to call General Forrest a hero.57

Although the Fort Pillow Massacre continued to be sparsely mentioned, it was always in conjunction with praise for General Forrest. In May 1878, The Morning Star and Catholic Messenger devoted a lengthy article to “a few anecdotes of the great Confederate cavalry leader.” With four different anecdotes, the article itself is a lengthy tribute to General Forrest and his service with the Confederate Army. The small blurb on “The Fort Pillow Massacre” did not dwell on the accusations hurled at Forrest and his cavalry by the Union press. Instead the article scoffed at the idea of Forrest committing “ruthless butchery” at the battle. The author focused on the stories of how Forrest had to shoot his own men for plundering the Yankee stores of calico for their wives and sweethearts. Although the section does end with an adamant statement by Forrest that there was “no deliberate intention nor effort to massacre the garrison as has been so generally reported by the Northern papers,”58 it did not make apologies for Confederate actions. Beyond a doubt, these Southern authors were proud of General Forrest and his accomplishments, even those that stirred up Yankee wrath.

Perhaps the strongest praise given to General Forrest and his actions at Fort Pillow in 1864 is contained in an article titled “American Generals” written 51 years later in 1915. Taken from an interview with General French, the commander of English forces in France during World War I, the article describes numerous generals from the Civil War, including General Jackson, General Lee, and General Forrest. Although the editor quoted an Englishman, the decision to print the article reveals a deep respect and love for the Confederate leaders. The article remarked that “Forrest’s tactics at the capture of Fort Pillow were perfect… [despite having] no military experience before the war.” It exhorted the South to honor the great generals of the Civil War and “in as great a degree to revere the memory of the private soldiers who wore the gray.”59 Even a half-century removed from the Civil War, the Confederacy continued to praise the actions and victory of the battle of Fort Pillow. Southerners were not ashamed of the deeds of which the North accused them, but instead focused on the undeniable fact that on April 12, the Confederate soldiers had triumphed over their Yankee counterparts.

As much as Northern newspapers railed against Confederate cruelty and Union officers threatened retaliation, Southern rebels never quaked with fear. Fort Pillow was not the first nor was it the last battle in which the North saw its African American units slaughtered at higher rates than its white units. Six days after Fort Pillow, a Confederate force defeated a smaller force of white and African American Union troops, and the Southern soldiers killed 27 percent of the African American regiment. On April 20, 1864 another force of Confederates met a biracial garrison at Plymouth, North Carolina, and again the African American units suffered higher rates of death than their white counterparts.60 The Confederacy continued to show its disgust for armed African Americans throughout the end of the war, and it flouted any Union threats of retaliation.

After the Battle of Fort Pillow, the South did not react with remorse. Even those who were not overjoyed at the news of another Confederate victory did not reveal indications of fear or regret. In the days and months immediately following the battle, newspapers were most adamant in their expressions of triumph, but the diaries of Belle Edmundson and Kate Stone reveal that young women were just as overjoyed as the papers. Even as a prisoner paraded past an African American regiment, Louis Leon was proud of his countrymen’s victory at Fort Pillow and expressed wishes that those African American Yankees would meet the same fate as the Fort Pillow garrison. Other Southern civilians like Jason Niles and Samuel Agnew may have only mentioned the victory in passing in their diaries, but the fact that they even mentioned it shows that they were not ashamed of the actions of Forrest and his men. While they may not have condoned the slaughter, neither were they upset by the lopsided number of deaths and casualties. Northern threats did not produce the desired effect, but instead led to a reaffirmation of Southern support for General Forrest and his cavalry.

Even after the war drew to a close, Confederates continued to express delight in the victory at Fort Pillow. Threats of retribution by Union Army leaders and Northern newspapers did not shake Confederate resolve during the war, and the continued criticisms of General Forrest and his cavalry by the Northern press after the war only led the Southern press to increase its support of Forrest. Because of Forrest’s success as a cavalry leader and his unwavering refusal to back down from Yankee threats, the South adored General Forrest and fully supported his men in their actions at Fort Pillow. As a result, American history remembers the Battle of Fort Pillow with two very different points of view. The Confederacy clung to its victory as the Civil War came to a close, and as the sesquicentennial passes, there are still those that adhere to the Lost Cause who consider the battle a misunderstanding. Contemporary historians continue to criticize the Confederate policy toward African American soldiers. However, there is still no defining conclusion to Nathan Bedford Forrest’s part in the massacre.

1 Jack Hurst, Nathan Bedford Forrest: A Biography (New York: Knopf, 1993), 384.
2 John Cimprich, Fort Pillow, a Civil War Massacre, and Public Memory (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005); Andrew Ward, River Run Red: The Fort Pillow Massacre in the American Civil War (New York: Viking Penguin, 2005); Robert Fuchs, An Unerring Fire: The Massacre at Fort Pillow (Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1994).
3 Andrew Ward, River Run Red, 283.
4 Brian Wills, A Battle from the Start: The Life of Nathan Bedford Forrest (New York: HarperCollins, 1992), 16.
5 Hurst, Nathan Bedford Forrest, 64.
6 Hurst, Nathan Bedford Forrest, 67.
7 Grant quoted in Wills, A Battle from the Start, 167-168.
8 Ward, River Run Red, 90-91.
9 Ward, River Run Red, 90-91.
10 James d. Porter, Confederate Military History Extended Edition, vol. 10, Tennessee, ed. General Clement A. Evans (Wilmington: Broadfoot Publishing Company, 1987), 217.
11 Hurst, Nathan Bedford Forrest, 159.
12 Jordan, The Campaigns of Lieutenant General Forrest and of Forrest’s Cavalry (Dayton: Morningside Bookshop, 1988), 423.
13 Henry, “First with the Most”, 238.
14 Wills, A Battle from the Start, 171-172.
15 Cimprich, Fort Pillow, 72.
16 Henry, “First with the Most”, 250-251.
17 Cimprich, Fort Pillow, 70.
18Cimprich, Fort Pillow, 72-73.
19 Ward, River Run Red, 79-80.
20 Hurst, Nathan Bedford Forrest, 167.
21 Hurst, Nathan Bedford Forrest, 165-168.
22 C.C. Washburn, “Reports of Maj. Gen. Cadwallader C. Washburn, U.S. Army Transmitting Correspondence with Maj. Gen. Stephen D. Lee and Maj. Gen. Nathan B. Forrest, C.S. Army,” Forrest’s Expedition into West Tennessee and Kentucky, http://www.civilwarhome.com/forrest.htm.
23 Robert Fuchs, An Unerring Fire, 55-57.
24 Henry, “First with the Most”, 255.
25Jordan, The Campaigns, 439.
26 Thomas I. Jackson, Controversy at Fort Pillow, http://mobile96.com/cw2/Forrest_Pillow.html.
27 Hurst, Nathan Bedford Forrest, 174.
28 For a sample of historians of the Civil War see Robert Fuchs, An Unerring Fire: The Massacre at Fort Pillow (Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1994) and Andrew Ward, River Run Red: The Fort Pillow Massacre in the American Civil War (New York: Viking Penguin, 2005).
29 John Cimprich and Robert C. Mainfort Jr., “The Fort Pillow Massacre: A Statistical Note,” The Journal of American History 76, no. 3 (1989): 831, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2936423.
30 N.B. Forrest “Report of Maj. Gen. Nathan B. Forrest, C. S. Army, commanding Cavalry, of the Capture of Fort Pillow March 16-April 14, 1864,” Forrest’s Expedition into West Tennessee and Kentucky, http://civilwarhome.com/forrest.htm .
31 Sgt. Achilles V. Clark, Controversy at Fort Pillow, http://mobile96.com/cw2/Forrest_Pillow.html.
32 Samuel H. Caldwell, Controversy at Fort Pillow, http://mobile96.com/cw2/Forrest_Pillow.html.
33 Washburn, “Reports of Maj. Gen. Cadwallader C. Washburn,” http://www.civilwarhome.com/ftpillow.htm.
34 “Fort Pillow Taken – Women and Children Massacred,” The Smoky Hill and Republican union, April 23, 1864, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84030186/1864-04-23/ed-1/seq-1/. 35 Washburn, “Reports of Maj. Gen. Cadwallader C. Washburn,” http://www.civilwarhome.com/ftpillow.htm.
36 “The Fort Pillow Massacre,” The Big Blue Union, April 30, 1864. http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84027640/1864-04-30/ed-1/seq-2/.
37 “Congressional. Thirty-eighth Congress, First Session.” The Daily National Republican, April 16, 1864, Second Edition, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86053570/1864-04-16/ed-1/seq-2/.
38 “The Capture of Fort Pillow,” The Abingdon Virginia, April 22, 1864, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84025980/1864-04-22/ed-1/seq-3/.
39 Memphis, Controversy at Fort Pillow, http://mobile96.com/cw2/Forrest_Pillow.html.
40 The Abingdon Virginian, May 27, 1864.
41 Jacksonville Republican, May 7, 1984, http://lib-www.jsu.edu/archives/republican/1864/May-1864.pdf.
42 Cimprich, Fort Pillow, 96.
43 Belle Edmundson Diary, April 14th and 15th 1864, quoted in Diary of Belle Edmundson: January – November 1864, http://docsouth.unc.edu/fpn/edmundson.html.
44 Belle Edmundson Diary, May 4, 1864.
45 Kate Stone Diary, May 5, 1864, quoted in Brokenburn: the Journal of Kate Stone 1861-1868, ed by John Q. Anderson (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1972), 281.
46 Louis Leon Diary, May 9, 1864 as quoted in Diary of a Tar Heel Confederate Soldier, http://docsouth.unc.edu/fpn/leon/leon.xml.
47 Jason Niles Diary, April 22, 1864 quoted in Diary of Jason Niles (1819- 1894), http://docsouth.unc.edu/imls/niles/niles.xml.
48 Samuel Andrew Agnew Diary, April 14th and 17th, 1864, quoted in Diary of Samuel Andrew Agnew 1833-1902, http://docsouth.unc.edu/imls/agnew/agnew.html?pagewanted=all.
49 The Columbia Daily Phoenix, June 2, 1865, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84027007/1865-06-02/ed-1/seq-2/.
50 The Anderson Intelligencer, January 25, 1866, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84026965/1866-01-25/ed-1/seq-4/.
51 “Latest News,” The Semi-Weekly Times, May 5, 1866, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86053712/1866-05-05/ed-1/seq-2/.
52 “News of the Day,” The Charleston News, May 4, 1871. http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84026994/1871-05-04/ed-1/seq-2/.
53 The Daily Phoenix, October 13, 1872.
54 “The Fort Pillow Affair – A Card from Gen. N.B. Forrest,” The Daily Phoenix, October 3, 1867, and “The Fort Pillow Affair – A Card from Gen. N.B. Forrest,” The Louisiana Democrat, October 16, 1867, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn82003389/1867-10-16/ed-1/seq-3/.
55 “Revamping an Old Story,” The Daily Phoenix, October 7, 1868.
56 “Peleg Wales at Chappaqua,” The Weekly Kansas Chief, July 11, 1872, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn82015484/1872-07-11/ed-1/seq-1/.
57 Ward, River Run Red, 308.
58 Major General D.H. Maury, “General N.B. Forrest: a Few Anecdotes of the Great Confederate Cavalry Leader,” The Morning Star and Catholic Messenger, May 12, 1878, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86086284/1878-05-12/ed-1/seq-3/.
59 Bogalusa, Amercall, “American Generals,” The Era-Leader, April 15, 1915, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn88064305/1915-04-15/ed-1/seq-2/.
60 Cimprich, Fort Pillow, 95.

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Photo of Stephanie Washburn

STEPHANIE WASHBURN


Stephanie Washburn is a senior from Burke, Virginia studying History with a focus on military/diplomatic and political history. She would like to thank Dr. Zimring, History, and Dr. Barrow, History, for their guidance on this article. After graduation Stephanie wants to attend graduate school for a Master’s in Public History to pursue a career working in museums or historical societies.