Although just a minor tactical action in the greater scheme of the Civil War, the April 12, 1864 battle at Fort Pillow became a strategic issue. The effects of the battle unintentionally rose to the very highest levels of both the Union and Confederate governments. There were a number of issues that caused this seemingly minor battle to rise to national prominence.
Fort Pillow was built in 1861 on the eastern bank of the Mississippi River about forty miles north of Memphis, Tennessee. Abandoned by the Confederates and occupied twice by Union forces, Fort Pillow became a target for Confederate forces commanded by Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest in April 1864. In March 1864 two Union artillery units and a cavalry unit (a total of 557 soldiers) occupied the fort under the command of Major Lionel F. Booth. Second-in-command was Major William F. Bradford, Forrest’s fellow Tennessean from the same home county but fighting on the Union side. Bradford commanded the 13th Tennessee Cavalry (U.S.), a unit that was already notorious for its war crimes against West Tennessee citizens. Compounding the issue of the unit’s abuses were the Confederate deserters that had been incorporated into the ranks of this Union-raised unit serving in a Southern state. Also in Fort Pillow before the battle began were approximately one hundred civilian family members and workers.
Although the Union Army officially opened its ranks to African-American soldiers in 1863, they were only allowed to serve in segregated units under the command of white officers – at half the pay of white Union soldiers. The two artillery units in Fort Pillow were two such African-American units manned by, in the official term used during the Civil War, "U.S. Colored Troops." Roughly half of the Fort Pillow garrison’s strength was African-American Union soldiers.
After making a raid to Paducah, Kentucky in order to gain materiel and recruits, Forrest turned south towards Memphis. Fort Pillow immediately garnered Forrest’s attention due to the fact that it had been recently re-occupied by the Union. Confederate soldiers in Forrest’s ranks had family members in the area surrounding the fort and had complained of their abuse by the Union forces. Bradford’s "home grown Yankees" of the 13th Tennessee Cavalry were the named culprits. Local West Tennessee citizens requested that a unit from Forrest’s command be detailed to guard their homes and families from Bradford’s depredations. Forrest decided to do more. He ordered a demonstration towards Memphis and then launched the bulk of his forces against Fort Pillow.
On the early morning of April 12, 1864, almost 1,500 Confederate troops converged on Fort Pillow. The Confederates quickly drove in the outlying Union pickets and then occupied hillocks that allowed Confederate sharpshooters to begin engaging the fort’s defenders. Major Booth attempted to burn cabins and outbuildings near the perimeter of the fort to prevent the Confederates from using them as cover and concealment. It was here that some Union soldiers may have been shot down, then inadvertently burned in the very buildings they were torching to prevent Confederate use. However, this subsequently became a contentious issue when, after the battle, the Union claimed that the Confederates had burned wounded U.S. soldiers.
With Confederate Brigadier General James R. Chalmers commanding the initial assaults, the Confederates hemmed the Union defenders inside the fort and then began a concerted effort to close on the Union works. At about 9 a.m., Major Booth was killed by one of the 300 assaulting Confederate sharpshooters. At 10 a.m. Forrest arrived on the scene to take command. He immediately made troop dispositions to conduct a double envelopment as well as a frontal assault. About this time the Union naval gunboat, USS New Era, commanded by Captain James Marshall, began firing at the nearby Coal Creek ravine to prevent Confederate forces from enveloping Fort Pillow from the north. Forrest was injured when two horses were shot out from under him, but he remained to command the upcoming assault. At about 1 p.m. the New Era pulled away farther along the Mississippi River to allow its guns to cool. Almost 300 gunboat shells had been fired at the Confederates with virtually no effect.
At about 3 p.m. Confederate ammunition resupplies arrived and Forrest sent a demand for surrender to Major Booth not knowing Booth already had been killed. Forrest’s surrender demand read: "I now demand unconditional surrender of your forces, at the same time assuring you that you will be treated as prisoners of war. … I have received a new supply of ammunition and can take your works by assault, and if compelled to do so you must take the consequences."
Union naval gunboats, now including USS Olive Branch, began moving as if to reinforce the fort despite the truce. The Confederates reacted by moving troops towards the Mississippi River beach area to repulse any Union landings. This subsequently became another point of contention as the Union claimed a violation of the rules of war by citing the movement of the Confederates – but never acknowledging the potential reinforcement by the gunboats.
Major Bradford in the meantime, with Booth’s death now in command of Fort Pillow, stalled for time by returning a note to Forrest requesting time to consult with his officers. Aware of his personal reputation with Forrest, Bradford signed the note as the now-deceased “Major Booth.” Union soldiers along the ramparts were feeling confident enough to heckle the attacking Confederates after holding them off for the better part of a day. This intentional heckling only served to inflame the passions on the Confederate side. Major Bradford was cognizant of Forrest’s command’s previous use of ruses to gain the surrender of Union defenders. Most recently, at Union City, Tennessee, the Union garrison there had surrendered to one of Forrest’s subordinates who had a numerically inferior force. Bradford sealed his own force’s fate by declaring that he would never surrender. He placed barrels of alcoholic beverages with dippers for the defenders to drink from, perhaps hoping to steel the resolve of his soldiers.
At about 5 p.m., Forrest ordered the bugler to sound the "Charge." Outnumbering the Union defenders by at least two-to-one, the Confederates surged over the fort’s parapets in a rush. Not only did the Confederates outnumber the defenders, they had the additional benefit of overwhelming close-range firepower provided by the six-shot pistols all of the Confederate cavalryman habitually carried – but only half of Fort Pillow’s Union defenders were armed with revolvers. Assuming that the direct assaulting force consisted of about 800 Confederate soldiers armed largely with revolvers, the Confederates might have faced only about 260 Union troops with pistols, the remaining Union defenders being armed with either single-shot muskets or carbines. This alone would give the assaulting force the necessary 3:1 firepower ratio considered necessary for success by military doctrine for attackers since the muskets, once fired, were no good at such close-quarters combat except with bayonets or as clubs. The end result of this disparity in firepower meant that combat was necessarily close due to the short range of the pistols and the fact that the Confederates physically closed to within just a few yards of the defenders as they vaulted the walls of the fort. This produced hand-to-hand combat and point-blank shooting at extremely close range, creating another point of contention: based on powder burns found on some Union casualties, the Union accused Forrest’s Confederates of executing some of the fort’s defenders. However, such powder burns were to be expected at close-range engagements using black powder firing weapons.
At this point confusion reigned as the Confederates literally surged over the Union lines. Major Bradford shouted for the defenders to save themselves. The Union soldiers broke and ran to escape down the cliff to the beach area and the possible safety of the Union gunboats. No thought had been given to an organized surrender and Bradford’s hasty declaration to “Save yourselves!” panicked the Union defenders into a disorganized rout. Moreover, as the Union defenders fled to the beach, the U.S. flag still flew from Fort Pillow’s flagpole – this is significant since in 19th century warfare “Striking (lowering) the Colors” was the universally accepted signal that a garrison had surrendered and an unmistakable signal to the victorious attackers to stop firing. Had Bradford sensibly lowered the U.S. flag, this would have been a clear indication to all attacking Confederates that the garrison had surrendered.
Forrest’s Confederate cavalrymen pursued the fleeing enemy to prevent any further Union organized defense from being reconstituted. Captain Marshall of New Era, who had previously struck an agreement with the fort’s commander to support-by-fire any attempt of the Confederates to pursue the Union troops to the beach area, planned to engage the Confederates with cannister (anti-personnel) cannon rounds. But Marshall’s fire support plans were thwarted because the Union and Confederate forces were intermingled and therefore he risked hitting his own side’s soldiers.
In the race for the beach and possible safety, units intermingled, leaders were shot down and the inevitable confusion of fierce combat caused a loss of control on both sides. Major Booth actually had planned for such a contingency (of his garrison being pushed back to the beach) by pre-positioning ammunition boxes for his defenders to use if forced back to the beach. However, Booth’s planning assumption was predicated on an orderlydisplacement, not a panic-stricken rout. Later, some of the pre-positioned ammunition boxes were found opened, showing that at least some of the Union defenders knew their purpose and used the ammunition.
In one of the most controversial actions during the short assault, the Confederates shot down a number of Union soldiers in the beach area while many defending survivors drowned while trying to escape by swimming the Mississippi River. The Union subsequently tried to claim it was a planned massacre. In reality, it was most likely the result of a number of unintentional consequences combined to cause a tragedy for the Union soldiers. First, no organized surrender was ever declared. Soldiers surrendering did so as individuals. Because some of the Union defenders subsequently rearmed themselves after surrendering, it is likely that the Confederates became enraged and indiscriminately shot other defenders who were "surrendering." There is no doubt that latent racism was likely a contributing factor. Although Forrest had African-American Confederate soldiers in his ranks, the Confederate attackers were incensed that the defending African-American Union soldiers had taunted them during the truce and were therefore “guilty by association” with Bradford’s troops who had previously abused the attackers’ families. Revenge and heated passions from a long day of fighting made a deadly combination.
Experienced combat arms soldiers know how confusion occurs when converging forces assault an objective from three directions. This is what happened at Fort Pillow. Malice aforethought cannot be assumed simply because the losing side incurred a large number of casualties. A one-sided rout and vigorous pursuit would naturally produce a large number of casualties suffered by the defeated unit since the routed unit’s soldiers would not be organized to defend themselves and could more easily be shot down as they ran away. The attribution of a deliberate racist intent by the attacking Confederates to intentionally execute defenders defies knowledge of the culture and customs of Forrest’s command throughout the war. To ascribe ex post facto what happened to a premeditated conspiracy to "massacre" is logically and ethically wrong. Post-war lithographs of the battle and Union propaganda and disinformation managed to inflame passions. The prints used distortions and “tried” Forrest and his Confederate soldiers in the public forum, then found them guilty, despite the results of official Union inquiries into the conduct of the battle. Interestingly, all the prints and lithographs showing women and children present at the battle are part of the disinformation as all but ten civilian men had been evacuated by the Union Navy shortly before the battle. The women and children depicted being killed and brutalized by “blood-thirsty Confederates” in the notorious lithographs were not even present when the fort was assaulted and overrun.
Casualty figures vary slightly, but approximately 230 Union soldiers (of the approximately 560 in the fort’s garrison during the battle) were killed. About 60 African-American Union soldiers were taken prisoner (168 white Union troops were captured), the remainder either killed or reported as “missing in action.” In the wake of the battle, Forrest released 14 of the most seriously wounded Union African-American captives to the U.S. Navy steamer, Silver Cloud. About 14 Confederate soldiers were killed and more than 80 were wounded.
Only two weeks after the battle, a U.S. Congressional inquiry could not conclusively determine exactly what happened. Both sides failed to control the action, and only Forrest’s direct, personal intervention to stop the shooting saved many of the Union defenders left standing on the beach. Not satisfied with the Congressional inquiry, Union General William T. Sherman convened a not-so-impartial inquiry. He openly stated that he would try and convict General Forrest. However, Sherman’s inquiry also ended without substantive evidence to find Forrest culpable.
The stain that his lopsided Fort Pillow victory was a premeditated “massacre” remained with Forrest for the rest of his life. Northern newspapers publishing obituaries after his October 29, 1877 death, while acknowledging Forrest’s genius as a cavalry commander, nonetheless resurrected the “Fort Pillow Massacre” charges. The New York Times’ obituary even claimed that, during Forrest’s post-Civil War life, “his principal occupation seems to have been to try to explain away the Fort Pillow affair.” Northern newspapers criticizing Forrest’s effort “to explain away the Fort Pillow affair,” however, seem especially disingenuous since the sensationalist accounts by the partisan Northern press bears a large share of the burden for creating and perpetuating the “massacre” claim in the first place. Forrest always disputed claims that his Fort Pillow victory was a “massacre.” Any fair-minded judgment as to whether it was truly the racism-inspired, premeditated massacre claimed by the Northern press and Union leaders at the time must also take into consideration the inevitable confusion of desperate, hand-to-hand combat and the many contributing factors that created and exacerbated the disastrous Union rout.
Lieutenant Colonel (U. S. Army, ret.) Edwin L. Kennedy, Jr. was formerly Assistant Professor of History in the Combat Studies Institute and tactics instructor in the Center for Army Tactics, U. S. Army Command & General Staff College, Ft. Leavenworth, KS. He is currently Assistant Professor, Department of Command and Leadership, Redstone Arsenal, AL.