what really happened at fort pillow

Bradford refused to surrender, and Forrest’s men sounded the charge and quickly stormed Fort Pillow. I also found that Forrest’s men were not the poor backwoods whites that Northerners represented them to be. At 3:30 pm, after hours of rifle and artillery fire, Forrest demanded the fort’s surrender. Trusted Writing on History, Travel, Food and Culture Since 1949, From the massacres I have studied, I have learned that even when there is no prospect of prosecution or punishment, the perpetrators never admit to them, in large part because they refuse to allow a criminal act to define them.

For instance, in 1877, as a newly elected Mississippi congressman, James Ronald Chalmers, Forrest’s field commander at Fort Pillow, asked his colleagues how anyone could believe in the blood guiltiness of a man of his erudition, temperance, and manifest decency.

Some Union soldiers doggedly continued to resist; others threw down their arms in an attempt to surrender; and others—including Major Bradford—fled toward the Mississippi River. Soon, however, Forrest spied Union boats—possibly carrying reinforcements—approaching Fort Pillow. The Battle of Fort Pillow occurred as part of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest’s spring 1864 raid into West Tennessee and Kentucky, areas held by Union troops. Fearing the arrival of reinforcements, Forrest gave them 20 minutes.

Fort Pillow, located on the east bank of the Missis­ sippi River some forty miles in a direct line north of Memphis, was an earthwork bufit in 1861 by Confeder­ ate General Gideon J. Pillow of Tennessee and named for him. This was especially true of citizen soldiers who, in their terror, horror, bigotry, and rage, committed atrocities. For 70 years, American Heritage has been the leading magazine of U.S. history, politics, and culture. Read more >>, The magazine was forced to suspend print publication in 2013, but a group of volunteers saved the archives and relaunched it in digital form in 2017. What happened next is still debated today. All Rights Reserved. Wading through waters consecrated by Northern mythology, bloodied by Forrest’s cavalry, and muddied by his defenders has not been easy. Should my demand be refused, I cannot be responsible for the fate of your command.” Major William Bradford, who had assumed command, asked for an hour to make a decision. Between 277 and 295 Union troops died. Allegations of a massacre were made immediately following the battle. Like the Alamo a generation earlier, the Fort Pillow Massacre became a rallying cry for a people fighting for their independence. Moreover, only 20 percent of the Black soldiers present were taken prisoner, while roughly 60 percent of the white troops present were captured.

Union Maj. Lionel Booth, the fort’s commander, was killed by a sniper’s bullet. Our editors will review what you’ve submitted and determine whether to revise the article. His second in command, Maj. William Bradford—who would prove to be an inept leader—assumed control. If the result of this collision of Southerners was the most notorious atrocity of the Civil War, it owed a measure of its infamy to the machinations of Radical Republican congressmen, who delectatiously broadcast the lurid details of hundreds of soldiers slaughtered after they surrendered, of wounded men murdered in hospital tents, of captives burned and buried alive, of black men hanged along the Rebels’ triumphant line of march. The black troops proved to be neither the ciphers nor the mythic heroes of either side’s propaganda. It served to harden the resolve of African American soldiers, and “Remember Fort Pillow!” became their battle cry. After failing to negotiate the fort’s surrender, Forrest ordered his men to take the outnumbered garrison (which was made up African Americans, southern unionists, and Confederate deserters)…. Forrest ordered them shot down like dogs,” defenders of the Confederate general argue that no evidence exists that he ordered a massacre. Afterward they might return to what they had been before they were pulled into the sanguinary current of the war—farmers, most of them; churchgoers; citizens; family men—but with this difference: an inadmissible knowledge of themselves in extremis . Omissions? Meanwhile, one thing is clear: The guns may have fallen silent at Fort Pillow 150 years ago, but the battle over its history still rages. Now, after spending weeks destroying Union supply lines in daring cavalry raids throughout Kentucky and western Tennessee, Forrest’s men were attempting to take back the fortification named after Confederate General Gideon Johnson Pillow. The 1,500 to 2,500 Confederate cavalrymen surrounded the fort with relative ease on the morning of April 12. That is " the boat " mentioned, one of the Union gunboats sending the landing parties in. Not only did Forrest vehemently deny that his men did anything wrong, but he and his supporters argued that those killed at Fort Pillow were the victims not of violent racism but of the chaos of battle, the ineptitude of their leaders, and their refusal to surrender.

The fighting that ensued on April 12, 1864, was characterized by chaotic close-quarters combat and a loss of command.

During the Fort Pillow Massacre, on April 12, 1864, Confederate troops killed nearly 200 Black troops fighting for the Union.


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