The Battle of Fort Pillow
In April 1862, a battle took place along the Mississippi River
in Tennessee that became regarded as one of the most controversial
actions in the War Between the States. It was a brief battle
that, under normal conditions, would not have been much consequence
to either side of the conflict. The battle, however, was played
up in the wartime Union press as a massacre and the man in the
center of the controversy was none other than Gen. Nathan B.
A congressional inquiry in 1864 made the event "official"
and the ensuing report on the incident became a best seller
in the Presidential campaign of Lincoln versus McClellan. Then-President
Lincolns administration was worried and the 40,000 plus
copies of the congressional report were distributed as a way
to shore up support for the war effort.
Although a later congressional and military investigation would
clear Forrest of any wrongdoing, the story would persist through
the years and become accepted as fact even to this day.
The place where it occurred was a small fort located 40 miles
north of Memphis on the east bank of the river a structure
called Fort Pillow.
Fort Pillow was first built by the Confederacy. In April 1862,
Union gunboat fleets descended on the Mississippi River and
began bombarding the small forts occupied by the South. On June
4, the fort became untenable and the Confederates were forced
to abandon the location. Because of its location, the Union
Army immediately dispatched a small force to secure the fort
on the Mississippi River. The Union added a smaller defensive
structure around Pillow.
For the next three years, the battle in West Tennessee waged.
While the Union had control of Memphis, the Confederates controlled
the countryside and made any advances by the Union short-lived
The spreading out of Union forces became a problem to Union
command. General Sherman desperately needed men for his Meridian
and Red River expedition and started pulling troops from the
small garrisons in Tennessee and removed the troops from Fort
The Union dispatched the 13th Tennessee Cavalry, which was made
up primarily of East Tennesseans and under the command of an
inexperienced officer named Major William Bradford. To reinforce
the "green command", General Stephen Hurlbut sent
four companies of heavy artillery and a section of light artillery,
which was made up of black troops, under the command of Major
L.F. Booth. At the time he took command of Fort Pillow, he had
557 officers and men. In addition, the Union gunboat New Era
lay offshore to assist in defense of the fort.
Following Gen. N.B. Forrests west Tennessee campaigns,
reports began coming in of Union soldiers pillaging the area
around the fort for supplies. While Forrest didnt consider
it a major objective or problem, the reports were leading to
orders from Confederate command to deal with it.
On Sunday April 10, 1862, Gen. Forrest issued orders from his
headquarters in Jackson, Tenn. to Colonel Tyree Bells
Brigade encamped in Gibson County and to Col. Robert McCullochs
Brigade on the Forked Deer River to move on the fort. The whole
force numbered around 1,500 men and they began their march to
the Mississippi River. The conditions for the march were notorious.
Heavy rains and muddy roads slowed them, but the force arrived
at Fort Pillow two days later.
Around 5:30 a.m. on Tuesday, April 12, the Confederate forces
hit the ground running. By dawn, the Southern forces had advanced
into the interior of the original structure and were securing
the position. Union Lieutenant Mack J. Leaming reported that
by 8 a.m. two companies of skirmishers had fought their way
to the advanced rifle pits and forced the Union soldiers to
retire to the safety of the fort proper. The firing and fighting
continued until 9 a.m. with the most damaging fire coming from
"sharpshooters hidden behind logs, in the underbrush, and
from the high knolls, surrounding the fort. A rush was made
at Fort Pillow, but the soldiers inside held their own and successfully
pushed the Confederates back from the walls. The New Era had
also assisted in the defense of the fort shelling the forests
and ravines, but was ineffective in inflicting damage on the
Confederate forces, who thought the shelling was more of a distraction
than a danger.
The Union couldnt escape the Confederate sharpshooters
fire, however and Lt. Leaming later reported:
"We suffered pretty severely in the loss of commissioned
officers," reported Leaming, "by the unerring aim
of the rebel sharpshooters, including the deaths of Major Booth,
who was killed around 9:00 a.m. and his adjutant, who was killed
Because of Major Booths unwavering confidence in his commands
ability to hold the fort, the inexperienced Union commander
decided to make a stand inside Fort Pillow.
General Forrest arrived at the battle around 10 a.m. after riding
all day and night covering the 65 miles from Jackson on horseback.
An hour after Forrest arrived, Confederate forces made a second
assault on the fort and, according to Lt. Leamings report:
"...succeeded in obtaining possession of two rows of barracks
running parallel to the south side of the fort. The barracks
had previously been ordered to be destroyed, but after severe
loss on our part in the attempt to execute the order our men
were compelled to retire without accomplishing the desired end,
save only to the row nearest the fort. From these barracks,
the enemy kept up a murderous fire on our men despite all our
efforts to dislodge him."
Around 1 p.m., Gen. N.B. Forrest began his usual rounds observing
the battles progress. As he reined his horse up to begin,
a rifle ball tore through his horse, causing the horse to rear
and fall over backwards sending Forrest tumbling to the ground.
Being the leader that he was, Forrest immediately mounted another
horse, which was also shot from under him. His staff protested
the general taking a third horse, but Forrest saying "I
am just as liable to be shot on foot than horseback," mounted
his third horse in the battle and, before his reconnaissance
was finished, the third horse was struck, but not killed.
He had accomplished his objective and had his men start taking
short yardage runs under cover fire from the sharpshooters.
The black artillery units, who had performed admirably under
fire, saw their advantage slipping away when the Confederates
started taking the declining ground from the fort making
it impossible for the black cannoneers to reposition their artillery
pieces to shoot down on the advancing forces.
When Confederate supply wagons arrived around 3 p.m., Forrest
called for a cease-fire and, under a flag of truce, sent in
a detachment simply stating:
"My men have received a fresh supply of ammunition, and
from their present position can easily assault and capture the
fort. I demand the unconditional surrender of the garrison,
promising you that you shall be treated as prisoners of war.
If the demand is refused, you will be responsible for the fate
of your command."
Although Major Booth had been dead for more than six hours,
the inexperienced Union officer William Bradford, who was in
operational command of the remaining northern forces, began
opening negotiations in Booths name. He asked as such
that one hour be given for consideration of Forrests proposal.
It was known to both commanders that Union ships Liberty and
Olive Branch were on the Mississippi and steaming in opposite
directions toward the fort. It was also known that neither the
fort nor the captain of the New Era had indicated to the approaching
steamers that a truce had been called.
Forrest thought that the one-hour request from Bradford was
to buy time for the steamers to make the fort and replied he
would only give him thirty minutes.
Negotiations continued and Forrest reportedly rode up to the
place where both sides were talking to show them he was on the
battlefield personally and awaiting an answer. After hearing
the Unions second reply that "negotiations will not
attain the desired objective". Forrest asked for a reply
in plain English. "Will he fight or surrender?" Bradford
replied, "I will not surrender."
On that information, Forrest rode back to his position and ordered
Confederate bugler Jacob Gaus to blow the signal to charge.
As the sound permeated the battlefield, the Confederates moved
from their positions and began marching on the fort. The Southern
soldiers according to Lt. Leaming "rose from out the very
earth and began marching." The men marched the remaining
yards under fire, dove into a 12-foot ditch and pulled each
other up the muddy walls next to the fort. AS one wave dropped
over the walls the Union opened up on them at point blank range.
Before they could reload, a second wave rolled over the top
of the wall and fired on them.
Union Major Bradford had worked out a signal with the New Era
Captain he would give if all hope was lost and the ship would
pull into position to cover the Union retreat with cannon fire
while the soldiers made it to safety. As in all battles, the
soldiers eyes were constantly attuned to the flag to see
if it came down. It never did and both sides could only assume
the battle was still waging. The black soldiers maintained their
fire as best they could from the position they held. When they
saw the Union cavalry break headlong into a retreat towards
the river, they had no choice but to abandon their guns and
follow after them. Most officers in both the black and white
regiments were killed or wounded and the men had no leadership
in the retreat, which pretty much meant "every man for
The Union flag still flew over the fort and, when the men saw
it waving from the bluffs and banks, they could only assume
those remaining in the fort were making a fight of it and the
battle was still undecided. As Confederates charged through
the fort, they began catching fire from the bluffs and banks,
which prompted them to engage the men along the Mississippi.
Forrest had sent a detachment to the landing to engage any troop
ships trying to relieve the fort and many Union soldiers ran
headlong into the fire.
Although they had a prearranged signal, Captain Marshall of
the New Era suddenly realized he was low on ammunition and,
with the Confederates about to come into possession of the artillery,
pulled his ship back to the center of the river and out of range
of the guns stranding the Union garrison on the banks
of the river and creating a panic among the men.
Union soldiers, who had thrown down their guns and surrendered,
were confused by the mixed signals they were getting and, at
the first opportunity, would run back to their guns and start
firing again. This continued for more than an hour resulting
in the deaths of several individual Union soldiers. Finally
a Confederate officer cut the Union flag from the pole. Upon
seeing the flag drop, Gen. Forrest ordered all firing to stop
and, with the help of Gen. Chalmers began restoring order to
"The unwounded of the garrison," wrote Confederate
Capt. Anderson, "were detailed under the supervision of
their own officers to bury the dead and remove the wounded to
the hospitals, tents, and buildings."
Capt. Anderson and Union Capt. John Young of the Fort Pillow
Garrison went upriver with a white flag trying to open communications
with the New Era to send ashore for the wounded. The steamboat
wanted no part of it, however, and pulled away leaving
the wounded unattended for the most part and the dead unburied.
At daybreak, Gen. Forrest sent back details to the fort to take
the artillery pieces and gave the orders to:
"Burn all of the hospitals, except the one used a hospital...and
to leave with the wounded... slightly wounded me sufficient
to wait on them and five or six days supply of provisions
and any medicine they may need."
Union gunboats Silver Cloud and Platte Valley steamed into proximity
of the fort and began shelling it intensely until Capt. Anderson
was ordered b y Forrest to make a truce with the ships for the
day so they could bury their dead and remove the wounded. Details
of Confederate soldiers were also put at their disposal to help
the Union remove the dead and, according to Union reports: "...rendered
us efficient aid, facilitating as much as possible in getting
the wounded on board transport."
The Confederate forces had also captured 160 white and 40 black
prisoners of war. The men, who were not wounded, were placed
aboard Confederate ships the next morning and transported to
a Mississippi P.O.W. camp.
In his report on the incident, which was filed with General
Polk, Forrest said:
"The defenders fought bravely, but were simply overpowered.
The river was dyed with the blood of the slaughtered for 200
yards. The approximate loss of was upwards of 500 killed; but
few of the officers escaped. There were in the fort a large
number of citizens who had fled there to escape the conscript
law. Most of them ran into the river and were drowned."
Forrests own loss he reported as 20 killed and 60 wounded.
That was how the infamous Battle of Fort Pillow ended, but a
new story soon began emerging from the Union newspaper "Memphis
Bulletin", which had been organized following the Commercial-Appeals
evacuation of the city.
In the articles, numerous atrocities were charged against the
Confederate soldiers at Fort Pillow and then-Secretary of War
Edwin Stanton ordered Gen. Sherman to put an officer in charge
of an investigation of the Fort Pillow incident. Sherman assigned
the task to Cairo, IL commander Gen. Brayman. It was common
knowledge that Northern voters were tired of the war and that
weariness spelled doom for President Lincolns reelection
campaign. A renewed interest through a story like Fort Pillow
was what Stanton and the others needed to maintain the war effort.
Stanton then silently began pressuring allies in Congress to
begin its own investigation, which it did forming a joint
investigation from both the Congress and the Senate. The Congressional
investigation under Senator Benjamin F. Wade concluded that:
"Southerners treacherously gained the positions from which
they assaulted the fort during a flag of truce and then commenced
an indiscriminate slaughter, sparing neither age nor sex, white
or black, soldier or civilian."
Further atrocities were alleged and no mention was made of the
Union steamers who could have rescued the fort or the actions
of the Major Bradford during the negotiations. Even though the
investigation never interviewed one Confederate soldier, there
were still conflicting reports. One came from the Unions
Fort Pillow surgeon Dr. C. Fitch of Iowa, who had testified
that Gen. Chalmers found him about ready to be stripped of his
boots and, after identifying himself and appealing to the general,
heard him order the guard to shoot anyone who tried to molest
One of the more dubious reports entered into the Congressional
investigation came from a soldier, who said he heard Forrest
himself issue the order to massacre the troops. When asked to
describe the man he heard give the order, he testified that
he was a little bit of a man, which was hardly a description
of the 62" general.
A black soldier named Ellis Falls, who had fought at the fort
was also asked if blacks and whites were killed in equal numbers
after the supposed surrender, and Falls replied:
"Yes sir, until the order was given to cease fire."
"Who gave the order?" asked Sen. Wade.
"They told me his name was Forrest," replied Falls.
Experts and historians later concluded that the investigation
was little more than a show trial. Gen. Sherman was contacted
by Gen. Grant and told to look into the charges as a response
would be necessary if found to be true. Sherman, who was no
lover of the man he later said should be killed if it bankrupted
the U.S. Treasury and cost the lives of 100,000 men, cleared
his enemy of his any wrong doing in the incident, but then,
as now, a Congressional investigation created a feeding frenzy
in the Northern press and it was front page news. Later historians
concluded Secretary of War Stanton had been successful in his
aims with publicizing the battle. Stantons thirst for
power was legendary in Washington and President Andrew Johnson
would later fire him for similar type tactics, which led to
Stanton virtually organizing the Presidential impeachment trial
of President Johnson in Congress.
"What happened at Fort Pillow was no different than what
happened at a dozen other battles under Union generals,"
said military historian Dr. Brian Wills, "Some soldiers
in that kind of environment are going to get out of hand
and the military record is replete with prosecutions of such
men. Gen. Forrest was a strict disciplinarian and consistently
prosecuted men in his command for such actions as those alleged
at Fort Pillow. Why that particular battle drew national attention
has more to do with a Presidential campaign that was going badly
for Lincoln and a Secretary of War wanting to hold onto power.
Gen. Sherman later acknowledged that what happened at Fort Pillow
was one of those unfortunate consequences of war and Forrest
could not be personally held responsible for it."
The story of the "Fort Pillow massacre" and the ensuing
investigations, however, entered the American historical record
and historians following the war documented it as fact, even
though later testimony from former Confederates and others present
at the battle completely disproved the Union accounts in the
Congressional record. Through the years it has officially come
to be recognized as one of the greatest myths of the War Between
the States. Facts continue to be uncovered about the battle
that helped propel President Lincoln back into the White House
and led to the one of the biggest controversies in American