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. Forrest.
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 Lincoln’s 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 victories.
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 Pillow.
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. Forrest’s west Tennessee campaigns, reports began coming in of Union soldiers pillaging the area around the fort for supplies. While Forrest didn’t 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 Bell’s Brigade encamped in Gibson County and to Col. Robert McCulloch’s 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 couldn’t escape the Confederate sharpshooter’s 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 shortly afterwards."
Because of Major Booth’s unwavering confidence in his command’s 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. Leaming’s 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 battle’s 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 Booth’s name. He asked as such that one hour be given for consideration of Forrest’s 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 Union’s 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 himself. "
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 fort.
"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."
Forrest’s 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-Appeal’s 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 Lincoln’s 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 Union’s 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 him.
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 6’2" 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. Stanton’s 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 military history.