The Battle of Fort Pillow, known as the Fort Pillow Massacre, particularly in the North, was fought on April 12 1864, at Fort Pillow on the Mississippi River in Henning, Tennessee, during the American Civil War. The battle has caused great controversy about whether a massacre of surrendered African-American troops was conducted or condoned by Confederate Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest. Military historian David J. Eicher concluded, "Fort Pillow marked one of the bleakest, saddest events of American military history."
The fort stood on a high bluff and was protected by three lines of entrenchments arranged in a semicircle, with a protective parapet four feet thick and six to eight feet high surrounded by a ditch. (During the battle, the thick parapet would in fact prove to be a disadvantage to the defenders because they could not fire upon approaching troops without mounting the top of the parapet, subjecting them to enemy fire. Similarly, the six artillery pieces of the fort found it difficult to depress their barrels enough to fire on the attackers once they got close.) A Federal gunboat, the USS New Era, commanded by Captain James Marshall, was also available for the defense.
On March 16 1864, Forrest launched a month-long cavalry raid with 7,000 troopers into western Tennessee and Kentucky. Their objectives were to capture Union prisoners and supplies and to demolish posts and fortifications from Paducah, Kentucky, south to Memphis. Forrest's Cavalry Corps, which he called "the Cavalry Department of West Tennessee and North Mississippi", consisted of the divisions led by Brig. Gens. James R. Chalmers (brigades of Brig. Gen. Robert V. Richardson and Col. Robert M. McCulloch) and Abraham Buford (brigades of Cols. Tyree H. Bell and A. P. Thompson).
The first of the two significant engagements in the expedition was the Battle of Paducah on March 25, and Forrest's men did considerable damage to the town and its military supplies. Numerous skirmishes occurred throughout the region in late March and early April. Needing supplies, Forrest planned to move on Fort Pillow with about 1,500 to 2,500 men. (He had detached part of his command under Buford to strike Paducah again.) He wrote on April 4, "There is a Federal force of 500 or 600 at Fort Pillow, which I shall attend to in a day or two, as they have horses and supplies which we need.
The Union garrison at Fort Pillow consisted of about 600 men, divided almost evenly between black and white troops. The black soldiers belonged to the 2nd U.S. Colored Light Artillery and the 6th U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery, under the overall command of Major Lionel F. Booth. Many were former slaves and understood the personal consequences of a loss to the Confederates—at best an immediate return to slavery. The white soldiers were predominantly new recruits from the 14th Tennessee Cavalry, a Federal regiment from western Tennessee, commanded by Maj. William F. Bradford.
Rifle and artillery fire continued until 3:30 p.m. Forrest sent a note demanding surrender: "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." Bradford replied, concealing his identity as he did not wish the Confederates to realize that Booth had been killed, requesting an hour for consideration. Forrest, who believed that reinforcing troops would soon arrive by river, replied that he would only allow 20 minutes, and that "If at the expiration of that time the fort is not surrendered, I shall assault it." Bradford's final reply was, "I will not surrender." Forrest ordered his bugler to sound the charge.
The Confederate assault was furious. While the sharpshooters maintained their fire into the fort, a first wave entered the ditch and stood while the second wave used their backs as stepping stones. These men then reached down and helped the first wave scramble up a ledge on the embankment. All of this proceeded flawlessly and with very little firing, except from the sharpshooters and around the flanks. Their fire against the New Era caused the sailors to button up their gun ports and hold their fire. As the sharpshooters were signaled to hold their fire, the men on the ledge went up and over the embankment, firing now for the first time into the massed defenders, who fought briefly, but then broke rearward for a race to the landing at the foot of the bluff, where they had been told that the Union gunboat would cover their withdrawal by firing grape and canister. The gunboat did not fire a single shot because its gun ports were sealed, and there probably would have been more Union casualties than Confederate if they had fired. The fleeing soldiers were subjected to fire both from the rear and from the flank, from the soldiers who had been firing at the gunboat. Many were shot down. Others reached the river only to drown or be picked off in the water by marksmen on the bluff.
Conflicting reports of what happened next, from 4 p.m. to dusk, led to the controversy. Union sources claimed that even though the Union troops surrendered, Forrest's men massacre them in cold blood. Surviving members of the garrison said that most of their men surrendered and threw down their arms, only to be shot or bayoneted by the attackers, who repeatedly shouted, "No quarter! No quarter!" The Joint Committee On the Conduct of the War immediately investigated the incident and concluded that the Confederates shot most of the garrison after it had surrendered. A 1958 study by Albert Castel concluded that the Union forces were indiscriminately massacred after Fort Pillow "had ceased resisting or was incapable of resistance.
This was disputed by Lt Daniel Van Horn of the 6th U. S. Heavy Artillery (Colored) who stated in his official report "There never was a surrender of the fort, both officers and men declaring they never would surrender or ask for quarter."
On the other hand, Forrest's men insisted that the Federals, although fleeing, kept their weapons and frequently turned to shoot, forcing the Confederates to keep firing in self defense. The Union flag was still flying over the fort, which indicated that the force had not formally surrendered. A contemporary newspaper account from Jackson, Tennessee, states that "General Forrest begged them to surrender," but "not the first sign of surrender was ever given." Similar accounts were reported in many Southern newspapers at the time.
These denials, however, are contradicted by accounts of the massacre found in the letters of the Confederate soldiers who were there. Achilles Clark, a soldier with the 20th Tennessee cavalry, wrote the following in a letter to his sister penned immediately after the battle. "The slaughter was awful. Words cannot describe the scene. 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. I, with several others, tried to stop the butchery, and at one time had partially succeeded, but General Forrest ordered them shot down like dogs and the carnage continued. Finally our men became sick of blood and the firing ceased."
In the aftermath of Fort Pillow, Abraham Lincoln demanded that Confederates treat captured black Union soldiers as prisoners of war, even if they happened to be runaway slaves. This demand was refused. As a result, the exchanges of prisoners came to a halt.
In 1997, an American motion picture, titled "Last Stand at Saber River" (based on the Elmore Leonard novel), features a character (played by Tom Selleck) who was a Confederate deserter of the Ft. Pillow Massacre. The character returns to his home in the U.S. Southwest and describes the incident as murder.
In 2006, in contrast to his many alternative history novels, Harry Turtledove published the historical novel Fort Pillow about the battle and the massacre. In his alternate history novel, The Guns of the South, the events of Fort Pillow are referred to as a massacre in the novel's imagined timeline. Frank Yerby provided a brief narration of the massacre in his 1946 novel, The Foxes of Harrow (Chapter XXXVI).