Fort Pillow Attack


It is almost as difficult to find consistent information about the
incident at Fort Pillow as it is to determine the moral significance
of its outcome. Scholars disagree about exactly what transpired on

April 12, 1864 at Fort Pillow, when General Nathan Bedford Forrest
captured the fort with his 1,500 troops and claimed numerous Union
lives in the process (Wyeth 250). It became an issue of propaganda for
the Union, and as a result the facts were grossly distorted. After
close examination it is clear that the ³Fort Pillow Massacre² (as it
became known by abolitionists) was nothing of the sort. The 1,500
troops under the command of General Nathan Bedford Forrest acted as
men and as soldiers in their capture of Fort Pillow.

It is first necessary to understand what happened in the battle
before any judgment can be made. A careful study performed by Dr. John

Wyeth revealed the following information: from April 9-11, 1864,
troops under the command of Ben McCulloch, Tyree Harris Bell, and

Brig. General James Chalmers marched non-stop to Fort Pillow to begin
their assault under the command of General Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Confederate sharpshooters claimed the lives of several key Union
officers during the morning assault on the fort. The losses included
the commanding officer Major Loinel F. Booth, and his second in
command shortly after that. These losses created a complete breakdown
of order and leadership among the Union troops within the fort. (251)

During the morning engagement, the gun boat the New Era was
continually attempting to shell the Confederate forces from the

Mississippi, but with minimal success. The Union forces fought back
heartily until around one o¹clock in the afternoon, when both sides
slowed down. Around that time the New Era steamed out of range to
cool its weapons. It had fired a total of 282 rounds, and its supplies
were almost totally exhausted. During this hiatus in the firing, while

Confederate troops waited for supplies that would arrive around three
o¹clock, Forrestwas injured when his horse fell on him after being
mortaily wounded (252). When the supplies arrived, Confederate troops
under a flag of truce delivered a message from Forrest that said, ³My
men have received a fresh supply of ammunition, and from their present
position can easily assault and capture the fort,² (253). Forrest
demanded ³the unconditional surrender of the garrison,² promising
³that you shall be treated as prisoners of war² ( 253). This
agreement was refused by Major William F. Bradford using the name of

Major Booth, and Forrest was left with no option but to attack (Long &

Long 484).

Without a word, Forrest rode to his post, and a bugle call began the
charge. The soldiers stormed the fort under the cover of sharpshooter
fire. The Union spent their rounds on the charging mass, and the
second wave was to all intents and purposes a ³turkey shoot.² As
hordes of soldiers came over the wall, a considerable number of Union
lives were lost to point blank fire, an action that was deemed murder
by the northern press. (255) However, it must not be forgotten that
those Union troops who died were in the process of reloading their
rifles. Even knowing that they were severely outnumbered, they had
demanded the fight (Henry 255).

By this point most of the Union officers in the fort had been killed,
and the remaining troops fled the fort toward the river where they had
provisions waiting . There was also a plan for the New Era to shell
the Confederate troops in the fort with canister, but the shelling
never happened(. Confederate troops were waiting at the bottom of the
fort to prevent access to the supplies by the Union forces. With the

Union flag still flying upon the fort and Union forces still firing on
the run, Confederate troops claimed many more lives on the river bank.

It was reported by Colonel FIRST NAME Barteau that
they made a wild, crazy, scattering fight. They acted like
a crowd of drunken men. They would at one moment
yield and throw down their guns, and then would rush
again to arms, seize their guns and renew the fire. If
one squad was left as prisoners ... it would soon
discover that they could not be trusted as having
surrendered, for taking the first opportunity they
would break lose again and engage in the contest.

Some of our men were killed by Negroes who had
once surrendered (256).

With this type of activity, it is understandable how a superior
force could claim so many casualties. However, the issue is