Fort Pillow, a Civil War Massacre, and Public Memory, by John Cimprich. Conflicting Worlds: New Dimensions of the American Civil War series. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 2005. Louisiana Paperback Edition, 2011. xiv, 193 pp. $31.95 US (cloth), $19.95 US (paper).
In April 1864, at the height of the American Civil War (1861-1865), a minor military engagement at a strategically insignificant site--Fort Pillow in Tennessee--resulted in a horrific, racially motivated atrocity. Confederate Major General Nathan B. Forrest led 1500 troops against 600 Union defenders, and in what John Cimprich describes as a breakdown in military discipline, the victorious Confederate troops murdered numerous Union soldiers, many of whom were African-American. This brief and interesting study examines in careful, almost forensic detail the context for and causes of the massacre and explores the ways in which the event was remembered in American culture.
Cimprich sets the stage in the first chapters of his book by describing the construction of the fort by Confederate forces (using slave labour), who deemed the location to be strategically important to control the western front on the Mississippi in the early days of the Civil War. The key figure here was the "self-promoting and excessively ambitious" Gideon Pillow, a veteran of the Mexican-American War who in 1861 used his military ties to gain responsibility for building the fortifications and to command the Provisional Army of Tennessee (p. 3). An amateur general, Pillow lent his name to the fort, but his ego outstripped his talent, and he soon humiliated himself by fleeing a Union attack on Fort Donelson. After a series of skirmishes, Union troops took over Fort Pillow in April 1862 and occupied the installation for the next two years, until Forrest's attack. Cimprich describes the social and racial context, how the Union occupation in a slave state "created multi-layered social conflicts" (p. 37) between blacks and whites, unionists and secessionists. A crucial factor in this story is how the fort was manned in part by black Union troops throughout this period.
An event like the Fort Pillow massacre inevitably generates multiple and contradictory accounts, and Cimprich's conclusions are drawn carefully from what the available evidence will allow. Racism, unsurprisingly, is at the core of his analysis. The casualty figures of the massacre are speculative estimates because neither side's records are inherently reliable. What is chillingly clear, though, is that black soldiers were targeted in disproportionate numbers--a 65 per cent death rate. The massacre, Cimprich concludes, was the product of a number of factors: Confederate exhaustion and anger from the long march and siege; racial hostility against black soldiers; political enmity against Southern unionists; and an antagonism to white Northem officers commanding mixed-race units. "Easily identified by race and uniform, the condemned did not seem to deserve the protection due enemies under the military practices of the time," he argues. "That social message carried more impact than a [Confederate] military victory over a small outpost away from the major war zones in 1864" (p. 85). Race, not the fog of war, was the decisive explanatory factor.
The contest over the meanings and memory of the massacre began immediately, reflecting the racial and sectional fissures of the Civil War itself. The massacre was widely reported in the North, and the Union was understandably outraged and immediately sponsored investigations and Congressional committees to determine what had happened and assess blame. Confederates, meanwhile, vowed that no massacre had taken place, that the deaths had occurred in combat circumstances. Still, the debate in the immediate aftermath engendered one positive outcome, in Cimprich's estimation. The Fort Pillow massacre was not the only racially driven atrocity of the war, and the outcry from the North and disavowal from the South led leaders from both sides to admit "that a massacre motivated by facial antagonism was wrong or at least should not occur." In consequence, the Confederacy tacitly accepted black Federal enlistments as legitimate combatants, "which limited the number of subsequent massacres" (p. 107). Further, Cimprich suggests that this episode led to better treatment and pay for black solders in the Union army and contributed to support for the 13th amendment. Cimprich's arguments in the final chapter about the Fort Pillow massacre in American memory, from the end of the Civil War to the present, are terse, but instructive, though they lack the richness and texture of more involved treatments of war and memory like David W. Blight's Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (2001).
Americans are in the midst of commemorations of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, and major set-piece military encounters like Gettysburg will no doubt command much attention. As Cimprich demonstrates very well, however, all of the tensions and contradictions that made the Civil War so tragically lethal were evident at the local level, too, at such insignificant places as Fort Pillow, Tennessee. These stories should not be forgotten, and this book is a valuable scholarly contribution to today's task of remembering.
William Van Arragon
King's University College