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The Lynching Massacre of Black and White Soldiers at Fort Pillow, Tennessee, April 12, 1864
The Western Journal of Black Studies. 22.2 (Summer 1998): p84.

In 1864, Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forest attacked and defeated Fort Pillow, lynching all surviving black and white soldiers. The fort was located on the Mississippi River, 40 miles north of Memphis, and was manned by the black troops of the 6th Colored Artillery and the white troops of the 13th Tennessee cavalry. Forest's treatment of his prisoners expressed his feeling that no Union Negro be given quarter under any circumstances.

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Precisely three years after the Civil War began, one of the cruelest deeds in the annals of warfare occurred at Fort Pillow, forty miles north of Memphis on the bank of the Mississippi River, both black (troops of the 6th United States Colored Artillery) and white (troops of the 13th Tennessee Union Calvary) were murdered in cold blood. General Nathan Forrest considered a slave in uniform with a gun a direct challenge and threat to the way of life in the South, a situation that could never be tolerated. At Fort Pillow, Forest would take the "no quarter to Union Negro soldiers" policy to its limit. General Forrest's attack on Fort Pillow marked the launching of the method by which the South would keep the "niggers" in their "place" and maintain white supremacy.

Fort Pillow is unique for having been both a confederate and Union fort that was attacked by both sides. The Confederate states of America recognized the necessity for defending against a Union invasion of the South by way of the Mississippi Riven So, in 1861 on the basis of a recommendation by General Gideon J. Pillow, a hero of the American Mexican War (rendered a valiant effort as commander of the brigade of the Tennessee Militia at the battles of Cerro Gordo and Vera Cruz)(1) but branded a coward of the Civil War because of his flight from Fort Donelson during the onslaught of General Grant, Fort Pillow was constructed as part of a river defense system, named in his honor.(2) Fort Pillow has served as the site of a state penitentiary since 1932.(3)

Early in 1864, Union troops took control of Fort Pillow after the withdrawal of the Confederate army. Half of the soldiers were principally white Tennesseans, many having deserted the Confederate army, especially, the battalion commanded by General Forrest, derisively referred to by Confederate soldiers and their supporters as "homemade Yankees", and the rest were from other states who joined the 13th Tennessee Union Cavalry because they held a deep seated hatred toward the Confederate and sought an opportunity to play a significant role in destroying it. The other half of the garrison at Fort Pillow were mostly former slaves. Their pre-Union status and balanced racial composition made the garrison quite unique in American military history.(4) From the outset of its occupancy of Fort Pillow in early 1864, the Union garrison became a prime, as well as prize target of General Nathan Bedford Forrest and his army of West Tennessee. Because of the unique character of the Union garrison at Fort Pillow, General Forrest was severely irked and subsequently inspired to assault the Fort, with the objective of crushing the garrison and recapturing it. In fact, Forrest deemed the "homemade Yankees" and former slaves who controlled it a personal affront to him. Thus, Forrest developed a fierce determination to personally "take care of the mess" at Fort Pillow.

Because of his great love and deep devotion to the cause of the South, Forrest held a severe antipathy toward anyone who deserted the South and, then supported the Union, but this enmity toward black Union soldiers was far more intense than toward white Union soldiers. He believed, quite deeply, that black people (whom he called "niggers") were subhumans and unquestionably far inferior to white people. He believed that they were incapable of participating in society as civilized human beings. Thus, Forrest believed the "niggers" were only fit to exist as slaves totally subjugated to their white masters. Prior to the Civil War, Forrest had proven his attitude toward Negroes by becoming one of the chief slave traders, a "profession" that made him rich. Forrest could never accept a black man in a military uniform, blue or gray, as a soldier, because he believed the "nigger" did not possess the qualities required of a soldier. Forrest believed drafting and arming a former slave or a so-called free black was the worst thing a white man could do, next to committing reason. Forrest considered a slave in uniform with a gun a direct challenge and threat to the way of life in the South, a situation that could never be tolerated. The South launched the war in an all-out effort to restore and preserve the white male hegemonic, economic, political and social hierarchy in place prior to the Civil War.

With a strong belief in the cause of the South, General Nathan Bedford Forrest became one of the key leaders of the South's effort to bring about its realization -- mainstreaming and perpetuating the civilization of the antebellum South that rested on a tripod -- cotton and the plantation system, Negro slavery and chivalry. Forrest resolved to go all-out in his efforts to keep the South as he knew it, and preferred it. Therefore, he never considered Negroes as men, thus would abhor the thought of Negro soldiers. Forrest accepted and promoted all the harsh, negative stereotypes about Negroes. Filled with extreme racist attitudes, bitterness, and hatred toward Negroes, General Forrest refused and totally ignored the general principles and specific rules governing the conduct of belligerents in his attack on what he considered a bunch of scum who had no business in the military nor in control of Fort Pillow. The utter contempt Forrest held toward the Union garrison and his impassioned desire to "teach them a lesson they would never forget", apparently became an obsession that led him to commit one of the most horrible deeds in the history of warfare -- the massacre at Fort Pillow, April 12, 1864.

At the outset of the Civil War, in spite of Negroes' heroic exploits in the American Revolution and the War of 1812, both the North and the South refused to allow them to join their armed forces. In fact, this writer considers President Abraham Lincoln's order commanding his military leaders to send slaves who had escaped from the plantation to areas behind Union lines, back to their masters, as one of the most paradoxical acts of the war. It was an act Lincoln justified on the basis that the border states would have become alienated had he not returned their slaves to them. The governments and militaries of the North and the South did not want Negroes in uniforms because they believed they were incapable of becoming soldiers, performing exacting duties involving training, marching, and combat. It was only near the end of the war, the South seriously considered using Negroes in the military, involving a plan that the Union's victory killed.(5)

From the beginning of the war until black soldiers demonstrated their valor in key battles, the Union army believed a Negro would not or could not be brave, self-reliant, and disciplined. The North believed Negroes, especially ex-slaves, were too servile and cowardly to make good soldiers. Most Union soldiers did not want to serve with Negroes, and there was no serious official consideration of integrating black and white troops. Eventually blacks were accepted, reluctantly, in the Union army. The South considered Negro Union soldiers as escaped slaves, not soldiers, and definitely, not prisoners of war. Most Southerners despised black soldiers, considered them as rebellious slaves, and insisted that they should be treated as such. The South became extremely embittered by the North's use of the Negro soldiers.(6) They deemed the measure absolutely unacceptable, and rejected it outright. The South responded with an act that empowered President Jefferson Davis to have captured commanders (all white) of Negro regiments executed or punished at the discretion of a military tribunal. Captured Union Negro soldiers were delivered to the authorities of the state or states in which they were captured to be dealt with according to the state or states. Negro soldiers were not considered prisoners of war; instead they were designated as slaves captured in arms and thus liable to execution,(7) promptly returned to their masters, placed at work on military or naval projects, or sold into slavery. The South refused to consider Negro soldiers fighting for the Union as prisoners of war until it was all but over.

The Confederacy's harsh act led to countless deaths, enslavement, and re-enslavement of Union soldiers. Coupled with the Confederacy's law that punished captured Negro soldiers as insurrectionists, was the policy of the War Department that ordered the officers in the field to not treat Negro soldiers as prisoners of war, but to kill them, or send them back to their masters, on the basis of their discretion, thus making them an example designed to scare off as many Negroes as possible from the military of the Union. One wonders how many Negro soldiers were killed or enslaved as a result of the previously mentioned policy. Because of the clandestinity of the administration of the Confederacy's "anti-Negro Union soldier law", America and the world will never know the extent of the dastardly deeds that resulted from the act.

The "take no prisoners, give no quarters policy" of the Confederacy produced many brave Negro soldiers, who fought courageously in all the battles in which they participated, fully realizing that the alternative for timidity was death, or slavery. The Negro soldiers were fully aware of the harsh Confederacy's law and policy, as well as the field commanders who were carrying it out, or willing to carry it out. So throughout the Civil War, Negro soldiers fought pugnaciously, because for them, their quality of fighting involved a matter of life and death, as well as kill or be killed. They knew if captured, they would not be considered as prisoners of war, as their white comrades, instead they would be designated as slaves captured in arms, and thus liable to execution, or, slavery. Consequently, the fear of capture, as well as the hope of freedom, inspired Negro soldiers to fight with extraordinary fury, tenacity, and resoluteness, buttressed by an unofficial policy of no surrender. The level of intense fighting between black troops of the North and white troops of the South would culminate into ghastly atrocities, especially at Fort Pillow.

Before we proceed to the massacre at Fort Pillow, two factors should be considered because they bore so heavily on that most tragic event.(1) Only one-fourth of white southerners owned slaves or belonged to a slaveowning family. The smaller slaveowners did not own a majority of slaves, but they made up a majority of masters. They lived in modest farmhouses and sweated beside their bondsmen in the cotton field. Beneath the slaveowners was the great body of whites who owned no slaves at all. Some of the least prosperous nonslaveholding whites were scorned even by slaves as "poor white trash." How does one explain all those white folk who did not own slaves, held no direct stake in the preservation of slavery, yet were quite frankly among the strongest defenders of slavery at home and on the battlefield? They, apparently held out the hope that one day they would own a slave or two, and maybe eventually achieve affluence.(8) The plain white folk took fierce pride in their presumed racial superiority. Even the most wretched white folk could take perverse comfort from the knowledge that they outranked someone in status (the slaves) merely on the basis of race and complexion.(9)

The white folk who owned no slaves, and eked out a living from the thinner and not so rich soil of the back country were yeomen who constituted the bulk of the Confederacy's military.(10) They were neither learned nor illiterate but those who were barely literate were much more numerous than those of fair education. Their schooling, like their culture, reflected in a general way, the yeomen society to which most of them belonged.

(2) Antipathy toward ordinary Yankees was deep and pervasive, but it was mild in comparison with the hatred which most Rebs felt for Negroes who wore the blue. The mere thought of a Negro in a uniform was enough to arouse the ire of the average Johnny Reb; he was wont to see in the arming of the Negroes the fruition of oft repeated Yankee efforts to incite slave insurrections and to establish racial equality. Anticipation of conflict with former slaves brought savage delight to his soul. And when white and black met on the field of battle, the results were terrible.(11)

Negroes were taken prisoners in several engagements, but if the wishes of the private soldiers who fought them had prevailed, no quarter would have been granted. Most of the Rebs felt as the Mississippian who wrote his mother: "I hope I may never see a Negro soldier," he said, "or I cannot be a Christian soldier."(12) On more than one occasion Negro troops were slain after they were captured. Following the Crater affair a Reb wrote his home folk that all the colored prisoners would have been killed had it not been for "gen Mahone who beg our men to spare them". One of his comrades killed several, he continued; Mahone "told him for God's sake stop." The man replied, "well gen let me kill one more", whereupon according to the correspondent, "he deliberately took out his pocket knife and cut one's throat."(13) If one is to understand the fierceness of the numerous pitched battles between black soldiers of the Union and white soldiers of the Confederacy, he must understand the source of Johnny Reb's severe animus toward black soldiers. From childhood to adulthood, Johnny Reb had been taught that Negroes were far inferior to white people, indeed subhumans, incapable of making a single contribution to civilization, and that Negroes were naturally endowed for slavery.

Encountering Negro soldiers for the first time fighting against white men sparked a terrible rage in Confederate soldiers that caused them to fight furiously and violently against the Negro soldiers in an all-out do-or-die manner, giving no quarter, and taking no prisoners. The frenzied fighting of the soldiers of the Confederacy indicated their objective to take no prisoners, but to kill them all, and teach them an object lesson, measures that satisfied the previously mentioned policy of the War Department.(14) From the time black soldiers began fighting on the side of the Union in the fall of 1863, practically every battle in which they were involved was a pitched battle resulting from the prevailing "no quarters" policy of the Confederacy and the unofficial "no surrender" policy of the Negro soldiers. Of course, the "no quarters" policy was the manifestation of the bitter racist attitudes held by the soldiers and supporters of the cause of the South.

Because a majority of the combatants on both sides came from the poorer classes, the Civil War was dubbed "a rich man's war and a poor man's fight."(15) Irrespective of their socio-economic status, the soldiers, both North and South, exhibited a strong sense of loyalty and fervor in their efforts to achieve the most desired results for their respective side, from the beginning to the end of the war. Facing disaster certain and utter defeat, it is mystifying how Johnny Reb remained steadfastly loyal to the South's cause from Fort Sumter to Appomattox.(16) The "no quarter" policy of the Confederacy spurred the wholesale slaughter (lynching) of Negroes throughout the Civil War on down to contemporary time. The "take no Negro prisoners, kill em policy" of the War Department of the Confederate States of America was the basis of the long and sad history of the lynching of Negroes in America.(17) Johnny Reb's fight against Negro soldiers was more a lynching than a battle in war. Johnny Reb considered all Negroes fighting for the Union as uppity, ignorant slaves, unfit for military service who directly and brazenly challenged white men in a war they had no business participating. The Negroes could not be allowed to get away with their strong support of the Union's effort to destroy the Confederacy. The Negroes had to be put back in their "places" -- chattel property, without any rights, totally subservient to their white masters.

The Confederacy's policy against Negro soldiers was not just tantamount to a lynch law, it indeed was a lynch law. Thus, the history of the lynching of Negroes began during the Civil War and continues down to modern times. In fact, lynching became the consummate violent response of white southerners to the destruction of the system of slavery. Lynching Negroes was a pleasurable and satisfying experience utilized to reaffirm and justify the ideology and practice of white supremacy.(18) The "no quarter" policy of the Confederacy caused a highly disproportionate mortality rate of Negro soldiers, a factor that reflected their significant, but costly contribution to the Union's victory. As has been pointed out, Negro soldiers fought bravely in several key battles, but suffered great loss due to the frenzied fighting of Johnny Reb who saw himself participating in a lynching bee, rather than battle. Of all the battles in which Negroes participated and suffered great losses, the massacre that resulted in a bloodbath at Fort Pillow ranks at the top, because use of the "no quarter" policy to Negro troops reached its most disgusting height.

General Nathan Bedford Forrest considered the black and white garrison at Fort Pillow as sitting ducks, a juicy target that could be taken without a problem. Forrest however, wanted to do more than capture the garrison. Because of the utter contempt he held toward it, he decided to launch a savage attack on the garrison at Fort Pillow on the third anniversary of the beginning of the war with the objective of virtually wiping it out and showing Negroes what could happen to them, if they joined the Union's military. At Fort Pillow, Forrest would take the "no quarter" to Union Negro soldiers' policy to its limit. General Forrest's attack on Fort Pillow marked the launching of the method by which the South would keep the "niggers" in their "place" and maintain white supremacy. The South would employ the lynch law -- the lynching of Negroes to preserve its way of life as much as possible. Seeing almost an equal number of Negroes as whites stationed at Fort Pillow, Forrest found quite contemptible. It was a situation that had to be stopped.

In February, two months before the massacre at Fort Pillow, the Confederacy had authorized the use of slaves in its military which indicated the South was losing the war and along with it, its precious way of life. The plan to use slaves to fight showed how desperate the South had become in its efforts to defeat the Union and preserve its way of life; however, most of the Confederacy's generals, including Forrest (the strongest opposition), found the act authorizing the use of slaves galling, appalling, and totally unacceptable, which is the principal reason President Davis failed to carry it out. At this point in the war, April, 1864, almost a year after their most devastating defeats at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, the overwhelming losses the South had suffered and continued to suffer indicated an outcome that would not favor the South. Forrest realized that the war was all but over, therefore, he had begun thinking more and more about how to preserve as much as possible of the "old" South, the antebellum South. If slavery was abolished, Forrest was concerned about keeping the Negroes as servile as possible. Forrest could not, and did not accept Negroes as human beings, only as subhumans consigned to slavery for life.

Over an appreciable period of time having been obsessed with the idea of knocking off the garrison at Fort Pillow and re-taking it, General Nathan Bedford Forrest conceived of the situation at Fort Pillow as a foremost opportunity to exemplify the effectiveness of employing the lynch law to keep the "niggers" in their "place" and preserving white supremacy. It must be pointed out that General Forrest was not from the gentry, but from the class of the majority of Confederate soldiers: yeoman.(19) The fact that Forrest was a yeoman as well as an inspirational leader accounts for the tremendous fighting spirit of the soldiers who served under his command, as well as the unflinching loyalty and homage they gave him. Based on all the most pertinent documentation, there is no doubt that General Nathan Bedford Forrest was the South's greatest cavalry leader. In fact, Forrest may well have been the greatest cavalry leader in history. But, aside from his military exploits, General Forrest was not a fine, nor refined southern gentlemen such as General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, General Albert Sidney Johnston, and General Robert Edward Lee.(20) General Forrest was a hotheaded, uncouth vulgarian who gambled heavily and despised Negroes who acted out of their place. He would not have had a problem ordering a massacre of Negro troops or Yankees, and turncoats. He had gained a fortune as a slave trader. Many Southerners themselves held slave traders in low esteem. In April, 1864, realizing the "dream" of the South was becoming a "nightmare," with the South losing battle after battle; the war almost over, his beloved South succumbing to the overpowering forces of the enemy, strongly assisted by former slaves, and most of all -- the civilization of the old South (cotton and the plantation system, Negro slavery, and chivalry) now seriously jeopardized; finding a solution for the South's imperiled condition, became a calvary for the Civil War's greatest cavalryman. General Forrest had become utterly disgusted and thoroughly exasperated. He then began thinking of ways to save the South and preserve its most cherished heritage.

Forrest desperately groped for a solution to the South's impending dilemma, especially involving the probable loss of the slaves. He believed without the slaves the economy of the South, as well as its culture would collapse. Something had to be done to salvage the way of life in the South. In spite of the fact that he did not regard Negroes as soldiers, General Forrest recognized their appreciable efforts on behalf of the Union's cause, a fact he thoroughly detested. He needed to demonstrate in a most dramatic manner how the South could handle the Negroes, get the most out of them, keep them in their "place," and preserve white supremacy. After thoroughly pondering the question of the Negro in the post-Civil War South, General Nathan Bedford Forrest decided that the use of the lynch law was the best and most effective way to keep "niggers" in their "place".

The "no quarter to Negro soldiers" policy was accepted and practiced by most of the generals of the Confederacy, who gave orders to their troops to kill captured Union Negro soldiers, make examples of them to deter other Negroes from joining the military of the Union.(21) Clearly, the "no quarter to Negro soldiers" (who were considered in a rebellion against the South) policy was a lynch law used throughout the Civil War, quite fiendishly. General Forrest and all the leaders of the South wanted to make sure they would have no trouble from Negroes in a defeated South. They wanted to ensure the Negroes remained totally subordinated to the white people, without any economic, or political rights. Forrest and the southern leaders planned a thorough segregated South with Negroes having absolutely no economic, nor political power, completely subservient to white people. Most white southerners believed as General Forrest, there was no place for Negroes in the body politic, thus under no circumstances must they be permitted to participate in it. Only a few months after the Civil War ended the South externalized its concerns about the Negro question with the founding of a paramilitary terroristic organization designed to restore and maintain white supremacy, and white domination of Negroes, by stealth and murder, economic intimidation, political assassinations, by political use of terror by braining of the baby in its mother's arms, the slaying of the husband at his wife's feet, the raping of the wife before her husband's eyes -- the Ku Klux Klan, an organization that exists down to this day. The man most responsible for its formation and its first Grand Wizard, the man who enforced the "no quarter to Negro soldiers" policy to its greatest degree at Fort Pillow, quite possibly, committing one of the foulest deeds in the annals of warfare -- General Nathan Bedford Forrest.(22)

General Forrest's post-war activities against Negroes indicate the fierceness of his determination to keep Negroes weak and thoroughly dependent on white folk, but, most of all the severity of his obsession to keep Negroes out of the mainstream of American life, without natural rights, human rights, and no rights, white men had to respect. Forrest's post-war activities also help to understand how and why he probably committed the abominable deed at Fort Pillow, April 12, 1864. Having decided the lynch law was the best method for white people to control Negroes, and, thus should become the unofficial policy throughout the South, General Forrest needed to find a situation that provided the best possible opportunity to make a supreme example of the "no quarter to Union Negro soldiers" battlefield policy to convince his fellow southerners of the efficacity of lynch law to control what he called "niggers".

With the tide running against the South, and the war winding down, the window for Forrest to make his move nearly closed, General Forrest finally decided that Fort Pillow provided him the best chance to make the desired example of the lynch law. General Forrest had dwelled on attacking and re-taking Fort Pillow since the Union's Negro and white garrison occupied it in early 1864. After careful planning, in order to achieve the results desired, General Forrest apparently concluded that upon taking Fort Pillow, the entire garrison must be completely wiped out. The shocking attack of Fort Pillow and the ghastly results, do reflect an all-out, determined effort to take no prisoners, give no quarter, kill every Union soldier, both Negroes and white. The Negroes were killed because under the "no quarter" policy they were involved in a rebellion, therefore, should be executed on the battlefield, whereas the white soldiers from Tennessee should be killed as traitors of the white race and their region, and for associating with the "niggers", considered nigger-lovers.

Forrest's charge on Fort Pillow totally rejected surrender by both the white and black Union soldiers, without any concern for the lives of the Union garrison, nor the fundamental rules of warfare. Forrest's charge on Fort Pillow was a deliberate execution as well as a lynching massacre of the Union garrison. This was the most bloodcurdling episode of the Civil War that set the example General Forrest sought to convince the South of the best way to handle the "niggers" and their white "nigger-lovers." Forrest wanted to demonstrate that the inferiority of Negroes disqualified them for military service and to reveal the asininity of the Union's policy that allowed Negroes to join its military.(23)

In an effort to find out what happened at Fort Pillow, immediately after the massacre, the Union's Congress impaneled a Joint Select Committee on the conduct of the War and dispatched it to the region surrounding Fort Pillow to investigate and submit a report posthaste. The testimony of the twenty-one Negro Union soldiers (who survived the massacre) to the select committee is quite similar, but indeed devastating against General Forrest and his soldiers. The testimony of the Negro soldiers who survived the bloodbath, indicated that Forrest's soldiers acted like mad men and treated them as if they were mad dogs.

The brutal, vicious, screaming, cursing, and uttering racial epithets ("damn nigger," "no quarter," "how dare you fight your master," "damn nigger," "you son of bitch you," "shoot down the niggers," "no quarter," "no quarter") depict the extreme fury and terror of General Forrest's charge of Fort Pillow.(24) The Select Committee's report reveals the slaughter at Fort Pillow as the most extreme expression of the Confederate soldiers' and their commander -- General Nathan Bedford Forrest's, deep-seated bitterness and hatred of Negroes in military uniforms of the Union, directly fighting on the battlefield. The Confederate soldiers found this utterly detestable, terrifying and sickening. They could not believe their eyes; former slaves turned soldiers against their masters.

The white racists have always considered the most dangerous "nigger" as one who carries a gun, and they still do. So, in their dealing and handling of the Negro, they believe he must never be allowed to carry a firearm. The Confederate soldier's hatred was enflamed upon encountering a Negro Union soldier on the battlefield. It was like a bull seeing a person in red. Thus, the Confederate soldiers were transformed into a lynch mob, that resulted in the worst possible brutalities and atrocities against Negro soldiers, and in the Fort Pillow attack, white Tennessee turncoats, Yankees, women, and children, a massacre that ranks with the worst in the history of warefare.(25)

Confederate soldiers and Negro Union soldiers were found lying dead side by side, each impaled on the other's bayonet, on a number of key battlefields of the Civil War; a factor that revealed the ferociousness and gruesomeness of the fighting, as well as the horrible results of the Confederacy's lynch law based on its "no quarter, no prisoners" policy applied to Negro Union soldiers.(26) The Confederacy's lynch law left the Negro soldiers the choice to fight and die and die as soldiers, or surrender and die as fools and cowards. The cruel and harsh lynch law accounts for the terrible bloodletting that resulted from Confederate soldiers and Negro soldiers meeting on the battleground, because Confederate soldiers did not accept surrender of Negro soldiers, but continued shooting them. Under the terms of the "no quarter to Union Negro soldiers" policy of the Confederacy, from the time Negroes joined the Union's military, every encounter they had with Confederate soldiers on the battlefield was literally a matter of kill or be killed.

The Fort Pillow charge, and subsequent massacre was General Forrest and his soldiers venting their bitterness toward the Fort Pillow garrison and their frustration caused by the South's mounting losses, as well as General Forrest's extreme use of the "no quarter to Negro soldiers" policy in his effort to exemplify the impact of lynching Negroes for the purpose of maintaining the way of life in the South, especially white supremacy.

Apparently, lynching the Garrison at Fort Pillow (an atrocity itself) did not fully satisfy the bloodthirsty Confederate soldiers in their attack. According to the testimony of some of the survivors (testimony that was quite graphic), the Confederate soldiers burned up some and buried a number of captured Negro soldiers alive.(27) Every soldier reported he was shot trying to surrender.(28) Based on the testimony to the Select Committee, General Forrest employed a subterfuge in his effort to gain vantage. While protected by the white flag or flag of truce during his negotiations with a fort's commander prior to the attack, he would surreptitiously move troops, place batteries, form new lines, advance, rob stores and private houses, steal horses and other property.(29) Upon determining that he had achieved the vantage and commanded a superior force to the Union's force, confident that he could take the fort, he informed the fort's commander, asking for an unconditional surrender, and that he would not be responsible for the fate of his command, should he refuse.(30) This stratagem gave General Forrest the pretext he needed to storm the fort, and if it contained Negro troops, as in the case of Fort Pillow, he would readily employ the "no quarter" policy. A good measure of Forrest's fame is based on his wide use of the previously mentioned stratagem.

Late in September, 1864. In the battle to save St. Louis, the Confederate General Marmaduke tried Forrest's stratagem at Fort Pilot Knob, but General Ewing responded that the Confederates had taken Fort Pillow under a flag of truce and then massacred the Negro garrison. "They shall play no such game on me," he said.(31) The testimony of the survivors contained in the report of the Select Committee that investigated the Fort Pillow massacre is a story of horrors, a bloodcurdling story. In addition to the slaughter of more than three fourths of the garrison at Fort Pillow, all murdered because of the "no quarters" policy, many were killed after they surrendered. Many other atrocities occurred. The Confederate soldiers used women as human shields by placing them in front of their lines as they moved on the fort.(32) Many of the wounded were cast into ditches and buried alive. Some, still alive were buried with the dead.(33) A number of Negro soldiers begging for their lives upon finding the Confederate soldiers did not accept Negro soldiers as prisoners of war (a blatant violation of the international law that applies to the conduct of belligerents in battle; however, because the Johnny Rebs did not consider their encounter with Negro Union troops as a battle, but under the "no quarter" policy, a lynching, maybe international law does not apply) feigned death on the ground, but it did not fool their enemies who then forced them to stand up whereupon they were shot down like dogs and hogs.(34) Many Negro soldiers ran down the bluff into the Mississippi River to try to swim to safety, upon realizing the Confederate soldiers did not accept their surrender. They became terrified once they realized an atrocity was taking place, and they were the victims. Most victims were killed because once in the water they became sitting ducks for the Johnny Rebs who doggedly pursued them.(35)

Between twenty and thirty wounded Negro soldiers were hacked across the head with sabers and shot while in the hospital.(36) Officers (white over every colored battalion) who commanded Negro troops were treated and murdered the same as Negroes. A rumor circulated that General Forrest had offered a thousand dollars for the head of any commander of a "nigger regiment."(37) One wonders whether the sharpshooter who killed Major Booth, commander of Fort Pillow, on the order of General Forrest, received his reward, or the guard who killed the man who replaced Booth, Major William F. Bradford, during his attempted escape. Many of the wounded Union soldiers and dependents, sought shelter in the huts and tents that were burned down, with the fate of some unknown. The terrible episode that occurred at Fort Pillow on April 12, 1864 marked the beginning of the long, turbulent, and seamy side of American history with respect to the relationship between black Americans and white Americans.

Well over a century since the end of the war, the relationship between black and white America has improved considerably, but it is far from what it can become. What must it take to bring about the realization of the American Dream? The history of lynching shows that the horrible atrocities inflicted on black people at Fort Pillow would become a common occurrence that would continue from the end of the Civil War down to modern time. Just as at Fort Pillow, many blacks were the victims of the most barbaric, violent, and gruesome acts of white racist terrorist groups, who vowed to keep the "niggers" in their "place," and to maintain white supremacy. Major violence against black people occurred at Memphis and New Orleans, a little over a year after the Civil War had ended, that set the stage from which the South launched its unofficial policy of lynching Negroes who attempted to challenge the system of segregation, discrimination, and white supremacy.

Aside from his military achievements, Forrest's advocacy and use of the lynch law is his greatest legacy. Lynching did not prevent black people from fighting to secure their rights as American citizens. As a matter of fact, the lynching of black people motivated them to work harder to gain access to the body politic. The terrible scar caused by the extensive and harsh use of the lynch law on black people in America can never be erased. Americans must not dwell on its sordidness, but must find a way to solve its racial dilemma and find common ground on which to promote racial harmony. A survey on the literature on the Civil War indicates an alarming lack of interest by historians to address the Fort Pillow massacre. In fact, since the time of that dreadful event, only a small number of scholars have included Fort Pillow on their agenda. Some of the most outstanding historians of this country in the early phase of the twentieth century such as Albert Bushnell Hart and James Ford Rhodes, barely mention Fort Pillow in their works.

This writer realizes the highly controversial nature of the Fort Pillow massacre, coupled with the problem of assembling sufficient documentation, to a large extent, account for the apprehension and reluctance of scholars to address the question of Fort Pillow, but data is available and the work can be done. All standard American history textbooks fail to mention Fort Pillow. Why? Most Civil War historians barely treat, or not at all, the subject of Fort Pillow. Why? Most Civil War history books contain all the major episodes except Fort Pillow. Why would military history textbooks prepared under the auspices of the U.S. Defense Department, employed in ROTC classes, contain all the major military history of America from the American Revolution through the Vietnam War, but exclude the Fort Pillow massacre? Why? The references for this study, particularly, the testimony of the black soldiers (survivors of the massacre) before the Joint Select Committee that investigated the massacre, indicate something terrible happened at Fort Pillow on April 12, 1864. What happened? Did a massacre occur? On the basis of a thorough examination of the references used for this situation, an examination that culminated in some very troubling, but unavoidable conclusions already expressed, the writer's answer to the question previously posed is a resounding, yes! General Forrest and his storm troopers' dastardly deed at Fort Pillow, April 12, 1864 must not escape history.

The ignominious deed committed against black soldiers, (principally, because they were black) April 12, 1864, has been virtually ignored, and forgotten, because it was a heinous crime against humanity. Crimes against humanity must never be ignored, nor forgotten. The Fort Pillow Massacre was not a battle governed by a set of rules of warfare respected as international law; it was a lynching of Negroes not due to the excitement of the combat but to the result of a policy deliberately designed to kill black troops. Less than 36 percent of the white men died in battle, but the death toll for black men was 66 percent, or three fourths (238 of the 557 men garrison, a figure pointing to lynching).(38) In an effort to accord the question of Fort Pillow its appropriate place in history, the question of what happened needs to be explored as fully as possible. Therefore, this writer appeals to the academy to put the Fort Pillow Massacre at the top of its list of priorities to insure that it is addressed adequately, as well as establishing some means of honoring and commemorating the brave men who died at Fort Pillow fighting for their freedom and that of the enslaved 4,000,000,000 of their race, as well as participating as a Union soldier in a war to save the Union and insure the freedom of all Americans. The perpetrators of the massacre must forever suffer condemnation, and a way must be found to guarantee the victims of the lynching massacre at Fort Pillow shall not have died in vain.


(1.) Hughes, N. & Stonesider, R. (1993). The life and wars of Gideon J. Pillow (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, pp. 40-75.

(2.) Williams III, E.F. (1973). ed., Confederate victories at Fort Pillow (Memphis: Nathan Bedford Forrest Trail Committee), pp. 20-23.

(3.) Moran, K. (1995, June 5). University of Memphis, Memphis, Tennessee. Interview.

(4.) Catton, B. (1995). Never call retreat. Garden City, New York: Double Day Company, Inc., p. 335.

(5.) Blackerby, H. C. (1979). Blacks in blue and gray: Afro-American service in the civil war. Tuscaloosa, Alabama: Portals Press, pp. 24-25.

(6.) Ibid., p. 48, 64-65.

(7.) Ibid., pp. 78-83.

(8.) Bailey, T. A. & Kennedy, D. M. (1991). The American pageant, 9. Lexington, Massachusetts, D.C. Heath and Company, pp. 347-348.

(9.) Ibid.

(10.) Ibid.

(11.) Wiley, B. I. (1978). The life of Johnny Reb: The common soldier of the confederacy. Baton, Rouge, Louisiana: University Press, p. 337.

(12.) Ibid, p. 314.

(13.) Ibid.

(14.) Roland, C. P. (1991). An American Illiad: The story of the civil war. Lexington, Kentucky: The University of Kentucky, p. 101.

(15.) Ibid.

(16.) Wiley, B. I. (1975). The road to Appomattox. New York: Athenaeum, p. 62.

(17.) Franklin J. H. & Moss, Jr., A. A. (1988). From slavery to freedom: A history of Negro Americans. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, p. 197.

(18.) Johnson, M. R. (1991, Spring). Cornell University Africana Studies and research center newsletter, "Exorcism of evil or execution of justice: Sacrifice and punishment, the lynching of African Americans," an abstract (3), pp. 15-17.

(19.) Wiley, The life of Johnny Reb, p. 338.

(20.) Ibid.

(21.) Blackerby, p. 79.

(22.) Bennett, Jr., L. (1991). Before the Mayflower: A history of black America. New York: Penguin Books, p. 231.

(23.) Wills, B. S. (1992). A battle from the start: The life of Nathan Bedford Forrest. New York: Harper/Collins, pp. 179-196.

(24.) U.S. Congress Joint Select Committee on the Conduct of the War. Reports on the Subcommittee on the "Fort Pillow Massacre," 38th Congress, 1st Session, Report No. 65. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing office, 1864, pp. 8-37.

(25.) Henry, R. S. First with the most Forrest. Indianapolis, Indiana: Bobbs-Merrill Company, pp. 248-268.

(26.) Wyeth, J.A. (1899). Life of General Nathan Bedford Forrest. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, pp. 354-355.

(27.) U.S. Congress Joint Select Committee, pp. 30-31.

(28.) Ibid, 8-45.

(29.) Ibid, p. 12.

(30.) Ibid.

(31.) Monaghan, J. (1955). Civil war on the western border, 1854-1865. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, p. 312.

(32.) The Joint Select Committee, p. 3.

(33.) Ibid., pp. 30, 32.

(34.) Ibid., pp. 26, 34.

(35.) Ibid., p. 36.

(36.) Ibid., p. 53.

(37.) McPherson, 231.

(38.) Cimprich, J. & Mainfort, Jr., R. C. (1982, December). "Fort Pillow revisited: New evidence about an old controversy," Civil War History, 28, p. 295.


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Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to: James D. Lockett, P.O. Box 1430, Stillman College, Tuscaloosa, Alabama 35403.

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
LOCKETT, JAMES D. "The Lynching Massacre of Black and White Soldiers at Fort Pillow, Tennessee, April 12, 1864." The Western Journal of Black Studies, vol. 22, no. 2, 1998, p. 84. Academic OneFile, Accessed 20 Nov. 2018.

Gale Document Number: GALE|A53683049