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‘Words Cannot Describe the Scene’ – Anniversary of The Fort Pillow Massacre

There are few incidents in the war more controversial than what became to be known as the Fort Pillow Massacre, April 14, 1864. Numerous volumes have been produced, each analyzing (and in some cases ignoring) accounts given following the battle. Many draw upon testimony given years or even decades after the attack. While distance and time can make things appear more clear, I have found that accounts given immediately following an event are often the most accurate. This is, I feel, the case with Nathan Bedford Forrest’s assault upon Fort Pillow.

And so I’m taking a drastically different approach to this post, allowing three men who fought there describe what they did and saw. All three of these accounts were written before the battle had become politicized. After that, I can’t see how anyone from either side wouldn’t be tainted by such perspectives. 1A report of the massacre at Fort Pillow first appeared in the New York Herald on April 16 – four days after the battle. Additionally, this article first appeared in my previous blog – the Civil War Daily Gazette.

Fort Pillow, near Henning, Tennessee.
Fort Pillow, near Henning, Tennessee.

So let’s begin by allowing General Forrest to set the stage:

On Monday last I moved against Fort Pillow, and attacked it on Tuesday morning with Chalmers’ division. The advance of our troops after getting within the outer works was cautiously and slowly made. The cannonading from the fort and the gun-boats was very heavy and rapid. Having gained the desired position, surrounding the fort with the troops from the river above to its bluff below, a surrender was demanded, which they asked an hour, but were given twenty minutes, to consider. It was held by about 700 white and negro troops. At the expiration of the twenty minutes the fire was renewed, the assault was made, and the works carried without a halt, the men and officers displaying great gallantry and courage. The enemy attempted to retreat to the river, either for . protection of gun-boats or to escape, and the slaughter was heavy. There were many Union men who had taken shelter in the fort also, many of whom in their fright leaped into the river and were drowned. It is safe to say that in troops, negroes, and citizens the killed, wounded, and drowned will range from 450 to 500. 2Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 32, Part 1, p612. Written on April 15, 1864 – four days after the battle.

According to The Encyclopeadia of the American Civil War by Heidler & Heidler, the fort was garrisoned by 557 to 580 Union soldiers, roughly equal between black and white troops.

Fort Pillow
Fort Pillow

Achilles V. Clark was a sergeant in the 20th Tennessee (CS). On April 14th, he wrote to his sisters describing what he witnessed:

“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. The white men fared but little better. Their fort turned out to be a great slaughter pen – blood, human blood, stood about in pools and brains could have been gathered up in any quantity. I with several others tried to stop the butchery and at one time had partially succeeded but Gen. Forrest ordered them shot like dogs and the carnage continued. Finally our men became sick of blood and the firing ceased.” 3Achilles V. Clark to Sisters, April 14, 1864 – two days after the battle. This letter can be found in nearly every modern account of the battle. I plucked this one from Nathan Bedford Forrest: A Biography by Jack Hurst.

There are several claims by Confederates that General Forrest ordered the slaughter, but modern scholarship generally disagrees with this, allowing that in the heat of battle, the orders to do so could have been falsely given in Forrest’s name, or simply misunderstood. 4Brian Steel Wills’ The Confederacy’s Greatest Cavalryman goes into this a bit on pages 187-188.

Again, according to The Encyclopedia of the American Civil War by Heidler & Heidler, Union losses were not so equally divided between white and black. The white men, as Sgt. Clark indicates, fared a little better. The mortality rate of the garrison troops was nearly 50% – 31% of the white troops perished, while 64% of the black troops were killed.

Fort Pillow Massacre as depicted by Harper's Weekly, April 1864.
Fort Pillow Massacre as depicted by Harper’s Weekly, April 1864.

Originally, I wanted to use only Confederate accounts of what Sgt. Clark described as “the butchery.” There are, to be sure, countless Southern writings upon this, but the vast majority were written after the war and were obviously influenced by how politicized the battle had become. This was equally true with Union accounts.

Union Naval officer, Acting Master William Ferguson, written on April 14 (the same day that Sgt. Clark penned his letter to his sisters). By this time, though the battle had not yet reached the national news (and had thus not become politicized), Acting Master Ferguson was asked by General Stephen Hurlbut to find out what happened at Fort Pillow. Having arrived in the morning on the day after the battle, while the Confederates were still there, he gives a completely unpoliticized account of what he saw – the aftermath of the fighting. It is incredibly likely that this was the first written Union account of the affair.

I arrived off the fort at 6 a. m. on the morning of the 13th instant. Parties of rebel cavalry were picketing on the hills around the fort, and shelling those away I made a landing and took on board some 20 of our troops (some of them badly wounded), who had concealed themselves along the bank and came out when they saw my vessel. While doing so I was fired upon by rebel sharpshooters posted on the hills, and 1 wounded man limping down to the vessel was shot.

About 8 a. m. the enemy sent in a flag of truce with a proposal from General Forrest that he would put me in possession of the fort and the country around until 5 p. m. for the purpose of burying our dead and removing our wounded, whom he had no means of attending to. I agreed to the terms proposed, and hailing the steamer Platte Valley, which vessel I had convoyed up from Memphis, I brought her alongside and had the wounded brought down from the fort and battle-field and placed on board of her. Details of rebel soldiers assisted us in this duty, and some soldiers and citizens on board the Platte Valley volunteered for the same purpose

We found about 70 wounded men in the fort and around it, and buried, I should think, 150 bodies. All the buildings around the fort and the tents and huts in the fort had been burned by the rebels, and among the embers the charred remains of numbers of our soldiers who had suffered a terrible death in the flames could be seen.

All the wounded who had strength enough to speak agreed that after the fort was taken an indiscriminate slaughter of our troops was carried on by the enemy with a furious and vindictive savageness which was never equaled by the most merciless of the Indian tribes. Around on every side horrible testimony to the truth of this statement could be seen. Bodies with gaping wounds, some bayoneted through the eyes, some with skulls beaten through, others with hideous wounds as if their bowels had been ripped open with bowie-knives, plainly told that but little quarter was shown to our troops. Strewn from the fort to the river bank, in the ravines and hollows, behind logs and under the brush where they had crept for protection from the assassins who pursued them, we found bodies bayoneted, beaten, and shot to death, showing how cold-blooded and persistent was the slaughter of our unfortunate troops.

Of course, when a work is carried by assault there will always be more or less bloodshed, even when all resistance has ceased; but here there were unmistakable evidences of a massacre carried on long after any resistance could have been offered, with a cold-blooded barbarity and perseverance which nothing can palliate.

As near as I can learn, there were about 500 men in the fort when it was stormed. I received about 100 men, including the wounded and those I took on board before the flag of truce was sent in. The rebels, I learned, had few prisoners; so that at least 300 of our troops must have been killed in this affair. 5Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 32, Part 1, p571-572. Written on April 14, 1864 – two days after the battle.

In the end, the actual casualty reports are fluid and probably tainted by politics. Confederates suffered 14 to 20 killed, with 60 to 86 wounded. The Federal casualties were much harder to pinpoint. By surveying five different studies, it can be seen that the Federals suffered 182 to 261 killed (was probably around 230), 87 to 130 wounded (was probably around 100), and 226 to 232 captured. 6The results of these five studies are contained in the endnotes of An Unerring Fire: The Massacre at Fort Pillow by Richard L. Fuchs, p172. Also of note is “The Fort Pillow Massacre: A Statistical Note” by John Cimprich and Robert C. Mainfort Jr., appearing in the Journal of American History, December 1989. I did not have access to this paper, and could only find a few quotes from it.

Fort Pillow Massacre as depicted in Frank Leslie's Illustrated.
Fort Pillow Massacre as depicted in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated.

With that, I would like to give General Forrest the final word:

The victory was complete, and the loss of the enemy will never be known from the fact that large numbers ran into the river and were shot and drowned. The force was composed of about 500 negroes and 200 white soldiers (Tennessee Tories). The river was dyed with the blood of the slaughtered for 200 yards. There was in the fort a large number of citizens who had fled there to escape the conscript law. Most of these ran into the river and were drowned.

The approximate loss was upward of 500 killed, but few of the officers escaping.

It is hoped that these facts will demonstrate to the northern people that negro soldiers cannot cope with Southerners. We still hold the fort. 7Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 32, Part 1, p610. Written on April 15, 1864 – four days after the battle.

1885 print by Kurtz & Allison
1885 print by Kurtz & Allison

References   [ + ]

Has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, writing the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.