History at Fort Pillow
Remember Fort Pillow!
The Confederate Army attack on the United States Army occupied Fort Pillow on April 12, 1864, remains one of the most controversial moments in the American Civil War. The Confederate army marked it as a military victory as they successfully took the fort. Shortly after the event, an 1864 Congressional Report of the event labeled the outcome a massacre. Newspapers and letters from soldiers on both sides of the war shared accounts of US Army Soldiers being killed in the process of surrender, while later accounts from Confederate veterans claimed the surrender to be a feint by the US Army. Ultimately, Confederate forces killed a disproportionate number of the United States Colored Troops garrisoning at the post during the event. The memory and eyewitness accounts of the massacre inspired the battle cry of, “Remember Fort Pillow,” amongst US Colored Troops for the remainder of the war.
Table of Contents
- Events Leading up to April 12, 1864
- The Day of the Battle
- Reports from Fort Pillow
- Accounts of the Massacre from the Battlefield
- A Lasting Legacy
- Telling Full Stories
Events Leading up to April 12, 1864
By the time of the attack on Fort Pillow, the American Civil War had raged for three brutal years. In Tennessee, violence had disrupted the lives of many civilians with armed bands roaming among many communities. The presence of US Army posts in the region provided some stability, yet offered targets for raiding Confederate forces.
By 1864, most of the fighting had moved out of Tennessee and had shifted to Alabama and Mississippi. This shift raised questions about what to do in West Tennessee. This, and the need for resources further south, encouraged General William Tecumseh Sherman to order the commanding officer in Memphis, General Stephen Hurlbut, to abandon Fort Pillow in 1864. To Sherman, the outpost was too isolated to defend and strategically unnecessary to secure the Mississippi River.
The changing strategic situation also made Confederate officers increasingly desperate. The previous year had been damaging to the Confederate cause in the West. To disrupt any US Army campaigns in the region, General Nathan Bedford Forrest planned a raid into West Tennessee for the Spring of 1864. His goals were to divert US troops and supplies north and disrupt the networks supplying US forces further south. To accomplish his objectives, Forrest assembled a body of seven thousand soldiers. This operation aimed to defeat US forces in the region, recruit new soldiers, and pressure the US Army in the Western theater.
The Day of the Battle
Confederate forces arrived at Fort Pillow along the banks of the Mississippi River on the morning of April 12th. The US garrison at the fort consisted of the 13th US Cavalry, the 6th US Colored Heavy Artillery, and Battery D of the 2nd US Colored Light Artillery. The majority of the soldiers in the 13th US cavalry at the fort were Tennesseans and other Southerners who had joined the US army. The fort’s isolated nature and small garrison presented an opportunity for Forrest's forces.
Early on the morning of April 12th, Confederate forces began their attack on the fort. The camp in front of the fort was soon ablaze. This Contraband Camp and others like it were prime targets because they provided refuge for those fleeing enslavement. Its destruction drove many civilians into the fort seeking safety. The forces also pushed the sentries and others stationed outside of the fort to its interior. As a result, the US forces moved towards the river.
Seeing the developing situation Forrest identified an opportunity to entrap the garrison. He dispatched two groups to press north and south along the riverbanks to cut off the garrison's escape routes. Once Forrest had his troops in place, he ordered his command to fly a flag of truce. He then sent a letter to the fort's commander, Major Lionel Booth, during this ceasefire, demanding its surrender.
Unbeknownst to Forrest, the more experienced Booth had died in the fighting. Booth's death left the less experienced, Major William Bradford of Tennessee, in command of the fort. Wishing to conceal the death of Booth, Bradford forged Booth’s signature on the reply. In his response, Bradford asked for time to consider Forrest's terms. Suspicious of the potential arrival of reinforcements, Forrest refused. Upon this response, Bradford declined to surrender and prepared for the impending Confederate assault.
With the mounting uncertainty, Forrest gave the order to advance. His troopers quickly crested the earthworks of the fort and fired at close range. After this volley, US forces scattered down the hill towards the river. Many soldiers threw down their arms as they fled in the hope of finding safety at the river landing. As the Confederate troops took the fort, US soldiers continued to be killed. The circumstances surrounding the deaths after the capture of the fort spurred a US congressional investigation.
Reports from Fort Pillow
As news of the attack spread, reports of the killing of USCT soldiers as they tried to surrender outraged the public. A congressional report drafted by Senator Benjamin Wade and Congressman Daniel Gooch interviewed survivors of the attack. The accounts they collected corroborated much of Sergeant Clark's letter. After collecting testimony, the congressmen published a report. The investigators found that Confederate soldiers continued to kill members of the USCT units as many tried to surrender.
Additionally, the report found Confederate soldiers killed several members of the 13th US Cavalry after the battle. Major Bradford died under questionable circumstances after his capture. Confederate officers later claimed that some members of the US forces did not surrender or were deserters from the Confederate Army. In the end, only 30% of soldiers from USCT units survived the violence. In contrast, 70% of Bradford's battalion of the 13th US cavalry survived the attack.
The news of the events shocked many people. Newspapers labeled the event the Fort Pillow Massacre. The resonance of this event caused the call of "Remember Fort Pillow!" to become a familiar cry for USCT soldiers. In December of 1864, USCT soldiers shouted this during the Battle of Nashville.
Accounts of the Massacre from the Battlefield
*Please note that given the historical period of these citations, you may encounter racially or culturally insensitive language, outdated terminology, and descriptions of violence and injustice. It has been retained for historical accuracy, however, is not condoned by Tennessee State Parks.
From a letter dated April 14, 1865, from Confederate Sergeant Achilles Clark of the 20th Tennessee Cavalry to his sisters.
"At 2 PM Gen. Forrest demanded a surrender and gave twenty minutes to consider. The Yankees refused threatening that if we charged their breast works to show no quarter. The bugle sounded the charge and in less than ten minutes we were in the fort hurling the cowardly villains howling down the bluff. Our men were so exasperated by the Yankees' threats of no quarter that they gave but little. The slaughter was awful. Words cannot describe the scene. The poor deluded negroes would run up to our men fall on their knees and with uplifted hands scream for mercy but they were ordered to their feet and then shot down. The whitte [sic] 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."
Excerpts from the 1864 Congressional Report:
Question. Where were you raised?
Answer. In Mississippi.
Question. Were you in Fort Pillow when it was taken?
Answer. Yes, sir.
Question. Tell what you saw there.
Answer. I was shot after I surrendered.
Answer. About half past four o'clock.
Question. Where were you when you were shot?
Answer. I was lying down behind a log.
Question. Where were you shot?
Answer. In the head first, then in the shoulder, then in my right wrist; and then in the head again, about half an hour after that.
Question. When were you shot?
Answer. About four o'clock in the evening.
Question. After you had surrendered?
Answer. Yes, sir.
Question. Where were you at the time?
Answer. About ten feet from the river bank.
Question. Who shot you?
Answer. A rebel soldier.
Question. How near did he come to you?
Answer. About ten feet.
Question. What did he say to you?
Answer. He said, "Damn you, what are you doing here?" I said, "Please don't shoot me." He said, "Damn you, you are fighting against your master." He raised his gun and fired, and the bullet went into my mouth and out the back part of my head. They threw me into the river, and I swam around and hung on there in the water until night.
Question. Did you see anybody else shot?
Answer. Yes, sir; three young boys, lying in the water, with their heads out; they could not swim. They begged them as long as they could, but they shot them right in the forehead.
Question. State what happened there.
Answer. I saw 23 men shot after they surrendered; I made 24; 17 of them laid right around me dead, and 6 below me.
Question. Who shot them?
Answer. The rebels; some white men were killed.
Question. How many white men were killed?
Answer. Three or four.
Question. Killed by the privates?
Answer. Yes, sir; I did not see any officers kill any.
Question. Were the white men officers or privates?
General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s report of the Battle on April 15, 1864
"Arrived there on the morning of the 12th and attacked the place with a portion of McCulloch's and Bell's brigades numbering about 1,500 men, and after a sharp contest captured the garrison and all of its stores. A demand was made for the surrender, which was refused. 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. Moist [sic] 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."
Later in life, some former Confederate officers contested many of the reports of the attack.
A Lasting Legacy
The events at Fort Pillow on April 12, 1864, serve as a reminder of the barbarity of war and the dehumanizing results of the institution of slavery. Both the attack on the fort and events following its capture provide a stark reminder of the added dangers USCT troops faced in their fight for freedom. They fought an opponent who saw them as property and for an army that often did not want their service. This is but one of the battles the USCT fought in Tennessee. Their legacy is one of courage and tenacity in the face of incredible odds. Of the 20,133 men who enlisted in the USCT in Tennessee, 5,107 would be killed, captured, or wounded in combat.
Telling Full Stories
The history provided on this page is not all there is to learn about Fort Pillow State Park. We invite you to read the resources listed below and visit the park to learn more.
Tennessee State Parks is committed to telling the full story of the significant events which are memorialized at our state’s historic and cultural parks. We understand that new information is being revealed every day and sometimes history can be uncomfortable. We hope that you will join us in our efforts to discover more about our history. If you have questions, concerns, or comments, please email us at Telling.Full.Stories@tn.gov.
Reports on the Committee on the Conduct of the War: Fort Pillow Massacre (United States Senate, Joint Subcomittee on the Conduct of the War, DC, 1864) https://www.gutenberg.org/files/41787/41787-h/41787-h.htm
Official Records of the Civil War (United States War Department, Washington D.C. 1880-1901) http://collections.library.cornell.edu/moa_new/waro.html
Andrew Ward, River Run Red: The Fort Pillow Massacre in the American Civil War, (New York, Viking Press 2005)
John Allen Wyeth, That Devil Forrest: The Life of Nathan Bedford Forrest, (Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press 1989)
Albert Castel, “The Fort Pillow Massacre: An Examination of the Evidence,” Civil War History 4 (March 1958): 37-50.
John Cimprich and Robert C. Mainfort, “Dr. Fitch's Report on the Fort Pillow Massacre,” Source: Tennessee Historical Quarterly, Spring 1985, Vol. 44, No. 1 (Spring 1985), pp. 27-39
John Cimprich and Robert C. Mainfort, Jr., “The Fort Pillow Massacre: A Statistical Note,” The Journal of American History, Dec., 1989, Vol. 76, No. 3 (Dec., 1989), pp. 830-837
Charles L. Lufkin, "Not Heard From Since April 12, 1864:" The Thirteenth Tennessee Cavalry, U.S.A.” Tennessee Historical Quarterly, Summer, 1986, Vol. 45, No. 2 (Summer, 1986), 133-151
General Nathan Bedford Forrest
Caption: General Nathan Bedford Forrest commanded Confederate forces during the April 12, 1864 attack on Fort Pillow. Forrest remained a controversial figure after the war for his association with groups such as the Klu Klux Klan. Controversy over his role in the events of the Fort Pillow attack and its aftermath followed him until his death in 1877.
Credit Line: "Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Brady-Handy Collection"
Frank Leslie’s Newspaper, May 1864
Caption: Accounts describing the attack on Fort Pillow and its aftermath flooded newspapers across the country. The Confederated force’s disproportionate killing of United States Colored Troops garrisoning the fort led to a Congressional inquiry and calls for reprisals by US forces.
Credit Line: "Library of Congress"
The Fort Pillow Massacre, Kurz and Allen, 1892 TSLA
Caption: The legacy of the events a Fort Pillow remains powerful. Prints by publishers such as Kurz and Allen, produced decades after the war continued to depict the 1864 events at the fort. For United States Colored Troop veterans, the attack on the soldiers at Fort Pillow and other events like it demonstrates the dangers they faced in their fight for freedom.