Fort Pillow Attack Essay, Research Paper
THE GRAND FABRICATION
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 ?Fort Pillow Massacre? (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 o?clock 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
o?clock, 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, ?My
men have received a fresh supply of ammunition, and from their present
position can easily assault and capture the fort,? (253). Forrest
demanded ?the unconditional surrender of the garrison,? promising
?that you shall be treated as prisoners of war? ( 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 &
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 ?turkey shoot.? 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 not so
clear to Civil War historians. The first and biggest problem has to do
with the information that different historians base their opinions on.
For example, in a historical account written by Carl Sandburg it is
reported that Forrest?s troops stood 6,000 strong. This is slightly
inflated from the actual 1,500 that were present. In this same account
Sandburg claims that the ?battle ended as a mob scene with wholesale
lynching?(Sandburg 247). It was distorted information such as this
that was used by the Union as propaganda against the South. After the
incident General FIRST NAME Kilpatrick was quoted saying Forrest had
?nailed Negroes to the fences, set fire to the fences, and burned the
Negroes to death?(Hurst 321). With reports like this, it is
understandable why abolitionist were outraged.
The Congressional Committee released a summary after the event. It
?that the rebels took advantage of a flag of truce to place
themselves in ?position from which the more readily to charge the
upon the fort?; that after the fall of the fort ?the rebels
commenced in an indiscriminate slaughter sparing
age nor sex, white or black, soldier or civilian?;
that this was ?not the results passions excited by
of conflict, but of a policy deliberation decided
unhesitatingly announced?; that several of the
were intentionally burned to death in huts and tents
about the fort; and the ?the rebels buried some of
the living the dead.? (Henry 260)
In the intensive studies performed by Dr. John Wyeth there were more
than fifty soldiers that were present at this battle who gave sworn
testimonies contradicting these findings.(260) This suggests that the
Union fabricated the truth to aid in its own cause.
The fact is that most of what was said about Forrest?s unethical
actions were false accusations. Testimonies from several different
sources (both Union and Confederate) claim that there were no
movements under the flag of truce, but that they had their positions
hours before. (Henry 260) It is true that the losses were huge in this
battle, but that is typical of many significantly unbalanced battles.
According to Wyeth there was only one incident of force against the
Union after the Union flag came down, and that resulted in an on the
spot arrest .
This entire incident was blown totally of proportion. It is tragic to
lose even one life, but on a battle field, death is inevitable. This
event became a monumental point in the war because of exaggeration
and lies told by Union supporters. These lies strengthened the Union
cause and further blemished the reputation of Confederate forces.
Morally, there is no fault in Forrest?s actions.
for Fort Pillow Attack paper
Henry, Robert Selph. ?First the Most?-Forrest. . New York: The
Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1944.
Hurst, Jack. Nathan Bedford Forrest-A Biography. New York: Alfred
Lee, Guy Carleton. The True History of the Civil War. Philadelphia:
I.B. Lippincott, 1903.
Long, E. B. and Barbara Long. The Civil War Day by Day-An Almanac.
New York: Doubleday, 1971.
Sandburg, Carl. Storm over the Land–A Profile of the Civil War. New
York: Harcourt Brace: 1939.
Wyeth, John Allan. That Devil Forrest -The Life of Gen. Nathan
Bedford Forrest. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1959.