Fort Pillow Attack Essay Research Paper THE

Fort Pillow Attack Essay, Research Paper


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 &

Long 484).

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

the heat

of conflict, but of a policy deliberation decided

upon and

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

Works Cited

Henry, Robert Selph. ?First the Most?-Forrest. . New York: The

Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1944.

Hurst, Jack. Nathan Bedford Forrest-A Biography. New York: Alfred

Knoph, 1993.

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.


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