Fort Pillow, Tennessee, 1864
By April 1864 African American troops had distinguished themselves in multiple operations of the Union army, and Confederate rage over their use was mounting. The Confederate Congress had passed a law declaring that captured black soldiers were insurrectionists and liable to an automatic death sentence. The law required a trial to establish guilt, many Southern commanders considered legal procedures to be inconvenient under the circumstances.
Fort Pillow stood north of Memphis on a bluff, originally built by the Confederate Army and by 1864 occupied by Union troops. In the spring of 1864, a cavalry force of 7,000 Confederates under the command of Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest raided the area of western Tennessee and southern Kentucky, intent on taking as many prisoners as possible for potential exchange, as well as capturing supplies and horses. Fort Pillow was then garrisoned by about 600 Union troops, almost half of them black troops.
Forrest demanded that the garrison surrender or it would be taken by assault and after the Union commander refused to yield the Confederates attacked. A federal gunboat anchored nearby was likewise attacked; it had been stationed to help cover a Union retreat from the fort, instead it closed its gun ports in protection from Confederate sharpshooters. As Union troops retreated from the ferocity of the Confederate assault they were pinned against the river or along the bluff on which Fort Pillow stood.
According to the reports of multiple survivors, many of the Union troops, black and white, surrendered as they were exposed along the river, only to be shot down or bayoneted by Forrest’s troops, who repeatedly shouted “no quarter.” Civilian workers who had been present in the fort at the time of the assault were likewise killed in the massacre. One Confederate sergeant wrote in a letter home that the black troops fell to their knees begging for mercy before being summarily shot down.
The Massacre at Fort Pillow was disputed by African American Officers who insisted that there was no surrender of either the Fort or retreating black troops. After the war, US Grant wrote of the battle that, “These troops fought bravely, but were overpowered.” Today the action at Fort Pillow is widely regarded as a massacre, but whether Forrest bears responsibility for a premeditated war crime is still debated.