Friday, May 22, 2009

Fort Pillow

My other two posts this week have focused on two of Nathan Bedford Forrest's bright marks, Brice's Crossroads and Johnsonville. Today is one of his worst days, Fort Pillow. In mid March 1864 Forrest led a raid into western Tennessee and Kentucky. They reached Paducah and did considerable damage there. On their way back home they made an attack on Fort Pillow.

The April 12th battle was almost immediately the source of much controversy. For a variety of reasons Forrest seems to have been bent on punishing this Union post. In Andrew Ward's River Run Red he says that many of the white soldiers in Fort Pillow were from west Tennessee, including Confederate deserters. Forrest hated these men, thinking they were traitors to their state. There were also black soldiers in Fort Pillow which also angered the former slave trader. These were the two primary reasons it seems that Forrest wanted to make an example of the Fort Pillow garrison. In one note during the parlay for surrender Forrest said that if Bradford, the Union commander (although Forrest thought it was Booth, but he had been killed earlier), forced the fort to be taken by force Bradford "must take the consequences." This outside of the bounds of normal warfare. There is also evidence that Forrest's men used the truce to reposition their lines which is also outside the normal rules of warfare.

A half hour after the exchange of notes Forrest's men captured the fort. Then the battle changed from a normal fight to a massacre. The Union defenders ran down the bluff towards the river but many were shot in the back by Confederates from the top of the bluff. Some Union troops did stop and fire back so in some sense the charges of massacre are not 100% accurate, yet. The Confederates were still being fired on so it makes sense to fire back. While more men were running than were still fighting this can be excused to some degree. Forrest's defenders would also say that the garrison never took down its flag which indicates to them that they had not stopped fighting yet, but the fort was empty so to me this seems like a silly conclusion. I draw the conclusion that the final charge was such a grand success that the men fled instead of taking down their flag before retreating.

What cannot be excused is that the Confederates then roamed the area hunting down Union soldiers. They burned the post hospital with men still inside. They killed wounded soldiers in the fort and on the bluff. Soldiers who tried to surrender were shot instead. This is much more hideous and cannot be explained away with an argument about whether the flag was still flying. Once the fleeing soldiers stopped firing the Confederates did not stop. Forrest claims that soon after taking the fort his men cut down the flag and that ended the battle.

In Chalmers report he makes an interesting statement:
"The strength of the enemy's force cannot be correctly ascertained, though it was probably about 650 or 700. Of these, 69 wounded were delivered to the enemy's gun-boats next day, after having been paroled. One hundred and sixty-four white men and 40 Negroes were taken prisoners, making an aggregate of 273 prisoners. It is probable as many as half a dozen may have escaped. The remainder of the garrison were killed." Chalmers is saying that the casualties were 377 killed, 69 wounded and 204 captured. That is interesting because the ratios are not what we would expect for a Civil War battle. In a normal battle I'd expect 69 wounded and 204 captured to yield around 20-30 killed. But this battle produced about a dozen times as many. Why? Chalmers gives no reason. Forrest says that many of the fleeing soldiers drowned in the river but even so the number of killed is way out of ratio. I'm sure some will argue with me but I think the casualty figure alone points out that this was not a normal battle and leads me to believe it was a massacre.

The park is off the beaten track, well away from the highway. There is no housing or shopping malls intruding on the park.

Here are some entrenchments from when it was a Confederate fort at the beginning of the war.

This ravine was used by Confederates for protection during their fight with the Union garrison. The sign says there has been soil erosion but judging from the depth of the ravine there must have been a lot of soil erosion.
Its hard to see how deep the ravine is but it is very deep. I don't like heights and I hated going across the bridge.

The fort itself is well preserved. There are too many trees around so you cannot really get a good feel for what the attack was like but the fort does look nice.

And a view of what was the Mississippi River, now its just a back water slough, but this was once the path of the river.

There is a nice museum at the park that tries to walk the fine line between the two competing stories of the battle. It does a pretty good job, as well as can be expected given the tough task they have. One warning though, the museum closes early (I think it closes at 4 pm). The first time I was there I just missed the museum and still had plenty of daylight to tour the fort. The next morning I came back to see the museum.

1 comment:

Slamdunk said...

Great analysis and write-up about Ft. Pillow. It is easy to project only one side of the argument, but you are fair and explain what makes sense to you.