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What is the Historical Importance of Fort Pillow?

By James Doehring
Updated May 23, 2024
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Fort Pillow, Tennessee is the site of an American Civil War battle that took place on 12 April 1864. Many believe the battle resulted in a massacre of Union forces following their surrender. About 600 Union soldiers garrisoned the previously abandoned Fort Pillow and were met by a substantially larger Confederate Cavalry Corps led by Nathan Bedord Forrest. A disproportionate percent of black soldiers died compared to their white counterparts in the Union Army, which suggested racial discrimination in Confederate rules of engagement.

Forrest’s Cavalry Corps had been engaging in raids in western Tennessee and Kentucky for a month before arriving at the Union-held Fort Pillow 40 miles (60 kilometers) north of Memphis, Tennessee. Union troops were defending the river approach to Memphis, aided by one Federal gunboat, the USS New Era. Confederate motivation for taking Fort Pillow included needing horses and supplies stored at the fort, as well as wanting to clear Union positions from the area. Forrest’s cavalry strength was estimated at between 1,500 and 2,500 at the time of the battle.

The Confederates were able to position sharpshooters on high ground surrounding the fort and begin picking off Union soldiers, including officers. Following prolonged rifle fire and artillery bombardment, the Union commander William F. Bradford rejected an offer of surrender. Forrest ordered his troops to advance forward and assault the fort. It was soon overrun, and remaining Federal forces were driven into an open position near the New Era.

At this point in the battle, the course of events becomes less clear. Most Union sources suggest that Federal troops had by now surrendered, but were shot or bayoneted to death rather than taken as prisoners of war. On the other hand, Confederate soldiers in the battle recall that Union troops continued to fire upon them as they fled. The New Era did not provide cover for the fleeing Federals, and about 80% of black soldiers were killed compared to around 40% of white Union soldiers.

There is conflicting evidence as to whether or not a massacre took place at Fort Pillow. The Union flag remained flying after the battle, indicating that no formal surrender occurred. Many Federal rifles were found near the river, rather than in the fort. Black soldiers, many of which were former slaves, may have feared retribution and restoration to slavery if they surrendered to the Confederates. A Confederate sergeant, however, wrote home after the battle that many blacks dropped their weapons and screamed for mercy only to be shot down.

In the North, the battle was interpreted to be a massacre. The New York Times newspaper reported that at least 300 blacks were killed in cold blood after the surrender. The Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, a Union investigating body, concluded that most of the garrison was shot after surrendering. Despite the tactical victory of the Confederates, the Battle of Fort Pillow is believed to have further inflamed black-white race relations, increased the morale of Union forces, and strengthened Northern resolve to see the war through the end.

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