"FORREST OF FORT PILLOW"
April 10, 1864-April 13,1864
From Henry’s book "Nathan Bedford Forrest, First with the Most"
A Great Read!!
"ATROCITIES" were not an invention of the First World War propaganda organizations. American newspapers of the Civil War period, North and South, abounded in them. Southern newspapers described the savagery of the invading armies, charging that Northern soldiers, authorized and even ordered by their officers, made theft, assault and murder a part of their regular duties. Northern papers were no less lurid in their descriptions of the dishonor, infamy and ferocity of the Southern soldiers coming to a climax in a Boston paper’s description of Robert E. Lee flogging a slave girl with his own hands and then rubbing brine on her bleeding wounds.
But Fort Pillow was the "atrocity" of the war. Forrest’s men stormed the fort. Incompetent and blundering command of the defense brought extraordinary losses to the defenders. Bitter local animosities and racial antipathies added to the slaughter. A Congressional committee of inquiry made the "atrocity" official. Its report, of which 40,000 extra copies were printed, became a prime campaign document in the bitter election of 1864.
During the weeks and months in which Fort Pillow was being thus established in popular belief as a "massacre," neither Forrest himself nor the Confederate government made any corresponding effort to present the other side of the story to the people in either North or South. Forrest’s reason for public silence, as expressed in a letter to Stephen Lee ten weeks after the affair, was that "as my official reports are in the hands of the Department at Richmond I did not, nor do 1, consider that I have any defense to make, or attempt any refutation of the charges…. I have taken pains in my official report made to Lieutenant-General Polk, to place all the facts in the possession of the Government in order that they might meet any demands made by Federal authority.
The Confederate government was silent during these critical weeks because it had not received the report. After the death of General Polk during the Atlanta campaign the report was found among his papers by his aide, Lieutenant W. D. Gale, and forwarded to Richmond. On August tenth the President suggested to Secretary of War Seddon that "It would be well to have the report and accompanying papers published in refutation of the slanders promulgated by the Government of the enemy… By that time, however, four months after the event, the "Fort Pillow Massacre" had become established, and so remains in most minds. In course of time the story was added to and embroidered by spurious "dispatches" supposed to have been sent by Forrest, and published as evidence of both his illiteracy and his ferocity.
Fort Pillow was erected originally by the Confederates in 1861, at the First Chickasaw Bluff of the Mississippi, forty miles north of Memphis in a direct line and twice that far by the meanders of the river. The original trace of the fort was a line two miles long at a distance of 600 or more yards from the river, enclosing the angle between the Mississippi on the west and Coal Creek on the north. Finding this work entirely too large for any available garrison to hold, Brigadier General Villepigue, subsequently commanding for the Confederates, built a second and much shorter line inside the original work. In the great Confederate retreat after the siege of Corinth in the early summer of 1862 the position was evacuated, and passed into Union possession. The new occupants built a third and still smaller work, only about 125 yards in length and enclosing no more than the high clay bluff in the apex of the angle between creek and river. The Villepigue trenches were retained as an outer line of rifle pits.
When Sherman was gathering up troops from small and isolated posts to make up the columns for the Meridian and the Red River expeditions, he removed the garrison from Fort Pillow. In a short while, however, the post was reoccupied by the Thirteenth Tennessee Cavalry (Union), then being organized under Major William F. Bradford-an officer described by Major General Stephen A. Hurlbut, his commander, "as a very young officer, entirely inexperienced in these matters." To reinforce the garrison and to provide an experienced commander, General Hurlbut subsequently on March twenty-eighth sent up from Memphis four companies of heavy artillery and a section of light artillery, colored troops, under command of Major L. F. Booth, "an old soldier who had served in the regular army." Booth, in whom his general "had great confidence," reported that "he could hold the post against any force for forty-eight hours."’- With the arrival of Booth and his men the garrison consisted of 557 officers and men, of whom 295 were white and 262 colored, with an armament of six guns. In addition to the garrison of the fort itself the gunboat New Era, Captain James Marshall, was stationed offshore, to take part in the defense of the place.
To add to the tensions to be expected between Confederate soldiers and a garrison made up of Negro troops and white soldiers of the sort whom the Confederates called "renegades," "Tennessee Tories" or "homemade Yankees," the recruiting, scouting and foraging activities of the white Union regiment had been carried on with a rigor which, to the Confederate neighbors of Fort Pillow, appeared more as pillage and persecution. From the time that Forrest entered West Tennessee in March, therefore, there had come to him a series of reports from local citizens of outrages on property or persons ascribed to the Fort Pillow garrison. As early as April fourth Forrest had written to Polk that "there is a Federal force of five or six hundred at Fort Pillow, which I shall attend to in a day or so . . ." but it was not until a week later that the movement against the fort was actually started.
Orders for the movement went out on Sunday, April tenth, from Forrest’s headquarters at Jackson to Bell’s brigade, encamped at Eaton in Gibson County, and to McCulloch’s brigade at Sharon’s Ferry on the Forked Deer River, the whole force of about 1,500 men to be under the direct command of Chalmers. Bell, having seventy miles to go, marched at midnight Sunday, almost as soon as orders were received. McCulloch, with a shorter march of fifty miles to make, started Monday morning. Both brigades marched hard Monday and Monday night through drizzly rain over roads of deep mud and across weak bridges, with no more than brief halts for rest and feed, to arrive before Fort Pillow about 5:30 on the morning of Tuesday, April twelfth. Pickets were driven in with a rush and by sunup the Confederates were inside the original works built in 1861. The early-morning fight was carried forward with skill and vigor under the command of Chalmers. Lieutenant Mack J. Leaming, adjutant of the regiment of Tennessee Unionists and during most of the day post adjutant of Fort Pillow, reports that by 8:00 A.M. two companies of skirmishers which had been thrown forward to hold the advanced rifle pits were "compelled to retire to the fort after considerable loss." With the defenders driven into the shrunken space of the fort proper, Lieutenant Leaming adds, "the firing continued without cessation, principally from behind logs, stumps, and under cover of thick underbrush and from high knolls, until about 9 A.M., when the rebels made a general assault on our works, which was successfully repulsed.
There is no mention of this general assault and repulse in the Confederate reports but it is plain that already, by midmorning, they dominated the situation. The "high knolls" mentioned by Lieutenant Leaming enabled them to fire into the fort at ranges of not more than 400 yards, while the logs and stumps left in the felling of the timber inside the original 1861 works gave shelter to the Confederate sharpshooters. "We suffered pretty severely in the loss of commissioned officers by the unerring aim of the rebel sharpshooters," Leaming reported, including the loss of the commanding officer, Major Booth, who was killed about nine o’clock, and his adjutant, killed shortly after. From that time on, indeed, the defense of the place was hopeless, for already the Confederate marksmen were in such position that they could take both faces of the fort proper in reverse and pick off the defenders even as they stood behind the heavy parapets upon which they relied.
These parapets, four feet thick at the top, rising eight feet high above a ditch which was itself six feet deep and twelve feet wide, were but one of the elements of the defense which had caused Major Booth to report that be regarded the place as "perfectly safe,"" and which were to lead his inexperienced successor in command, Major Bradford, to attempt to hold the place even after it was untenable. The other illusory element of strength upon which Bradford relied was the gunboat New Era, which throughout the morning engagement was noisily and ineffectively shelling the woods and the ravines as glimpses were caught of the gray-clad Confederates, first to one side and then the other of the fort.
Forrest himself came upon the field about ten in the morning, having ridden the sixty-five miles from Jackson in a day and night. Not long after his arrival McCulloch’s men advanced with a rush to take possession of the rifle pits abandoned earlier in the morning by the advanced companies of the garrison-the time being fixed as about 11:00 A.M. in the reports of both Chalmers, for the Confederates, and Adjutant Leaming, who made the only comprehensive Union report on the operations of the morning.
Most significantly in the light of later allegations that the Confederates attained their positions close to the fort by improper use of a flag of truce during the afternoon, Adjutant Leaming says:
"At about 11 A.M. the rebels made a second determined assault on our works. In this attempt they were again successfully repulsed with severe loss. The enemy succeeded, however, in obtainingpossession of two rows of barracks running parallel to the south side of the fort[italics supplied] and distant about 150 yards. The barracks had previously been ordered to be destroyed, but after severe loss on our part in the attempt to execute the order our men were compelled to retire without accomplishing the desired end, save only to the row nearest the fort. From these barracks the enemy kept up a murderous fire on our men, despite all our efforts to dislodge him. Owning to the close proximity of these buildings to the fort, and to the fact that they were on considerably lower ground our artillery could not be sufficiently depressed to destroy them, or even render them untenable for the enemy."
The buildings referred to in Lieutenant Leaming’s report were situated in a ravine, thus described in the report of the Congressional committee which investigated the "massacre":
"Extending back from the river on either side of the fort was a ravine or hollow, the one below the fort containing several stores and some dwellings, constituting what was called the town. At the mouth of that ravine and on the river-bank were some government buildings containing commissary and quartermaster’s stores. The ravine above the fort was known as Cold Creek ravine…. "
"The gunboat New Era, Captain Marshall, took part in the conflict, shelling the enemy as opportunity offered … as they were shelled out of’ one ravine they would make their appearance in the other. They would thus appear and retire as the gunboat moved from one point to another. About one o’clock the fire on both sides slackened somewhat, and the gunboat moved out in the river to cool and clean its guns, having fired 282 rounds of shell, shrapnel and canister, which nearly exhausted its supply of ammunition."
At this hour of one o’clock when, as appears from Captain Marshall’s testimony, the gunboat fired its last shot the Confederates had for some two hours been in possession of the ravines which, it was afterward alleged, they secured only by violation of a flag of truce sent in about 3:30 P.M.
Upon his arrival at the fort Forrest began one of his usual close-up, naked-eye reconnaissances of the position. Almost immediately a rifle ball fired from the fort struck and -mortally wounded his horse. Frantic with pain, the animal reared and fell over backward, carrying his rider with him and inflicting upon the General bruises and injuries which were painful and even serious. Undaunted, Forrest mounted another horse which, in turn, was shot and killed. Over the remonstrance of his adjutant, Captain Anderson, he mounted still a third time, declaring that he was just as liable to be shot on foot as on horseback and that he could see better from his horse. Before the painstaking reconnaissance was completed, Forrest’s third mount of the day was struck, though not killed.
Fighter that he was, Forrest was not accustomed to sacrifice men needlessly. He got results but he wanted them as cheaply as possible. Throughout the time of his reconnaissance and afterward, he kept his men working forward through the underbrush and stumps toward the fort in short rushes, each advance being covered by the fire of sharpshooters converging from both sides upon the defenders behind the parapet.
By 1:00 P.m.-the time at which the gunboat ceased trying to shell the Confederates out of the ravines-the Confederate lines were already formed "on the declining ground from the fort to a ravine, which nearly encircles the fort" at a distance varying "from 50 to 150 yards of the works," according to Anderson’s report. Anderson adds:
"The width or thickness of the works across the top prevented the garrison from firing down on us, as it could only be done by mounting and exposing themselves to the unerring aim of our sharpshooters, posted behind stumps and logs on all the neighboring bills. They were also unable to depress their artillery so as to rake these slopes with grape and canister, and so far as safety was concerned, we were as well fortified as they were; the only difference was that they were on one side and we on the other of the same fortification. They had no sharpshooters with which to annoy our main force, while ours sent a score of bullets at every bead that appeared above the walls."
In this state of affairs when, as Anderson wrote, "it was perfectly apparent to any man endowed with the smallest amount of common sense that to all intents and purposes the fort was ours," the fight died down because Forrest was approaching the end of the ammunition which his men had brought with them, and was waiting for the arrival of his ordnance wagons, dragging their way through the April mud of the roads from Brownsville.
Upon the arrival of the wagons about 3:30 P.m. the Confederates sent in a flag of truce with a note to Major Booth. "My men have received a fresh supply of ammunition, and from their present position can easily assault and capture the fort," the note said, demanding "the unconditional surrender of the garrison, promising you that you shall be treated as prisoners of war" but declining, if the demand were refused, "to be responsible for the fate of the command," that being another form of the same threat which Forrest had so often and so successfully used ever since his first capture of Murfreesborough by stratagem and bluff.
And then began a correspondence carried on from the Union side entirely in the name of Major Booth, dead for more than six hours. First Major Bradford asked, in the name of Booth, for "one hour for consultation and consideration with my officers and the officers of the gunboat." Forrest, observing a steamer "apparently crowded with troops" approaching the fort, seeing "the smoke of three other boats ascending the river," and "believing the request for an hour was to gain time for reinforcements to arrive, and that the desire to consult the officers of the gunboat was a pretext," replied with a note allowing twenty minutes.
Meanwhile the troop-laden steamers-the Liberty from above and the Olive Branch from below, as appears from subsequent Union testimony continued to approach in apparent violation of the truce, with no signal of any sort being made to them from either fort or gunboat to turn back or stand away toward the Arkansas shore.
In this state of affairs, believing that the defenders were playing for time for the arrival of reinforcements and seeing the approach of what might well have been reinforcements, with no effort being made to warn them of the existing truce, Forrest ordered his adjutant, Anderson, to move 200 men of McCulloch’s command down the ravine in which they already were safely ensconced, to the steamboat landing below the bluff on which the ford stood, and sent Barteau with another 200 down the Coal Creek ravine to prevent landing of reinforcements at either point.
It was this movement, plainly observed by those in the fort and on the gunboat, which became the basis for the later charge that Forrest violated the truce to put his men in position to storm the fort-"the very position," Lieutenant Leaming reported, "which he had been fighting to obtain throughout the entire engagement." Actually, so far as the storming of the fort was concerned, the move down the ravines put 400 men, one fourth of the entire force out of the assaulting columns. The move was purely one of precaution against what seemed to be an attempt to land reinforcements, although, as will appear, the detachments in these positions did play a part in the final act of the impending tragedy in preventing the escape of those who sought to flee along the riverbank beneath the bluffs.
While this was transpiring, Bradford sent out another note signed "Booth," to the effect that "negotiations will not attain the desired object." General Forrest, who had ridden forward to the point where the flags-of-truce transactions were taking place in order to convince the Union negotiators that be was indeed there in person, received the evasive answer and sent back a peremptory demand for "an answer in plain, unmistakable English. Will he fight or surrender?"
Having no real hope of holding the fort, apparently, but relying on an insane scheme of defense concocted with Captain Marshall of the gunboat, Bradford sent back the defiant message, "I will not surrender."
Forrest, without a word, rode rapidly back to his position a quartet of a mile from the line and ordered Gaus to sound the charge. As Jacob Gaus brought from his battered bugle the notes of the charge, the assaulting line sprang forward, not pell-mell or helter-skelter but as if they had been rehearsed in detail in crossing ditches and scaling parapets. While the sharpshooters redoubled their already effective efforts to keep down the heads of the defenders, the assaulting troops crossed the few intervening yards to the twelve-foot-wide ditch, jumped down into the mud and water in the bottom, clambered and helped one another up its six-foot sides to the little ledge below the parapet, paused there for an instant-all without firing a shot-and then, with guns loaded, climbed and pushed one another over the eight-foot wall.
As the first assaulting wave, boosted from below by their fellows, came over the wall they emptied their guns at point-black range into the bodies of the garrison crowded on the fire step of the parapet. Before the garrison, which had fired at the first apparition of the charging line, could reload, the second wave was over, to empty another 600 guns into the mass below them. The "rebel charge," reported Lieutenant Leaming, was "as if rising from out the very earth.
"In the meantime," Leaming told the Congressional committee, nearly all the officers had been killed, especially of the, colored troops, and there was no one hardly to guide the men. They fought bravely, indeed, until that time," when with the assaulting Confederates pouring over the supposedly impregnable parapet, a company of colored troops, according to Leaming’s report and that of other white troops, broke and fled. "I do not think the men who broke had a commissioned officer over them," Leaming added.
The testimony of the colored soldiers, on the contrary, was to the effect that "the Tennessee cavalry broke, and was followed down the hill by the colored soldiers." Regardless of which element of the garrison first broke, it is agreed that almost instantly the whole garrison, or such of them as had not been already killed or wounded, ran from their positions back through the little enclosure of the fort to the brow of the bluff above the river side, and plunged over.
"Major Bradford signaled to me that we were whipped," Captain Marshall, commanding the gunboat New Era, told the Congressional committee. "We had agreed on a signal that if he had to leave the fort, they would drop down under the bank, and I was to give the rebels canister.
And so, with the flag of the fort still flying and with arms still in their hands, the garrison dropped below the bluff, with apparent intent to continue resistance there, while the gunboat was "to give the rebels canister." But not a shot was fired from the gunboat. Instead, the prudent Captain Marshall, having found that be was nearly out of ammunition and fearing that the victorious rebels would turn the guns of the fort on him-as they actually did-closed his portholes and steamed away out of range.
When the fleeing garrison found that there was to be no blast of canister at their pursuers, panic seized them. Some continued their resistance; others thought only of safety in flight. As they rushed southward along the riverbank, they were met with a volley from the detachment under Anderson, which had come down to the steamboat landing to prevent reinforcements from coming ashore from the approaching transports, and which now fired their first shots in the assault. Turning the other way, the demoralized troops of the garrison met the fire of Barteau’s men, beneath the bank on the other side of the fort. Others rushed into the river where they were shot or drowned-and all the while the flag of the fort still flew from its staff, until Private Doak Carr of the Second Tennessee (Confederate) cut it down.
"For the survivors it was a fortunate occurrence that some of our men cut the halyards and pulled down their flag, floating from a high mast in the center of the fort," reports Anderson, who was under the bluff. "Until this was done our forces under the bluff had no means of knowing or reason for believing that the fort was in our possession, as they could from their position see the flag but could not see the fort."
What happened under the bluffs was described by Lieutenant Learning as a "horrid work of butchery," which continued from the fall of the fort "until dark and at intervals throughout the night. Others who testified, including both those who were there and those who were not, were more profuse and harrowing in their detailed accounts of rebel savagery in the 128 pages of the report of the Congressional committee. And there can be no doubt, nor has it ever been denied, that some men -perhaps a considerable number-were shot after they, as individuals, were seeking to surrender. However, as Second Lieutenant Daniel Van Hom of the colored artillery regiment put it in his report, "there never was a surrender of the fort." Instead, as Colonel Barteau described the situation in an interview published in 1884, "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 was soon discovered that they could not be trusted as having surrendered, for taking the first opportunity they would break loose again and engage in the contest. Some of our men were killed by negroes who had once surrendered.
As the Federal flag fell Forrest spurred his horse from the knoll a quarter of a mile away, from which he had watched the fight, into the fort, promptly ordered all firing to cease and, with the help of Chalmers and other officers, began to restore order.
"The unwounded of the garrison were detailed, under the supervision of their own officers, to bury the dead and remove the wounded to the hospitals, tents and buildings," Anderson reports, while he and Captain John T. Young, of the Fort Pillow garrison, went up along the riverbank with a white flag, in an endeavor to open communication with the master of the gunboat New Era, and try to get him to send ashore for the wounded.3-1 The New Era, however, steamed away, being "fearful that they might hail in a steamboat from below, capture her, put on 400 or 500 men, and come after me,"32 and so the wounded were left unattended for the night and most of the dead unburied.
With the coming of night Forrest started back to Jackson but, by reason of the severe shaking-up he had received in the fall of his horse that day, he stopped for the night about three miles from the fort. Chalmers likewise left the fort with the coming of dark, and marched his command well back and away from the works before making camp about two miles from the river. If, as Lieutenant Leaming and others testified, shooting, bayoneting and butchering of men went on all night at Fort Pillow, it was the work of stragglers or prowlers and not of organized Confederate forces, none of whom were in or about the place until the next morning, the thirteenth.
At daylight of the thirteenth, acting on orders from Forrest, Chalmers sent back to the fort details to bring away the captured artillery and other arms and to "burn all houses at the fort, except the one used as a hospital … [and] leave with the wounded … slightly wounded men sufficient to wait on them . . . [and] five or six days’ supply of provisions and any medicine they may need.
While Chalmers’ men were engaged in this work, including "applying torches to barracks, huts and stables," there appeared before the fort from below the gunboat Silver Cloud, accompanied by the transport Platte Valley, sent up from Memphis in response to news that the fort had been attacked. The gunboat shelled the fort and woods for about an hour until 8:00 A.M., when Captain Anderson, sent back by Forrest for the purpose, succeeded in making a truce for the day, under the terms of which the Federals would be put in full possession of the fort until 5:00 P.M. "for the purpose of burying our dead and removing our wounded," as Acting Master William Ferguson of the gunboat reported. Wounded were "brought down from the fort and battlefield and placed on board the Platte Valley. Details of rebel soldiers assisted us in this duty." Another Union observer reported that ‘the rebels rendered us efficient aid, facilitating as much as possible getting the wounded on board transport"–quite at variance with the report of Lieutenant Leaming that "while the U. S. gunboat No. 28 from Memphis was shelling the enemy, who at the same time was engaged in murdering our wounded, Forrest sent a flag of truce to the commander granting him time … to bury our dead and remove the few surviving wounded, he having no means to attend to them." In the anxiety to make out a case of cold-blooded butchery against Forrest and his men, the inconsistency in the two attitudes ascribed to them in the same sentence seems to have escaped attention.
In one of the hearsay statements included in the Union reports it is said that the Confederates "took out from Fort Pillow about one hundred and some odd prisoners (white) and 40 negroes. They hung and shot the negroes as they passed along toward Brownsville until they were rid of them all."In fact, the prisoners captured, other than the wounded who were turned over to the boats on the day after the fall of the fort, were promptly removed to Mississippi and arrived in Okolona on the evening of April twentieth.
During the truce of the thirteenth, while the parties from the Federal steamers were removing the wounded with some Confederate assistance and burying the dead, Chalmers’ men were removing the captured arms, ammunition and other supplies for which they had transportation. Ox teams were impressed to haul away the six pieces of artillery captured., while the muskets-269 of which were picked up below the bluff, where they had been carried as part of the scheme to continue resistance with the help of the gunboat-were loaded into the ordnance wagons along with captured ammunition.
By 4:00 P.m. the work of the day was completed, the landing parties returned to the steamers in the river, Chalmers and his men marched inland, the gunboat lowered her flag of truce, ran up the United States flag and steamed off, and Fort Pillow was left alone with its dead.
General Forrest, in a dispatch to Polk from Jackson, said that "the loss of the enemy will never be known from the fact that large numbers ran into the river and were shot and drowned. . . . The river was dyed with the blood of the slaughtered for 200 yards." With the Federal reports of the number in the garrison, however, and the fuller information which became available later, it is possible to arrive at the loss with reasonable accuracy. Of the 557 members of the garrison the names of 226-168 whites and 58 Negroes-appear upon the lists of prisoners carried away from the fort by the Confederates. Captain Ferguson took on board the Silver Cloud and the Platte Valley "some 20 of our troops" before the truce of April thirteenth began, and "found about 70 wounded men in the fort and around it," during the truce. Elsewhere, in the official reports of the navy there is a receipt from Ferguson to Anderson for 3 officers, 43 white privates and 14 Negroes, and also a nominal list of 58 wounded taken aboard during the truce. In addition to those taken off by Ferguson’s boats "some 20 more" were placed on the Red Rover making a total of from 100 to 110 wounded taken off on that day. Two days later Captain LeRoy Fitch took off ten more wounded soldiers, bringing the total number of wounded iri Federal bands to from 110 to 120.
It appears then that of the garrison of 557 there were at least 336 survivors, of whom 226 were unwounded or only slightly wounded and approximately 100 seriously wounded. The dead of the garrison may be calculated as not more than 231, which accords with the burial reports. Captain Ferguson says that his men "buried, I should think, 150 bodies."47 Captain Marshall, who returned to Fort Pillow during the truce of the thirteenth, buried 64.48 Others were buried by Lieutenant Commander Fitch whose gunboat, the Moose, was at Fort Pillow on the fourteenth. Some of the last, however, appear to have been reburied bodies hastily and imperfectly buried before . In addition to the dead of the garrison there were doubtless some deaths among the enlisted civilians, sutlers, traders and the like, who elected to take part in the defense of the place. The loss of life approximated forty percent of the garrison-by no means an extraordinarily high rate for a place carried by assault as Fort Pillow was.
During the investigation made by Senator Benjamin F. Wade and Representative Daniel W. Gooch, a subcommittee of the joint Select Committee of Congress on the Conduct of the War, special efforts were made to show that, with the exception of about a score, all the loss of life occurred after organized resistance ceased. Lieutenant Leaming, for example, having previously testified that the commanding officer of the post and his adjutant and indeed "nearly all the officers" had been killed during the fight, and having testified to the "murderous fire" and the "unerring aim of the rebel sharpshooters," was led by questioning to testify that of the eight officers of his regiment in the battle only two remained alive, all but one of the others having been killed after "we were driven from the fort." Sergeant Weaver of the colored troops, in response to a question from Senator Wade, "supposed" that before the fort was captured not "over a dozen" of the whites and "probably not more than fifteen or twenty of the negroes" were killed. He somewhat spoiled the answer, however, by adding that "there were a great many of the negroes wounded, because they would keep getting up to shoot, and were where they could be hit."
The Congressional committee arrived at Cairo, Illinois, on April twenty-second, took testimony there for two days, went down the river to visit Columbus, Memphis, Fort Pillow and the gunboatNew Era, taking testimony at each place, and returned to Cairo on the twenty-eighth. During their investigation the committee interrogated sixty-seven persons about Fort Pillow, of whom forty-two were in the fort on the day of the fight-seventeen colored soldiers, twenty-one white soldiers, one colored civilian and one white, one white officer and one surgeon. The remainder included four officers of the gunboat New Era, ten persons who came to the fort the next day, six surgeons of the Mound City, Illinois, hospital, and five army and navy officers of rank who gave general testimony. In addition to those interrogated, the committee was furnished by General Brayman, commanding at Cairo, with affidavits from five white soldiers and four civilians who were in the fort and four others who came there the next day.
From this mass of testimony the Congressional committee reported, in summary, that the rebels took advantage of a flag of truce to place themselves in "position from which the more readily to charge upon the fort!’; that after the fall of the fort "the rebels commenced an indiscriminate slaughter sparing neither age nor sex, white or black, soldier or civilian"; that this was "not the result of passions excited by the heat of conflict, but of a policy deliberately decided upon and unhesitatingly announced"; that several of the wounded were intentionally burned to death in huts and tents about the fort; and that "the rebels buried some of the living with the dead.
Long afterward Dr. Wyeth collected sworn testimony from half -a hundred Confederate survivors and eyewitnesses of the fight, indignantly denying these and like charges. Disregarding this and other Confederate evidence on the subject, however, and relying only on statements from Union sources, it is apparent that no one of the five principal points of the committee’s report can be sustained upon critical examination of the record.
As to the first, that of advancing under flag of truce to a better position for assault, it is clear from the Federal statements that Forrest’s men were in the ravines below reach of the guns of the fort, and as close as fifty yards, before noon and some four hours before the truce began. Marshall of the gunboat testified that he was signaled from the fort to shell them out and tried to do so, but failed. Leaming testifies to like effect, although at another point he does say that the Confederates advanced under flag of truce. The movement he referred to, obviously, was that to the riverbank, made for the purpose of preventing the possible landing of reinforcements from the approaching troop-laden transports. That these transports were approaching and that they were not signaled from fort or gunboat to keep away is confirmed by the testimony of Brigadier General George F. Shepley, of the Union Army, who was on the Olive Branch going up the river, and who mentions the Liberty, bound downstream .
The Confederate detachments which went to the riverbank, moreover, did not put themselves in better position for the assault. They put themselves entirely out of that part of the action.
The description of the slaughter in the second principal point of the committee’s report is rhetoric. The aged, the women and children, and the civilians in the fort who did not wish to join in the fight, were placed in a coal barge early in the morning and towed by the New Era "to a big island up the river," as testified to by Captain Marshall and referred to by other witnesses.
Of those engaged in the fight, the slaughter was by no means so great as it would have been had there been an order or a determination to exterminate the garrison, as is implied in the committee’s report. About two-fifths of the garrison were killed, and another one-fifth wounded., It is impossible to know now how many had been killed before the mad rush away from the stormed parapet in an attempt to take up the fight from a new position, but from the testimony and reports it is apparent that there must have been heavy loss during the hours of fighting from the "unerring aim of the rebel sharpshooters," and probably still heavier loss as the assaulting waves came over the parapet, emptying 1,200 rifles into the crowded defenders at hand-to-hand range. It must be remembered too that there never was a surrender of the fort, nor an entire cessation of resistance until perhaps twenty minutes after the storming of the parapet. Had there been, the loss of life would have been less.
The third main charge, that the "atrocities committed at Fort Pillow" were the result of deliberate policy, does not stand up under examination of the Union record. Without doubt men were killed and wounded who should not have been, and the loss of life was greater than it would have been but for the attempt to prolong resistance beneath the bluff while the gunboat was supposed to be shelling the Confederates in the fort.
Undoubtedly, too, this was intensified by the bitter animosities, many of them personal, existing between the Tennessee white Unionist defenders of the fort and the assailants, and by the feeling of many Confederate soldiers toward those whom they looked upon as slaves in blue uniforms. In all the circumstances it would have been a strange and wonderful thing had there been no cases of individual assault in the closing portions of a fight which came to a ragged, scattering and indefinite end.
The finding of the committee as to a deliberate policy of destruction of the garrison rests partly upon Forrest’s note demanding surrender and partly upon testimony of wounded survivors that "officers," or "Chalmers" or "Forrest" had ordered a slaughter of the defenders. As to the note demanding surrender, Forrest was probably correct in saying that he could not be responsible for the consequences if the demand was refused, but this was by no means the same as saying that he was ordering a slaughter. As a matter of fact, it was no more than a repetition of the device which he had used before and was to use again with success in securing surrender of places with minimum loss of life to his own command and, for that matter, to the defenders.
The testimony of survivors on the point of the attitude of officers is mixed. The very first survivor examined-Elias, a colored soldier-said that the rebels "killed all the men after they surrendered, until orders were given to stop. . . ."
"Till who gave orders?"
"They told me his name was Forrest."
The same witness told of seeing a soldier shoot one of the wounded men in the hand, when "an officer told the secesh soldier if be did that again he would arrest him."115 Lieutenant Leaming testified that when there were shots outside the hut to which he had been carried after being wounded he heard an officer ride up and say: "Stop that firing; arrest that man," and that another officer-prisoner told him "that they had been shooting them, but the general had had it stopped."
One witness, Frank Hogan, colored, testified that a "secesh first lieutenant" shot a captain of the Negro regiment, while others testified that they were told that the shootings were ordered by General Forrest. One imaginative witness, however, declared that "towards evening, General Forrest issued an order not to kill any more negroes, because they wanted them to help haul the artillery out."
"Were colored men used for that purpose?"
"Yes sir. I saw them pulling the artillery, and I saw the secesh whip them as they were going out, just like they were horses."
The only witness in the whole record who professed to have- seen Forrest ordering, or otherwise participating, in the shootings was Jacob Thompson, colored civilian, who told the committee that he fought with the garrison:
"When were you shot?" be was asked. "After I surrendered."
"Who shot you?"
"What did he say?"
"He said, ‘God damn you, I will shoot you, old friend."’
"Did you see anybody else shot?"
"Yes, sir; they just called them out like dogs, and shot them down. I reckon they shot about fifty, white and black, right there. They nailed some black sergeants to the logs, and set the logs on fire."
"When did you see that?"
"When I went there in the morning I saw them; they were burning all together."
"Did they kill them before they burned them?"
"No sir, they nailed them to the logs; drove the nails right through their hands."
"How many did you see in that condition?"
"Some four or five; I saw two white men burned.
"Did you notice bow they were nailed?"
"I saw one nailed to the side of a house; he looked like be was nailed right through his wrist. I was trying then to get to the boat when I saw it." [This, it is to be noted, was after the arrival of Ferguson and his two boats, with their numerous landing parties-none of whom reports having seen such sights.]
"Did you see them kill any white men?"
"They killed some eight or nine there. I reckon they killed more than twenty after it was all over; called them out from under the hill, and shot them down. They would call out a white man and shoot him down, and call out a colored man and shoot him down; do it just as fast as they could make their guns go off."
"Did you see any rebel officers about there when this was going on?"
"Yes, sir; old Forrest was one."
"Did you know Forrest?"
"Yes, sir; he was a little bit of a man. I had seen him before at Jackson."
"Are you sure he was there when this was going on?"
Beside this one bit of positive evidence to connect Forrest with whatever shootings went on after resistance ceased, from a witness who knew him as "a little bit of a man," there is the statement of Sergeant Benjamin Robinson, colored, that "General Forrest rode his horse over me three or four times. I did not know him until I heard his men call his name. He said to some negro men there that he knew them; that they had been in his nigger yard in Memphis. He said he was not worth five dollars when he started, and had got rich trading in negroes." Other references to Forrest in the testimony are to the effect that soldiers hallooed "Forrest says, no quarter! no quarter!" and the next one hallooed, "Black flag! black flag!"or that the "general cry from the time they charged the fort until an hour afterwards was, ‘Kill ’em, kill ’em; God damn ’em; that’s Forrest’s orders, not to leave one alive."
That some of Forrest’s men believed that he had made some such order is indicated in the letter of Sergeant Achilles V. Clark, of the Twentieth Tennessee, written from Brownsville to his sisters on the nineteenth:
"The slaughter was awful. Words cannot describe the scene. The poor, deluded negroes would run up to our men, fall upon their knees and with uplifted hands scream for mercy but they were ordered to their feet and then shot down. The white men fared but little better…. I with several others tried to stop the butchery and at one time had partially succeeded but Gen. Forrest ordered them shot down like dogs and the carnage continued."
That Sergeant Clark was mistaken in his belief as to Forrest’s orders is shown by the mass of sworn testimony subsequently assembled by Dr. Wyeth from staff officers of Forrest and Chalmers, from brigade and regimental commanders, and from surviving Confederate officers and soldiers of all ranks.
None of them denies that there was firing after the garrison broke from the fort to the prepared positions under the bluff where, in addition to the arrangements with the gunboats, "six cases of rifle ammunition were found … with tops removed and ready for immediate distribution and use," and where "about 275 serviceable rifles and carbines were gathered up between the water’s edge and the brow of the bluff, where they had been thrown down by the garrison when they found the gunboat New Era had deserted them and escape impossible. Several Confederate survivors testify to the effect that Forrest, as soon as he reached the scene, "rode down the line and commanded and caused the firing to cease." After this order was given, according to the testimony of Dr. W. J. Robinson, there was but one shooting and the guilty soldier was at once arrested and placed under guard by General Chalmers.
That Chalmers protected another of the garrison is attested, also, in a letter from Dr. C. Fitch of Chariton, Iowa, written to the General in 1879, after he had become a member of Congress and had been assailed on the floor for his participation in the "Fort Pillow Massacre." Dr. Fitch, who was the surgeon of the post, said that when his captors were about to strip him of his boots he appealed to the General, "who cursed them, and put a guard over me, giving orders to the guard to shoot down the first one that molested me.
"I am not aware that there was any formal surrender of Fort Pillow to Forrest’s command," he added. "I looked upon many things that were done as the result of whiskey and a bitter personal hate, especially as regards the Thirteenth regiment. There was considerable alcohol outside the fort, which Forrest’s men must have got hold of long before the charge was made. I have always thought that neither you nor Forrest knew anything that was going on at the time under the bluffs. What was done was done very quickly.
There is abundant testimony from Confederate sources that wide spread and almost general intoxication among the garrison contributed to the frenzy of the scattered resistance offered between the time the parapet was stormed and the time Forrest could restore order below the bluffs. Most of the fifty men who furnished affidavits to Dr. Wyeth mention the presence of whisky in the fort, and the evidences of its too-liberal use by the garrison. Barrels of whisky found along the parapet, with tin dippers attached, were kicked over and spilled by prudent officers of the attacking forces. Among the officers who mention this circumstance are Colonels Tyree Bell and Robert McCulloch, commanding the two assaulting brigades, Colonel Barteau and Captain Anderson, Forrest’s aide and only staff officer during the Fort Pillow operation.
That men were killed who had ceased to resist is clear, and is not denied. That this was due to a policy, and not to the circumstances of the fight, is not established. That Forrest himself did exert effective efforts toward stopping any indiscriminate slaughter is clear.
The fourth principal point in the indictment of Forrest’s men at the hands of the Congressional committee is that wounded men were burned to death in the huts and tents about the fort. That burned bodies were found by the burial parties from the Silver Cloud, the Platte Valley and the New Era on the thirteenth is not disputed. The explanation offered by Captain W. A. Goodman, Chalmers’ adjutant, is that when the Silver Cloud began to shell the position that morning, the officer in charge "ordered the tents which were still standing . . . to be burned, intending to abandon the place. In doing this, the bodies of some negroes who had been killed in the tents, on the day before, were somewhat burned; and this probably gave rise to the horrible stories about burning wounded prisoners which were afterward invented and circulated."
The greater part of the testimony before the Congressional committee is not inconsistent with this explanation, being simply statements to the effect that charred bodies were seen in the tents, or that the witness had been told that someone else had seen them. One witness, Ransom Anderson, colored soldier, says that "they put some in the houses and shut them up, and then burned the houses," and that he knew they were there because he "went and looked in" and "heard them hallooing when the houses were burning." He places this on the night of the twelfth, however, while all other evidence is that the tents and huts were burned on the following day. Lieutenant Leaming, who was wounded, was in one of the buildings on the morning of the thirteenth. He testified that after the Silver Cloud, orNo. 28, began to shell the place the Confederate officer in charge decided to burn the tents and buildings, but that he was "gotten out, and thinks that others got the rest out.
Except for Ransom Anderson’s inherently improbable story. which fits in with none of the other evidence, there is but one other piece of testimony of intentional burning. Eli A. Bangs, mate of theNew Era, who accompanied the burial party sent ashore on the thirteenth, says that in one burned tent he found the body of a man through whose clothing and cartridge box nails had been driven into the floor. Three corroborating witnesses support his statement, agreeing that there were other bodies found in the same tent but that "this man in particular was nailed down .1172 In the absence of any direct evidence to the contrary, it may be taken as possible that some vicious person, whether a Confederate soldier or some skulker or prowler, may have perpetrated such an outrage. Beyond this, however, there is no real evidence of value to sustain the committee’s conclusion.
The fifth and last of the principal points made by the committee was that the "rebels buried some of the living with the dead." If living men were buried with the dead it was not by the rebels, for the entire work of burying the dead was carried out by Union soldiers, first by prisoners of the garrison and on subsequent days by burial parties sent ashore from the gunboats and transports in the river.
The weight of the evidence-even the Union evidence, when sifted and analyzed-is that any excessive loss of life among the garrison was due to the character of the command and the plan of defense which permitted no definite, clean-cut and readily understood surrender or end to the fighting. This uncertainty gave full play to the tensions between defenders and assailants and the passions aroused in the day of battle. It is plain that there was no planned and ordered "massacre," and that there was no considerable loss of life after the fact of general surrender was well established. The loss was from the sharpshooting throughout the day, in the storming of the parapet and in the period of uncertainty between that time and the arrival of Forrest in the fort after the flag came down-a period which Anderson estimates as "not to exceed twenty minutes."73 Marshall of the New Era says that "the rebels kept firing on our men for at least twenty minutes after our flag was down"74-So that there is a fair degree of agreement as to the period of time involved.
The development of the "massacre" theory of the capture of Fort Pillow may be traced in the columns of the Memphis Bulletin, a newspaper of strong Union complexion. Its first story, in the issue of Wednesday, April thirteenth, reports the arrival the night before of the steamer Liberty No. 2,bringing down families and refugees from Fort Pillow, along with the report that the place was under attack but that "no apprehensions were felt for its safety." On the next day, the fourteenth, the Bulletin reported the capture of the place by Forrest’s force of 4,000, with an estimate that 300 of the garrison had been killed or wounded in the early fighting and storming of the works which, it was said, "were carried with the national flag waving over them." On the fifteenth the Bulletin stated that the gallant defenders had been massacred but again declared that the "greater portion of the garrison had been killed or wounded during the earlier part of the fight."
Two days later, on the seventeenth, an editorial in the Bulletin included some of the atrocity stories. On the twenty-first, in a dispatch from Cairo, new atrocities such as burying wounded men alive were added, and the dead Major Booth was praised for his order of the day, "Soldiers Never Surrender!" Finally, on the twenty-seventh, after the visit of the Committee of Congress, portions of its report making the "atrocity" official were published, along with an editorial denunciation of the "infamous General Forrest."
Two years later, on May 30, 1865, and after the end of the war, the same paper considered Fort Pillow once more, concluding that "there was much misrepresentation about the Fort Pillow affair. It is not true that the rebels took no prisoners. On the contrary, about 200 were taken prisoners and carried South."
Even before the Congressional committee was named to make the investigation which was to make of Fort Pillow the "atrocity" of the war, a military investigation had been started. Secretary of War Stanton on April sixteenth ordered Sherman to "direct a competent officer to investigate and report minutely, and as early as possible, the facts in relation to the alleged butchery of our troops at Fort Pillow." To this order, Sherman responded a -week later that the investigation was under way. He added:
"I know well the animus of the Southern soldiery, and the truth is they cannot be restrained. The effect will be, of course, to make the negroes desperate, and when in turn they commit horrid acts of retaliation we will be relieved of the responsibility…. The Southern army, which is the Southern people, cares no more for our clamor than for the idle wind, but they will heed the slaughter that will follow as the natural consequence of their inhuman acts."
The military investigation thus ordered was carried out by General Brayman, Union commander at Cairo, who on April twenty-eighth sent a copy direct to Secretary Stanton, as ordered, and gave another to the Congressional committee when it visited Cairo.
Sherman’s judgment of the "massacre at Fort Pillow" as expressed in his Memoirs is that:
"No doubt Forrest’s men acted like a set of barbarians, shooting down the helpless negro garrison after the fort was in their possession; but I am told that Forrest personally disclaims any active participation in the assault, and that he stopped the firing as soon as he could. I also take it for granted that Forrest did not lead the assault in person, and consequently that he was to the rear, out of sight if not of hearing at the time, and I was told by hundreds of our men, who were at various times prisoners in Forrest’s possession, that be was usually very kind to them."
To this expression may be added his contemporary judgment expressed in action. "If our men have been murdered after capture," Grant telegraphed Sherman from Virginia, "retaliation must be resorted to promptly." Sherman made his own investigation, and had an opportunity to study that made by the Committee of Congress-but there was no retaliation, and General Sherman was not a man to shrink from ordering retaliation had he felt that it was justified.