Fort Pillow and Nathan Bedford Forrest Part 1: Was There a Massacre?

Nathan Bedford Forrest, known as the “Wizard of the Saddle [a name which would take on another connotation after the war],” was a self-taught soldier who rose to the rank of lieutenant general.


Rough and uneducated, he relied on his native intelligence and his natural leadership abilities to become a thorn in the particular side of William T. Sherman, who referred to him as “That Devil Forrest.”  A self-made man who made a fortune as a slave trader before the war, Forrest was a complex character who has, over the years, been reduced to a caricature by people who love him and by people who hate him.  An accurate picture of him, though, is far more nuanced.  The best biography of Forrest is Brian Steel Wills’ A Battle from the Start, which was reprinted and reissued as The Confederacy’s Greatest Cavalryman.  Personally, I prefer the former title, as I think the latter title just isn’t accurate.

Forrest will forever be associated with one particular event, the massacre of soldiers at Fort Pillow, Tennessee.  To say this event has become controversial is an understatement.


The basic facts are that on April 12, 1864 a confederate force under the command of Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest attacked and overwhelmed the garrison at Fort Pillow, situated on the east bank of the Mississippi River, about 40 miles north of Memphis, Tennessee.  You can read a summary of the engagement here.  The Federal force, under the command of Major Lionel Booth, consisted of the 13th Tennessee Cavalry, a unit of white Tennessee Unionists, the 6th US Colored Heavy Artillery, and members of the 2nd US Colored Light Artillery.  Forrest’s cavalry corps was more than three times larger than the Federal garrison, and the casualties afterward were completely lopsided, with the confederates losing only 14 killed while the Federals lost almost 300 killed.  Very soon afterward, charges flew that what happened at Fort Pillow wasn’t just an overwhelming victory but in fact was a massacre, with Union soldiers being murdered after they had surrendered.

Neoconfederates will deny there was even a massacre, and even if there was, they deny Forrest should take any blame.  They prefer instead to blame the victims, claiming variously that the garrison was drunk, they never surrendered, or that the soldiers would surrender and then start firing again, or even that the soldiers who died were the victims of their own friendly fire.  The US Congress, soon after the event, published a report labeling it a massacre and including grisly accounts of men being nailed to logs and burned alive.

So what’s the truth?

First, was there a massacre or not?  Let’s take a look at the casualty figures and compare them with some other lopsided confederate wins–Fredericksburg and Cold Harbor.

“The federal garrison at Fort Pillow at its last count, officially consisted of 580 men, of whom 292 belonged to the Sixth United States Colored Heavy Artillery or the Second United States Light Artillery … and 285 to the white Thirteenth Tennessee Cavalry.  Three men (post staff members) belonged to other white units. [those are the official returns for the units.  The actual number of men present was anywhere from 585 to 605]  Forrest’s troops numbered about 1500 men.”  [John Cimprich and Robert C. Mainfort, Jr., “Fort Pillow Revisited:  New Evidence About an Old Controversy,” Civil War History, Vol XXVIII, No. 4, December, 1982, pp. 293-294]

“Our research indicates that of the 585 to 605 men present on April 12, 1864, between 277 and 297 Federals, 47-49 percent of the garrison, were killed or mortally wounded at Fort Pillow.  Clearly the death rate was higher than that calculated in any previous study.

“More important, the tables also reveal a different casualty rate for the black and white units.  Black troops suffered a casualty rate nearly double that of their white counterparts (64 percent compared to 31-34 percent).”  [John Cimprich and Robert C. Mainfort, Jr., “The Fort Pillow Massacre:  A Statistical Note,” The Journal of American History, Vol. 76, No., 3, Dec., 1989, p. 835]

Livermore’s Numbers and Losses in the Civil War in America, 1861-65 puts the figures for Fredericksburg as:

113,987 Union troops engaged
1,284 killed, 9,600 wounded, 1,769 missing.

That’s only about 1.1% killed.  If we add wounded, that’s only about 9.55% killed and wounded.

The same source puts the figures for Cold Harbor [for all three days together] as:

107,907 Union troops engaged
12,000 killed and wounded
That’s only 11.1% killed and wounded.

Cold Harbor was a 3-day battle.  Fredericksburg took all day.  Fort Pillow was about a half-hour.

Those statistics alone lay the foundation for there having been a massacre of black soldiers, but we need some additional testimony.

First of all, there was the surrender demand Forrest made:

Headquarters, Forrest’s Cavalry,
Before Fort Pillow, April 12, 1864

Major Booth, Commanding United States Forces, Fort Pillow:

Major, — The conduct of the officers and men garrisoning Fort Pillow has been such as to entitle them to being treated as prisoners of war.  I demand the unconditional surrender of this garrison, promising you that you shall be treated as prisoners of war.  My men have received a fresh supply of ammunition, and from their present position can easily assault and capture the fort.  Should my demand be refused, I cannot be responsible for the fate of your command.

N.B. Forrest,
Major-General Commanding

[OR Series I, Vol 32, Part 1, p. 596]

This was pretty standard for Forrest.  He would demand the surrender of a garrison and in that demand threaten that no quarter would be granted anyone should his demand be rejected.  If it was a bluff, it normally worked as garrisons tended to surrender to him.  We don’t know, but we have to wonder whether or not it was a bluff and also whether or not his men took the threat seriously.

In the aftermath of Fort Pillow, the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War investigated and took several statements from soldiers.  Their statements can be viewed here.

Francis Alexander of the 13th Tennessee Cavalry said:

Question. Were you wounded there?
Answer. Not in the fort. I was wounded after I left the fort, and was going down the hill.
Question. Was that before or after the fort was taken?
Answer. It was afterwards.
Question. Did you have any arms in your hand at the time they shot you?
Answer. No, sir. I threw my gun away, and started down the hill, and got about twenty yards, when I was shot through the calf of the leg.
Question. Did they shoot you more than once?
Answer. No, sir; they shot at me, but did not hit me more than once.
Question. Did they say why they shot you after you had surrendered?
Answer. They said afterwards they intended to kill us all for being there with their niggers.
Question. Were any rebel officers there at the time this shooting was going on?
Answer. Yes, sir.
Question. Did they try to stop it?
Answer. One or two of them did.
Question. What did the rest of them do?
Answer. They kept shouting and hallooing at the men to give no quarter. I heard that cry very frequent.
Question. Was it the officers that said that?
Answer. I think it was. I think it was them, the way they were going on. When our boys were taken prisoners, if anybody came up who knew them, they shot them down. As soon as ever they recognized them, wherever it was, they shot them.
Question. After they had taken them prisoners?
Answer. Yes, sir.
Question. Did you know anything about their shooting men in the hospitals?
Answer. I know of their shooting negroes in there. I don’t know about white men.
Question. Wounded negro men?
Answer. Yes, sir.
Question. Who did that?
Answer. Some of their troops. I don’t know which of them. The next morning I saw several black people shot that were wounded, and some that were not wounded. One was going down the hill before me, and the officer made him come back up the hill; and after I got in the boat I heard them shooting them.
Question. You say you saw them shoot negroes in the hospital the next morning?
Answer. Yes, sir; wounded negroes who could not get along; one with his leg broke. They came there the next day and shot him.

James Walls of the 13th Tennessee Cavalry said:

Question. State what you saw there of the fight, and what was done after the place was captured.
Answer. We fought them for some six or eight hours in the fort, and when they charged our men scattered and ran under the hill; some turned back and surrendered, and were shot. After the flag of truce came in I went down to get some water. As I was coming back I turned sick, and laid down behind a log. The secesh charged, and after they came over I saw one go a good ways ahead of the others. One of our men made to him and threw down his arms. The bullets were flying so thick there I thought I could not live there, so I threw down my arms and surrendered. He did not shoot me then, but as I turned around he or some other one shot me in the back.
Question. Did they say anything while they were shooting?
Answer. All I heard was, “Shoot him, shoot him!” “Yonder goes one!” “Kill him, kill him!” That is about all I heard.
Question. How many do you suppose you saw shot after they surrendered?
Answer. I did not see but two or three shot around me. One of the boys of our company, named Taylor, ran up there, and I saw him shot and fall. Then another was shot just before me, like – shot down after he threw down his arms.
Question. Those were white men?
Answer. Yes, sir. I saw them make lots of niggers stand up, and then they shot them down like hogs. The next morning I was lying around there waiting for the boat to come up. The secesh would be prying around there, and would come to a nigger and say, “You ain’t dead, are you?” They would not say anything, and then the secesh would get down off their horses, prick them in their sides, and say, “Damn you, you ain’t dead; get up.” Then they would make them get up on their knees, when they would shoot them down like hogs.


Question. How many negroes do you suppose were killed after the surrender?
Answer. There were hardly any killed before the surrender. I reckon as many as 200 were killed after the surrender, out of about 300 that were there.

George Shaw of the 6th US Colored Heavy Artillery said:

Question. When were you shot?
Answer. About four o’clock in the evening.
Question. After you had surrendered?
Answer. Yes, sir.
Question. Where were you at the time?
Answer. About ten feet from the river bank.
Question. Who shot you.
Answer. A rebel soldier.
Question. How near did he come to you?
Answer. About ten feet.
Question. What did he say to you?
Answer. He said, “Damn you, what are you doing here?” I said, “Please don’t shoot me.” He said, “Damn you, you are fighting against your master.” He raised his gun and fired, and the bullet went into my mouth and out the back part of my head. They threw me into the river, and I swam around and hung on there in the water until night.

Jacob Thompson, a black civilian, said:

Question. When were you shot?
Answer. After I surrendered.
Question. How many times were you shot?
Answer. I was shot but once; but I threw my hand up, and the shot went through my hand and my head.
Question. Who shot you?
Answer. A private.
Question. What did he say?
Answer. He said, “God damn you, I will shoot you, old friend.”
Question. Did you see anybody else shot?
Answer. 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.
Question. When did you see that?
Answer. When I went there in the morning I saw them; they were burning all together.
Question. Did they kill them before they burned them?
Answer. No, sir, they nailed them to the logs; drove the nails right through their hands.
Question. How many did you see in that condition?
Answer. Some four or five; I saw two white men burned.

W. P. Walker of the 13th Tennessee Cavalry said:

Question. They finally took the fort?
Answer. Yes, sir.
Question. What happened then?
Answer. They just shot us down without showing any quarter at all. They shot me, for one, after I surrendered; they shot me in the arm, and the shoulder, and the neck, and in the eye.
Question. How many times did they shoot you?
Answer. They shot me in the arm and eye after I surrendered; I do not know when they shot me in the other places.
Question. Who shot you?
Answer. A private shot me with a pistol; there were a great many of us shot.
Question. What reason did he give for shooting you after you had surrendered?
Answer. A man came down the hill and said that General – some one; I could not understand the name – said that they should shoot every one of us, and take no prisoners, and then they shot us down.
Question. How did you escape?
Answer. They thought they had killed me. They searched my pockets half a dozen times, or more, and took my pocket-book from me.
Question. Did you see anyone else shot after they surrendered?
Answer. Yes, sir; I saw several shot right around me.

Alfred Coleman, 6th US Colored Heavy Artillery, said:

Question. Did you hear the rebels say anything about a fight?
Answer. Nothing more than it was the hardest fight they had been in, with the force we had here. I was then with the 2d Missouri cavalry.
Question. What did they say about giving quarter?
Answer. They said they would show no quarter to colored troops, nor to any of the officers with them, but would kill them all.
Question. Who said that?
Answer. One of the captains of the 2d Missouri. He shot six himself, but, towards evening General Forrest issued an order not to kill any more negroes, because they wanted them to help to haul the artillery out.
Question. How do you know that?
Answer. This captain said so.

William A. Dickey, of the 13th Tennessee Cavalry, said:

Question. Will you state what happened there, especially after the fort was taken?
Answer. After the breastworks were charged I first noticed the colored soldiers throwing down their arms and running down the bluff. After the rebs got inside the white troops saw that there was no mercy shown, and they threw down their arms and ran down the bluff, too; and they were at the same time shot and butchered. I ran myself, but carried my gun with me down the bluff, and hid myself behind a tree close to the edge of the river. I staid there some time, and saw my partner shot, and saw men shot all around me. I saw one man shoot as many as four negroes just as fast as he could load his gun and shoot. After doing this he came to me. As he turned around to me, I begged him not to shoot me. He came to me and I gave him my gun, and he took my caps, saying he wanted them to kill niggers. I begged him to let me go with him, as I would be exposed there; but he said “No, stay there.” He made me stay there, and would not let me go with him. Another man came along, and I asked him to spare my life, and he did so. I asked him to let me go with him, but he refused me and ordered me to stay with my wounded partner, who was lying in some brush. I crawled in the brush to him. He was suffering very much, and I unloosed his belt, and took his cartridge-box and put it under his head. Some rebels under the hill spied us moving in the brush and ordered us to come out. My partner could not come out, but I came out. They ordered me to come to them. I started after one of them, begging him at the same time not to shoot me. I went, I suppose, eight or ten steps, when he shot me. I fell there, and saw but little more after that. As i was lying with my face towards the river I saw some swimming and drowning in the river, and I saw them shoot some in the river after that.

Eli Carlton of the 6th US Colored Heavy Artillery said:

Question. State what happened there.
Answer. I saw 23 men shot after they surrendered; I made 24; 17 of them laid right around me dead, and 6 below me.
Question. Who shot them?
Answer. The rebels; some white men were killed.
Question. How many white men were killed?
Answer. Three or four.
Question. Killed by the privates?
Answer. Yes, sir; I did not see any officers kill any.
Question. Were the white men officers or privates?
Answer. Privates.
Question. Were the men who shot you near to you?
Answer. Yes, sir; ten or fifteen steps off.
Question. Were you shot with a musket or a pistol?
Answer. With a musket. I was shot once on the battle-field before we surrendered. They took me down to a little hospital under the hill. I was in the hospital when they shot me a second time. Some of our privates commenced talking. They said, “Do you fight with these God damned niggers?” they said, “Yes.” Then they said, “God damn you, then, we will shoot you,” and they shot one of them right down. They said, “I would not kill you, but, God damn you, you fight with these damned niggers, and we will kill you;” and they blew his brains out of his head. They then went around and counted them up; I laid there and made 18 who were there, and there were 6 more below me. I saw them stick a bayonet in the small part of the belly of one of our boys, and break it right off – he had one shot then.

Daniel Tyler of the 6th US Colored Heavy Artillery said:

Answer. I was wounded after we all surrendered; not before.
Question. At what time?
Answer. They shot me when we came up the hill from down by the river.
Question. Why did you go up the hill?
Answer. They called me up.
Question. Did you see who shot you?
Answer. Yes, sir; I did not know him.
Question. One of the rebels?
Answer. Yes, sir.
Question. How near was he to you?
Answer. I was right at him; I had my hand on the end of his gun.
Question. What did he say to you?
Answer. He said, “Whose gun are you holding?” I said, “Nobody’s.” He said, “God damn you, I will shoot you.” and then he shot me. I let go, and then another one shot me.
Question. Were many shot at the same time?
Answer. Yes, sir, lots of them; lying all round like hogs.

Thomas Adison of the 6th US Colored Heavy Artillery testified:

Question. What happened to you after you were wounded?
Answer. I went down the hill after we surrendered; then they came down and shot me again in my face, breaking my jaw-bone.
Question. How near was the man to you?
Answer. He shot me with a revolver, about ten or fifteen feet off.
Question. What happened to you then?
Answer. I laid down, and a fellow came along and turned me over and searched my pockets and took my money. He said: “God damn his old soul; he is sure dead now; he is a big, old, fat fellow.”
Question. How long did you lay there?
Answer. About two hours.
Question. Then what was done with you?
Answer. They made some of our men carry me up the hill to a house that was full of white men. They made us lie out doors all night, and said that the next morning they would have the doctor fix us up. I went down to a branch for some water, and a man said to me: “Old man, if you stay here they will kill you, but if you get into the water till the boat comes along they may save you;” and I went off. They shot a great many that evening.

Frank Hogan of the 6th US Colored Heavy Artillery testified:

Question. What did you see there that day, especially after the fort was taken?
Answer. I saw them shoot a great many men after the fort was taken, officers and private soldiers, white and black.
Question. After they had given up?
Answer. Yes, sir. I saw them shoot a captain in our battalion, about a quarter of an hour after he had surrendered. One of the secesh called him up to him, and asked him if he was an officer of a nigger regiment. He said, “Yes,” and they shot him with a revolver.
Question. Did they say anything more at the time they shot him?
Answer. Yes, sir; one of them said, “God damn you, I will give you a nigger officer.” They talked with him a little time before they shot him. They asked him how he came to be there, and several other questions, and then asked if he belonged to a nigger regiment, and then they shot him. It was a secesh officer who shot him. I was standing a little behind.
Question. What was the rank of the secesh officer?
Answer. He was a first lieutenant. I do not know his name.
Question. Do you know the name of the officer he shot?
Answer. Yes, sir; Captain Carson, company D.


Question. Do you know anything of the rebels burning any of the tents that had wounded men in them?
Answer. I know they set some on fire that had wounded men in them, but I did not see them burn, because they would not let us go around to see.
Question. About what time of the day was that?
Answer. It was when the sun was about an hour or three-quarters on from the day of the battle.
Question. Did you hear the men in there after they set the building on fire?
Answer. Yes sir; I heard them in there. I knew they were in there. I knew that they were there sick. I saw them shoot one or two men who came out of the hospital, and then they went into the tents, and then shot them right in the tents. I saw them shoot two of them right in the head. When they charged the fort they did not look into the tents, but when they came back afterwards they shot those sick men in the head. I knew the men, because they belonged to the company I did. One of them was Dennis Gibbs, and the officer was named Alfred Flag.

John Penwell, a white civilian volunteer, said:

Question. Will you tell us, in your own way, what you saw there?
Answer. Nothing occurred of much account – only the fighting part of it – until after they sent the last flag of truce there. They kept on fighting, but the fort was not surrendered. While the flag of truce was outside the fort, and they were conferring together, I noticed and spoke about seeing men going around behind the fort. They who were out with the flag of truce came back and said they were not going to surrender, and commenced fighting again. I had just fired my musket off, and heard a shot behind me. I saw the rebels coming running right up to us. I was just feeling for a cartridge. They were as close as from here to the window, (about 10 feet.) I threw my musket down. A fellow who was ahead asked “if I surrendered.” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Die, then, you damned Yankee son of a bitch,” and shot me, and I fell. More passed by me, and commenced hallooing “Shoot him down,” and three or four stopped where I was and jumped on me and stripped me, taking my boots and coat and hat, and $45 or $50 in greenbacks.

Much of this testimony gets discounted.  Some of the testimony has internal contradictions, such as one person saying he was shot once but shot in two different locations at two different times.  Another individual claimed he knew Forrest and that the 6’2″ Forrest was “a little bit of a man.”  Also, there isn’t any physical evidence to corroborate men being burned alive or nailed to logs and burnt.

The OR contains affidavits from survivors collected by Gen. Mason Brayman:

HEADQUARTERS DISTRICT OF CAIRO, Cairo, Ill., April 28, 1864.

SIR: Having been so instructed by Major-General Sherman, commanding the Military Division of the Mississippi, I have the honor to transmit such testimony as I have been able to procure relative to the late tragedy at Fort Pillow.

In some cases the reports, of commissioned officers have been received without oath, but nearly all the statements are sworn to in the usual manner.

Many persons who could have testified fully are not now accessible, having separated.

Recognizing the exigency of the case, I prefer to transmit such as could be obtained in the shortest time. With your approbation I will add such as can be hereafter procured.

You will however,, find sufficient in these papers to enforce absolute conviction upon all minds that violations of the laws and usages of civilized, war and of those obligations of common humanity which even barbarous and heathen tribes in some sort observe, have been perpetrated.

Men and women who passed through the excitements of the battle, as well as the horrors of an indiscriminate massacre, which raged not only when the blood was hot and hot and the judgment clouded by conflict, but reached into the quiet of the following day, most of them mutilated, hacked, and torn, and some while dying, have patiently, calmly, and even with forging spirit, told their, pitiful story. The sole minuets of an oath under such circumstances would seem to be scarcely required.

It may be added that these murders came not of sudden heat, consequent upon battle and perpetrated by soldiers whom their officers could not control. The purpose to do this very thing was avowed beforehand by rebel officers in command. At Paducah threats of indiscriminate murder were made; at Columbus the slag the of all colored soldiers was threatened. These threats were made in official papers signed by the generals in command, and which are in our possession. Verbal threats of the same character will in due time be proven. By the casualty of war the fate intended for Paducah and Columbus fell only upon Fort Pillow.

A full and formal report of military operations within this district since I had the honor to be assigned to its command will be forwarded at the [end] of this month, to which reference is made for closer details.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,


Brigadier-General, Commanding.


Secretary of War, Washington City. [OR Series I, Vol 32, Part 1, pp. 518519]

Ransom Anderson, 6th US Colored Heavy Artillery, said, “I do hereby certify that I am a member of Company B, Sixth U. S. Heavy Artillery, and that I was in the battle of Fort Pillow on the 12th day of April, A. d. 1864, and that I was severely wounded during the progress of the engagement. When the surrender occurred I was taken prisoner. I also certify that while a prisoner and wounded I was further wounded by being cut in the head and hands by one Lieutenant Williams, C. S. Army. I also certify that I saw John Pritchard, of Company B, Sixth U. S. Heavy Artillery, shot while a prisoner and while lying by my side upon the ground. I also certify that I saw Coolie Pride, of the same regiment and the same company, stabbed by a rebel soldier with a bayonet and the and the bayonet broken off in his body, after the said Coolie Pride had been taken prisoner by the Confederates. On the morning of the 13th day of April, A. D. 1864, after he had been taken prisoner, I saw Daniel Lester shot dead by a rebel soldier.” [Ibid., p. 519]

Daniel Stamps, 13th Tennessee Company E, a sharpshooter under the bluff, said, “Afterward, when the negroes had given way on the left, I saw them run out of the fort down the bluff close to my vicinity. Then I saw the white soldiers coming down after them, saying the rebels were showing no quarter. I then threw down my gun and ran down with them, closely pursued by the enemy shooting down every man black and white. They said they had orders from Forrest to show no quarter, but to ‘kill the last God **** one of them.’ While I was standing at the bottom of the hill, I heard a rebel officer shout out an order of some kind to the men who had taken us, and saw a rebel soldier standing by me. I asked him what the officer had said. He repeated it to me again. It was, ‘kill the last **** one of them.’ The soldier replied to his officer that we had surrendered; that we were prisoners and must not be shot. The officer again replied, seeming crazy with rage that he had not been obeyed, ‘I tell you to kill the last God ****ed one of them.’ He then turned and galloped off. I also certify that I saw 2 men shot down while I was under the bluff. They fell nearly at my feet. They had their hands up; had surrendered, and were begging for mercy. I also certify that I saw at least 25 negroes shot down, within 10 or 20 paces from the place where I stood. They had also surrendered, and were begging for mercy. I do also certify that on the ensuing morning I saw negroes who were wounded, and had survived the night, shot and killed as fast as they could be found. One rebel threatened to kill me because I would not tell him where a poor negro soldier was who had been wounded badly, but who had crawled off on his hands and knees and hidden behind a log. I was myself also shot some two hours after I had surrendered.” [OR Series I, Vol 32, Part 1, p. 531]

Accounts can be read all the way through to page 540.

As Cimprich and Mainfort tell us, “In fact, scholars have good reason to suspect all federal evidence written after congressional hearings began (April 22) and all Confederate evidence after they became aware of northern allegations (April 25 at the latest).”  [John Cimprich and Robert C. Mainfort, Jr., “Fort Pillow Revisited:  New Evidence About an Old Controversy,” Civil War History, Vol XXVIII, No. 4, December, 1982, p. 295]

We can look at some confederate sources from near the time of the battle as well.

There were at least three soldiers with Forrest’s Cavalry who were also sending reports back to newspapers.  One of these was known to readers as “Vidette,” and another was known as “Memphis,” and a third as “Marion.”

Report by “Vidette,” Mobile [AL] Advertiser and Register, April 17, 1864:

Fort Pillow, Tenn., April 12; via Holly Springs, April 16. Gen. Forrest attacked this place with Chalmer’s division yesterday. The garrison consisted of three hundred whites and four hundred negroes. They refused to surrender, and the place was carried by storm. Forrest led Bell’s brigade and Chalmers led McCulloch’s brigade in person.  They entered the fort from opposite sides at the same moment. Indiscriminant slaughter followed—about a hundred prisoners were taken, the balance were slain. The fort ran with blood; many jumped into the river and drowned or [were] shot in the water. Over $100,000 worth of stores and six pieces of artillery were captured.  Our loss was about seventy-five killed and wounded.” [Quoted in John Cimprich and Robert C. Mainfort, Jr., “Fort Pillow Revisited:  New Evidence About an Old Controversy,” Civil War History, Vol XXVIII, No. 4, December, 1982, pp. 296-297]

Report by “Memphis,” Atlanta Memphis Appeal, May 2, 1864

Jackson, Tenn., April 18, 1861 … The enemy announced their determination not to surrender, and were accordingly defiant and insolent in their demeanor. They ridiculed the idea of taking the fort, and intimated that the last man would die before surrendering. Gen. Forrest told them that in order to prevent the effusion of blood he had demanded the surrender, but now the consequences were upon their own heads. Then the work of slaughter and death commenced. The sight of negro soldiers stirred the bosoms of our soldiers with courageous madness. The moment our men were seen upon the wall, the foe, which a few minutes ago was so defiant and insolent, turned to cowards. Still they would not surrender. Those that were hid or protected still kept firing upon and killing our brave boys; but our troops still rushed upon them, all the time fighting and killing. The sight was terrific—the slaughter sickening. Wearied with the slow process of  shooting with guns, our troops commenced with their repeaters, and every fire brought down a foe, and so close was the fight, that the dead would frequently fall upon the soldier that killed. Still the enemy would not or knew not how to surrender. The Federal flag, that hated emblem of tyranny was still proudly waving over the scene. Seeing that nothing could be gained by further fight the enemy rushed to the Coldwater for the purpose of swimming across; but the troops stationed here by Gen. Forrest opened upon them, and hundreds were killed in the water endeavoring to escape. Others rushed to the passage between the fort and the river for the purpose of passing down the river towards Memphis. But the troops stationed here by Gen. Forrest to guard this very contingency, opened fire upon them, and the enemy rushed upon a coal barge and endeavored to push it off; but a concentrated fire from our whole column, soon put an end to this experiment. Several hundred were shot in this boat and in Coldwater, while endeavoring to escape. The number in the water was so great, that they  resembled a drove of hogs swimming across the stream. But not a man escaped in this way. The head above the water was a beautiful mark for the trusty  rifle of our unerring marksmen. The Mississippi River was crimsoned with the red blood of the flying foe. Our soldiers grew sick and weary in the work of slaughter, and were glad when the work was done. General Forrest begged them to surrender, but he was told with an air of insulting defiance that he could not take the place, and that they asked for no quarter. Not the first sign of surrender was ever given. Gen. Forrest expected a surrender after entering the fort, and anxiously looked for it, as he witnessed the carnage; but no token was given. … [Quoted in John Cimprich and Robert C. Mainfort, Jr., “Fort Pillow Revisited:  New Evidence About an Old Controversy,” Civil War History, Vol XXVIII, No. 4, December, 1982, pp. 301-302]

Report by ‘Marion,” Mobile Advertiser and Register, April 26, 1864

Camp of the 20 Tennessee Cavalry Okalona, April 20th, 1864 ….A feeble resistance is offered by those within [the fort], then the lines give way in confusion, and gunners, Yankees, and negroes, rush madly from the fort down an almost perpendicular bank towards the river, under a rapid and destructive fire from our rifles. The polluted “star-spangled banner” was torn from its fastenings and trampled in dust, and high above the ramparts of the conquered fort, proudly floated our own [l]oved ensign, flapping defiance at the ominous looking gunboats anchored above. … For ten minutes death reigned in the fortification, and along the river bank, Our troops maddened by the excitement, shot down the ret[r]eating Yankees, and not until they had attained t[h]e water’s edge and turned to beg for mercy, did any prisoners fall in [t]o our hands—Thus the whites received quarter, but the negroes were shown no mercy.  [Quoted in John Cimprich and Robert C. Mainfort, Jr., “Fort Pillow Revisited:  New Evidence About an Old Controversy,” Civil War History, Vol XXVIII, No. 4, December, 1982, p. 304]

The soldier-correspondents aren’t our only confederate sources.  Achilles V. Clark, a sergeant in the 20th Tennessee Cavalry who would be promoted and eventually make it to the rank of captain, wrote a letter to his sisters two days after Fort Pillow:

Letter of Sgt. Achilles V. Clark, Twentieth Tennessee Cavalry:

Camp near Brownsville April 14th 1864

My Dear Sisters,

I write you a few hurried lines to inform you that I am quite well and have just passed safely through the most terrible ordeal of my whole life. I guess that you know what I mean as you doubtless have before this heard of the taking of Fort Pillow. In as much as I am a member of Forrest’s Cavalry modesty would direct that I should say nothing in our praise nor will I but will tell you in as few words as possible what was done and leave you to judge whether or not we acted well or ill. … From this time on we were in our saddles until we reaced [sic] a point one and a half miles this side the Fort where we dismounted to fight (this was about 7 a.m. Tuesday) leaving every fourth man to hold horses we marched on foot in sight of the fortifications which were said to be manned by about seven hundred renegade Tennesseeans [sic] and negros [sic] commaned [sic] by Major Boothe [Booth] of the Negro regiment Major Bradford of the 13th Tenn U.S.V. being second in command. … At 2 P.M. Gen. Forrest demanded a surrender and gave twenty minutes to consider. The Yankees refused threatening that if we charged their breast works to show no quarter. The bugle sounded the charge and in less than ten minutes we were in the fort hurling the cowardly villians [sic] howling down the bluff. Our men were so exasperated by the Yankees’ threats of no quarter that they gave but little. The Slaughter was awful. Words cannot describe the scene. The poor deluded negros [sic] 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 whitte [sic] men fared but little better. Their fort turned out to be a great slaugter [sic] pen–blood–human blood stood about in pools and brains could have been gathered up in any quantity. 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 — Finally our men became sick of blood and the firing ceased. The result — The report kept in the Post Adjutants office shows that there were seven hundred and ninty [sic] men for duty on the morning of the fight. We brought away about one hundred and sixty white men and about seventy five negros [sic]. Two transports came down the morning after the fight and took off the badly wounded Yankees and negros [sic] about thirty or forty in all. The remainder were thrown into the trench before which two hours previous they had stood and bade open defiance to Forrest and all his ragged hounds — and were covered up about two feet deep.

[Dan E. Pomeroy, ed., “A Letter of Account:  Sergeant Clark Tells of the Fort Pillow Massacre,” Civil War Times Illustrated, Vol XXIV, No. 4, June, 1985, pp. 24-25]

Samuel H. Caldwell, a surgeon with the 16th Tennessee Cavalry under Forrest, wrote to his wife:

Letter of Surgeon Samuel H. Caldwell, Sixteenth Tennessee Cavalry

Camp Near Brownsville, April 15, 1864.

My Dear Darling Wife, … We are just from Fort Pillow which fort we attacked on Tuesday the 13th. 1864 & carried by storm. It was garrisoned by 400 white men and 400 negroes & out of the 800 only 168 are now living So you can guess how terrible was the slaughter. It was decidedly the most horrible sight that I have ever witnessed— They refused to surrender—which incensed our men & if General Forrest had not run between our men & the Yanks with his pistol and sabre drawn not a man would have been spared—We took about a hundred & 25 white men & about 45 negroes the rest of the 800 are numbered with the dead—They sure [lay] heaped upon each other 3 days—…

Nothing more but remain your devoted husband. S. H. Caldwell.

[Quoted in John Cimprich and Robert C. Mainfort, Jr., “Fort Pillow Revisited:  New Evidence About an Old Controversy,” Civil War History, Vol XXVIII, No. 4, December, 1982, p. 300]

There is even a postwar confederate account from Col. Thomas F. Berry in his memoir, Four Years With Morgan and Forrest, in which he writes, “The scene that followed inside the fort beggars description.  Sheets of fire and flame, bayonets, clubbed muskets, revolvers, swords, flashed and rung among the maddened soldiers who shot the frantic negroes and slew the men who had urged the negroes to this rash act and who now rushed pell mell about and over the embankment and redoubts, only to be impaled on the bayonets of those outside the fort.”  [Thomas F. Berry, Four Years with Morgan and Forrest, p. 270]  Berry, though, places the blame for this on the Union soldiers.  He is one source who claims soldiers who surrendered picked up rifles and began shooting again.

There are also some Union sources close to the fight.  One of these is Charles Robinson, a civilian photographer who wrote to his family back home in Minnesota after the battle:

“As soon as the rebels got to the top of the bank there commenced the most horrible slaughter that could possibly be conceived. Our boys when they saw that they were overpowered threw down their arms and held up, some their handkerchiefs & some their hands in token of surrender, but no sooner were they seen than they were shot down, & if one shot failed to kill them the bayonet or revolver did not. I lay behind a high log & could see our poor fellows bleeding and hear them cry ‘surrender’ ‘I surrender’ but they surrendered in vain for the rebels now ran down the bank and putting their revolvers right up to their heads would blow out their brains or lift them up on bayonets and throw them headlong into the river below. One of them soon came to where I was laying with one of the ‘Co C’ boys. He pulled out his revolver and shot the soldier right in the head scattering the blood & brains in my face & then putting his revolver right against my breast he said ‘You’ll fight with the ni***rs again will you? You d–d yankee,’ and he snapped his revolver, but she wouldn’t go off as he had shot the last load out when he killed the soldier by my side. ‘Come up the hill,’ he said & I went up with him in front of me. When I got near the top the soldiers wanted to shoot the d–d yankee but the fellow who took me told them no, that I was his property. I all the time just had to keep quiet. He said that he saw by my pants and vest that I must be a citizen. I told him that I was. Then he said I want your Greenbacks & that watch. I told him I was a prisoner & would not let him rob me. He called to another soldier & borrowed his revolver & putting it up to my face he said ‘Shell out–shell out quick.’ I shelled out. Another little cuss came up to me after these fellows left me & said, ‘say mister I want them boots.’ I told him I would give them to him if he would get me a drink of beer as I was very dry. He went after the beer & I went to another part of the Fort & did not see him again.

“I had as yet no guard over me, & as I had a grey suit on except the blouse, & as the rebels killed our boys they would take off their coats & put them on, so that now I was dressed as they were I now went to the top of the hill right amongst them & they thought I was one of their own men. I stood there & I saw them shoot & bayonet our poor fellows after they surrendered. I saw them take off their clothes after they were dead. I saw them pick the pockets of the dead, & heard them laugh & cheer when they were shooting our boys who had jumped into the river to keep from being cut to pieces. I stood there after the fireing [sic] was over, and looked at the dead. It was truly a hard sight (I thought then that they had done all they could do, but when I returned two days after and went up to the Fort I found that I had not seen all their cruel actions for there lay the charred remains of some of the wounded soldiers, who we had left in their houses thinking that as they were wounded they would be treated kindly.” [Charles Robinson to “Folks at Home,” 17 Apr 1864, printed in George Bodnia, ed., “Fort Pillow ‘Massacre’ Observations of a Minnesotan,” Minnesota History, Vol 43, No. 5, Spring, 1973, pp. 188-189]

Another account comes from the report of Lt. Col Tom J. Jackson of the 6th US Colored Heavy Artillery [Jackson was a white officer of the 6th]:

“Major Booth had placed two of his companies in the rifle pits and two at the Guns, the enemy came up in collums [sic] charging but the well directed shots of our Artillery and Musketry of the command soon drove them back, they then proposed to charge the fort and did, but where [sic] again repulsed, in this charge Major Booth was killed, having just issued the order Boys never surrender, the command of the fort then devolved upon Major Bradford (who from accounts received is brave to a fault) after the Major had assumed command the enemy sent in a flag of truce demanding the surrender, but the little Garrison sent word back no, we never surrender.  under this flag of truce the Rebel Genl Forrest advanced his lines, after the flag was returned the enemy made another charge and where [sic] driven back with great Slaughter they then sent in another demand for surrender stating that having fought so bravely they would treat them all as prisoners of war, but this was returned with a decided refusal, it was under this flag that the enemy succeed [sic] in placing his forces in such a possition [sic] that when the flag was returned with the answer of no surrender he could with more ease charge the fort.  The flag had scarcely been taken down when Forrest ordered his command to charge the fort and though the command fought with desperation they succeed [sic] by their superior numbers in entering the fort commencing an indiscriminate slaughter of both whites and blacks, but still they would not surrender, remembering as they informed me they could not disobey the order of Major Booth, and as an evidence that the fort never did surrender, we have the flag of the battalion, preserved to us…”  [Draft report of Lt. Col Tom J. Jackson, Commanding 6th US Colored Heavy Artillery, April 19, 1864, Quoted in John Cimprich and Robert C. Mainfort, Jr., “Fort Pillow Revisited:  New Evidence About an Old Controversy,” Civil War History, Vol XXVIII, No. 4, December, 1982, p. 303]

With this massive amount of evidence, it is hard to conclude there was not a massacre at Fort Pillow.  The weight of evidence is just too strong to honestly conclude anything else.

This has also been the verdict of historians.

“In a few instances Negroes were killed rather than captured, notably at Fort Pillow, on the east bank of the Mississippi, some forty miles above Memphis, where on April 12, 1864, a Rebel force swept into the garrison, and of the 262 Negro soldiers stationed there, 229 were killed, wounded in escape or buried alive.”  [Benjamin Quarles, The Negro in the Civil War, p. 206]

“While the extent of the massacre was exaggerated by Wade and Gooch, and while Union casualties may have amounted to less than two hundred killed, wounded, and missing, still the testimony of some of the officers and men who survived shows that there was ‘indiscriminate slaughter’ of Union troops, particularly of Negroes, after the fort had fallen.”  [Dudley Taylor Cornish, The Sable Arm:  Black Troops in the Union Army, 1861-1865, p. 174]

“Long before Fort Pillow, where 66 percent of the blacks assigned to that Federal garrison were massacred by troops commanded by General Nathan Bedford Forrest, black soldiers and their white officers worried about how they would be treated–as prisoners of war or as insurrectionists–if captured by the Confederates.”  [John David Smith, “Let Us Be Grateful That We Have Colored Troops That Will Fight,” in John David Smith, ed., Black Soldiers in Blue:  African American Troops in the Civil War Era, p. 43]

“The most recent and objective studies, however, have concluded that while the Congressional committee’s report was distorted and exaggerated, nevertheless several score Negro soldiers and some white troopers were indeed murdered after they had surrendered.”  [James M. McPherson, The Negro’s Civil War:  How American Blacks Felt and Acted During the War for the Union, p. 221]

“Except for the Fort Pillow Massacre and other scattered instances of murder after capture, the South did not treat Negro prisoners barbarously.  But the Confederacy did refuse to exchange Negro prisoners, contributing to the prisoner-exchange breakdown which caused overcrowding in both Union and Confederate prisons.”  [Ibid., pp. 335-336, Note 7]

“Immediately after he heard about the massacre of Union soldiers at Fort Pillow, Tennessee, Gen. Augustus L. Chetlain, a recruiter of black troops stationed in Memphis, wrote to Illinois congressman Elihu Washburne:  ‘This is the most infernal outrage that has been committed since the war began.’ ”  [Bruce Tap, “‘These Devils are not Fit to Live on God’s Earth’:  War Crimes and the Committee on the Conduct of the War, 1864-1865,” Civil War History, Vol 42, No. 2, June, 1996, p. 116]


  1. Roy Gates · · Reply

    Some of the comments above that have been discounted because of inconsistencies seem more accurate to me. The questions were asked in a time period quite close to the incident, so the recounting may not have been repeated over and over. Letters or later observations may seem more consistent, but that’s often because the memory has been repeated so many times that details have been brushed out.

    The recounting of statements offered by others is a high indicator of credibility as it’s usually spontaneous.

    The level of detail about what happened to the individual being questioned is also an indicator of credibility.

    1. The inconsistencies include one man who claimed he was shot once, but then claimed being shot in two different places at two different times. Another was a man calling Forrest, who was 6’2″ tall, “a little bit of a man.” Clearly those are problematical. When I said much of the testimonies get discounted I wasn’t saying they get discounted by me, but rather by others. They discount that testimony simply because it was taken by the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. That shouldn’t be the reason to discount the testimony, but also we should view all evidence critically. Testimony that has internal contradictions needs to be given less weight than testimony without such contradictions. We also need to take into account the possibility that the people giving the testimony knew what the questioners wanted to hear.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: