One of the most controversial actions that took place during the American Civil War was the massacre of Union troops at Ft. Pillow, Tennessee. On April 12, 1864, Confederate troops under the command of General Nathan Bedford Forrest attacked an isolated Union base on the Mississippi River and killed scores of troops attempting to surrender — most of the Union soldiers were black. 

Ft. Pillow was constructed by the Confederate general Gideon Johnson Pillow in 1862 as part of the important Mississippi River defenses. It was located about 40 miles north of Memphis.

When Union offensives captured New Madrid and Island 10, the defense of the fort became untenable. As a result, the Confederate troops withdrew from the fort. The Union occupied it in early June 1862 and it served as part of its defenses to the entrance of Memphis. 

In mid-March 1864, Forrest was in command of a 7,000 cavalry troop Corps, which he called “the Cavalry Department of West Tennessee and North Mississippi.” He was attempting to disrupt the Union supply line, capture supplies for Confederate use, and take the smaller bases between Paducah, KY, and Memphis. 

He attacked Paducah on March 25 and caused considerable damage. Afterward, because he needed horses and supplies, he decided to attack with 2,000 men and capture the Union garrison at Ft. Pillow. 

The Union had approximately 600 troops at Ft. Pillow, about half of them white and half black. The black soldiers belonged to the 6th U.S. Regiment Colored Heavy Artillery and a section of the 2nd Colored Light Artillery under Major Lionel F. Booth. Many soldiers of Booth’s regiment were former slaves who understood the ramifications of their taking up arms against the Confederacy: Rumors, up until that time unfounded, were that Confederate troops would kill any black prisoners in uniform. The white soldiers were mostly green recruits from a west Tennessee Union unit. They were commanded by Major William F. Bradford.

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The Fort Pilow Massacre. 

When Forrest arrived at Ft. Pillow at 1000 hrs on April 12, one of his divisions commanded by BG James Chalmers had already surrounded the fort. A shot from a Union sharpshooter took out Forrest’s horse — one of three he would lose in that day alone. The Confederates deployed sharpshooters of their own on the high ground overlooking the fort; their aim took its toll early. Booth was killed with a bullet to the chest and Bradford assumed command. 

Within an hour the Confederate troops had captured rows of barracks and were pouring fire on the defenders. This continued until 1530 hours when Forrest sent a note demanding their immediate surrender. 

“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 the entire garrison, promising that you shall be treated as prisoners of war. My men have just 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.”

Bradford stalled and Forrest, aware that reinforcements may be coming down the river, gave him just 20 minutes to decide. When Bradford declined to surrender, the Confederates began a furious assault. The sharpshooters kept up the fire, keeping the Union troops pinned down while the assault lines moved up and over the parapets. The fire also forced sailors on the gunboat “New Era” to button up their firing ports but they never fired a shot. 

After a short skirmish, the Union troops broke and ran towards the river. The gunboat was supposed to cover their withdrawal but left them exposed to dangerous fire from three sides. Organized resistance soon collapsed.

The assault had taken less than five minutes.

Forrest wrote in an after-action report, “As our troops mounted and poured into the fortification the enemy retreated toward the river arms in hand and firing back.”

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The Confederate troops were then outraged to find that many of the soldiers they were facing were black. 

Surviving Union troops said that most of their men surrendered and threw down their arms, only to be shot or bayoneted by the attackers, who repeatedly shouted, “No quarter! No quarter!”

However, the killing didn’t just apply to the black soldiers. The Confederates looked upon the Tennessee unit of white soldiers as traitors. They shot and bayonetted many of them including Major Bradford. 

By the time the officers got the men under control, the killing had gotten out of control: Union casualties were reported as 350 killed and mortally wounded, 60 wounded, and 164 captured and missing, (although many historians claim that the numbers were inflated). Forrest’s men sustained casualties of 14 killed and 86 wounded.

In the North, investigations were started over the massacre. General Sherman, the Union Commander of the Military Division of the Mississippi wrote,

“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 he was usually very kind to them. He had a desperate set of fellows under him, and at that very time there is no doubt the feeling of the Southern people was fearfully savage on this very point of our making soldiers out of their late slaves, and Forrest may have shared the feeling.”

Indeed, Forrest afterward claimed that he was unaware of what his troops did.

Robert S. Critchell, an acting master’s mate in the Union Navy, who was part of the force that went to the site after the battle to collect the dead, wrote to U.S. Rep. Henry Blow (R-MO.) and described how the black troops had been “murdered” by the Confederate soldiers. 

“I found many of the dead lying close along by the water’s edge, where they had evidently sought safety; they could not offer any resistance from the places where they were, in holes and caves along the banks,” Critchell wrote. “Most of them had two wounds. I saw several colored soldiers of the Sixth United States Artillery, with their eyes, punched out with bayonets; many of them were shot twice and bayonetted also.”

Perhaps the most damning piece was written by one of Forrest’s own men. Sergeant Achilles V. Clark wrote a letter to his sisters on April 14: 

“Our men were so exasperated by the Yankee’s threats of no quarter that they gave but little. The slaughter was awful. Words cannot describe the scene. The poor deluded negros would run-up to our men fall on 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. The fort turned out to be a great slaughter 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.”

In 1867, many of the dead were moved to Memphis National Cemetery.

Many Southern sympathizers still claim that General Forrest had no idea what his troops were in the process of doing. But as General Sherman had written, although Forrest had treated Union prisoners quite well in the past, that probably didn’t apply to black soldiers. And ultimately, as the commanding officer, he was responsible for the actions of the men under his command.