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.