Fort Pillow

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Fort Pillow, Battle of (1864).By 1864, the captured Confederate earthwork Fort Pillow, located 40 miles above Memphis, Tennessee, on the Mississippi River, was garrisoned by 557 Union soldiers under Maj. Lionel F. Booth. Of these men, 262 belonged to the 11th U.S. Colored Troops and Battery F, 4th U.S. Colored Light Artillery. On 12 April, Confederate Maj. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest ordered Brig. Gen. James R. Chalmers's 1,500 men to attack the fort.

Beginning at 5:30 A.M., Confederate sharpshooters located on hills above the fort opened a devastating fire, killing many soldiers, including Booth. Forrest arrived on the field at midmorning and directed the assault that gained part of the fort for the Confederates. By 3:30 P.M., Forrest sent a surrender demand to Maj. William F. Bradford, now in command of the Union force. When Bradford delayed, Forrest attacked, quickly driving the defenders out of the fort and down the bank into a crossfire.

What happened next has served to place Fort Pillow second only in infamy in atrocities of that war to Andersonville, the most notorious of the Civil War prisoner‐of‐war camps. At Fort Pillow, many Union soldiers tried to surrender while others continued fighting or tried to run. Forrest either ordered his men to accept no surrender or his Confederates lost control but in either case, they began to slaughter black soldiers. The casualty list confirms a massacre. Confederates suffered 14 killed and 86 wounded, while the Union force lost 231 killed and 100 wounded; only 58 of the 226 surviving Union prisoners were black soldiers.

The U.S. Congress's Committee on the Conduct of the War investigated, and after much testimony from survivors—including horrifying accounts of black soldiers being buried alive—it denounced the Confederate actions as murder and atrocity. Forrest objected, and many historians have sided with his account but Forrest's best biographer, Brian Steel Wills, concluded that the committee's findings were valid and that Forrest was responsible for the slaughter.


Albert Castel , The Fort Pillow Massacre: A Fresh Examination of the Evidence, Civil War History, 1958.
Brian Steel Wills , A Battle from the Start: The Life of Nathan Bedford Forrest, 1992.

Russell Duncan

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Fort Pillow, fortification on the Mississippi River, N of Memphis, Tenn.; built by Confederate Gen. Gideon Pillow in 1862. Evacuated by the Confederates after the fall of Island No. 10 to the north, the fort was occupied by Union troops on June 6, 1862. Confederate Gen. Nathan Forrest stormed and captured Fort Pillow on Apr. 12, 1864, killing many African-American defenders. Often called the Fort Pillow Massacre, it became one of the greatest atrocity stories of the Civil War. Charged with ruthless killing, Forrest argued that the soldiers had been killed trying to escape; however, racial animosity on the part of his troops was undoubtedly a factor.

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