“Remember Fort Pillow”: The 150th Anniversary of the Fort Pillow Massacre

Today’s blog is written by Dr. Trichita M. Chestnut, Deputy Director Production Division of Data Processing at the National Declassification Center (NWD) at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland

“…the black men who were killed at Fort Pillow…and elsewhere, fighting as gallantly and as bravely as any men under the flag, be their complexion what it will, should be recognized by the Government…” (Congressional Globe, 38 Cong., 1 sess., June 24, 1864)

April 12, 2014 marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Fort Pillow, which took place in Lauderdale County, Tennessee during the American Civil War.  Today, this battle is also well known as the Fort Pillow Massacre due to the number of United States Colored Troops (USCT) who were killed when they attempted to surrender to the Confederate Army.  There were conflicting reports on what actually happened that day, which prompted Congress to investigate the massacre through the Joint Committee on the Conduct and Expenditures of the War.  The same report was submitted to the Senate and House of Representatives, Report No. 63 and Report No. 65, respectively in May 1864.

During the investigation, many of the surviving black soldiers who witnessed the cruelty and murders testified to the Joint Committee a week after the massacre occurred.  Their testimonies were found in the reports.  Union sources asserted that although their troops surrendered, Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s troops still executed them in cold blood, specifically the black troops, shouting out “No quarter! No quarter! Kill the d- n-; shoot them down.”  The black soldiers who survived testified that most of the men surrendered and threw down their weapons, only to be shot or beaten by the Confederate soldiers. Private Daniel Tyler (Company B of the 6th USCT Heavy Artillery) maintained that he “was wounded after we all surrendered; not before…They shot me when we came up the hill from down by the river.”  Private John Haskins (Co, B of the 6th USCT Heavy Artillery) asserted that “After we had surrendered they shot me in the left arm…” and Sergeant Henry F. Weaver (Co. C of the 6th USCT Heavy Artillery) stated that “The rebels charged after the flag of truce, the TN cavalry broke and was followed down the hill by the colored soldiers…They were shooting the negroes over my head…I saw one of the rebels and told him I would surrender, he said ‘We do not shoot white men,’…he ordered me away; [and] kept shooting the negroes…”

Although the killings ceased at night fall, the next morning it was renewed, when Confederate soldiers sought and sometimes killed the wounded among the dead.  Private Duncan Harding (Company A of the 6th USCT Heavy Artillery) swore that “The next morning I saw them shoot down one corporal in our company…they shot him dead.”  When asked if the corporal had any arms in his hands, Private Harding responded, “No sir; nothing.”  Private Manuel Nichols (Company B of the 6th USCT Heavy Artillery) testified to being injured again after the surrender.  He stated that “…the morning after the fight they shot me again in the right arm.  When they came up and killed the wounded ones, I saw some four or five coming down the hill” and Private Aaron Fentis (Company D of the 6th USCT Heavy Artillery) attested that he “saw two wounded men shot the next morning; they were lying down when the seeesh [or secessionists: a person withdrawing from the union, which was a derogatory term for Confederates and Southerners] shot them.” Confederate sources claimed that after the Rebels attacked the Fort, there was neither cruel purpose nor cruel negligence on the part of General Forrest, who was “utterly devoid of wrong doing.”  It was reported that when the Confederates evacuated Fort Pillow that evening they gained little from the attack except to temporary disrupt Union operations.

In the end, causalities were high, especially for Union troops.  It was reported that more than 300 black soldiers were killed in the Fort Pillow Massacre. Controversy surrounding this battle continues today, with some scholars arguing that Confederate troops massacred the Union troops after they surrendered and other scholars dispute the claims made during the congressional investigation.  The Fort Pillow Massacre became a Union rallying cry and cemented resolve to see the war through to its conclusion.

For more information on the Fort Pillow Massacre: Senate Report 63, 38 Congress, 1 sess., Serial 1178; House of Representatives Report 65, 38 Congress, 1 sess., Serial 1278; and Letters Received from Executive Officers, compiled 1831-1869; General Records of the Department of Treasury, Record Group 56 National Archives at College Park, College Park, Maryland.

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