The early spring of 1864 was cold and bleak in west Tennessee. For Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest and the 3,000 troopers he led from northern Mississippi that March–mostly Tennesseans who were eager to re-enter their home state–the land seemed devoid of warmth or welcome. Two years of Union occupation, interspersed with Confederate raids and counterraids, had spawned a poisonous atmosphere of revenge and reprisal that seemed to have sickened the entire region. ‘The whole of West Tennessee,’ Forrest reported angrily, ‘is overrun by bands and squads of robbers, horse thieves and deserters, whose depredations and unlawful appropriations of private property are rapidly and effectually depleting the country.’
Forrest himself was a native Tennessean, born in 1821 in Bedford County. Although he was raised in the backwoods of northern Mississippi, he had made his fortune in Memphis, and he always considered Tennessee his home. Now he was back, and what he saw did not amuse him. The land was picked over and brown, with burned farmhouses and ruined barns dotting the horizon. Nor was Forrest much amused by the tales he heard from local residents while he was camped at Jackson, Tenn., en route to Kentucky on a horse-gathering mission. A ‘regiment of renegade Tennesseans,’ he noted, led by Colonel Fielding Hurst of the 6th Tennessee (U.S.) Cavalry, had been plundering throughout southwestern Tennessee, perpetrating ‘wanton destruction of property’ and demanding–and getting–a sum of $5,139.25 from the residents of Jackson in return for not burning the town to the ground. (The sum was exactly, to the penny, the amount of a legal judgment made against Hurst by Federal authorities in Memphis on behalf of a female resident of Jackson whose property had been destroyed by the colonel’s raiders.)
Even worse than Hurst’s extortionate tactics was his treatment of several Forrest subordinates who had returned to their hometowns to recruit new soldiers for the Southern cause. Seven of these men had been murdered by Hurst’s forces in the past two months, including Lieutenant Willis Dodds, who had been killed less than two weeks earlier at his father’s home in Henderson County. Forrest reported that Dodds had been ‘put to death by torture,’ noting that a witness, who had seen the young lieutenant’s body shortly after his death, found the victim ‘most horribly mutilated, the face having been skinned, the nose cut off, the under jaw disjoined, the privates cut off, and the body otherwise barbarously lacerated and most wantonly injured.’
Jackson residents warned Forrest of another ‘nest of outlaws’ currently holed up in an old abandoned Confederate fortification, Fort Pillow, overlooking the Mississippi River 40 miles north of Memphis. These Unionists, members of the 13th Tennessee Cavalry under the command of Major William F. Bradford, included many former Confederates who had joined forces with the occupying Federals. These ‘homemade Yankees’ were hated by Forrest’s men, many of whose families reportedly had been victims of the turncoats’ threats, abuses and outright thievery. Bradford, an attorney who came from Forrest’s own home county of Bedford, was particularly loathed. Prior to receiving a commission in the Union Army, Bradford had led a band of pro-Northern guerrillas in raids against Confederate sympathizers in middle and west Tennessee. ‘Under the pretense of scouring the country for arms and rebel soldiers,’ said Forrest’s first biographers, Bradford had ‘traversed the surrounding country with detachments, robbing the people of their horses, mules, beef cattle, beds, plates, wearing apparel, money, and every possible movable article of value, besides venting upon the wives and daughters of Southern soldiers the most opprobrious and obscene epithets, with more than one extreme outrage upon the persons of these victims of their hate and lust.’
For the time being, Forrest could do nothing about the alleged atrocities–he was under orders to remount and refit a new division of Kentucky cavalry in the Bluegrass State–but he promised the people of Jackson that he would ‘attend to’ the Federals at Fort Pillow ‘in a day or two.’ In the meantime, he issued a proclamation labeling Hurst and his troopers outlaws and declaring that they were ‘not entitled to be treated as prisoners of war falling into the hands of the forces of the Confederate states.’ Instead, they would be shot down summarily whenever and wherever they were encountered. That was partly bluster on Forrest’s part, designed to strike fear into the hearts of wavering Confederate supporters and would-be deserters, but Union authorities took the threat seriously enough to warn Hurst ‘against allowing your men to straggle or pillage…as a deviation from this rule may prove fatal to yourself and [your] command.’
In a less than buoyant state of mind, Forrest and his men rode north toward Kentucky in late March. Part of the column, 500 horsemen under the command of Colonel William L. Duckworth, was detached to capture Union City, a crossroads village in northwestern Tennessee. Duckworth carried out his assignment with flair, posing as Forrest and sending a strongly worded surrender demand to the Federal garrison commander, Colonel Issac Hawkins, who had already surrendered to Forrest once before. Now Hawkins demanded to see Forrest in person before capitulating. Duckworth, thinking quickly, responded (as Forrest) that ‘I am not in the habit of meeting officers inferior to myself in rank…but I will send Col. Duckworth, who is your equal in rank, and who is authorized to arrange terms and conditions with you.’ The ruse worked and Hawkins, although holding a strong position, handed over himself and 500 other Union soldiers, as well as 300 horses and $60,000 in greenbacks that the garrison had recently received in pay. The Confederates joked afterward that they would be happy to parole Hawkins again in order to obtain more horses and equipment.
A similar ploy was not so successful at Paducah, Ky., which Forrest besieged the next day. There the Union colonel in command, Stephen G. Hicks, withdrew his forces into Fort Anderson, along the Ohio River, west of town. After hours of intermittent sniping, Forrest sent Hicks his standard surrender demand: ‘Having a force amply sufficient to carry your works and reduce the place, and in order to avoid the unnecessary effusion of blood, I demand the surrender of the fort and troops, with all public property. If you surrender, you shall be treated as prisoners of war; but if I have to storm your works, you may expect no quarter.’
Hicks, a Mexican War veteran, rejected the demand. He had a sizable force of between 700 and 1,000 men from the 16th Kentucky Cavalry, the 122nd Illinois Infantry and the 1st Kentucky Negro Artillery, as well as two nearby gunboats, Peosta and Paw-Paw, standing off in the Ohio River, ready to blast the attackers with grapeshot and canister if they came too near. Hicks was convinced he could hold out indefinitely.
As soon as he heard of the abortive attack, Forrest angrily forbade any further assaults. Meanwhile, the raiders completed their mission inside Paducah while the Union gunboats indiscriminately shelled the town. Hicks directed the captain of one of the vessels to ‘protect the fort and let the town go to hell.’ Later, Union Brig. Gen. Mason Brayman congratulated Hicks on his ruthless decision, noting with satisfaction that the town had been ‘made a ruin,’ which Brayman said was only right since the ‘rebel instincts’ of the residents had ‘rendered it quite certain that the town would not have been occupied [by Forrest] without their consent.’
Forrest withdrew from Paducah before midnight on March 25, having gathered 400 horses and mules, 50 prisoners and a large supply of clothing, saddles and supplies–the whole point of his mission. He could have held Paducah indefinitely, Forrest claimed, but he had found the town wracked by an outbreak of smallpox and so withdrew to avoid unnecessarily exposing his men to the disease.
Back in Tennessee, Forrest was irritated by reports coming out of the North that labeled his Paducah raid a failure. The Louisville Journal, for one, charged that the Rebels had been ‘gloriously drunk, and but little better than a mob.’ The newspaper said Forrest’s men had ‘commenced an indiscriminate pillage of the houses’ and then had made’several desperate charges…upon the fort. The Federals met them with a withering fire, and in each onset the rebel columns were broken and driven back in confusion.’
Now Forrest turned his attention to Fort Pillow, ordering Brig. Gen. James Chalmers to bring up the rest of the cavalry corps from Mississippi. The first order of business was dealing with the much-hated Colonel Hurst and his command. Colonel James J. Neely struck Hurst’s trail between Somerville and Bolivar, Tenn., on March 29 and, in Chalmers’ retelling, ‘met the traitor Hurst at Bolivar, after a short conflict, in which we killed and captured 75 prisoners of the enemy, drove Hurst hatless into Memphis’ and captured ‘all his wagons, ambulances [and] papers,’ as well as ‘his mistresses, both black and white.’ As events at Fort Pillow would soon prove, Hurst had gotten off lightly with the mere loss of his hat and girlfriends.
To check Federal forces in the area while he advanced on Fort Pillow, Forrest sent Colonel Abraham Buford back to Paducah to seize the remaining 140 government horses that Northern newspapers had inadvisably bragged about the Rebels missing. At the same time, he directed Neely to threaten Memphis and pin down the Union garrison there. The Confederate commander, meanwhile, headed west toward Fort Pillow in a driving rainstorm with the main body of troops.
The fort, named after Confederate Brig. Gen. Gideon Pillow, had been constructed in 1861 on the east bank of the Mississippi River immediately below the intersection of the river with Coal (or Cold) Creek. The strongpoint had three lines of earthen entrenchments: a semicircular outer line of earthworks, a shorter second line of works atop a prominent hill and the fort itself, whose earthworks were 6 to 8 feet high and 4 to 6 feet across and were fronted by a 12-foot-wide, 6-foot-deep trench. The fort’s works extended in a 125-yard-wide semicircle, behind which the land rapidly fell away to the river. Deep ravines crisscrossed the landscape in front of the bastion, and four rows of barracks lay on the only open terrace of land, just to the southwest.
The Confederates had abandoned Fort Pillow after the fall of Corinth, Miss., in May 1862, and Union forces had occupied it intermittently ever since. On the morning of April 12, 1864, the fort was garrisoned by approximately 580 soldiers from three separate units: the 13th Tennessee Cavalry, under Major Bradford, which had been quartering at Fort Pillow for the past two months while recruiting new members and allegedly terrorizing Confederate sympathizers in the vicinity; and two black artillery units, the 6th U.S. Heavy Artillery and the 2nd U.S. Light Artillery, manning six pieces of artillery that had only been at the fort for two weeks. Major Lionel F. Booth, a veteran of the Regular Army, was overall commander of the Union forces. Standing ready to render assistance from offshore was the Union gunboat New Era, under the direction of Captain James Marshall.
Booth was either very confident or very careless. Although there had been numerous sightings of Forrest and his men in the area, the Union major airily reported that things were quiet for 30 or 40 miles around Fort Pillow. ‘I think it perfectly safe,’ he assured Maj. Gen. Stephen Hurlburt in Memphis. Furthermore, Booth believed that he could ‘hold the post against any force for forty-eight hours.’ Events would soon prove him wrong on both counts.
On the afternoon of April 11, Forrest met with Chalmers at Brownsville, 38 miles east of Fort Pillow. Forrest wanted the former Mississippi lawyer to head for the fort as early as possible the next morning. Chalmers quickly complied, and at 6 a.m. the next day his two brigades, under Colonels Robert McCulloch and Tyree Bell, made contact with the Federal pickets outside the fort. The advance guard, led by Captain Frank J. Smith of the 2nd Missouri Cavalry, managed to creep around behind the pickets and send them flying. Only a handful of pickets escaped back to the fort with the unwelcome news that the Rebels had suddenly arrived in force.
Forrest wasted no more time. He quickly signaled bugler Jacob Gaus to sound the charge, and retired to a hill 400 yards away to watch the assault. The bugler’s notes had scarcely drifted away before the Confederate sharpshooters opened another devastating fire on the fort’s parapets, making it impossible for the defenders to so much as raise their heads above the works. Meanwhile, other gray-clad troops sprang from their places of concealment in the ravines or behind the barracks huts, tore across the few remaining yards to the ditch surrounding the fort and bubbled into it like a swarm of angry hornets. Within seconds they were boosting one another onto the outer ledge below the fort’s wall. Lieutenant Leaming, who left behind the only official Union report of the battle, said the Confederates seemed to ‘rise from out of the very earth.’
Almost unopposed, the Confederates leaped onto the top of the wall and began blazing away at the cowering Federals, many of whom reportedly were drunk from barrels of whiskey put out prior to the final assault. Tennessee officer DeWitt Clinton Fort, one of Forrest’s men, was in the forefront of the attack. ‘As we charged over the ramparts,’ said Fort, ‘the enemy’s garrison of mixed complexion retreated over the bluff down to the water’s edge. Here was assembled one wild promiscuous mass rendered senseless and uncontrollable by the three causes–fright, drunkenness, and desperation.’
The Union defenders, black and white, soon broke and ran for the open rear of the fort. One black artilleryman, Private John Kennedy of the 2nd U.S. Colored Light Artillery, heard Bradford shout, ‘Boys, save your lives!’ Kennedy urged Bradford to ‘let us fight yet,’ but the major, seeing the Confederate attackers pouring in from all directions, said despairingly, ‘It is of no use anymore,’ and fled to the rear with the rest of his troops.
Inside the fort was a mass of confusion. Some of the Federals threw down their weapons and attempted to surrender, some continued firing, others simply ran away, spilling over the bluff’s brow and sliding down the vine-choked bank toward the river. Bradford and Marshall had worked out a prearranged signal for New Era to steam close to the bank at the first sign of trouble and ‘give the Rebels canister.’ Instead, no doubt to Bradford’s horrified consternation, Marshall swung the gunboat away from the shore. Meanwhile, Confederate marksmen stationed above and below the fort caught the retreating Federals at point-blank range and enfiladed the frantic fugitives. (Marshall later told a congressional committee that he had abandoned the plan because he was afraid the Confederates ‘might hail in a steamboat from below, capture her, put on four or five hundred men, and come after me.’)
Pandemonium reigned. The wrathful Confederates–most of whom had marched all night to the outskirts of the fort, run and sniped under enemy fire all morning, and then waited anxiously in the hot afternoon sun for the final assault to begin–were in no mood to be forgiving. To a man they believed that the Federals had been fools to refuse Forrest’s surrender demand. That refusal had cost them another 100 good men, dead or wounded. To their minds, the sight of black faces among the defenders was an added insult. The volatile mixture of racial animosity, long-simmering feuds with Tennessee Unionists, reports of atrocities committed against their own women and children, lingering embarrassment from the Paducah raid, physical exhaustion, battle excitement and fear for their own lives produced a brief but deadly spasm of vengefulness.
In the swirling confusion inside the fort the situation rapidly degenerated. Before Forrest could mount up and ride into the fort to restore order, an unknown number of Union troops reportedly were shot down while attempting to surrender. Meanwhile, the fort’s American flag still flew above the ramparts, and Confederates below the bluff had no way of knowing what was going on inside the fort. As DeWitt Clinton Fort noted in his diary after the battle: ‘The wildest confusion prevailed among those who had run down the bluff. Many of them had thrown down their arms while running and seemed desirous to surrender while many others had carried their guns with them and were loading and firing back up the bluff at us with a desperation which seemed worse than senseless. We could only stand there and fire until the last man of them was ready to surrender.’
Forrest himself, in a little-known postwar interview with fellow Confederate general Dabney H. Maury, supported Fort’s contention. ‘When we got into the fort the white flag was shown at once,’ Forrest said in an article published in the Philadelphia Weekly Times. ‘The negroes ran out down to the river; and although the [white] flag was flying, they kept on turning back and shooting at my men, who consequently continued to fire into them crowded on the brink of the river, and they killed a good many of them in spite of my efforts and those of their officers to stop them. But there was no deliberate intention nor effort to massacre the garrison as has been so generally reported by the Northern papers.’
Within half an hour the battle was over. Of the fort’s total garrison of 580 men, some 354 apparently were killed or wounded (final figures are still hotly disputed). Of these, a large number drowned while attempting to swim to the Union vessels that were steaming away without them. Another 226 were taken prisoner, including Bradford, who was shot and killed a few days later while attempting to escape.
After the battle, a congressional committee chaired by radical Republican Senator Benjamin F. Wade of Ohio issued a highly charged report accusing Forrest and his men of ‘an indiscriminate slaughter, sparing neither age nor sex, white or black, soldier or civilian.’ The fact that no women or children were killed at the fort, and only one civilian (who had taken up arms at the time of the attack), did not deter Wade’s committee, whose chief aim was not to determine the truth but to deliver a piece of wartime propaganda intended to incite the restive Northern public on the eve of Ulysses S. Grant’s long-awaited spring offensive. The report, virtually useless as an evidentiary document, did succeed in tarring Forrest and his men with the label of murderers, and the capture of Fort Pillow quickly became known as a ‘massacre.’ It remains so identified today, an explosive and imprecise term that sheds much heat–but little light–on one of the murkiest and most controversial episodes of the Civil War.
This article was written by Roy Morris, Jr. and originally appeared in America’s Civil War magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to America’s Civil War magazine today!