Opinion » Bill Cope

Fort Pillow

The fury that knows no end

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That I have just recently learned of the Fort Pillow massacre isn't surprising. Our Civil War isn't something that interested me much when I was younger. When I did eventually start thinking of that awful conflict as perhaps the defining event in the nature of the country, I was interested less in any particular battle than the larger reality of what the war did to our people then, and how its aftershocks reverberate to present day, 150 years later.

Besides, how could one episode that killed a paltry 230 men compare in scale with those epic clashes like Antietam or Gettysburg, which left thousands upon thousands of dead on the battlefield in a single day and have never been matched in carnage to Americans, even in two world wars?

But let me tell you what I have learned about what happened at Fort Pillow, and you can judge for yourself where it belongs in our national narrative.

It was a minor garrison 40 miles north of Memphis, Tenn., overlooking the Mississippi River. Originally built by the Confederacy to protect shipping on the river, it was taken by the Union later in the war. On April 12, 1864, it was manned by 557 men: 295 white Tennessee soldiers aligned with the North, and 262 black soldiers, mostly liberated slaves who had never before come under fire.

By that time in the war, the big Confederate brass like Gen. Robert E. Lee and Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard had far more to worry about than this relatively insignificant irritant. But not so with Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest. On that April morning, Forrest led a cavalry force of an estimated 2,500 war-hardened men against Fort Pillow and within a few hour's time had overrun it.

The defenders, along with a number of civilians who had taken refuge in the fort, were pushed to the banks of the Mississippi, where Union sources say they tried to surrender and Confederate sources say they continued to resist. Whichever version is true, it is clear they were defeated by a vastly superior force and fortifications not designed to withstand a land assault. Still, as one Union officer (Lt. Mack J. Leaming) testified later, speaking of the raw black troops, "every man did his duty with a courage and determined resolution, seldom if ever passed in similar engagements."

The corpses of the black soldiers (and black civilians) showed evidence of being slaughtered at close quarters: powder burns around the bullet holes, skulls smashed with the butts of rifles, bayonet wounds, often through the eye sockets. Many had been forced into the water where they drowned or were shot, and several were burned alive. Of the 262 black soldiers at Fort Pillow, only 50 or so survived.

Forrest abandoned Fort Pillow the very evening he won it, suggesting the actual position meant less to his mission than what he and his men had done with the defenders of that position.

President Abraham Lincoln had been reticent about allowing black troops to engage in combat, fearing what the rebels would do to them if captured. The Confederacy argued that--as there was no such thing as a free black man, even among those born free in the North--all blacks were by definition and nature slaves, therefore property, it would be against the South's interest to dispose of any captured blacks who should properly be returned to slavery.

Yet the incident at Fort Pillow showed that whatever the Confederacy's official attitude might have been, it could not stem the feral rage of rebels who would not tolerate black men standing against them, and the more valiantly those black soldiers fought, the more savage their destruction if they lost the fight.

In the final stages of the war, the massacre became a rallying cry for the Northern effort. Rather than intimidating slaves and former slaves, it had the opposite effect. By the end of the war, 200,000 black men had volunteered to fight in the Union army.

Forrest survived the war and went on to become a founder and leader of the Ku Klux Klan, created for no other purpose than to resist the efforts to elevate the emancipated slaves to full citizenship. That purpose was successfully realized for at least another century after the end of the war. Forrest remains to this day a revered figure in the twisted mythos of the Confederacy.

You will be wondering why I'm telling the story of Fort Pillow. One reason, now that I've learned about it, is I consider it to be a most illuminating event to that great national horror most of us call the "Civil War," and others still call the "War of Northern Aggression." I believe in its own way, the massacre was as fundamental, or more so, to understanding that war, thereby our own history, as Bull Run, Gettysburg and Appomattox Court House.

It's also clear that for 150 years--beginning in reports issued right after the butchery--there has been an effort to obscure the fact that it ever happened, since if it were common knowledge, it would be a lead cannonball bursting through the facade of a genteel antebellum South and its war of illusionary honor.

But most immediately relevant, Fort Pillow shows to what extremes some would go--even to the detriment of their own best interests and those of their country--to subvert the efforts and accomplishments of the black presence in America. Think about that as the Tea Party rebels shut down our government or ruin America's credit in their rage to destroy Obamacare.