Black History Myth of the Day: Battle of Fort Pillow
by Kyle Rogers
The alleged “Massacre at Fort Pillow” was nothing more than election propaganda to ensure that Abraham Lincoln wasn’t defeated in the bitter election of 1864.
When it comes to the Afro-mythologists, no one is more viciously slandered than our great Confederate heroes.
The most vicious slander against Forrest, that is being repeated more and more frequently, is that he ordered the killing of surrendering black soldiers at Fort Pillow.
Nothing could be further from the truth. First of all, Gen. Forrest was well known among the Union army for the generosity he showed to captured Union troops. Forrest spent the entire war capturing large numbers of Union troops. Usually they were immediately paroled for the prisoner exchange program. It was recorded by many Confederate and Union soldier alike, that Forrest often received applause and shouts of glee from Union captives when they were read their terms.
In April of 1864, Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest led 1,500 troopers to Fort Pillow along the Mississippi River. The fort was ripe for plundering with only 557 defenders, 262 of them a Negro militia regiment. Forrest rode up to the fort with a white flag of truce to negotiate a peaceful surrender of the fort.
As soon as Forrest reached the fort, a Union soldier shot at him killing his horse. This violated the rules of engagement under a flag of truce. It wouldn’t be the first time. As Forrest tried repeatedly to get the fort inhabitants to surrender, a second horse was killed and a third badly injured.
By this time Forrest was badly injured himself, from having been thrown from three horses. Forrest had to be taken to the back of the lines. Even then Confederates returned under a flag of truce and delivered a note stating that the fort would be “easily taken” with minimum loss to the Confederates. Confederates informed the inhabitants of the fort that they would all receive Forrest’s gracious treatment as prisoners of war.
The entire time, black Union troops had been yelling taunts and profanities at the Confederates egging them on. However, Forrest thought that the white officers would come to their senses and surrender. Forrest was used to intimidating Union forts into surrendering with little or no fight.
The 557 Yankees still did not surrender. Knowing that three steamships were coming down the Mississippi with re-enforcements, the Yankees sent notes back to Forrest begging for more time to think about it. Forrest, however, had already positioned troops to block the steamboats from landing.
Finally the charge was sounded. Forrest’s troops easily stormed the fort. 14 Confederate were killed and 86 wounded. Both of the fort’s commanders died. Of the 557 Union troops, 228 were taken prisoner and marched away. At least 32 wounded Yankees were allowed to remain at the fort’s hospital under the care of Union doctors.
The rest of the Yankee troops either died, drowned in the Mississippi, or went AWOL. When Confederates stormed the fort, only the white troops held their ground. Just like numerous other battles, the black troops immediately broke ranks and went into a panic. Many fled out the back of the fort and began jumping in the Mississippi River. It is presumed that some drowned and some went AWOL.
A short time later, during a truce, the 228 Union prisoners of war (both black and white) were paroled and turned over to the Union army safe and sound.
Forrest was still nursing his wounds from earlier in the day and was not in the assault.
With Abraham Lincoln facing election defeat, he needed a new source of propaganda to vilify the South. When Lincoln got word of yet another humiliating Union defeat at the hands of Forrest, he ordered a committee of pro-Lincoln Congressmen to investigate the battle. It was determined that it would be good for Lincoln’s campaign if it was said that Forrest was standing on the front lines ordering his troops to kill members of the Negro regiment who were trying to surrender.
Over 100 eyewitness accounts were collected by the committee operating in Cairo, IL. Almost all were thrown out because they did not support what the pro-Lincoln committee wanted. Even officers of the Negro regiment at Fort Pillow said that there was never an attempt to surrender to the Confederates.
The entire battle was over in less than twenty minutes. With stunning athleticism, the Confederates had formed human ladders to breach the earthworks. Within minutes, nearly 1,000 Confederates were inside the fort and half the defenders were dead or wounded. Much of the Negro regiment immediately broke and fled out the opposite side of the fort the instant Confederates poured in. This caused a stampede and crippled the entire Union defense. The same thing happened at Fredericksburg, only on a much larger scale.
A completely libelous and outlandish report was drawn up and 40,000 copies were printed for distribution.
The report declared that the Confederates, not the Union, had repeatedly violated the flag of truce at Fort Pillow. The report then claims that Confederates chanted “no quarter” and “black flag” as they stormed the fort. Then Forrest himself orders the troops to slaughter members of the Negro regiment. None of these claims are even remotely supported by the facts.
Today Forrest remains one of the greatest heroes of the South. He was a self-made man, who accumulated a fortune from real estate and selling horses. When the Civil War was about to start, he was commissioned as a colonel. Using his own personal fortune he bought state of the art pistols and equipment for his original 600 man cavalry unit at his own expense.
Forrest’s tactics and training were so overwhelmingly effective, that the Confederacy repeatedly changed his command so he would have all different troopers. The Confederacy knew that he would whip each new batch into an elite force.