I think that I’ve said here before that, with a few exceptions, I’m not very good about observing anniversaries. Perhaps I should improve on that. I knew that Fort Pillow’s sesquicentennial came and went last weekend and said nothing about it. My reasons at the time involved a considerable investment in 1854, not wanting to break the day to day flow of the narrative, and the fact that I don’t know all that much about the subject itself. But others don’t have those shortcomings and I’ve read some really excellent content that I ought to have shared earlier.
Over at the New York Times‘ Disunion, you can read a basic overview of events. Confederate troops under the command of former slave trader Nathan Bedford Forrest attacked and overwhelmed the garrison of Fort Pillow in western Tennessee. The Union forces holding the fort included a unit of Unionist Tennesseans and freedmen of the United States Colored Troops. They won the fight and
Chaos ensued. With few officers left alive to direct them, some defenders dropped their weapons in surrender, while others scrambled down the steep hillside. But discipline also broke down among the rebels. Forrest’s men had never faced black troops in battle before. In the Confederate mind, opposition from armed black men — in this case, black men who had recently taunted them — was tantamount to a slave insurrection, and few things were likelier to enrage a white Southerner.
“The sight of negro soldiers,” a Confederate witness said, “stirred the bosoms of our soldiers with courageous madness.” Nor was that all: These black men were fighting alongside local white Unionists, whom the rebels despised as “homemade Yankees” and “Tennessee Tories.”
Those Tennessee Tories and latter-day Nat Turners represented an existential threat. Left unchecked, they would flow over the South in a genocidal race war. Fort Pillow rapidly became the most notorious one, but many such massacres involving black soldiers took place during the war and, it must be said, continued after on a smaller scale. Through such violence, and the threat of more, Southern whites successfully instituted Jim Crow laws that would take another century to uproot.
Over at Dead Confederates, Andy Hall has context for the Confederate actions. On the latter count, the massacre of black troops and their white officers actually amounted to Confederate policy. You can read the entire proclamation over there, but two selections:
Sec. 4. That every white person, being a commissioned officer, or acting as such, who, during the present war, shall command nergroes or mulattoes in arms against the Confederate States, or who shall arm, train, organize or prepare negroes or mulattoes for military service against the Confederate States, or who shall voluntarily aid negroes or mulattoes in any military enterprize, attack or conflict in such service, shall be deemed as inciting servile insurrection, and shall, if captured, by put to death, or be otherwise punished at the discretion of the court.
Sec. 7. All negroes and mulattoes who shall be engaged in war, or be taken in arms against the Confederate States, or shall give aid or comfort to the enemies of the Confederate States, shall, when captured in the Confederate States, be delivered to the authorities of the State or States in which they shall be captured, and dealt with according to the present or future laws of such State or States.
The then-present laws of such states, of course, would mean death for blacks as well as whites.
In a separate post, Andy also has firsthand accounts of the aftermath of the massacre:
All the wounded who had strength enough to speak agreed that after the fort was taken an indiscriminate slaughter of our troops was carried on by the enemy with a furious and vindictive savageness which was never equaled by the most merciless of the Indian tribes. Around on every side horrible testimony to the truth of this statement could be seen. Bodies with gaping wounds, some bayoneted through the eyes, some with skulls beaten through, others with hideous wounds as if their bowels had been ripped open with bowie-knives, plainly told that but little quarter was shown to our troops. Strewn from the fort to the river bank, in the ravines and hollows, behind logs and under the brush where they had crept for protection from the assassins who pursued them, we found bodies bayoneted, beaten, and shot to death, showing how cold-blooded and persistent was the slaughter of our unfortunate troops.
We then landed at the fort, and I was sent out with a burial party to bury our dead. I found many of the dead lying close along by the water’s edge, where they had evidently sought safety; they could not offer any resistance from the places where they were, in holes and cavities along the banks; most of them had two wounds. I saw several colored soldiers of the Sixth United States Artillery, with their eyes punched out with bayonets; many of them were shot twice and bayonetted also. All those along the bank of the river were colored. The number of the colored near the river was about seventy. Going up into the fort, I saw there bodies partially consumed by fire. Whether burned before or after death I cannot say, anyway, there were several companies of rebels in the fort while these bodies were burning, and they could have pulled them out of the fire had they chosen to do so. One of the wounded negroes told me that “he hadn’t done a thing,” and when the rebels drove our men out of the fort, they (our men) threw away their guns and cried out that they surrendered, but they kept on shooting them down until they had shot all but a few. This is what they all say.
We should not take this as a one-off act. The Confederate soldiers doing the killing understood themselves as engaged in the maintenance of racial control, a tradition that went back as far as slavery in the New World. If a black man could rise up and kill a white, then others might learn that they too could and, being united in rejecting their status as slaves, go off and kill all the whites. How could a white person sleep at night unless he or she knew that the resentful black people all around had the threat of violence to keep them in line?
Incidents like Fort Pillow naturally generate a certain degree of controversy, some legitimate and some from the usual quarters that see Forrest as a folk hero and, though many shrink from saying it, think he gave to the garrison precisely what it deserved. The latter have been with us for a long time. They’re not all gone off into the sunset just yet, despite all the progress we’ve made in the hundred and fifty years since.