- The Washington Times - Friday, January 27, 2006

FORT PILLOW: A CIVIL WAR MASSACRE, AND PUBLIC MEMORY

By John Cimprich

Louisiana State University Press, 191 pages, $29.95

One of the measures of a society is how its army deals with a defeated foe.

The fierce Sioux allowed no soldier of Gen. George A. Custer’s ill-fated force to surrender, and many of the dead were emasculated. In contrast, a German soldier who surrendered to U.S. forces in World War II and behaved himself in captivity had a good chance of living out the war.

In the American Civil War, both sides professed to observe the accepted rules of war, and for the most part, they did. A notable exception was the 1864 massacre of surrendered black soldiers by Confederate soldiers in an otherwise minor engagement at Fort Pillow, Tenn., overlooking the Mississippi River.

Fort Pillow was located on the east bank of the Mississippi, about 40 miles north of Memphis. It was occupied by Confederates for a time but eventually was evacuated; it was said to be vulnerable to attack from the land side. Fort Pillow was occupied by the Federals in June 1862.

By April 1864, the fort was manned by 580 Union soldiers, about half of whom were black. On April 12, a Confederate force of about 1,500 led by Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest surrounded the garrison on three sides. That afternoon, Forrest demanded the garrison’s immediate surrender, promising that if the Federals surrendered, they would be treated as prisoners of war but if they refused they would be shown no quarter.

When the outnumbered Federal garrison refused to surrender, Forrest opened a vigorous attack that quickly overwhelmed the defenders. What followed was, in the words of John Cimprich, a professor of history at Thomas More College in Crestview Hills, Ky., “the most famous atrocity of the nation’s bloodiest war.”

As Forrest’s soldiers breached the parapet, panic seized the Federals. Some ran down the bluff to the river, hoping to swim to safety. Others laid down their arms and attempted to surrender. Forrest’s men, however, accepted few surrenders and poured a merciless fire on the Union garrison.

Black soldiers were the preferred targets. One of Forrest’s men recalled, “The slaughter was awful. … The poor deluded Negroes would run up to our men, fall upon their knees and with uplifted hands scream for mercy, but they were ordered to their feet and then shot down.”

What of Forrest? He went to his grave insisting that the Yankees had not formally surrendered and denying that he had ordered a massacre.

Mr. Cimprich writes: “No evidence provides unquestionable proof of Forrest’s guilt or innocence.” However, Forrest knew how most of his men felt toward black Federal soldiers, and he must have known that only the tightest discipline could avert a massacre. Instead, he lost control of his men and was notably slow in ordering a cease-fire.

Northerners were outraged by reports of the massacre, which lost nothing in the telling. In a speech, President Lincoln threatened retaliation if the reports were proved true. A congressional investigation concluded that the Confederates were indeed guilty of many atrocities, but Lincoln declined to authorize a series of meaningless reprisals.

Mr. Cimprich has researched his subject extensively, but his narrative will not grab every reader. His portraits of the leaders are two-dimensional, as when he notes that Forrest “had a very fiery temper, probably originating in his impoverished and overburdened youth.”

Nevertheless, the author offers some thoughtful conclusions. Fort Pillow demonstrates, in his view, that Southern racism at times played a more important role in the war than sectional hostility. Still, he notes, “The great majority of soldiers on both sides did not participate in massacres, even when opportunities appeared.”

John M. Taylor of McLean writes frequently on Civil War topics.

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