The Lynching Massacre of Black and White Soldiers at Fort Pillow, Tennessee, April 12, 1864

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Abstract

Precisely three years after the Civil War began, one of the cruelest deeds in the annals of warfare occurred at Fort Pillow, forty miles north of Memphis on the bank of the Mississippi River, both black (troops of the 6th United States Colored Artillery) and white (troops of the 13th Tennessee Union Calvary) were murdered in cold blood. General Nathan Forrest considered a slave in uniform with a gun a direct challenge and threat to the way of life in the South, a situation that could never be tolerated. At Fort Pillow, Forest would take the "no quarter to Union Negro soldiers" policy to its limit. General Forrest's attack on Fort Pillow marked the launching of the method by which the South would keep the "niggers" in their "place" and maintain white supremacy.

Fort Pillow is unique for having been both a confederate and Union fort that was attacked by both sides. The Confederate states of America recognized the necessity for defending against a Union invasion of the South by way of the Mississippi Riven So, in 1861 on the basis of a recommendation by General Gideon J. Pillow, a hero of the American Mexican War (rendered a valiant effort as commander of the brigade of the Tennessee Militia at the battles of Cerro Gordo and Vera Cruz)(1) but branded a coward of the Civil War because of his flight from Fort Donelson during the onslaught of General Grant, Fort Pillow was constructed as part of a river defense system, named in his honor.(2) Fort Pillow has served as the site of a state penitentiary since 1932.(3)

Early in 1864, Union troops took control of Fort Pillow after the withdrawal of the Confederate army. Half of the soldiers were principally white Tennesseans, many having deserted the Confederate army, especially, the battalion commanded by General Forrest, derisively referred to by Confederate soldiers and their supporters as "homemade Yankees", and the rest were from other states who joined the 13th Tennessee Union Cavalry because they held a deep seated hatred toward the Confederate and sought an opportunity to play a significant role in destroying it. The other half of the garrison at Fort Pillow were mostly former slaves. Their pre-Union status and balanced racial composition made the garrison quite unique in American military history.(4) From the outset of its occupancy of Fort Pillow in early 1864, the Union garrison became a prime, as well as prize target of General Nathan Bedford Forrest and his army of West Tennessee. Because of the unique character of the Union garrison at Fort Pillow, General Forrest was severely irked and subsequently inspired to assault the Fort, with the objective of crushing the garrison and recapturing it. In fact, Forrest deemed the "homemade Yankees" and former slaves who controlled it a personal affront to him. Thus, Forrest developed a fierce determination to personally "take care of the mess" at Fort Pillow.

Because of his great love and deep devotion to the cause of the South, Forrest held a severe antipathy toward anyone who deserted the South and, then supported the Union, but this enmity toward black Union soldiers was far more intense than toward white Union soldiers. He believed, quite deeply, that black people (whom he called "niggers") were subhumans and unquestionably far inferior to white people. He believed that they were incapable of participating in society as civilized human beings. Thus, Forrest believed the "niggers" were only fit to exist as slaves totally subjugated to their white masters. Prior to the Civil War, Forrest had proven his attitude toward Negroes by becoming one of the chief slave traders, a "profession" that made him rich. Forrest could never accept a black man in a military uniform, blue or gray, as a soldier, because he believed the "nigger" did not possess the qualities required of a soldier. Forrest believed drafting and arming a former slave or a so-called free black was the worst thing a white man could do, next to committing reason. …