THE FORT PILLOW
Assessing the Evidence
At dawn on April 12,1864, a force of some 1,500 Confederates began a surprise attack on Fort Pillow, a post in Tennessee about fifty miles north of Memphis. The Federal garrison consisted of around 600 men. Detachments from the 6th U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery (USCHA) and the 2nd U.S. Colored Light Artillery composed about half of the garrison, while Major William F. Bradford's Tennessee Cavalry Battalion of white Unionists made up the rest. By 2:00 P.M. the outnumbered Federals had retreated to an inner fortification on a bluff above the Mississippi River, while the Confederates held ravines to the north and east as well as barracks cabins to the south. Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Confederate commander, then called a truce to request the fort's surrender. Bradford, the Federal leader at that point, refused. Around 3:15 the Confederates charged and gained control of the fort. Controversy would arise about the subsequent events, which ended with almost half of the garrison dead. The survivors called it a massacre of men who tried to surrender; the Confederates claimed that the Federals refused to stop fighting or fleeing. Since 1973 most historians who have written about the incident have judged it a massacre.1 But during the Civil War the public learned about the event piecemeal over time—like an unfolding mystery story. In that fashion but with the larger pool of evidence available today, this essay offers a critical examination of the primary sources and their treatment by recent historians.