150 Years Ago This Week: Controversy at Fort Pillow

April 1864

Heavy spring rains fell on most of Virginia at the end of the second week of April, 1864, washing out or damaging a number of bridges and keeping military operations at bay. Farther southwest, in Louisiana, Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks pulled his Union forces on the Red River back towards Grand Ecore. Gen. Kirby Smith ordered Lt. Gen. Richard Taylor to take his Confederate troops opposing Gen. Banks and return to Mansfield from Pleasant Hill.

The Union gunboats on the Red River supporting Gen. Banks were located in Loggy Bayou and encountered steadily lowering water levels; there was concern that would be caught up in the shallow river. The gunboats were harassed by shore artillery batteries and small-arms fire.

In Arkansas, the Federal expedition commanded by Maj. Gen. Frederick Steele marched back to Little Rock. Maj. Gen. Nathan Forrest’s Confederate cavalry was located on the Mississippi River at Columbus, Ky., and battled Union cavalry there in another skirmish in the series during his raid.

On Monday, April 11, a pro-Union state government was inaugurated at Little Rock, Ark., with Dr. Isaac Murphy as governor. Now two of the seceded states — Louisiana and Arkansas — were restored in part to the Union.

Pro-Union Virginians in Alexandria voted to accept a constitution abolishing slavery for the “Restored State of Virginia.” In reality, this government, headed by Francis H. Pierpont, represented only the few northern and coastal areas of Virginia firmly held by the Union army.

On April 12, Gen. Forrest’s cavalry struck Fort Pillow, a Union earthen fortification on the Mississippi River in Tennessee near Memphis; it was held by 557 Federal troops, including 262 black soldiers. What happened that day remains one of the lasting controversies of the entire war.

Gen. Forrest sent 1,500 cavalrymen against Fort Pillow and demanded surrender of Maj. William Bradford. Maj. Bradford refused and Gen. Forrest ordered his men to attack. With little difficulty, the Confederate troopers poured over the ramparts and into the fort. According to Gen. Forrest’s report, Federal casualties numbered 231 killed, 100 wounded and 226 captured or missing from the fighting before the fort surrendered.

According to testimony taken by the Federals, the Union troops surrendered almost at once and the casualties were sustained after the surrender in what amounted to a “massacre,” especially of the black troops. Confederate casualties numbered 14 killed and 86 wounded.

Later, the U.S. Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War heard purported evidence of numerous atrocities committed by the Confederates, including the killing of many of the garrison after the surrender. Confederate military and civil authorities hotly contested these allegations and called them hysterical propaganda.

A reasonable conclusion is that there was a lot of confusion during the attack and there may have been some unnecessary acts of violence by the Southerners, but the majority of the casualties were the result of legitimate warfare between experienced veterans and newly-minted black troops. Fort Pillow resonated throughout the war and has long remained an emotional issue with the absence of hard, reliable evidence.

The week closed with Gen. Robert E. Lee advising President Jefferson Davis, “I cannot see how we can operate with our present supplies. Any derangement in their arrival, or danger to the railroad would render it impossible for me to keep this army together.”

In Louisiana, Gen. Banks reached Grand Ecore on the Red River. His continued retreat with the rapidly falling river level and the harassment by Confederate troops meant that the Red River campaign had little hope of being renewed.

On Thursday, April 14, exactly one year before his fateful visit to Ford’s Theatre, President Abraham Lincoln reviewed 67 court-martial cases, and issued a number of pardons. A report on U.S. prisoners since the beginning of the war showed that Federal troops had captured 146,634 Confederate soldiers.

Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 194 Articles
A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.