Under the Black Flag: Massacre at Fort Pillow

An ugly fact of the Civil War is that the Confederate army on several occasions refused to accept the surrender of uniformed colored troops.  At least three such incidents occurred in 1864: Fort Pillow in April, the Crater in June, and Saltville in October.

In the spring of 1864, legendary cavalryman Nathan Bedford Forrest and 6000 troopers mount up to drive the Yankees from western Tennessee and Kentucky.  This will be a nasty fight – Sherman’s depredations are very much on Southern minds and Forrest’s men are in the mood for payback.  Harper’s History of the Great Rebellion, acknowledging that Sherman’s conduct is uncivilized, nonetheless condemns Forrest’s expedition as “characterized by brutality and cowardice such as is not surpassed in the record of even savage warfare.”  What Harper’s means by this is that Forrest enforces the ancient rule of no quarter after an initial demand of surrender is refused.  Remember the Alamo?

Thus on March 24th, a detachment of Forrest’s command confronts 500 Yankees garrisoning Union City, Tennessee.  After repulsing three charges, the Yankees are cowed into surrender under the shadow of the Black Flag.   On March 25th, Forrest assaults Paducah, Kentucky.  After its occupiers retreat into a fort, Forrest sends them a message:  “If you surrender, you shall be treated as prisoners of war, but if I have to storm your works, you may expect no quarter.”  The Yankee commander replies he will do his duty and take his chances.  Three assaults and 1500 casualties later, Forrest retires.   Yankee losses are 14 killed and 46 wounded.

Forrest appears before Fort Pillow on April 12th.  Inside are 557 men – two units of colored artillery with six guns, plus a detachment of turncoat Tennessee cavalry.  Near the fort live about 100 family members.  Surprising the garrison in a lightning attack, the outer works are overrun. The survivors retreat into their citadel.   Forrest demands unconditional surrender; else he cannot be responsible for the consequences.  The Union commander asks an hour to think it over; Forrest gives him 20 minutes, even as the Confederate assault force uses the truce to creep within 100 yards of the enemy.  When the Yankee commander refuses surrender, a bugle sounds and the surrounding Confederates dash forward screaming “No quarter” and “Black Flag.”  Ironically, the “Black Flag” referred to may be that of the Yankee cavalry inside, who reputedly had flown such a flag raiding the locals – not much of a plea for hugging it out.

Forrest’s assault is brilliant.  The first wave of Confederates drops into the ditch of the citadel.  The second wave steps on their shoulders and vaults straight across and up the parapet to sweep the ramparts clear of defenders.  There is no hesitation and thus few Confederate casualties.  It is a textbook example of “violence of action”, defined as “the unrestricted use of speed, strength, surprise, and aggression to achieve total dominance against an enemy.”

There is disagreement as to the extent of the massacre following the rout, but there is little doubt atrocities did occur.  Here are excerpts from the lurid report of the Union Committee on the Conduct of the War: “Then followed a scene of cruelty and murder without a parallel in civilized warfare, which needed but the tomahawk and scalping knife to exceed the worst atrocities ever committed by savages.  The rebels commenced an indiscriminate slaughter, sparing neither age nor sex, white nor black, soldier or civilian.  The officers and men seemed to vie with each other in the devilish work; men, women and even children, wherever found, were deliberately shot down, beaten and hacked with sabres; some of the children, not more than ten years old, were forced to stand up and face their murderers while being shot; the sick and wounded were butchered without mercy, the rebels even entering the hospital buildings and dragging them out to be shot, or kill them as they lay there unable to offer the least resistance.  All over the hillside the work of murder was going on; numbers of our men were collected in lines or groups and deliberately shot; some were shot while in the river, while others on the bank were shot and their bodies kicked into the water, many still living, but unable to make any exertions to save themselves from drowning”.  “All around were heard cries of ‘No quarter!’  ‘No quarter’ ‘Kill the damned niggers; shoot them down!’.”  The report goes on to accuse Forrest’s troopers of burning wounded in their tents, and even of prisoners crucified on boards and buildings and then burned.  The wounded are allegedly buried with the dead.  The report concludes that 3-400 of the garrison were killed at Fort Pillow and that of these 300 were murdered in cold blood after they had surrendered.

In short, the official report sounds a lot like propaganda.  In actuality, the women and children and all but ten civilian men had been evacuated prior to the assault and thus were not present to be “massacred.”  Some of the bodies in the burned buildings may have shot down as they torched them to deprive the Confederate snipers cover.  The Union commander had (probably unhelpfully) issued a whisky ration just prior to the final assault, which likely contributed to the chaos which followed.  Fighting was hand to hand, which would explain the short-range powder burns on some of the dead.  Yankees continued to resist at the riverbank, while some rearmed themselves after surrendering.

Moreover, the Yankees do not strike Old Glory, such that Forrest may legitimately claim that the fort had never surrendered.  He personally intervenes on the beach to reestablish control and stop the killing, which argues against the notion that he actually intended to implement his “no quarter” threat.  Nonetheless, his troopers likely take him seriously.  Consider further that his troops probably view the Tennessee cavalry as traitors and bandits and likewise see a horde of Nat Turners in the colored troops.  Premeditated or not, a massacre occurrs and blacks suffer disproportionately.  Of 295 whites, 164 are taken prisoner.  For the colored troops, only 80 of 262 survive.  Thus roughly two colored soldiers are killed for every white, though Forrest later repatriates 14 of the most seriously wounded blacks over to a Federal gunboat for care.  Only fourteen Confederates are killed and about 80 wounded – this disparity is also telling.

Southerners do not condemn the massacre.  Here is a quote from the Richmond Examiner in August 1864, reacting to an allegation that colored troops are executing wounded Confederates:

We beg him [General Mahone], hereafter, when negroes are sent forward to murder the wounded, and come shouting “no quarter,” shut your eyes, General, strengthen your stomach with a little brandy and water, and let the work, which God has entrusted to you and your brave men, go forward to its full completion; that is, until every negro has been slaughtered.—Make every salient you are called upon to defend, a Fort Pillow; butcher every negro that Grant sends against your brave troops, and permit them not to soil their hands with the capture of a single hero.

Forrest is investigated but never tried for war crimes.  Following the war, he fights on as the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

Written by: Doug Coleman

Sources:  Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War; Kevin Levin, The Richmond Examiner Remembers Fort Pillow, http://cwmemory.com/2012/01/05/the-richmond-examiner-remembers-fort-pillow/

Doug Coleman is an attorney and amateur historian in Alexandria; comments and corrections are welcome at dcoleman@cartercoleman.com.

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