Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, in a message to headquarters,
said, "There is a federal force of 500 or 600
at Fort Pillow which I shall attend to ...
as they have horses and supplies which we
need." Fort Pillow, Tenn., was an earthwork fort situated on a high bluff overlooking the Mississippi River and one of many
garrisons the Union used to protect its supply lines. The fort was manned by 295
white troops of the 13th Tennessee Cavalry
and 265 blacks of the llth U.S. Colored
Troops. Tennessee was a Confederate
state, and Union soldiers from Tennessee
were considered to be traitors. The black
soldiers, mostly freed slaves, were hated as
much as the "renegade Tennesseans."
At 5:30 AM, on April 12, 1,500 of Forrest's men assaulted the fort and quickly
hemmed the garrison into their innermost
earthwork. Forrest arrived at 10:00 A.M. and
placed men in strategic positions where they
could fire down on the garrison. The men
kept up a murderous fire until 3:30 P.M.,
when Forrest displayed a flag of truce and
demanded the surrender of the fort. Maj.
Lionel F. Booth, commander of the fort, had
been killed by a sharpshooter earlier that
morning. The second in command, Maj.
William F. Bradford, requested an hour to
consult with his subordinates. (Bradford
was expecting reinforcements to arrive on
Mississippi transport boats before that time.)
Forrest could see the smoke from vessels on
the river and, suspecting Bradford's plan,
gave him only 20 minutes to decide. At the
end of that time the surrender was refused,
and Forrest ordered his men to take the fort.
The Confederates charged the Union position and drove the federal soldiers over the
bluff and down the riverbank, where many
tried to surrender. What happened next has
been debated over the years. From the high
casualty rate of the Union troops it seems a
massacre occurred. The Union troops suffered 231 killed, 100 wounded, and 226 captured. The black units suffered 64 percent
killed; the white units only 33 percent. The
attacking Confederates suffered only 14
killed and 86 wounded.
Fascinating Fact: Forrest had three horses shot
out from under him on this day, but he suffered only
bruises and soreness.
Slaughter at Fort Pillow; courtesy Library of Congress
Written by Stephen T. Foster Printed in USA
8 MCMXCIII Atlas Editions, LISA D3 602 02-06