The Fort Pillow Historic State Park
“Forrest is the very devil. There will never be peace in Tennessee until Forrest is dead.”
-William Tecumseh Sherman
Non-Memphians may be surprised to learn just how controversial Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Confederate General and sort-of-founder of the Ku Klux Klan, is in this city, and how riled up people can get at just the mention of his name. Showing any interest in–or, worse, reverence for–Nathan Bedford Forrest is as good as an admission of racism for some people.
|An old photo of mine of Forrest’s monument
and grave in what was then Forrest Park
I certainly don’t want to add to the debate with this blog post, and I’m not going to rehash the entire controversy. (This article from the Commercial Appeal, does a pretty good job of summing it up for any of you who are unfamiliar with Forrest’s legacy in my hometown.) But I’ve always felt the desire to know more about him, so I finally made the trip up to Fort Pillow.
Fort Pillow is just an hour or an hour-and-a-half north of Memphis. It was built on a bluff in 1862 by the Confederate Army, to protect the Mississippi River, which used to flow below. The river took a sharp, narrow turn at that site, and any ships passing below were in easy range of cannons and rifles.
However, after the Union Army won decisively at New Madrid, the soldiers protecting the river at Fort Pillow were sitting ducks. The Union attacked and took over the garrison at Fort Pillow and occupied it without much resistance. There was not much for these soldiers to do, except carry out drills and try to exist without pissing off the natives. The soldiers were bored, and there were apparently incidences of drunkenness, gambling, and pillaging going on.
This is the point at which speculation begins. The garrison at the fort was about 600 Union soldiers, and over time, about half of the soldiers were relieved by African-American troops. It is possible that the residents of that part of Tennessee, angry enough at living under occupation, became livid at the added insult of being occupied by former slaves.
Enter Nathan Bedford Forrest. He was wreaking havoc in western Tennessee and Kentucky, raiding Union strongholds and generally spreading terror and destruction as only he was able to do. On April 12, 1864, he attacked the fort with his men. They overtook the fort over the course of day of bitter fighting in which Forrest had two horses shot out from under him and a third badly wounded. The fort fell to the Confederates.
What happened next is unclear, but it was clearly a massacre. Nearly all (80%) of the African American soldiers were killed, the evidence pointing toward racially-motivated slaughter under the command of Forrest . There were reports of soldiers being shot after surrendering, and even of some being buried alive. The New York Times reported:
The blacks and their officers were shot down, bayoneted and put to the sword in cold blood… . Out of four hundred negro soldiers only about twenty survive! At least three hundred of them were destroyed after the surrender!
|Someone vandalized this image of an
African-American Union soldier.
The Confederates left the fortress that day.
Of course, there are arguments to the contrary. One says that the accounts of cold-blooded battle were drummed up by the New York press. Another holds that the African-American troops fought on after their white counterparts had surrendered, since their surrender meant a certain return to slavery. Both of these seem plausible, but less likely.
The Fort Pillow Historic State Park is at the end of a winding forest road in Henning, Tennessee, past campgrounds and picnic spots, deep into the woods. It’s a beautiful place, but there’s not much to see in the way of the battle. There’s a small museum with artifacts from the various occupations there, but it’s confusing and in need of repair. The information addresses the controversy head-on, but does not draw conclusions for you. I spent an hour or two there, then wandered in the woods where the battle took place. Then I drove away.
|An account of the “outrage” in the
New York Sun
|Different accounts of what happened on April 12, 1864|
|Nathan Bedford Forrest’s medal of honor.|
This information comes from notes I took at the museum, but I also used the Wikipedia page for the battle. Okay, I used Wikipedia for this, I admit it.