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Southern Heritage <br>News and Views: Fort Pillow Update

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Fort Pillow Update

(The Meanderings of a Lay Historian)

By Danny R. Von Kanel

Steve Cole, from Collierville, Tennessee, who has spent most of his 59 years studying military and Civil War history, is trying to compile an accurate record of casualties at the April 12, 1864, battle at Fort Pillow.

He believes the conventional wisdom that 331 defenders died in the attack is not correct at this point in his research since he has only been able to identify 170, including the adding of names from the 2nd United States Colored Light Artillery (2USCLA Colored). This leaves him short 161 names. As for the alleged massacre of 197 black U.S. troops out of 253, Cole says official records say 56 colored troops were wounded or taken prisoner. His research has identified 65 prisoners taken from the black units and 10 wounded blacks who were paroled to the Union transport ship.

Confederate records show 226 were taken away prisoner, Cole’s records show 239. Using Cole’s figures and adding 69 wounded, 20 who were “pick-ups” along the river and 18 names from the miscellaneous units (6 TN, 7 TN, 7KS and Stigall’s Home Guard), 346 survived the conflict. This means that of the 557 Union soldiers officially reported, the maximum numbers who are not accounted for and could be ruled killed in action is 211 (38%) – the others being prisoners of war or wounded.

He cites records from his additional research in the Appendix of “Campaigns of Lieut.-Gen N. B. Forrest”, by Gen Thomas Jordan & John Pryor, 1868 and the Official Records report by Lt.- Col Harris, Adjutant-General to General Hurlbut as a basis to where he started his research.

Through the Congressional Record, pension forms, enlistment papers, state archives, Fort Pillow books, and historic newspapers, Cole has gathered his data to date.

Most of the errors he is finding are in the congressional report related to black troops. He thinks many of the ex-slaves used aliases even when they enlisted and maybe when they were captured. He has no proof. There are some National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) records that will list 3 names for one soldier and they seem to believe that he used all three aliases throughout his “career”. He hoped that he would find the original Roster of Prisoners of War (PW’s) in the Official Records (OR’s). But even if he found that, he thinks the names would conflict with the NARA enlistment records.

Quote: “Since most of the blacks of the 6th Untied States Colored Heavy Artillery (6USCHA)
were illiterate, only a vague picture emerges from their sparse military records.”
(Source “ Like Men of War” by Trudeau.)

The fort, in Henning, Tennessee along the Mississippi River, was constructed in 1862. Fort
Pillow, 40 mi (64 km) north of Memphis, was built by Brigadier General Gideon Johnson Pillow and was used by both sides during the war. With the fall of New Madrid and Island No. 10 to Union forces, Confederate troops evacuated Fort Pillow on June 4, in order to avoid being cut off from the rest of the Confederate Army. Union forces occupied Fort Pillow on June 6, and used it to protect the river approach to Memphis.

In 1864 the fort was manned by 557 soldiers in the 13th Tennessee Calvary (misnamed for the 14th), 6th Heavy US Artillery (Colored), and Company D. 2nd US Light Artillery (Colored) regiments under the command of Major Lionel F. Booth. It defended 1500 soldiers from Brig. Gen. James R. Chalmers Division for the purpose of Forrest’s need for horses and supplies and complaints from area sympathizers. By the time Forrest arrived at Fort Pillow at 10:00 A.M., the fort was surrounded.

Deploying sharpshooters, Major Booth was shot and killed. Major Bradford assumed command. At 15:30, Forrest sent word for surrender under a flag of truce. Bradford, wanting an hour to decide but Forrest concerned with reinforcements from the river, gave only twenty minutes. Bradford refused to surrender. Forrest ordered his bugler to sound the charge.

Because of poor fort construction and the positions gained by Forrest’s troops during the truce, the walls were scaled by a devastating assault of southern troops. Expecting help from the New Era gunboat, none came. Running to the bluffs below soldiers surrendered, were shot, or drowned. The whole battle was over in twenty minutes.

What happened from 1600 to dusk is still shrouded in controversy. Northern troops claimed
soldiers were massacred after they surrendered – shot down while showing no mercy – no quarter. The south claimed the fort never surrendered – with its flag still flying and soldiers still firing at them.

Congress convened a Congressional Investigation and concluded it was a massacre. Though
historians recognize this investigation was a propaganda tool and is filled with many
discrepancies and errors, the massacre designation fits due to the number of black soldiers killed compared to white. Forrest was never charged with anything and most historians understand, though he lost control of some of his troops, he was not responsible for the massacre.

Consider other finds by Mr. Cole at

and and

In your opinion, Steve, what is missing in the research related to Fort Pillow?

Were any unarmed civilians killed after the Battle? Especially women? Was this a fabrication of the Yellow press? The artwork shows several women on the scene. My opinion is that all women would have used the truce to flee the area. That would be common practice during war.

What have you found most interesting?

The interesting numbers are the false reports: Lt-Commander Fitch, 8th Dist. Miss. Squadron, NAVY - “I believe the force at Fort Pillow was about 500---200 white and 300 Negros----nearly all of which were either killed or wounded. It is reported that all the negroes were killed and most of the officers.”

Captain of the USS Silver Cloud - “The enemy had buried between 300 and 400.” And again “We found about 70 wounded men in the fort and around it, and buried, I should think, 150 bodies.”

US Congressional Investigation – Testimony of John Nelson a civilian who ran a hotel, dated May 28, 1864.“I also further state, to the best of my knowledge and information, that there were not less than 360 negroes killed and 200 whites.”

Steve Cole’s journey in tracing the outcome and whereabouts of Fort Pillow’s 1864 occupants and attackers are a long and tedious process. As he roams the corridors of official records, a complete understanding is beginning to emerge … and we will be the recipients of knowledge gained about their fate.


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