Remembering the Fort Pillow Massacre

FortPillow

 

Today is the sesquicentennial of the Battle of Fort Pillow, which set the stage for the most notorious massacre of black Union soldiers by Confederate forces during the Civil War. While what exactly occurred is still disputed, it is reasonably certain that about 1500 cavalry under Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, on April 12, 1864, overwhelmed an interracial garrison about about 600 Union troops–recently liberated slaves and white Tennessee Unionists–manning Fort Pillow on the Mississippi River about forty miles north of Memphis, Tennessee. The fort had been built by the Confederates early in the war to control traffic on the river, and proved vulnerable to an overland assault it was ill-designed to repel. Nearly half the Union garrison was killed, especially African-American soldiers, many apparently after they stopped resistance and were attempting to surrender. The Confederates clearly were angry about blacks in Union blue whose service they saw as tantamount to servile insurrection. If the intent was to cow African Americans it instead had the opposite effect, hardening the resolve of black Union troops, for whom it showed they could expect no quarter from the rebels and were eager to avenge Fort Pillow.

Yet it is important to remember that some African Americans at Fort Pillow, probably around eighty men in all, survived the massacre. The testimony of about twenty of them is at the core of the hearings on this incident conducted by the U.S. Congress’ Joint Committee on the Conduct of War, which has been digitized and is available online. Although heavily politicized and devoid of cross examination, the congressional investigation is particularly valuable because the testimony started only ten days after the massacre when memories were still fresh. It shows that while the Confederates wantonly massacred many black Union soldiers, others survived for a variety of reasons, most especially because at some point an order apparently was given for the Confederate troops to stop the killing (although some black prisoners evidently still were murdered later).

Likewise, in my own research using Civil War pension files, I have found survivors of Fort Pillow who discussed the assault and its aftermath in their application testimony. Their accounts, although recorded decades later, constitute a valuable supplement to the contemporary congressional testimony because it includes men who spent a long period as prisoners following the assault on Fort Pillow. The soldiers questioned by the Joint Committee on the Conduct of War tended to be men that either evaded captivity by escaping the fort during the battle and its aftermath, or quickly escaped Confederate captivity and soon found federal forces. Most of the black Union prisoners that did not escape ended up in Mobile, Alabama, working on bolstering the port’s fortifications.

Most–but not all. One of the most interesting stories to emerge in pension files from a survivor of the Fort Pillow Massacre comes a black veteran known after the war as Allen Walker, but who served in the Union Army as Allen James. Walker (alias James) was interviewed in February 1902 by a “special examiner” or field investigator of the U.S. Pension Bureau, the federal bureaucracy charged with administering the huge pension program for Union veterans and their survivors. Worried that Walker was an impostor impersonating the soldier James, it sent an examiner to question him and other witnesses to determine his true identity.

In the end, the federal investigator confirmed that Allen Walker and the soldier known to the government as Allen James were the same person. While Walker did not have much to say about the battle at Fort Pillow beyond noting that Forrest and his cavalry “ran in on us . . . and killed or captured us nearly all of us,” he was much more illuminating on his fate as a prisoner of the Confederates.  “I was not treated like the other prisoners,” Walker stated. Instead, he became the servant of a Confederate Orderly Sergeant, John Peary, who eventually gave Walker to his brother who took him to the small Peary farm near Gonzales, Texas, where according to Walker, “they made me practically their slave.”[1]  He remained there until July 1865, when Union troops passed nearby and Walker escaped to join them, arriving back at his reconstituted unit now stationed in Memphis in November 1865.

If Walker and the survival of other black Union soldiers at Fort Pillow proves anything it was the belated realization of Forrest and his men that in indulging their anger by slaughtering hundreds of African Americans that the murdered men probably would have been more valuable as laborers. So by killing them, while Forrest’s cavalry might have temporarily satiated their sensibility offended by African Americans in federal uniform, they deprived the Confederacy of their labor as POWs, gave the Union a significant propaganda victory, and steeled the resolve of other black Union troops to go down fighting instead of trying to surrender. So while the Battle of Fort Pillow was a tactical victory for the Confederacy, it proved in the end a strategic victory for the Union and the cause of emancipation in the American Civil War. That is the silver lining of the senseless slaughter that was the Fort Pillow Massacre–the men that died there did not die in vain.

[1] Deposition of Allen Walker, 5 February 1902, Civil War Pension File of Allen James (alias Walker), 6th U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery, Record Group 15, Records of the Veterans Administration, National Archives, Washington, D.C.

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About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at donald_shaffer@yahoo.com
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