April 12, 1864: Massacre at Fort Pillow

Battle_of_Fort_Pillow
Today, 150 years ago, Confederate forces under Nathan Bedford Forrest attacked Union forces at Fort Pillow, Tennessee, along the Mississippi River. What happened next has been a matter of controversy ever since.

Watch and listen as some descendants of soldiers who fought that day reflect on their ancestors’ experience. And here’s one historian’s reflections on the battle and its legacy.

To this day there are two critical issues that spark much controversy:

(1) Was there a massacre of black soldiers?
(2) What responsibility does Forrest bear for the behavior of his men?

All too often, these arguments are blurred, to the point that I’ve seen arguments that since Forrest wasn’t responsible for the behavior of his men, there was no massacre at Fort Pillow. However, it’s rather easy to argue that. regardless of what Forrest desired or ordered, there was a massacre of black soldiers, and there’s a great deal of documentation to support that point of view.

When it comes to Forrest’s responsibility (or culpability), I’ll simply note that one cannot claim that William T. Sherman is a war criminal without accepting that Nathan Bedford Forrest is a war criminal. After all, Sherman did not issue orders calling for the raping of women or the destruction of property outside the laws of war. Nor did he issue orders for the destruction of Columbia in February 1865. One can hold him accountable for (a) the orders he issued and (b) his actions (or inaction) in punishing his own men for violations of the law of war. One would have to hold Forrest to the same standard, unless you think the destruction of property is a greater crime than cold-blooded murder … or whether you think crimes against white people bother you more than crimes against black people, especially those wearing the uniform of the United States armed forces. Once you say that Sherman must be held responsible for the actions of his men, you must say the same for Forrest.

4 thoughts on “April 12, 1864: Massacre at Fort Pillow

  1. Kevin Hurd April 13, 2014 / 6:58 am

    How DARE you apply the same standard to both sides…SYOTBF…khfish

  2. John Foskett April 13, 2014 / 8:50 am

    In terms of command responsibility, there is also a significant difference between the conduct attributed to Sherman in Georgia and that attributed to Forrest at Fort Pillow (assuming that, as seems likely, a massacre of some sort took place). Control of a large army on the march during a campaign is substantially more difficult than controlling a localized massacre of surrendering troops by a much smaller force. In short, whatever responsibility Sherman (or Lee, or any other commander of a large force on the march) bears for soldiers’ depredations, it is necessarily less than that of someone like Forrest in a situation like Fort Pillow.

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