The Fort Pillow Massacre dates to April 12, 1864, the fourth year of the American Civil War, on the banks of the Mississippi river in west Tennessee. I bought this 530 page hardback by Andrew Ward at Half Price Books at a bit of a steal for $3 or so:
The book is peculiarly interesting in that it reminds one that our current arguments over the rules of war, that is, the definition of enemy combatants, and the mistreatment of prisoners, were also the subject of great controversy 140 years ago.
Perhaps a sign of my maturity, or perhaps some other thing, it no longer bothers me when youngsters (those aged, say 20 to 30) make appalling statements regarding history. Instead, I simply assume that they’re just trying to piss me off, and I ignore it. This sentiment was brought up when I showed the book to a chess player at the Overlake Mall just after buying it. “The Civil War? Oh that’s one of my favorites. That was when the slaves were freed. Or was that World War I?” Under the assumption that the comment was rooted in ignorance rather than in wishing to see me blow a gasket, I write this book review.
One sometimes hears people complaining about how poorly the partisans of the Republican and Democratic parties get along these days. However, relationships between the parties were once rather sanguinary. In 1860, Abraham Lincoln, a Republican won a hard fought election. At that time the Democrats were a power in the southern US, and many people in states with Democratic majorities decided that it would be better to split the USA into two nations, the old USA consisting of the northern states, and a new nation, the “Confederate States of America” or CSA, consisting of the southern states. Well push came to shove and the result was a 5 year war, easily the bloodiest in US history in terms of percentage of the population killed.
Slavery and Morality
At the time of its founding, slavery was universally legal in the US, but by 1860 it had been outlawed in the Northern states. This was a moral issue. Then, as now, a substantial portion of the Republican party was evangelical Christian and by and large, the evangelical position on slavery was that it was wrong. Also, then as now, the Republican party was the party of industrial business, and the belief of the businessmen of the industrial north was that former slaves would make good workers and would keep wages lower.
One wins wars first by defeating the enemy militarily, but secondarily, it helps to enlist assistance to one’s own side. This is what propaganda is for; the manipulation of morality for military ends. In the case of the Civil War, the primary morality argument for the North became the abolition of slavery.
However, militarily, there was a problem. Not all the states where slavery was legal joined the CSA. Some of the border states were prevented from joining by USA military force. In addition, the farther north one went, the less likely that slaves would form an effective agricultural work force, so some of the border states were not so entirely against a Republican president.
Tennessee was a CSA state but just barely. As a near border state, it was a first target for invasion by the USA. And as a near border state, it had large numbers of citizens on both sides of the issue. This made it a natural battleground for militias fighting on the side of both the CSA and the USA. The situation was further complicated by the fact that Lincoln had given freedom only to those slaves owned by rebels or in rebellious territories. In Tennessee, the result was that slavery was still legal, but slaves could run away from their masters and join the US military.
The situation for men of military age in Tennessee must have been difficult. The economy was broken, but enough war had been fought that the unpleasant nature of military service should have been obvious. Despite this, both sides had considerable volunteers and actively forced conscription. I would think that after 4 years of war, the primary consideration of a person contemplating service in a Tennessee milita would be to make sure that they picked the winning side. By 1864 it really wasn’t possible to imagine that the CSA would survive the war so enlistments and recruiting for the USA in Tennessee were high.
Prisoners and The Law of War
Western Tennessee was not densely populated in the 1860s and this added the additional military problem of a lack of stable fronts. The USA controlled the Mississippi river but they could not control the wooded territories inland. This left them open to Confederate raiders. The most famous and the most successful of these was Nathan Bedford Forrest.
It so happened that both the CSA recruited cavalry regiments from Tennessee numbered “7.” So history lists both a 7th Cavalry Tennesse (USA) and a 7th Cavalry Tennessee (CSA). And it so happens that the 7th Cavalry (USA) was assigned the task of defending Union City, Tennessee. And Nathan Forrest assigned the 7th Cavalry (CSA) the task of capturing Union City. His parting words were a taunt, “You are the 7th Tennessee Rebs. The 7th Tennessee Yanks are at Union City. I am going to send you there to clean them up. If you don’t, never come back here.”
When the 7th Tennessee Rebs arrived at Union City, it became apparent that the defenders were too well dug in to be removed. Rather than return to face Nathan Forrest, the 7th (CSA)’s commander first sent a note to the 7th (USA):
I have your garrison completely surrounded, and demand an unconditional surrender of your forces. If you comply with the demand, you are promised the treatment due prisoners of war, according to usages in civilized warfare. If you persist in a defense, you must take the consequences.
By order of
N. B. Forrest, Major General
The note was a bluff. It suggested that there were far more soldiers surrounding the fort than actually were available. And it implied that the taking of the fort would not be according to the rules of civilized warfare. The inhabitants would not be taken as prisoners.
There was once a tradition that soldiers who resisted a surrounding force would be executed if their redoubt was taken by force, but would be paroled (i.e. released with a promise to not fight again) if they gave up the redoubt. In American history, this sort of tradition most famously resonates with the seige and investiture of The Alamo in 1836. At that fort near San Antonio, Texas, the rebels, most famously including Davy Crockett, resisted the forces of the Mexican general Santa Ana and the survivors were executed after the battle. Perhaps because of this recent history, some of the survivors afterwards credited the 8th Texas Cavalry (CSA) also known as Terry’s Texas Rangers with refusing to participate in the massacre and with saving the lives of prisoners.
When one examines the behavior of military forces with regard to the treatment of prisoners, one naturally finds that the easier it is to humanely take care of prisoners, the more likely it is to happen. In the American Civil war, prisoners were generally captured rather than executed, but for guerilla forces such as Forrest’s forces this was undoubtedly a more difficult operation as prisoners would impede fast movement.
In any case, the 7th (USA) cravenly surrendered to the 7th (CSA), and in this a moral hazard was created that may have contributed to the massacre at Fort Pillow.
The Threat of No Quarter
For a side that was clearly losing the war, the surrender of the 7th (USA) gave great hope. But in addition to a glorious victory, it gave a mistaken belief that one could arrange for Yankee units to surrender by threatening to later refuse to accept their surrender.
Now in order for a threat to have effect, the threatener must be convincing. And the easiest way to be convincing is to be serious about the threat. Even when one does not originally intend to carry out the threat, one can be sort of walked into it. For the present time, the obvious violation of the rules of war that comes to mind is waterboarding.
So when Nathan Forrest surrounded two US regiments at Fort Pillow, he used more or less the same threat that had worked at Union City. But this time, the US commander refused to surrender. To make a long story short, the forces of Forrest stormed the fort, and spent the rest of the day, and a good bit of the next, slaughtering the survivors. And it’s pretty clear that this was done on Nathan Forrest’s direct orders.
Regarding the laws of war, there is another resonation with the current arguments in the US. Half the USA forces at Fort Pillow were black, mostly an artillery regiment. Most of these were slaves that had been (more or less) liberated by US forces, and recruited into the US military, where they were officered by whites.
For the CSA, the slaves were stolen property. They refused to grant them the status of enemy combatants. Slaves in revolt were subject to the death penalty. What’s more, those who would drive slaves to revolt were also subject to the death penalty. So for a guerilla force such as Forrest’s there was some legal justification for the massacre.
When military forces operate in enemy territory, the laws of war clearly allow those forces to destroy the property of use to the enemy. This does not apply to enemy soldiers as soldiers are not property. But since the CSA refused to recognize former slaves (or even free slaves from northern states) as soldiers, some of them undoubtedly felt free to destroy slaves as property.
A better program would be to give enemy combatants the benefit of the doubt and treat them all as prisoners of war.
Many of the survivors of the massacre carried wounds of the sort that are associated with the mass execution of prisoners. One wonders how it is possible to survive being shot in the face or in the back of the head (with the large caliber military rifles of the time), but if you do this to enough people, some of them will survive to tell the tale. The book details this.
Revenge and Time
News of the Fort Pillow massacre outraged the Republicans and Lincoln had to listen to multiple people advising him to threaten reprisals against CSA prisoners. A quote from the book:
The president, as usual, kept his own counsel. As his ministers’ memoranda piled up on his desk, he agreed to meet Frederick Douglas [famous abolitionist, born a slave] to discuss the massacre and the unequal pay and promotions accorded black troops by the Union army. Impressing Douglas as an “honest man” whom he could “love, honor, and trust without reserve or doubt,” Lincoln agreed about the justice of equal pay and promotion for black soldiers, but disagreed “entirely” with Douglas’s call for reprisals. “I shall never forget the benignant expression of his face,” Douglas recalled, “the tearful look of his eye, and the quiver in his voice, when he deprecated a resort to retaliatory measures.”
“Once begun,” Lincoln groaned, “I do not know where such a measure would stop.”
“He said he could not take men out and kill them in cold blood for what was done by others,” Douglass wrote. “If he could get hold of the persons who were guilty of killing the colored prisoners in cold blood, the case would be different. But he could not kill the innocent for the guilty.”
The book goes into what happened to the various participants. I found Nathan Forrest’s particularly interesting. Some more quotes:
The last Tennessee skirmish between Yankee and rebel was fought on April 18  at Germantown, two days after what was left of the Confederate Army of Tennessee had surrendered near Durham Station, North Carolina. When, in early May, Grant demanded unconditional surrender of the Western Confederacy’s forces, some of Forrest’s men proposed regrouping in Texas and fighting on. But Forrest wearily declined to lead them. “Men, you may do as you damn please,” he told a visiting delegation of diehards, “but I’m a-going home.” Pressing the war “would be nothing but murder,” he told them. “Any man who is in favor of a further prosecution of this war is a fit subject for a lunatic asylum.”
On May 4, he addressed his men directly, with no ghostwriter interceding. “We have made our last fight,” he told them. They had been “good soldiers,” and any man “who has been a good soldier can be a good citizen. I shall go back to my home upon the Mississippi River, there to begin life anew, and to you good old Confederates, I want to say that the latchstring of Bedford Forrest will always be outside the door.”
More on Forrest:
Once, during the war, he had remarked to an evangelical officer that he didn’t have any time for religion while there was so much unholy fighting to do. But in his frailty he grew penitent and once burst into tears after a sermon, likening himself to the text’s man who “built his house upon the sand.” That night, after meditating on Psalm 51 — “Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation” — he emerged satisfied that “all is right,” for he had “put my trust in my Redeemer. His faith seemed to affect him so much that his benignity disturbed the old comrades who visited him. One even went so far as to observe that the old warhorse now displayed “the gentleness of expression, the voice and manner of a woman.” When a former aide suggested to Forrest that he didn’t seem to be “the same man I used to know so well,” the old rage flickered briefly.
“I hope I am a better man,” Forrest snarled, grabbing the aide by the lapels. “I’ve joined the church and am trying to live a Christian life.”
Anticipating Alabama governor George Wallace’s ambiguous change of heart over a century later, Forrest defied, as he put it, the “jeers and sneers of a few white people” to attend an African American picnic in 1875, where he declared that he and his black audience “may differ in color but not in sentiment.” Black and white came from “the same soil, breathe the same air, live in the same land,” he said, so “why should we not be brothers and sisters?” He promised to “do all in my power to elevate every man” and “depress none,” and declared himself “with you in heart and in mind.”