previous next

The capture of Fort Pillow (April 12th, 1864).

Major Lionel F. Booth, 6th United States Heavy Artillery, who commanded Fort Pillow April 12th, 1864, was killed in the battle of that date of which there is no circumstantial official Union report. From the data attainable it appears that the garrison consisted of 557 soldiers (about half of them colored troops), and that the killed, wounded, and captured numbered about 400. According to the Confederate reports the prisoners, including wounded, numbered 237. The percentage of killed was extraordinarily large. The news of this fight created much excitement in the North and led to an investigation by the Committee on the Conduct of the War, which reported that the Confederates entered the works shouting “No quarter,” and that they then began “an indiscriminate slaughter, sparing neither age nor sex, white or black, soldier or civilian.”

On June 17th, 1864 (in view of “the Fort Pillow Massacre” ), General C. C. Washburn, the Union commander of the District of West Tennessee, wrote to General S. D. Lee, then the Confederate commander of the Department of Alabama, Mississippi, and East Louisiana, asking for information as to the intention of the Confederates concerning colored soldiers who might fall into their hands as prisoners of war. General Lee replied, June 28th, in part as follows:

The version [of Fort Pillow] given by you and your Government is untrue, and not sustained by the facts to the extent that you indicate. The garrison was summoned in the usual manner, and its commanding officer assumed the responsibility of refusing to surrender after having been informed by General Forrest of his ability to take the fort, and of his fears as to what the result would be in case the demand was not complied with. The assault was made under a heavy fire and with considerable loss to the attacking party. Your colors were never lowered, and your garrison never surrendered, but retreated under cover of a gun-boat with arms in their hands and constantly using them. This was true particularly of your colored troops, who had been firmly convinced by your teachings of the certainty of slaughter in case of capture. Even under these circumstances, many of your men, white and black, were taken prisoners. I respectfully refer you to history for numerous cases of indiscriminate slaughter after successful assault, even under less aggravated circumstances. It is generally conceded by all military precedent that where the issue had been fairly presented and the ability displayed, fearful results are expected to follow a refusal to surrender.

The case under consideration is almost an extreme one. You had a servile race armed against their masters, and in a country which had been desolated by almost unprecedented outrages. I assert that our officers, with all the circumstances against them, endeavored to prevent the effusion of blood, and as an evidence of this I refer you to the fact that both white and colored prisoners were taken, and are now in our hands.

The following are extracts from Forrest's report, dated April 26th, 1864 [see also p. 107]:

. . . My command consisted of McCulloch's brigade of Chalmers's division and Bell's brigade of Buford's division, both placed for the expedition under the command of Brigadier-General James R. Chalmers, who, by a forced march, drove in the enemly's pickets, gained possession of the outer works, and by the time I reached the field, at 10 A. A., had forced the enemy to their main fortifications, situated on the bluff or bank of the Mississippi River at the mouth of Coal Creek. . . . Assuming command, I ordered General Chalmers to advance his line and gain position on the slope, where our men would be perfectly protected from the heavy fire of artillery and musketry, as the enemy could not depress their pieces so as to rake the slopes, nor could they fire on them with small-arms except by mounting the breastworks and exposing themselves to the fire of our sharp-shooters, who, under cover of stumps and logs, forced them to keep down inside the works. After several hours' hard fighting the desired position was gained, not, however, without considerable loss. Our main line was now within an average distance of one hundred yards from the fort, and extended from Coal Creek on the right to the bluff or bank of the Mississippi River on the left.

During the entire morning the gun-boat [New Era--gun-boat No. 7--Captain James Marshall] kept up a continued fire in all directions, but without effect, and being confident of my ability to take [the] fort by assault, and desiring to prevent further loss of life, I sent, under flag of truce, a demand for the unconditional surrender of the garrison. . . . [Major Booth, in reply, asked [419] an hour for consultation with his officers and Captain Marshall.] . . . The gun-boat had ceased firing, but the smoke of three other boats ascending the river was in view, the foremost apparently crowded with troops; and believing the request for an hour was to gain time for reinforcements to arrive, and that the desire to consult the officers of the gun-boat was a pretext by which they desired improperly to communicate with her, I at once sent this reply . . . [giving twenty minutes in which to surrender] . . . directing Captain [W. A.] Goodman, assistant adjutant-general of Brigadier General Chalmers, who bore the flag, to remain until he received a reply or until the expiration of the time proposed.

My dispositions had all been made, and my forces were in a position that would enable me to take the fort with less loss than to have withdrawn under fire, and it seemed [to] me so perfectly apparent to the garrison that such was the case, that I deemed their capture without further bloodshed a certainty. After some little delay, seeing a message delivered to Captain Goodman, I rode up myself to where the notes were received and delivered. The answer was handed me, written in pencil on a slip of paper, without envelope, and was, as well as I remember, in these words: “Negotiations will not attain the desired object.” As the officers who were in charge of the Federal flag of truce had expressed a doubt as to my presence, and had pronounced the demand a trick, I handed them back the note, saying, “ I am General Forrest; go back and say to Major Booth that I demand an answer in plain, unmistakable English: Will he fight or surrender?” Returning to my original position, before the expiration of twenty minutes I received a reply . . . [Major Booth replied, “We will not surrender.” ] . . .

While these negotiations were pending the steamers from below were rapidly approaching the fort. The foremost was the Olive Branch, whose position and movements indicated her intention to land. A few shots fired into her caused her [to] leave the shore and make for the opposite. One other boat passed up on the far side of the river; the third one turned back. The time having expired, I directed Brigadier-General Chalmers to prepare for the assault. . . Everything being ready, the bugle sounded the charge, which was made with a yell, and the works carried without a perceptible halt in any part of the line. As our troops mounted and poured into the fortification, the enemy retreated toward the river, arms in hand, and firing back, and their colors flying; no doubt expecting the gun-boat to shell us away from the bluff and protect them until they could be taken off or reenforced. As they descended the bank an enfilading and deadly fire was poured into them by the troops under Captain Anderson on the left, and Barteau's detachment on the right. Until this fire was opened upon them, at a distance varying from thirty to one hundred yards, they were evidently ignorant of any force having gained their rear. The regiment who had stormed and carried the fort also poured a destructive fire into the rear of the retreating, and now panic-stricken, and almost decimated, garrison. Fortunately for those of the enemy who survived this short but desperate struggle, some of our men cut the halyards, and the United States flag, floating from a tall mast in the center of the fort, came down. The forces stationed in the rear of the fort could see the flag, but were too far under the bluff to see the fort, and when the flag descended they ceased firing. But for this, so near were they to the enemy that few, if any, would have survived unhurt another volley. As it was, many rushed into the river and were drowned, and the actual loss of life will perhaps never be known, as there were quite a number of refugee citizens in the fort, many of whom were drowned and several killed in the retreat from the fort. In less than twenty minutes from the time the bugles sounded the charge, firing had ceased, and the work was done. One of the Parrott guns was turned on the gun-boat. She steamed off without replying. She had, as I afterward understood, expended all her ammunition, and was therefore powerless in affording the Federal garrison the aid and protection they doubtless expected of her when they retreated toward the river. Details were made, consisting of the captured Federals and negroes, in charge of their own officers, to collect together and bury the dead, which work continued until dark.

I also directed Captain Anderson to procure a skiff and take with him Captain [John T.] Young, a captured Federal officer, and deliver to Captain Marshall, of the gun-boat, the message, copy of which is appended1 . . . All the boats and skiffs having been taken off by citizens escaping from the fort during the engagement, the message could not be delivered, although every effort was made to induce Captain Marshall to send his boat ashore by raising a white flag, with which Captain Young walked up and down the river in vain signaling her to come in or send out a boat. She finally moved off and disappeared around the bend above the fort. General Chalmers withdrew his forces from the fort before dark and encamped a few miles cast of it. On the morning of the 13th I again dispatched Captain Anderson to Fort Pillow for the purpose of placing, if possible, the Federal wounded on board their transports, and report to me on his return the condition of affairs at the river2 . . .

We captured six pieces of artillery, viz., two 10-pounder Parrott guns, two 12-pounder howitzers, and two brass 6-pounder guns, and about 350 stand of small-arms. The balance of the small-arms had been thrown in the river. All the small-arms were picked up where the enemy fell or threw them down. A few were in the fort, the balance scattered from the top of the hill to the water's edge. We captured 164 Federals, 75 negro troops, and about 40 negro women and children, and after removing everything of value as far as able to do so, the warehouses, tents, etc., were destroyed by fire.

1 HEADQUARTERS, Forrest's cavalry, Fort Pillow, April 12, 1864. Captain---Marshall, Commanding U. S. Gunboat. Sir: My aide-de-camp, Captain Charles W. Anderson, is fully authorized to negotiate with you for the delivery of the wounded of the Federal garrison at this place, upon your own or any other United States vessel. Respectfully, N. B. Forrest, Major-General.

2 The report of Captain Anderson shows that on the 13th lie delivered on board the U. S. Steamer Silver Cloud (Acting Master W. Ferguson) three officers, 43 white soldiers, and 14 colored soldiers, and received an acknowledgment in writing. The Confederate loss, according to the latest compilation in the War Department, was 14 killed and 86 wounded.--editors.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide People (automatically extracted)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
April 12th, 1864 AD (3)
June 17th, 1864 AD (1)
April 26th, 1864 AD (1)
June 28th (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: