August/September 2005 | Volume 56, Issue 4
Trying to understand the Civil War’s ugliest incident
On April 12, 1864, about 40 miles up the mississippi from Memphis, Confederate cavalry under the audacious command of Nathan Bedford Forrest overran a vastly outnumbered garrison composed in roughly equal portions of white Tennessee Unionists and escaped slaves turned Federal artillerists.
If the result of this collision of Southerners was the most notorious atrocity of the Civil War, it owed a measure of its infamy to the machinations of Radical Republican congressmen, who delectatiously broadcast the lurid details of hundreds of soldiers slaughtered after they surrendered, of wounded men murdered in hospital tents, of captives burned and buried alive, of black men hanged along the Rebels’ triumphant line of march. The South in turn responded to this mixture of fact and fantasy much as it had responded to the prewar brickbats of the abolitionists: by hunkering down, denying everything, and accusing the victims of barbarity.
Wading through waters consecrated by Northern mythology, bloodied by Forrest’s cavalry, and muddied by his defenders has not been easy. The black troops proved to be neither the ciphers nor the mythic heroes of either side’s propaganda. They could not have been guilty of the outrages against local civilians that Forrest accused them of committing: They had next to no horses and were under strict orders to remain not just at Fort Pillow but within their own works lest they incense local whites or collide with their white comrades. The black troops fought bravely, but some of the more dramatic episodes touted by the North—of a black trooper saving his regiment’s colors by tucking it under his shirt to bind his wounds, of his dead commander’s widow ceremoniously returning the bloodstained colors to his men—were apparently invented or staged. And far from inspiring thousands more blacks to join the Army, the Fort Pillow massacre, and the Union’s official refusal to retaliate, actually slowed Western black recruitment to a trickle.
I also found that Forrest’s men were not the poor backwoods whites that Northerners represented them to be. Most of them owned, or stood to inherit, substantial property, including slaves. And none of Forrest’s black prisoners were hanged along his line of march. Once the Rebels’ rage subsided, the black survivors fared far better than their white comrades. Blacks were valued as recovered property, whereas most of their white counterparts died in the Andersonville prison camp, where, as Southern Unionists, they were subjected to especially harsh treatment.
Few of the briefs submitted by Rebel officers in defense of themselves and their commander stood up to scrutiny. For instance, in 1877, as a newly elected Mississippi congressman, James Ronald Chalmers, Forrest’s field commander at Fort Pillow, asked his colleagues how anyone could believe in the blood guiltiness of a man of his erudition, temperance, and manifest decency. But a decade after the war, Chalmers had demonstrated a continuing capacity for mayhem by leading a band of Confederate veterans in a massacre of some 40 black civilians who had peaceably assembled in support of their sheriff.
From the massacres I have studied, I have learned that even when there is no prospect of prosecution or punishment, the perpetrators never admit to them, in large part because they refuse to allow a criminal act to define them. Men who commit murder in war are as unlikely to consider themselves murderous beasts as the rest of us are to deem ourselves inveterate liars for a falsehood we told last Wednesday. They cannot imagine how their own existence could boil down to the instant when, in the flash of a pistol or the glint of a blade, they put an end to somebody else’s existence. This was especially true of citizen soldiers who, in their terror, horror, bigotry, and rage, committed atrocities. Afterward they might return to what they had been before they were pulled into the sanguinary current of the war—farmers, most of them; churchgoers; citizens; family men—but with this difference: an inadmissible knowledge of themselves in extremis .