April 12, 1864
Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, in a message to headquarters, said, “There is a federal force of 500 or 600 at Fort Pillow which I shall attend to . . . as they have horses and supplies which we need.” Fort Pillow, Tenn., was an earthwork fort situated on a high bluff overlooking the Mississippi River and one of many garrisons the Union used to protect its supply lines. The fort was manned by 295 white troops of the 13th Tennessee Cavalry and 265 blacks of the 11th U.S. Colored Troops. Tennessee was a Confederate state, and Union soldiers from Tennessee were considered to be traitors. The black soldiers, mostly freed slaves, were hated as much as the “renegade Tennesseans.”
At 4:30 A.M., on April 12, 1,500 of Forrest’s men assaulted the fort and quickly hemmed the garrison into their innermost earthwork. Forrest arrived at 10:00 A.M. and placed men in strategic positions where they could fire down on the garrison. The men kept up a murderous fire until 3:30 P.M., when Forrest displayed a flag of truce and demanded the surrender of the fort. Maj. Lionel F. Booth, commander of the fort, had been killed by a sharpshooter earlier that morning. The second in command, Maj. William F. Bradford, requested an hour to consult with his subordinates. (Bradford was expecting reinforcements to arrive on Mississippi transport boats before that time.) Forrest could see the smoke from vessels on the river and, suspecting Bradford’s plan, gave him only 20 minutes to decide. At the end of that time the surrender was refused, and Forrest ordered his men to take the fort.
The Confederates charged the Union position and drove the federal soldiers over the bluff and down the riverbank, where many tried to surrender. What happened next has been debated over the years. From the high casualty rate of the Union troops it seems a massacre occured. The Union troops suffered 231 killed, 100 wounded, and 226 captured. The black units suffered 64 percent killed; the white units only 33 percent. The attacking Confederates suffered only 14 killed and 86 wounded.
Fascinating Fact: Forrest had three horses shot out from under him on this day, but he suffered only bruises and soreness.