Fort Pillow lay south of Island No. 10, the Confederates' key defense from a Northern assault. Although considered a backup to Island No. 10, Fort Pillow was really a significant fortification in its own right. After a Union campaign captured the island in early April, Fort Pillow was all that stood between the Yankees and Memphis.
At the beginning of the war, Union military leaders had concocted the Anaconda Plan, which called for the dismemberment of the Confederacy piece by piece. The first part of the plan involved capturing the Mississippi River through operations from both the north and the Gulf of Mexico.
By mid-April, a combined Union land force and naval squadron approached Fort Pillow. Most of the land force, however, had to be diverted to serve in northern Mississippi, so only 1,200 troops remained. Although the land force was too small to take the fort, Yankee ships began a weeks-long bombardment. On May 25, an additional flotilla arrived to step up the pressure on the Confederate bastion.
Events in northern Mississippi sealed the fate of Fort Pillow. The Confederates evacuated Corinth on June 4 and fell back to a more defensible position in central Mississippi, leaving Fort Pillow dangerously isolated in Union-held territory, with no support from the southeast. On June 4, the Rebel garrison slipped away from the fort, destroying what cannons and provisions they could not carry with them. That set the stage for the capture of Memphis on June 6.