During the American Civil War, Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Confederate raiders attack the isolated Union garrison at Fort Pillow, Tennessee, overlooking the Mississippi River. The fort, an important part of the Confederate river defense system, was captured by federal forces in 1862. Of the 500-strong Union garrison defending the fort, more than half the soldiers were African Americans.
After an initial bombardment, General Forrest asked for the garrison’s surrender. The Union commander refused, and Forrest’s 1,500 cavalry troopers easily stormed and captured the fort, suffering only moderate casualties. However, the extremely high proportion of Union casualties—231 killed and more than 100 seriously wounded—raised questions about the Confederates’ conduct after the battle. Union survivors’ accounts, later supported by a federal investigation, concluded that African American troops were massacred by Forrest’s men after surrendering. Southern accounts disputed these findings.
The enlistment of African Americans into the Union army began after the enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, and by the war’s end 180,000 African Americans had fought in the Union army and 10,000 in the navy.