The Fort Pillow Massacre in Tennessee on April 12, 1864, in which some 300 African-American soldiers were killed, was one of the most controversial events of the American Civil War (1861-65). Though most of the Union garrison surrendered, and thus should have been taken as prisoners of war, the soldiers were killed. The Confederate refusal to treat these troops as traditional prisoners of war infuriated the North, and led to the Union’s refusal to participate in prisoner exchanges.

Fort Pillow Massacre: Background

In 1861, the Confederates constructed a military installation at the Fort Pillow site and named it for General Gideon Johnson Pillow (1806-78), a Tennessee native. Fort Pillow overlooked the Mississippi River and was an important part of the Confederate river defense system before it was captured by federal forces in the summer of 1862.

In March 1864, Confederate Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest (1821-77) launched a cavalry raid in western Tennessee and Kentucky that was aimed at destroying Union supply lines and capturing federal prisoners. In early April, he determined to move on Fort Pillow, located 40 miles north of Memphis. At the time, Fort Pillow was being held by a garrison of around 600 men, approximately half of whom were black soldiers.

Fort Pillow Massacre: April 12, 1864

On the morning of April 12, Forrest’s force, estimated at 1,500 to 2,500 troops, quickly surrounded the fort. When the fort’s commander, Union Maj. Lionel Booth, was killed by a Confederate sniper’s bullet, the second in command, Major William Bradford took control. By 3:30 pm, Forrest demanded surrender from the Union troops. Bradford, hoping for reinforcements from Union boats arriving by the Mississippi River, called for a one-hour cease fire. 

Forrest, however, spotted Union boats approaching and sent men to block the possible reinforcements. Then he declared his troops would storm the fort in 20 minutes—which they did, meeting little meaningful resistance. 

While Major Bradford fled toward the Mississippi, most of the Union garrison surrendered, and thus should have been taken as prisoners of war. But Confederate and Union witness accounts attest that some 300 soldiers were gunned down by the Confederate forces, the majority of them black. The Confederate refusal to treat these soldiers as traditional POWs infuriated the North, and led to the Union’s refusal to participate in prisoner exchanges.

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. Forrest, himself, claimed that he and his troops had done nothing wrong and that the Union men were killed because Bradford had refused to surrender. Controversy over the battle continues today.

The Fort Pillow site is now a Tennessee state park.

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