April 12, 1864 – Civil War Massacre of Black Soldiers at Fort Pillow

On this day in history, the troops of Confederate Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest butchered the black Union troops garrisoned at Fort Pillow in Tennessee. The garrison had surrendered, but some four hundred soldiers were shot anyway. Two wounded black soldiers were buried alive but managed to dig themselves out. Many bodies were mutilated.

The war in Tennessee : Confederate massacre of Federal troops after the surrender at Fort Pillow, April 12th, 1864.

The war in Tennessee : Confederate massacre of Federal troops after the surrender at Fort Pillow, April 12th, 1864.

Richard Fuchs, author of An Unerring Fire (2002, p. 14), concluded:

The affair at Fort Pillow was simply an orgy of death, a mass lynching to satisfy the basest of conduct – intentional murder – for the vilest of reasons – racism and personal enmity.”

As Ron Chernow reports in his biography of Grant, Grant reacted with outrage. As proof of his foe’s inhumanity, Grant quoted the dispatch Forrest filed after the episode: “The river was dyed with the blood of the slaughtered for two hundred yards… It is hoped that these facts will demonstrate to the Northern people that negro soldiers cannot cope with Southerners.” This was only the case because the Southerners refused to honor the flag of surrender by the black soldiers.

On April 17, 1864, Grant ordered General Benjamin F. Butler, who was negotiating prisoner exchanges with the Confederacy, to demand that in the exchange and treatment of prisoners, black prisoners had to be treated identically to whites. A failure to do so would “be regarded as a refusal on their part to agree to the further exchange of prisoners, and [would] be so treated by us.”

General Grant

General Grant

This demand was refused and Confederate Secretary of War Seddon in June 1864 stated the confederate position:

I doubt, however, whether the exchange of negroes at all for our soldiers would be tolerated. As to the white officers serving with negro troops, we ought never to be inconvenienced with such prisoners.”

On August 10, the Confederates agreed to a “man-for-man exchange” but not of black soldiers. General Robert E. Lee restated this position to General Grant in October, writing “…negroes belonging to our citizens are not considered subjects of exchange.”

Meanwhile, Forrest did not pay the consequences for the actions of troops under his command. After the War, he was a pledged delegate from Tennessee to the New York Democratic national convention in 1868, and most notably, served as the first Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan.

Nathan Bedford Forrest

Nathan Bedford Forrest


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