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 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.
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.”
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.”
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.