Fort Pillow, a Civil War Massacre, and Public Memory

by John Cimprich, Louisiana State University Press, 2005, 193 pages, $29.95.

John Cimprich traces the history of Fort Pillow, Tennessee, beginning with its creation by the Confederates as part of a system of defenses for the Mississippi River at the beginning of the Civil War and culminating with one of the conflict’s most controversial events: the capture of the fort and the killing of large numbers of its Tennessee Unionist and African-American garrison on April 12, 1864. The result is a fine study that places the fort and its occupants in the larger context of the war and discusses the nature of public memory and history with regard to the events that took place there.

Eschewing a simple retelling of the controversial 1864 massacre in favor of a broader-themed examination of a relatively isolated military post in the context of the war as a whole, the author contributes to our understanding of that conflict’s evolving nature. The Federals who occupied the post after the Southerners evacuated it soon learned that they were stationed in a region whose population was largely hostile and uncooperative. They became involved in myriad activities that ranged from combating guerrilla operations and bushwhacking to gathering supplies, recruits and military intelligence, while simultaneously trying to protect the area’s Union sympathizers. Throughout, these individuals experienced the changing nature of the war, from policies that embraced a conciliatory strain toward civilians in the region to those that stressed a harsher approach.

The year 1864 proved pivotal for the defenders of Fort Pillow, particularly as the soldiers of Confederate cavalry general Nathan Bedford Forrest conducted raids into western Tennessee and Kentucky. Forrest saw the vulnerability of the Union installation and determined to capture it. Subsequently, his men surrounded the fort on the morning of April 12, peppering the garrison with effective fire from sharpshooters, who killed the post’s commander, Lionel Booth. Booth’s successor, William Bradford, later refused Forrest’s demand for surrender and the Confederates succeeded in overrunning the defenses.

It was at that point that the controversy surrounding this military action exploded as some of the Confederates continued to fire at men who were unwilling or unable to defend themselves. When the action finally subsided, Union casualties were excessively heavy, particularly among the African-American troops. The United States Congress investigated the matter and in an emotionally charged report labeled the affair a “massacre,” a charge with which Northern newspaper editors and public figures tended to agree and to which Southerners, including Forrest, became increasingly defensive in their tone.

The Fort Pillow “Massacre” continued to have an impact for the remainder of the war and in the period of reconstruction that followed. Interpretations of the incidents that occurred there have also flourished in the years since, as outlined in a chapter devoted to “Public Memory and Fort Pillow.” Certainly, John Cimprich’s credentials with regard to the events of April 12 are substantial and his exploration of the circumstances surrounding that date and its aftermath are sound, but the great value of this work lies as much in the history of the fort, its varied garrisons and their places in America’s Civil War.


Originally published in the May 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.