April, 1864–“Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones, But Words Can Never Hurt Me”

The Fort Pillow Massacre Proves the lie of this childish notion

By Gary Farrow, Danville Historical Society

Fort Pillow 1Danville North Star April 23, 1864

The Fort Pillow Massacre

Washington, April 16 – Yesterday afternoon dispatches were received from General Sherman regarding the surrender of Fort Pillow and the brutal conduct of the rebels immediately afterwards which bids fair to be amply retaliated in that quarter in due time.

The Star says according to General Sherman [that there were] fifty – three white troops killed and one hundred wounded, and three hundred blacks murdered in cold blood after the surrender…..

…It is now believed that Forrest will next appear in the vicinity of Memphis where they can inflict no more than at Columbus and stand a very fair chance of being surrounded by overwhelming forces.

The latest news from Fort Pillow is that the enemy, after burning the fort, and destroying everything that was not moveable left the place.


How events actually unfolded on April 12 at a Union fortification nestled beside the Mississippi River in Henning, Tennessee, is a matter of debate and dispute.  But the political and military events that led up to the massacre are crystal clear.

Soon after the war broke out in 1861, three slaves fled their owners and made their way to the Union’s Fortress Monroe in Hampton, Virginia. General Benjamin Butler declared them “contrabands” and refused to return them to the slave owners, because the state had declared itself a foreign power. Therefore, he reasoned he was under no obligation to return them to their owners.

By the late spring of 1862, Butler had moved on to capture New Orleans and oversee the Union army’s administration of the city and surrounding environs.  The General effectively confiscated surrounding plantations and slaves and put them into production on behalf of the US government and quite likely his own pockets.

Senator Garrett Davis

Senator Garrett Davis

As spring turned into summer, Senator Garrett Davis from Kentucky, a border state that remained in the Union, responded to a proposal on the floor made by Radical Republicans that blacks be recruited into the army. An active slaveholder and weathervane of Southern sentiment, he lashed out, ““No! No! We would regard the authors of such a proposal as our worst enemies…before we would submit to any such condition of things…we would meet you in a death struggle to overthrow together such oppression…If this Union cannot be preserved by the white man … there are no conditions upon which it can be saved.”

Then Garrett Davis said what was really on his mind, “If you put arms in the hands of the Negroes and make them feel their power and impress them with their former slavery, wrongs and injustice….you will whet their fiendish passions, make them the destroying scourge on our cotton States, and you will bring upon the country a condition of things that will render restoration hopeless.”  The toxic temperature of fear, hatred and desperation over race was red hot and climbing. The Davis speech was but a single temperature reading as the mercury made its fateful climb towards Fort Pillow.

Although the proposal by abolitionist Radical Republicans to recruit blacks into arms was not immediately successful, they continued to push for the immediate end of slavery and equal opportunities for blacks. Soon after Garrett Davis’ diatribe on the Senate floor, new confiscation legislation was passed that stated any slave in rebel territory occupied the Union army would be freed through criminal proceedings against Confederate officials, military or civilians.

By the end of 1862, Jefferson Davis, having had quite enough of both General Butler and Union confiscation policy, issued General Order 111: “The African slaves have not only been excited to insurrection by every license and encouragement but numbers of them have actually been armed for a servile war.” Specifically calling out Butler and his officers, Davis declared that “as robbers and criminals deserving death,” they would be executed upon capture. Davis also directed that all noncommissioned officers in the Union army found serving in the company of “armed slaves” be executed. As for the “servile” blacks, they were deemed to be sent back to the states where they belonged to be tried for insurrection. The penalty for this crime was death.

On January 1, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation became law. This raised the stakes even higher. Under the previous Confiscation Act, slaves in rebel held territory occupied by Union troops could become free through the prosecution of southerners in criminal proceedings. Now Lincoln’s decree freed all slaves in all rebel territory. There would be no turning back. It was victory or death. Both sides were now engaged in an all or nothing proposition. The new law also kicked the door wide open for the recruitment of black soldiers.

In May of 1863, the Confederate Congress quietly passed the aptly named Retaliatory Act, which maintained that the Union’s actions brought a “Servile War” into rebel states that violated the rules of “modern warfare [prevailing in] civilized nations” and that those actions may “be properly and lawfully repressed by retaliation.” The law authorized Jefferson Davis to take any retaliatory measures that he thought proper and affirmed the President’s prior executive order that Union officers associated with black troops be put to death. It also declared that all “negroes and mulattoes…engaged in war…against the Confederate States” be subject to the insurrection laws in the state where they were captured. This overt language effectively said that blacks, from North or South, were not legally military combatants. The race war was on.

The heat had been turned up; the pot at Fort Pillow would boil over.

Nathan Bedford Forrest

Nathan Bedford Forrest

Enter the Confederacy’s self-taught military genius Nathan Bedford Forrest.  A prosperous slave-trader and business entrepreneur, he joined the Confederate army as a private. Moved by the woeful straits his comrades in arms were in, he purchased horses and equipment for his Tennessee regiment. This brought him to the attention of Governor Isham Harris, who promptly commissioned him a Lieutenant General.

Forrest, the cavalry officer, distinguished himself early in the war by orchestrating the escape of Confederate troops from Fort Donelson, which was surrounded by General Grant’s forces and ultimately taken by the Union. Soon, he commanded the rearguard as the rebels retreated from the Battle of Shiloh, which at the time was the largest clash between armies ever seen on the American continent. Promoted to Brigadier General, he took his cavalry as far north as the banks of the Ohio River in southwest Kentucky before returning to his base in Mississippi. Once again, he become a thorn in General Grant’s side, forcing to him revise his strategy and tactics in his quest to take Vicksburg, the linchpin to controlling the Mississippi River and splitting the Confederacy in half.

The man was fearless and continually burnished his legend with heroic and crazed acts of personal courage. In 1863, often undermanned and outgunned, he successfully led a guerrilla campaign in northern Alabama. Forrest also played a key role in the Confederates’ success at the Battle of Chickamauga, as victory that briefly stemmed the Union tide in Tennessee. After General Braxton Bragg, his superior officer, failed to follow-up the victory and attempt to take back Chattanooga, Forrest confronted Bragg and threatened to kill him. Bragg banished his Cavalry commander to the Mississippi backwater, but by the spring of 1864, all had been forgiven. Bragg promoted him to the rank of Major General and brought him back to the Kentucky-Tennessee theatre.

On March 26, 1864, General Forrest attacked  General S.G. Hicks’ Union post of 6,000 troops at Paducah, Kentucky. The initial attacked was repelled. The rebel commander then sent a message to Hicks demanding “unconditional surrender.” The missive closed with, “If you surrender you will be treated as prisoners of war, but if I have to storm your works, you may expect no quarter.” Three other assaults by Forrest and others were to no avail, and they left Paducah, licking their wounds with over 1,000 men dead and looking for revenge.

About two weeks later, the battle of Fort Pillow took place. A subsequent Congressional investigative report by the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War provides a “no quarter given” narrative of rebel atrocities. Dominated by Radical Abolitionists, the Committee’s report, whether accurate or not, served to beat the war drums to willing listeners in the North.

What transpired on that April 12 day is somewhat clouded by the fog of war. What were General Forrest’s orders to his men? Was General Forrest on the immediate scene? Did black and white Union troops refuse to surrender? Did rebel troops act on Forrest’s orders? Did Confederate officers lose control of their men and a spontaneous massacre ensue?

Here is one account by Samuel H. Cadwell, a surgeon in the Confederate Sixteenth Cavalry Tennessee Cavalry, that he shared in a letter to his wife.“ It was garrisoned by 400 white men and 400 negroes & out of the 800 only 168 are now living. So you can guess how terrible was the slaughter. It was decidedly the most horrible sight that I have ever witnessed.

They refused to surrender—which incensed our men & if General Forrest had not run between our men & the Yanks with his pistol and sabre drawn not a man would have been spared—We took about a hundred & 25 white men & about 45 negroes the rest of the 800 are numbered with the dead—They sure [lay] heaped upon each other 3 days—….”

Certainly this account contradicts the overarching theme of the Congressional Committee’s report.

Robert S. Critchell

Robert S. Critchell

Whatever the facts, Robert S. Critchell, Acting-Master’s Mate USN, witnessed the aftermath. His account in the form of a letter was published in the New York Times, “Our boat arrived at the fort about 7 ½ A.M., on Wednesday, the 13th, the day after the rebels captured the fort…I was sent out with a burial party to bury the dead….

“I found many of the dead lying close along by the water’s edge, where they had evidently sought safety; they could not offer any resistance from the places where they were, in holes … along the banks; most of them had two wounds. I saw several colored soldiers of the Sixth United States Artillery, with their eyes punched out with bayonets; many of them were shot twice and bayoneted also. All those along the bank of the river were colored. The number of the colored near the river was about seventy. Going up into the fort, I saw there bodies partially consumed by fire. Whether burned before or after death I cannot say, any way there were several companies of rebels in the fort while these bodies were burning, and they could have pulled them out of the fire had they chosen to do so….

“I had some conversation with rebel officers, and they claim that our men would not surrender, and in some few cases they could not control their men, who seemed determined to shoot down every negro soldier, whether he surrendered or not. This is a flimsy excuse, for after our colored troops had been driven from the fort, and they were surrounded by the rebels on all sides, it is apparent that they would do what all say they did, throw down their arms and beg for mercy….”

Whatever Nathan Bedford Forrest acts of commission or omission were, the weight of command responsibility falls upon his shoulders. The seeds of the race war at Fort Pillow were cultivated months and years before. By Confederate thinking, Union officers and black troops were engaged a servile insurrection against the social fabric of the South. Execution was the solution.

Along with the men who were there, the escalating words of fear, hatred and desperation through the years and the ideas they represented pulled the trigger and stuck the bayonet at Fort Pillow. Words and thoughts can hurt beyond a mere child’s wildest imagination. Authors of mayhem and murder, they too caused the Mississippi River to run red that day.

Sources: “Lincoln and the Border States” by William C Harris; Confederate President Jefferson’s General Order 111; The “Retaliatory Act”  passed by the Confederate Congress; New York Times May 3 1864 Letter to the Editor submitted by Congressman Blow from Missouri which is the letter of Robert S Critchell, Acting-Master’s Mate U.S.N.; Samuel Cadwell’s, Surgeon for 16th Cavalry Tennessee, letter to his wife; Committee on the Conduct of the War’s Report on the Fort Pillow Massacre published in the New York Times, May 6,1864



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