Hundreds of Black Union Soldiers Massacred After Surrendering
April 12, 1864. “When Union armies began employing Negro troops, the Confederate government threatened to execute or enslave captured blacks and to try their officers for inciting insurrection. Lincoln checkmated this threat with the announcement that a rebel prisoner would be executed for every one killed by rebels and that every enslaved prisoner would find a counterpart in a Confederate prisoner placed at hard labor [a threat never acted upon]. But an outrage in Tennessee showed that the issue could not rest.” (1)
On April 12, 1864, Confederate forces led by Nathan B. Forrest, later to found the Ku Klux Klan, attacked Fort Pillow, Tennessee, on the Mississippi River. When the fort was taken, many — about three hundred — of the United States Colored Troops defending the fort were murdered after they surrendered, as were some white soldiers and the commanding officer. Other black soldiers were put into slavery.
One Confederate soldier recalled that the black soldiers “would run up to our men, fall upon their knees and with uplifted hands, scream for mercy, but were ordered to their feet, and then shot down.” Another reported, “I saw four white men and at least 25 negroes shot while begging for mercy. . . .” Forrest himself was unrepentant: “The river was dyed with the blood of the slaughtered for 200 yards,” he said. “It is hoped that these facts will demonstrate to the northern people that negro soldiers cannot cope with Southerners.” (2)
“News of this atrocity rocked the North. ‘Indiscriminate Slaughter of . . . Prisoners,’ ‘Butchery,’ ‘Murder,’ newspapers trumpeted. Sympathy grew for blacks and their sacrifices, linked with increased willingness to punish Dixie by expanding the so obviously needed protection.” (3)
1.) Phillip Shaw Paludan “The People’s Contest,” p. 213.
2.) The Civil War: An Illustrated History, Geoffrey C. Ward, with Ric and Ken Burns, p. 335.
3.) Phillip Shaw Paludan “The People’s Contest,” p. 213.
The Fort Pillow Massacre, A letter from a Naval Officer, published: May 3, 1864, New York Times.
– Submitted by Vermont Humanities Council Executive Director Peter A. Gilbert