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Lost in the Excitement, Justice for Ft. Pillow

By John A. O'Brien

Denver, Colorado

Sunday, May 19, 2024

Another in a series of posts about the tumultuous events of 1864, exactly 160 years ago.

Fort Pillow overlooked the Mississippi River, about 40 miles north of Memphis. It was an important part of the Confederate river defense system before it was captured by federal forces in the summer of 1862. During early 1864, the fort was garrisoned with 600 Union soldiers, approximately half of whom were U.S. Colored Troops.

On the morning of April 12, 1864, Confederate Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s force of 2,000 cavalry troops quickly surrounded the fort and demanded its surrender. The Union commander tried to stall, hoping for reinforcements. Forrest ordered the assault, which met little meaningful resistance. The Union commander managed to escape with some of his troops.

But most of the Union garrison surrendered and thus should have been taken as prisoners of war. Witness accounts attest that some 300 soldiers, the majority of them black, were gunned down by the Confederate forces. In his official report, Gen. Forrest stated that he declined the offer of surrender and concluded by writing, “It is hoped that these facts will demonstrate to the Northern people that negro soldiers cannot cope with Southerners.”

Massacre of Colored Troops at Fort Pillow, Tennessee. Frank Leslie's Illustrated, May 7, 1864 (Library of Congress)

President Lincoln spoke at the Sanitary Fair in Baltimore on April 18 and mentioned the “painful rumor” of the massacre of “colored soldiers” at Fort Pillow. Lincoln recounted his process for deciding to recruit black troops. He declared that it was a decision for which he “was responsible to the American people, the Christian world, to history, and in my final account to God. Having determined to use the negro as a soldier, there is no way but to give him all the protection given to any other soldier. The difficulty is not in stating the principle, but in practically applying it. It is a mistake to suppose that the government is indifferent to this matter . . .  [if proved] the retribution must surely come.”     

The president directed Secretary William Seward to convene a cabinet meeting on May 3 to discuss the findings of a congressional investigation into the massacre. Secretary Welles noted in his diary that “all the reported horrors are said to be verified.” President Lincoln then asked each member to "prepare, and give me in writing your opinion as to what course, the government should take" regarding the Confederates' "recent capture" of Ft. Pillow. Preliminary reports indicate that "a large number of our colored soldiers, with their white officers, were . . . massacred after they had surrendered." Their recommendations were read at a meeting three days later.

Two weeks later, the president drafted a response to Confederate officials. He stated that the U.S. government has positive proof of the massacre; however, “blood cannot restore blood, and government should not act for revenge.” He demanded that the Confederates give assurances that no such offenses will be tolerated “on any officer or soldier of the U.S., whether white or colored.” There is no evidence that this demand was ever sent. Clearly, “the difficulty is not in stating the principle, but in practically applying it.” It does seem that this incident was one of the factors leading to the Union's decision to stop prisoner exchanges until the war ended.


The Ft. Pillow massacre did result in achieving justice for the widows and children of black soldiers. Lincoln listened to a widow and wrote about it to Senator Charles Sumner on May 19. Lincoln said that "She makes a point . . . very worthy of consideration which is, widows and children in fact, of colored soldiers who fall in our service, be placed in law, the same as if their marriages were legal, so that they can have the benefit of the provisions made the widows & orphans of white soldiers". And so, it was done.


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