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Albert Castel, a doctoral graduate of the University of Chicago, L· a Kansan now teaching in the Department of History of the University of California at Los Angeles. The Fort Pillow Massacre: A Fresh Examination of the Evidence ALBERT CASTEL a feeling of horror swept across the North during the month of April, 1864. From the banks of the Mississippi down in Tennessee came news that the Union garrison at Fort Pillow had been brutally massacred by the Confederate cavalry of Nathan Bedford Forrest. Not only had the Confederates murdered most of the garrison after it had surrendered, but they had buried Negro soldiers alive, set fire to tents containing Federal wounded, and committed other terrible atrocities. Outraged people throughout the North demanded vengeance, and President Lincoln promised retaliation should the reports from Tennessee prove true. Although Lincoln never ordered reprisals, the "Fort Pillow Massacre" became fixed in the mind of the North as a deed of "inhuman, fiendish butchery."1 The Joint Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War, after collecting a large quantity of sworn testimony from the survivors of the garrison, issued a widely read report which provided official documentation for this belief.2 On the basis of the evidence contained in the report, Horace Greeley bluntly asserted that "If human testimony ever did or can establish anything, then [Fort Pillow] is proved a case of deliberate, wholesale massacre of prisoners of war after they had surrendered. . . ."8 Subse1 Harper's Weekly, VIII (April 30, 1864), 283. 2 House Reports, No. 65, 38 Cong., 1 Sess., Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, Fort Pillow Massacre [Washington, D.C., 1864], hereinafter cited as Fort Pillow Report . 8 Horace Greeley, The American Conflict (2 vols.; Hartford: O. D. Case 8t Co., 18641866 ), ?, 620. 37 38ALBERT CASTEL quent Northern historians, without any notable exception, have basically accepted this conclusion.* Southern historians, however, especially the many biographers of Forrest, have heatedly and skillfully challenged the Northern view.5 They have questioned the objectivity of the Committee on the Conduct of the War, criticized its procedures, and pointed to contradictions and errors in the statements of the witnesses who appeared before it. Above all, they have offered an impressive amount of testimony, much of it sworn, from Confederate participants in the attack on Fort Pillow. This is in fundamental opposition to the Northern testimony. Backed by this Southern evidence, they have in effect declared that "If human testimony ever did or can establish anything, then Fort Pillow was not a case of deliberate, wholesale massacre of prisoners of war after they had surrendered." In the writer's opinion, neither side in this controversy is altogether wrong or altogether right; they are both guilty, in varying degrees, of prejudice and error. Consequently, the discussion in the following pages is an attempt to re-examine the evidence concerning Fort Pillow solely on its own merits and to arrive at the closest approximation to the historical truth possible. The fact that because of his Kansas birth the author might be considered a "Yankee" is, he trusts, balanced by the fact that prior to undertaking this study he was a wholehearted believer in the Southern point of view concerning Fort Pillow. The historical debate over Fort Pillow divides itself into three categories: (1) the capture of the fort, (2) the massacre, and (3) the atrocities. THE CAPTURE OF THE FORT Fort Pillow stood atop a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River. It consisted of a dirt parapet six to eight feet high, and from four to six feet thick, with a ditch twelve feet wide and about eight feet deep immediately in front. The parapet extended for about 125 yards in the form of a rough semicircle and faced only to the east. The rear, or river side, of the fort was open to the bluff, which descended sharply to the river bank below. The terrain on the land side of the fort was rough and hilly, and covered with a low undergrowth. At distances varying from ten to 150 yards, the ground * Dudley T. Comish, The Sable Arm (New York: Longmans, Green & Co., 1956), pp. 173-76; Harry Williams, "Benjamin Wade and the Atrocity...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 37-50
Launched on MUSE
2013-01-02
Open Access
No
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