Friday, February 10, 2012

The Fort Pillow Massacre

In-Class Test Question Essay For History 207A With Dennis Judd

Fort Pillow is located 40 miles north of Memphis, Tennessee. It is the location of a former Union fortification (and not a very good one) that was easily overwhelmed by Confederate forces led by General Nathan Bedford Forrest on April 12, 1864. The Union forces were comprised of about half and half white and black soldiers. About half these soldiers died but there were three "interesting" caveats to this. First, the kill ratio of dead to injured and/or captured was way higher than typical for the war overall. Second, there was a significantly higher death rate for black Union soldiers than white Union soldiers. Third, the majority of Union casualties came after the fort had fallen. According to eyewitness accounts from both sides that day, under direct orders from Forrest the black Union soldiers were slaughtered wholesale while even a good many white Union soldiers were likewise executed after all the Union forces had surrendered. Some of these deaths allegedly entailed some POW's being essentially burned at the stake (more specifically tied to bed frames and set on fire) or buried alive. After initially celebrating the slaughter, the Confederacy and its media changed tactics and ignored it or even denied it given the outrage it engendered in the North and the potential blow-back it might (and in some cases did) trigger.

It would be easy to imagine this was an isolated atrocity such as will inevitably occur in any war. However, this atrocity was hardly an isolated incident even though it was the most over-the-top incident of its kind in the war. As it turns out, General Forrest's orders at Fort Pillow was merely in keeping with well-established Confederate policy. This policy was shamefully founded on the Dred Scott Decision that asserted that black slaves were not endowed with rights to which white folks need concern themselves such as a right to life or liberty and that slaves were mere property. Consequently, killing black Union soldiers was done to discourage other black Union soldiers from fighting for the Union and thus to the South was no worse than slaughtering livestock according to this flawed world view. One can quite reasonably draw parallels between this and Rome's treatment of Sparticus' defeated slave army whose captured members were subjected to crucifixion along the Appian Way inbound to Rome as a psychological device to intimidate other slaves from contemplating armed rebellion against their masters.

As is always the case in such matters there was subsequent blow-back for the Confederacy as black Union troops henceforth oft invoked the memory of Fort Pillow when rushing forth into battle and in some cases themselves executed Confederate prisoners or troops trying to surrender. At the time of the massacre Union generals threatened reprisals but none such were forthcoming as a consequence of policy. To this day the State of Tennessee glosses over the events of that cruel day even in their historical interpretation materials at modern-day Fort Pillow State Park. It is worthy of noting that there never were any post-war "Nuremberg Trials" regarding this event as there was for Andersonville.

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