I might not have chosen to read River Run Red: The Fort Pillow Massacre in the American Civil War by Andrew Ward had I suspected that it would turn out to be the exhaustive study of the incident that it proved. I sought, perhaps, more of an overview of the controversy that was born shortly after reports that Confederate forces under General Nathan Bedford Forrest overwhelmed the poorly defended Western Tennessee Fort Pillow in April 1864 and essentially slaughtered hundreds of surrendered Federals – especially blacks found in Union garb. Having completed Ward’s magisterial study, however, I am grateful that I took the time because his scholarship has not only put to rest some of the wilder assertions about Fort Pillow by both sides, but has successfully delivered layers of nuance to the events of that day and its aftermath as well as provided a deeper understanding of the conflict in this western part of the theater of war.
The historiography on the Fort Pillow massacre, especially for those in sympathy with the south, has often resembled a latter day climate change debate: there are those who claim it did not exist, and a slightly more moderate group that is willing to concede that it did but that it was greatly exaggerated. On the other side, there is little debate about the carnage, but much in dispute as to whether it occurred by the order of – or at least with the blessings of – Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Forrest is the key to the argument on both sides, a remarkable general by all estimations — north and south, then and now — who yet had a past as an antebellum slave trader and a future as a founder of the Ku Klux Klan after the war. Of course, there is a long history of allowing admiration for courage and military prowess on the battlefield to become conflated with the character of the subject and spawning an otherwise undeserved adulation: think of Alexander the Great, Caesar and Napoleon, or more recently, MacArthur and Patton. Southerners still tend to lionize Forrest as the intrepid general that gave the Yankees one of the best runs for the money in the entire war. In the marvelous Ken Burns television documentary, The Civil War, historian Shelby Foote – who should have known better – reveals an almost embarrassing boyish idolatry for this hero of the Confederate cause. On the other side, Forrest is seen — despite his well-deserved laurels as a military commander — as a violent, brutal, uneducated man whose contempt for African-Americans ran so deep that he essentially denied their humanity in word and deed.
Ward takes all sides to task as he brilliantly deconstructs the “Wizard of the Saddle” and the world of poverty and struggle that he emerged from to become one of the Confederacy’s preeminent generals, uncritically revealing a man who seems hardly deserving of the exaltation of his admirers any more than the demonization of his foes. Still, in his effort at impartiality, Ward may have gone too far, for in this biography there is indeed much of the demon in place: simply, for instance, the fact that he was a slave-trader as opposed to simply a slave-owner, a particularly odious way to make a living. It does not appear that Forrest was especially harsh to the human beings — men, women and children – that he retailed to the highest bidder, nor was he especially kind. It is clear that those who claim Forrest treated his slave property well under the circumstances seem oblivious to the inherent oxymoron in “slave property” and “treat well.”
Ward can be commended for setting the stage for the events that led up to Fort Pillow. While Tennessee seceded from the Union, it had more in common with border states that did not like Missouri, for it remained deeply split between Unionists and Confederates. Much of the state fell to the Federals early the war and future President Andrew Johnson became the military governor, but the conflict continued sporadically for years, marked by both set battles and guerrilla warfare. And then there was West Tennessee – the extreme corner of the state defined by the borders of the Mississippi River on one side and the Tennessee River on the other – which became a microcosm of the bitter “brother-against-brother” struggle between those loyal to Washington or Richmond. It is this environment that was the breeding ground for Fort Pillow.
Ward also succeeds masterfully in bringing to life the three groups of people who were to commingle that fateful day: “colored troops,” white Unionists, and Confederates. Especially admirable is the treatment of blacks – slaves, civilians and soldiers – who are usually sidelined in such histories. Ward even explores the slave mentality that runs the gamut from those who stayed loyal “. . . even as their masters galloped off to sustain their bondage . . .” to the poignant elderly escaped slave sobbing over his wife who has died of exposure during their flight who confesses wistfully to his master upon recapture “. . . but then you see she died free.” As such, his history restores a humanity often absent even in sympathetic treatments of the African-American experience.
Perhaps the least admirable characters are the “homegrown Yankees” that make up a portion of the Federals at Fort Pillow: whites loyal to the Union, many who have switched sides more than once for convenience, and a good number who have deserted Confederate Tennessee regiments to don blue uniforms. These men, often ignored in the studies of Fort Pillow, turn out to be one of the chief causes for Confederate rage upon storming the fort, along with the atavistic horror of former slaves bearing arms against them.
If this review is taking its time getting around to the massacre, it is because Ward’s book does, as well. When it reaches that point, however, the reader is grateful for the delay because it has made manifest that the elements are in place that lead to a confluence of competing forces to create the perfect storm for the bloodthirsty rage that victorious Confederates inflict upon the survivors, both black and white, who are slaughtered by bullets, bayonets and bludgeoning while attempting to surrender. Some are also burned to death or buried (intentionally or unintentionally) alive. Neither wounded soldiers in hospital tents nor civilians are spared, in an orgy of slaughter that sickened some of the rebels who witnessed it. Once and for all, Ward’s book confirms that a terrible massacre did indeed take place and he spares no details – based upon detailed corroborating eyewitness testimony. Ward refutes some of the more extreme charges made by the north after the fact – that men were nailed to boards and set afire, for instance, or that Forrest was on the field urging the butchery on – but the thoroughness of his research demonstrates conclusively that much of what was originally reported was not hyperbole but that terrible, almost unimaginable crimes indeed took place on that day.
And what of Forrest? The book gives him sort of a pass, to some degree, but not much of one, for it turns out that he was not on the killing fields as is sometimes alleged, and he does, finally, arrive on the scene to vehemently bring it to an end – alas, too late for most of the victims. Yet, several of the Confederate officers engaged in the wanton murder are overheard repeating that it is Forrest who has ordered that no prisoners be taken. It seems hard to believe that the Wizard was ignorant of what was occurring even if he was physically removed from the field. He certainly takes no action to punish the perpetrators, and he is known to brag of that day on more than one subsequent occasion. The title of Ward’s book is derived from one of these boasts: “The river was dyed [SIC] with the blood of the slaughtered for two hundred yards. . . . It is hoped that these facts will demonstrate to the Northern people that negro soldiers cannot cope with Southerners.”
The aftermath of Fort Pillow led to much recrimination, but neither Forrest nor his men were ever held accountable for the events of that day. Still, it proved to be a watershed: some Confederates took it as an unstated approval of the policy of shooting captured black Union soldiers, while others lived in fear ever after of being executed if taken prisoner by colored troops that now had “Remember Fort Pillow” signs sewn to their uniforms. Fort Pillow further exacerbated the breakdown in parole and prisoner exchanges between the two sides, of which the unintended consequence was the deaths of thousands of Union prisoners in overcrowded Andersonville and elsewhere.
The one disappointment in this otherwise fine history is Ward’s failure to write a strong concluding chapter summing up his research and underscoring his own thesis. There are hints here and there, but the reader cannot help but look for a tidier end after being bombarded with so much material. But perhaps this is deliberate. In any event, I highly recommend River Run Red as an outstanding work of Civil War scholarship and perhaps the final word on the egregious events at Fort Pillow.