Review of: River Run Red: The Fort Pillow Massacre in the American Civil War, by Andrew Ward

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 river run redscholarship 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.

(reviewed 1-25-15)

Review of: The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan

It is fitting that The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan — the first book I read in 2015 — is actually the first book I purchased in the new year: on New Year’s Day, at a quaint little book shop in the quaint center of Mystic CT. I had read Tasmanian author Flanagan before: Gould’s Book of Fish, which I consider one of the greatest works of literature of our time; and more recently, The Unknown Terrorist, a fine novel also but not quite up to the same superlatives.

I cannot recall the last time a novel left me stunned and nearly breathless, but that was my state when I let the covers close on The Narrow Road to the Deep North. As in all great works of fiction, the quality of the writing is extraordinary. Moreover, the narrative flow is so well crafted that there exists not a single moment where the reader might be bored or distracted. Flanagan leaves behind the phantasmagoria of the magical realism (an Australian version of Gabriel Garcia Marquez!) characteristic of Gould’s Book of Fish this time as the central theme of this novel is based upon firm historical events: the punishing misuse of allied prisoners of war by the Japanese in World War II to construct the famous “Burma Railway” – also known as the “Death Railway” because the brutal forced labor condemned about one fifth of the captives to death and much of the survivors scarred for life by what was essentially a mobilized concentration camp.

As in Gould’s Book of Fish, we find Flanagan at his best exploring the cruelties that human beings can inflict upon each other and the omnipresence of evil, even while yet locating and identifying the clarity of unexpected acts of kindness and the essential goodness that can sometimes be found within an otherwise common individual. In this there is an echo of Cormac McCarthy perhaps, although Flanagan is generally less cynical and many of his most frightfully morally corrupt characters guilty of the most atrocious horrors seem unwilling or unable to believe that they are doing anything but their duty to a greater cause. In this, Flanagan revives an older genre of ordinary people committing extraordinary crimes but breathes a new life into it as he juxtaposes these fiends with their correspondingly ordinary victims. Also unlike McCarthy but possibly more in step with Sebastian Faulks, there lies at the root an unrequited love story that is so well told and incrementally revealed that it resonates heartache without sentimentality.

It should come as no surprise that The Narrow Road to the Deep North won the prestigious literary recognition of the Man Booker Prize in 2014, which is no small achievement. This is an outstanding novel that should stand with the very best literature of our day.

(reviewed on 1/22/15)

Review of: Against Wind and Tide: The African American Struggle against the Colonization Movement, by Ousmane K. Power-Greene

An unexpected dividend to my habit of attending random author events is the occasional and remarkable encounter with a fascinating new perspective. Such was the case when I took my seat at the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley MA one evening in November 2014 for a reading and signing of Against Wind and Tide: The African American Struggle against the Colonization Movement by Ousmane K. Power-Greene, Associate Professor of History at Clark University, and left with a signed first edition.

I am fairly well read on the American Civil War, especially in its socio-political manifestations, as well as on slavery in the antebellum period. In the course of my studies, the topic of the colonization of blacks back to Africa has surfaced from time to time, but only in the framework of an alleged best recourse for emancipated slaves in what was of course a hostile white society both north and south at the time. I knew this notion was sometimes embraced by Abraham Lincoln and that it met with vehement opposition by Frederick Douglass. While I recognized that colonization was certainly racist and paternalistic, I yet viewed it within a context of benevolence, as least with regard to Lincoln’s intentions. I even sometimes wondered if perhaps such an idea was not so misplaced, given the horror of Southern “redemption” at the end of Reconstruction and the struggle for basic civil rights by African-Americans in the century that followed.

Imagine my surprise when I learned from Power-Greene and his marvelous well-researched scholarly book that the actual origins of the colonization movement go back to the 1816 founding of the American Colonization Society, that it was championed by no less of a national figure than Henry Clay, and that its intention was primarily to relocate free blacks to an “African homeland!” I suspect this is a little-known fact for most students of the period and it certainly places a loud exclamation mark on both the concept of colonization and its furious opponents, such as Douglass.  The topic serves as a timely reminder that the Free Soil movement in the north was, while indeed hostile to slavery, hostile to blacks as well, and adds a striking dimension to what we already know about the deeply-seated racism of a north that largely went to war to preserve the union rather than free the slaves. Most prominently, it rescues from obscurity the vocal anti-colonization movement peopled by free blacks like Douglass and white abolitionist allies like William Lloyd Garrison.

In Against Wind and Tide – the latest installment to the Early American Places series — Ousmane Power-Greene does an admirable job of tracing the roots of the colonization movement and its resistance, carefully plotting the course of the two opposing forces over the nearly half-century that preceded the Civil War. But more than that Power-Greene resurrects a largely forgotten free African-American community of well-educated statesmen, sometimes at odds with one another, who argued for inclusion in the American experience rather than exile to a faraway shore where they could find nothing but skin color in common. I can recall pejorative comments by a fellow white student in the 1970’s wondering aloud what we would study in our “Black History” course after we had covered it all in the first two weeks! Such a statement underscores ignorance more than racism although it contains elements of both: in those days we really had little knowledge of African-American figures beyond the few that briefly dotted our textbooks. At the same time, it is a pointed reminder that outside of those scholars pursuing the subject this remains a large vacuum among most historians. Power-Greene’s book offers a welcome remedy to a gap most of us are not even aware we need to fill.

The story of the anti-colonization movement is, like much of history, deeply complex and nuanced. While there were relatively few African-Americans who embraced colonization to the manufactured West African nation of Liberia that sought to serve as a homeland to American free blacks who chose to relocate, they did represent a select minority – and they were frequently castigated by their anti-colonization brethren. At the same time, the anti-colonizationists contained elements of “emigrationists” – almost entirely forgotten by history – who felt defeated by prospects for justice in the United States and saw a thriving future for blacks in Haiti, Canada and elsewhere where they could construct their own communities free from oppression. The larger majority was led by Douglass, whose stubborn allegiance to “stand-and-fight” often led him to deliberately and unfairly conflate the emigrationists with the colonizationists to discredit the former. Interestingly, even Douglass came to briefly ponder emigration in the late antebellum period as hope for any kind of justice for African-Americans in the United States came to seem ever more remote. Douglass’s sagging spirit was reborn during the Civil War, and he famously openly criticized Lincoln for his ongoing flirtation with colonization.

If there is a weakness to this book it is that it is a scholarly history book rather than a popular one. It is obvious that it has its roots in a well-developed thesis paper. While Ousmane Power-Greene is a far better writer than the vast majority of scholarly historians in print, the confining structure of style imprisons him to some degree, so themes do not carry as gracefully as they might have had he been writing for a popular audience. But that is a quibble. Moreover, this is a slender volume that focuses upon the somewhat narrow manifestation of the anti-colonizationists. There is a much larger story to tell: about the emigrationists and their communities in Haiti, for instance; about the successes and failure of Liberia; about the many personalities in the free black community who have faded into anonymity. There is a lot more that could be told in a popular history for a larger audience if Power-Greene opts to take on that challenge. In the meantime, I would urge anyone with interest in the antebellum era to pick up and read Against Wind and Tide – you will not regret it!

(reviewed 1-2-15)