"Window to the Past"
by Henry Robert Burke
March 6, 1999
The Civil War's first shots were fired upon Fort Sumter at Charleston Harbor, South Carolina on Apr. 12, 1861. When the Union Army responded, the North was anxious to portray that the North was not fighting to free slaves, but only to reserve the Union. For this reason, free blacks living in the North were not accepted as soldiers in Union Army at the beginning of the Civil War.
On Jan. 1, 1863, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln declared that all slaves residing in states in rebellion against the federal government were freed. The Emancipation Proclamation did not apply to slaves in border states fighting on the Union side; nor did it affect slaves in southern areas already under Union control. Naturally, the states in rebellion did not act on Lincoln's order. But the proclamation did show Americans that the Civil War was now being fought to end slavery, aqnd along with it came Lincoln's authorization to form the United States Colored Regiments to fight with the Union Army.
The news of black troops fighting for the North infuriated many in the Confederacy. Some Confederate commanders warned that they would not respect the courtesy of surrender for Negro troopers, and vowed to shoot any black prisoners that were captured by the South. One of the most publicized incidents where black soldiers attempting to surrender, were murdered by Confederate forces occurred at Fort Pillow, Tennessee.
Fort Pillow was on the Tennessee side of the Mississippi River, about forty miles north of Memphis. A long sandbar extending into the river from the Arkansas side, forced all river traffic to come close under the high bluffs of the eastern shore. At the beginning of the American Civil War a Confederate general named Gideon Pillow realized the strategic importance of the spot, and caused a fort to be build there, which was named after him. In June 1862 Memphis was captured and the Confederates abandoned Fort Pillow. From then on Union forces comprised of both black and white soldiers were garrisoned there.
Fort Pillow seemed like a mere back water post until April 12, 1864, when a Confederate force commanded by General Nathan Bedford Forrest attacked. Nathan Bedford Forrest was born on July 13, 1821, and died October 29, 1877. He was especially known for his brilliant cavalry tactics. A wealthy businessman in his native Tennessee, he joined the Confederate Army in 1861 and had become commander of a cavalry battalion raised and equipped at his own expense. To his credit, Forrest did win repeated victories over Union forces that outnumbered him. During the attack on Fort Pillow his Confederate force overwhelmed the Union defense. Black Union soldiers attempting to surrender, were shot by Forrest's men.
As the news of this incident spread among the black Union soldiers, their battle cry became "Remember Fort Pillow"! A stanza from a song sung by the Massachusetts 54th US Colored Regiment, goes like this:
Old Jeff says he'll hang us if we dare to meet him armed,
He'd surely like to scare us, but we are not alarmed.
For he first has got to catch us before the way is clear,
And that's his biggest problem with the colored volunteer"!
Forrest was charged with the responsibility for the massacre of the black Union soldiers at Fort Pillow, but was never prosecuted. After the war Nathan Bedford Forrest became a founder and leader of the Ku Klux Klan.