1864: “No Quarter…”

Camp near Brownville

April 14th 1864

My Dear Sisters,

I write you a few hurried lines to inform you that I am quite well and have just passed safely through the most terrible ordeal of my whole life. I guess that you know what I mean as you doubtless have before this heard of the taking of Fort Pillow. In as much as I am a member of Forrest’s Cavalry modesty would direct that I should say nothing in our praise what was done and leave you to judge whether or not we acted well or ill…

Mounting our horses we crossed the…stream and one mile this side took the Fort Pillow road. From this time we rightly supposed that we were going to attack that place…

We reached a point one and a half miles this side of the Fort where we dismounted to fight (this was about 7 A.M. Tuesday) leaving every fourth man to hold horses, we marched on foot in sight of the fortifications which were said to be manned by about seven hundred renegade Tennesseans and negroes commanded by Major Boothe of the Negro regiment Major Bradford of the 13th Tenn. U.S.V being second in command. Our brigade filed round to the right of the fort Chalmer’s command to the left. Skirmishes were deployed and we advanced very slowly it is true but surely toward the enemy. Just here it would be proper to describe the fort which I shall attempt to do. It is a very strong earthworks situated on q high bluff inside the works erected by Gen. Pillow in 1861. It is former by an irregular trench being dug somewhat situated on a high bluff being the diameter. The fort is quite small just about large enough to hold a thousand men in two ranks. The ditch is eight feet deep and six wide and the dirt thrown from the ditch on the inside formed a ban five feet high making from the bottom of the ditch to the top of the breast work thirteen feet up which we had to climb.  By two o’clock P.M. we had approached within fifty yards of the fort on all sides. A part of our regiment was in twenty steps of it. Strange to say after five hours constant firing the Yankees had not killed a single one of our men and wounded only a few…

At 2 P.M. Gen. Forrest demanded a surrender and gave twenty minutes to consider. The Yankees refused threatening that if we charged their breast works to show no quarter. The bugle sounded the charge and in less than ten minutes we were in the fort hurling the cowardly villains howling down the bluff. Our men were so exasperated by the Yankees’ threats of no quarter that they gave but little. The slaughter was awful. Words cannot describe the scene. The poor deluded negroes would run up to our men fall on their knees and with uplifted hands scream for mercy but they were ordered to their feet and then shot down. The whitte men fared but little better. Their fort turned out to be a great slaughter pen. Blood, human blood stood about in pools…

I with several others tried to stop the butchery and at one time had partially succeeded. But Gen Forrest ordered them shot down like dogs. And the carnage continued. Finally our men became sick of blood and the firing ceased…

Sergeant Achilles V. Clark to his sisters Judith Porter and Henrietta Ray, April 14, 1864

(Source: The Civil War: The Final Year Told by Those Who Lived It; Brooks D. Simpson, Editor, 2013, pages 42-44)

Battle of Fort Pillow

Fort Pillow sat near the Mississippi River, about 40 miles to the north of Memphis, Tennessee. In the spring of 1864, the fortification’s garrison consisted of about 600 U.S. soldiers, including troops from the 6th U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery and the 2nd U.S. Colored Light Artillery. Over 275 members of the 13th Tennessee Cavalry had joined the other Union soldier; these were loyalists (or deserters) willing to fight for the Union cause even though their homestate had seceded.

On April 12, 1864, Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest and about 2,300 of his cavalrymen surrounded Fort Pillow. Forrest had been on several weeks’ long raid and had apparently threatened “no quarter” at other Union outposts which were not captured. The encircled garrison refused to surrender and shortly thereafter the Confederate attack took possession of the fort.

Some of the Union soldier fled toward the river, vainly hoping for protection from a gunboat. Other stayed and planned to surrender.

An illustration of the massacre at Fort Pillow, April 1864

The Massacre – Truth, Reporting, & Memory

Then, a historical event happened that has sparked debate for decades.

Some accounts say the Confederates mercilessly murdered the Union soldiers, even when they tried to surrender. Other accounts claim the Union troops weren’t trying to surrender, but were actually fighting back. All accounts seem to agree: Fort Pillow turned into a massacre scene and some horrible atrocities were reported from the scene.

The Northern press quickly reported and emphasized the atrocities – especially since they were directed against loyalists and African American soldiers. Confederates had their reasons, though not always convincing. Lincoln’s cabinet branded the acts as willful murder and discussed plans for prosecution if the Confederate officers were captured; the events also put more restrictions and limitations on prisoner exchange.

Forrest

Then, the leadership question arose. Did Nathan Bedford Forrest order the massacre? Forrest said he didn’t and that he wasn’t aware of it at the time. Sergeant Clark suggests a different version of the story. As time passed and Forrest became associated with racist groups after the war, more doubts and questions arose regarding the situation and his involvement at Fort Pillow.

Historical Musings

Sergeant Achilles V. Clark served in the 20th Tennessee Cavalry which was one of the units serving under General Nathan Bedford Forrest. This letter that he wrote to his sisters just days after the incidents at Fort Pillow is honest but unfinished – or the last part of the letter is missing. Although part of the attacking force and willing to take a military objective, Clark was not comfortable with the “no quarter” and shooting of prisoners.

Oftentimes in letters, soldiers veiled the brutality from their female family members. However, Clark wrote details – including a few that we omitted with ellipses to keep this blog post suitable for audiences of all ages. His letter provides valuable details about what happened and offers insight into the massacre of prisoners.

This dark chapter of history raises discussion about racial prejudices, willful murder, treatment of prisoners, and the twisted accounts of the past that have to be unraveled to understand a full situation and try to see what and why it happened. Sergeant Clark’s letter offers a glimpse into the thoughts of a Confederate who was fine with capturing a fort but who ran into the scene to try to stop the massacre. He reminds us that history is never quite simple.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

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