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.


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

1864: “We Celebrated The 22nd”

Feb. 15th
Receive a letter from Father. He says everything is bright and cheerful in the South and whatever suffering there may be it is not perceptible, but everyone appears to enjoy himself as though there was no war. (I suppose this is putting a good face over our misfortunes.) Every week a rumor is afloat about our leaving the island by way of an exchange of prisoners between the North and South.

Feb. 22nd
In the evening we celebrate the 22nd by a few appropriate speeches from Col. Lewis, Mo., Capt. Houston, Va., and Capt. Fellows (Tenn. or Ark.). The Yankee officer of the day disperses the crowd, but not until we had paid the usual tribute of respect to Genl. Washington, the Father of Rebels.

Continue reading

1863: “The Last Day Of The Eventful Year”

December 31, 1863

This is the last day of the eventful year and a general despondency prevails among us. Many are talking of the good old times we used to have at home about this time, or in camp. Story telling among us occupies the dark lonely hours from 6 to 10 p.m. A sickening feeling comes over us as we realizes that we are prisoners with no immediate prospects of being released by exchange….

The Rebel guard say that the “Yankees are dying right smart now at the hospitals.” We learned that they were buried in trenches out back of Libby Hill, which is next to Church Hill, east of us. So we die like dogs, and are buried like dogs! The Rebels furnished us with 300 sheets of coarse paper and brown paper envelopes so that we could write home today. We are limited to twenty words, envelopes to be left unsealed so that Turner may read them first before posting. We advise those to whom we write to enclose a 10 cent silver piece by return mail if they answer our letters or they would not be received over the Rebel lines. Pieces of lead pencil were furnished us also to write with. Very few of us wrote at all. Many had forgotten the addresses. Others would not let their friends or relations know how they were suffering. Nothing could be sent us by our friends, for the Rebels would appropriate the things to their own use. And, knowing that Turner would inspect and read every letter, many would not give him the grim satisfaction of doing so. Walsh, Halley, Rhineheart, and myself wrote home. We just said that we were captured by Mosby 27th November last at headquarters General French at Brandy Station, and that we were all well and in good heart looking for an early exchange….

Private Robert Knox Sneden, journal entry for December 31, 1863

John Mosby

Captured By Mosby

1863 had been a particularly good for Confederate Major John Mosby. Early in the year, he had got permission to create an independent group of partisans which was allowed to operate separate from the other cavalry commands in Virginia. Company A, 43rd Virginia Cavalry had its share of secretive and successful missions; they captured Union generals, regularly raided supply lines, and caused a lot of trouble for the Yankees.

Private Robert Knox Sneden was one of the unfortunates Yankees captured by Mosby during a raid on General French’s headquarters. A thirty-one year old Canadian who had moved to New York City a decade before the Civil War, Sneden had worked as an architect and then joined the 40th New York Infantry. During the war, he moved around, serving as a cartographer or working in logistics for several Union generals. Sneden had been assigned to William H. French’s staff during the Mine Run Campaign and on November 27th got captured when the Confederate partisans arrived.

Robert Knox Sneden

In Prison

Sneden spent his first months of captivity in Richmond, lodged in a tobacco warehouse turned prison that stood beside the infamous Libby Prison. His guards’ comments about dying Yankees would have been especially troublesome since he was fighting typhoid fever. In February 1864, Sneden would be moved south to a new prison camp called Andersonville. Ten months later, he would be exchanged.

One of the remarkable things about Sneden was his determination to create a record of his experiences. While some soldiers wrote detailed accounts (primary sources), Snowden went a step farther. He created illustrations. He sketched battles, camps, and prisons – and later – after the war, he turned the sketches into watercolor images. His journal and illustrations survived and are preserved and published, giving researchers a glimpse into scenes of historic importance through a soldier’s eyes. Even in Richmond’s prison and Andersonville, he created sketches and adding to the knowledge and memory of those places.

Virginia Historical Society and Library of Congress have preserved Sneden’s illustrations and the collection has been called “the largest collection of Civil War soldier art ever produced.” If you want to see the sketches, his maps are available here and some of the sketches here.

Historical Musings

For the Union soldiers in Confederate prisons, New Year’s Eve was not a joyous time. Still, they spent some time talking over the past year – something many of us will do at some point today. That part of the account really stood out to me because it’s a reminder that no matter where we are, no matter how rough or amazing the year may have been, it’s important to review the happenings and be thankful for the good times.

We weren’t captured by John Mosby and we aren’t sitting in a Richmond prison. But we have freedoms because those soldiers did. Maybe this primary source will add some perspective and new things to consider as we look back on our own experiences in 2018…just as the soldiers remembered 1863.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

1863: “My Son Went In The 54th Regiment”

[spelling is original]

Buffalo July 31, 1863

Excellent Sir

My good friend says I must write to you and she will send it[.] My son went in the 54th regiment. I am a colored woman and my son was strong and able as any to fight for his country and the colored people have as much to fight for as any. My father was a Slave and escaped from Louisiana before I was born morn forty years agone[.] I have but poor edication but I never went to schol, but I know just as well as any what is right between man and man. Now I know it is right that a colored man should go and fight for his country, and so ought to a white man. I know that a colored man ought to run no greater risques than a white, his pay is no greater his obligation to fight is the same. So why should not our enemies be compelled to treat him the same, Made to do it. Continue reading

Richmond 1863: Fourth of July

Looking back, July 4, 1863, marked several major turning points in American Civil War history. Vicksburg, Mississippi – the last Confederate stronghold along the Mississippi River – surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant. At Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the three-day battle had ended and both armies watched each other, tended the wounded, buried the dead, and, when darkness fell, the Confederate army began its retreat back to Virginia.

It took time for news of these historic happenings to reach the Confederate capital in Richmond, Virginia. Rumors filtered to the city, but it would be hours later before the news of the defeats was publicly known.

However, a very unique, patriotic celebration took place within Richmond, hidden away behind barred windows and thick walls. Here’s what happened: Continue reading