Remembering Fort Pillow

December 12, 2018 |  Tagged , , , , | Comments Off on Remembering Fort Pillow

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 The Tragedy in Tennessee: Exploring the Fort Pillow MasThe troubling legacy of the Civil War has created a mass riff on American history. After all, it wasn’t terribly long ago when America became enflamed over controversies surrounding the Southern Confederate memorials, and whether their goal was remembrance or veneration. However, monuments are not the only subject of vitriol in the ongoing Civil War debates, and in many cases the coverage of history has itself garnered attention. One prime example of the controversy surrounds the events of the Fort Pillow Massacre and its aftermath. 

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Largely considered one of the bleakest moments of the Civil War, the Fort Pillow Massacre highlights the issues and mentality of the actors of the time. Fort Pillow, built over a bluff on the Mississippi River in Henning, Tennessee had served as a strategic location for both the Confederate and Union armies throughout the course of the war. At the time of the event, April. 12th, 1864, Fort Pillow was Union-held and garrisoned by a relatively small force, including the 6th U.S. Regimented Colored Heavy Artillery, a company recruited from African Americans. Fort Pillow had come under assault from Confederate forces, led by General Nathan Bedford Forrest. With a much larger army and a few key advantages, Forrest’s attack quickly overwhelmed the Union forces. 

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 What came next has generated decades of controversy. With their defenses broken, the Union garrison surrendered to the Confederate forces. The rules of conduct at the time dictated that the Northern soldiers should have been taken as prisoners of war. However, even after surrendering the Confederates continued to fire upon Union soldiers. Survivors of the massacre reported a grim tale, depicting images of soldiers pleading for their lives before being shot or bayoneted by Confederates. For all intents and purposes, the attacks were racially motivated, as black soldiers bore the brunt of the Confederate aggressions. At the closing of the battle, estimates state that several hundred black Union soldiers were killed. 

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 The results of the Fort Pillow Massacre were undoubtedly horrifying, but nonetheless have garnered controversy. In the immediate aftermath of the Fort Pillow Massacre, Union newspapers reacted with horror on the news of the event, and many commented on the barbarity of the Confederate forces. In the South, reports of the massacre took a very different tone, and claims were made that many of the Union soldiers had continued to fire on the Confederate soldiers, and were killed in self-defense. In the recent century, the issue of indiscriminate killing took place was put to bed thanks to archeological evidence (the answer is yes), but even that has done little to ease the conflict. With the question of whether or not it happened settled, the tone of the debates have shifted to whether or not Forrest organized the killing, facilitated it, or simply lost control of his own soldiers. This debate is complicated by the fact that, like many of the other Southern generals, Forrest has grown a following among Confederate apologists and as such many are quick to come to the defense of his legacy. 

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 In it’s entirety, the Fort Pillow Massacre is an extremely complicated matter. That being said, it is an important chapter in Civil War and racial history, and as such it should be given its due attention in school. The question remains then, how best to cover this topic. The best coverage I feel is best exemplified through an article by Paul Horton in the History Teacher titled “A Model for Teaching History: The Case of Fort Pillow.” In the article, Horton describes how he teaches the controversy to his students over the course of several days. During that time, he exposes students to the racial realities of the nation at the time before moving on to the profiles of the actors, then describing the battle, and finally comparing the conflicting reports of the battle from survivors. By doing this, Horton is able to expose his students to the complexity of the situation and encourages them to think critically about the sources and accounts. 

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 The Fort Pillow Massacre is a horrifying episode in American history, but it is possible to learn from it. Despite the efforts of some to downplay the significance of the event, many schools are pushing to understand rather than shy away from the Fort Pillow Massacre. Hopefully by acknowledging and understanding the ugly truth of our past, we can move forward as a more unified nation. 


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