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Each week at In The Past Lane, the American history podcast, host and Historian-at-Large, Edward T. O’Donnell, brings you news, stories, interviews, and special features on all things U.S. history. His aim is to be both engaging and thought-provoking, inspired by the notion that history explains the world we live in and provides insights into how to achieve a more prosperous, peaceful, and just future. So come along with us as we journey In The Past Lane.  

Apr 6, 2020

This week at In The Past Lane, the American History podcast, we take a look at the Fort Pillow Massacre that took place April 12, 1864 during the Civil War. A Confederate force led by Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest overwhelmed the fort and when the 300 African American Union soldiers tried to surrender, they slaughtered them. It was an extraordinary war crime that was motivated by racist animosity. Not surprisingly, the movement to remove Confederate statues in recent years has taken particular aim at statues honoring Nathan Bedford Forrest, who not only perpetrated the Ft. Pillow Massacre, but after the war became the leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

And we also take a look at some key events that occurred this week in US history, like the US entry into World War I and the launch of Apollo 13.  

Feature Story: The Fort Pillow Massacre of 1864

On April 12, 1864 Confederate soldiers overran Fort Pillow in Tennessee and massacred hundreds of African-American Union soldiers. It was one of the most egregious war crimes in American history, one for which no one was ever charged or prosecuted.

Before diving into this story, it’s important to note the significance of the role played by African-Americans played in helping the Union win the Civil War. In total, about 180,000 African-Americans served in the Union Army. That’s about 1/12 of the Union army. Another 20,000 served in the Union Navy. And keep in mind, this service did not begin until mid-1863 – fully two years into the war. In other words, it came at a crucial moment in the war when the Union desperately needed more soldiers. Over the course of those two years of service, between 1863 and 1865, African-American soldiers would fight in hundreds of battles and skirmishes. And this service came at a high price, as over 1/5 of black soldiers – about 40,000 – were killed either on the field or battle or as a result of disease. In the end, African-American soldiers played a critical role in the Union’s triumph over the Confederacy.

And what about black Confederates? Well, hopefully you know that’s a complete and total myth. They never existed. And if you wanna learn more about it check out In The Past Lane episode 169.

Alright, on to Fort Pillow. It was an insignificant Union outpost, situated on the Mississippi River in Western Tennessee. But in the spring of 1864, it was attacked by the legendary Confederate cavalry leader, General Nathan Bedford Forrest. Before the war, Forrest had been a wealthy slave trader. He joined the Confederate Army as a private, but rose quickly through the ranks. By the spring of 1864, Forrest was a household name in both the North and South, known widely both for his strategic genius and ruthlessness.

In 1864, Forrest led thousands of cavalry on a raiding mission into Western Tennessee and Kentucky. By this time, the Confederacy was in desperate need of supplies, horses, and soldiers, so his primary objective was to capture horses, food, and military supplies, and to recruit new soldiers from among the pro-Confederate populace. In addition, Forrest was to cause maximum havoc in the region by disrupting the huge Union force being assembled by General William Tecumseh Sherman near Chattanooga. Sherman’s objective was obvious – Atlanta – and it was critical to the Confederacy that he be stopped, or at least slowed down.

On April 12, 1864, the third anniversary of the firing on Fort Sumter that announced the start of the Civil War – Nathan Bedford Forrest’s force of about 1,500 men set fire to a nearby camp of escaped slaves – mostly women and children – and then surrounded Fort Pillow. Inside the Fort were 600 or so Union soldiers. About half that number were African-American soldiers serving in Union artillery units. From a strictly military standpoint, these black soldiers knew they were in a very precarious position. But these men had an additional reason to be concerned, for one year ago in 1863, when the Union announced that it would recruit black soldiers to fight in the war, Confederate leaders responded by declaring that captured African-American soldiers would be executed or re-enslaved.

The Confederate assault begin at 11 AM and soon thereafter the Fort Pillow Garrison was reeling. Confederate snipers killed the fort’s commanding officer, and scores more. At 2 PM, Forrest sent a message demanding the Fort’s surrender. “Should my demand be refused,” he warned ominously, “I cannot be responsible for the fate of your command.”

Fort Pillow’s commander tried to buy time – hoping reinforcements would soon arrive – and asked for one hour to consider the demand. Forrest refused and gave him 20 minutes. The moment that deadline passed, Forrest’s men attacked. As they streamed into the fort, many of the outnumbered Union soldiers panicked and ran towards the river. But many other Union soldiers fought valiantly, even after the struggle seemed hopeless. But when it became obvious that they had been defeated, they surrendered.

Or at least they tried to. For the attacking Confederates were not about to treat black Union soldiers according to the rules of war. As one Confederate later testified, “The sight of Negro soldiers stirred the bosoms of our soldiers with courageous madness.” This “courageous madness” led them to slaughter wounded and surrendering black soldiers, and to chase down and kill those trying to escape. As one Confederate officer remembered: “The slaughter was awful… Words cannot describe the scene. The poor deluded Negroes would run up to our men[,] fall upon their knees and with uplifted hands scream for mercy. But they were ordered to their feet and then shot down.”

Nathan Bedford Forrest and other Confederates would deny claims that they had massacred soldiers that day. But there is abundant historical evidence – including testimony by Confederate eyewitnesses – that a massacre had indeed taken place that day. Just consider these statistics. Half the Fort Pillow Garrison, about 300 men, had been killed. That’s an extraordinary toll, especially when compared to other Civil War battles. Typically, the ratio of killed to wounded was 1:2. That is, for every soldier killed they were two wounded. But at Fort Pillow, the ratio was the reverse – for every wounded soldier, two had been killed. Only a massacre could explain such numbers.

The fact that it was a racially motivated massacre is made clear when one considers the statistics concerning those taken prisoner. Some 70% of white Union soldiers were taken prisoner compared to only 35% of black soldiers. The rest – 2/3 of all black soldiers – were killed. And it should be noted that while Fort Pillow was without question the worst instance of Confederates massacring black Union soldiers, it was by no means the only one.

Little wonder then, for the duration of the Civil War the Union’s African American soldiers often cried, “Remember Fort Pillow!” when attacking Confederate positions. They did so to honor the dead and to inspire the living on to final victory.

One of the reasons why this story is worth remembering is that Nathan Bedford Forrest enjoys an exalted place in Confederate history and memory, and as a consequence, there are many schools, streets, and public parks named in his honor, not to mention scores of statues. Thus, debates over the removal of Confederate monuments in recent years have often involved statues of Nathan Bedford Forrest. Defenders say the statues are a tribute to his brilliance as a cavalry commander and a general pride in southern heritage. Critics point out Forrest’s role in the Fort Pillow massacre, and one more thing – after the Civil War he joined the Ku Klux Klan and became its first Grand Wizard. You will recall that in last week’s episode we noted the major role of violent terrorist organizations like the KKK played in stripping recently freed African Americans of their civil and political rights. So, statues of Nathan Bedford Forrest represent many things, but first and foremost they represent white supremacy and the violence used to achieve it. 

So what else of note happened this week in US history?

April 6, 1917 - After 2.5 years of remaining officially neutral and on the sidelines of WW1, the US declared war on Germany. President Woodrow Wilson had called for neutrality in the hope that after the war the US could play the role of impartial arbiter to help negotiate a lasting peace settlement. But when it became apparent that the Allies – principally France and England – might lose the war, AND German submarines resumed sinking US ships, Wilson changed his mind. The US must enter the war, the told the American people, “to make the world safe for democracy.”

April 9, 1865 - The Confederacy’s most renowned commander, General Robert E. Lee, surrendered his army to the Union’s Gen Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse in VA. Even though the war did not officially end for a few more months, this surrender effectively ended the Civil War, a 4-year conflict that claimed the lives of some 750,000 soldiers and sailors, and brought about the end of slavery. Every now and again someone proposes that April 9 be made a national holiday to celebrate the defeat of the Confederacy and preservation of the Union. And this historian thinks that’s might be a good idea.

April 11, 1970 - Apollo 13 blasted off on its mission to the moon. A mechanical malfunction nearly doomed the astronauts, but a little luck and a lot of ingenious improvising on the part of the crew and NASA officials brought them home safely.

And what notable people were born this week in American history?  

April 6, 1866 – investigative journalist and author of Shame of the Cities, Lincoln Steffens

April 7, 1915 – legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday

April 7, 1912 - pioneering gay rights activist Harry Hay

April 10, 1847 - newspaper magnate Joseph Pulitzer

April 12, 1777 - one of the most influential politicians in the antebellum period, Henry Clay of KY

The Last Word

Let’s give it to Woodrow Wilson, who 103 years ago, asked the US Congress for a declaration of war against Germany. Here’s the key excerpt:

“The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty. We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make. We are but one of the champions of the rights of mankind. We shall be satisfied when those rights have been made as secure as the faith and the freedom of nations can make them.”

For more information about the In The Past Lane podcast, head to our website, 

Music for This Episode

Jay Graham, ITPL Intro (

The Joy Drops, “Track 23,” Not Drunk (Free Music Archive)

Sergey Cheremisinov, “Gray Drops” (Free Music Archive)

Pictures of the Flow, “Horses” (Free Music Archive)

Ondrosik, “Tribute to Louis Braille” (Free Music Archive)

Alex Mason, “Cast Away” (Free Music Archive)

Dana Boule, “Collective Calm” (Free Music Archive)

Blue Dot Sessions, "Pat Dog" (Free Music Archive)

Jon Luc Hefferman, “Winter Trek” (Free Music Archive)

The Bell, “I Am History” (Free Music Archive)

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