Fort Pillow and Ball’s Bluff: A Response

By Greg Biggs
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2012, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: Greg Briggs has authored or co-authored several books and many articles on the Civil War. He has held executive positions with several Civil War Roundtables and preservation and historical societies and is a member of the Advisory Board of the Center For the Study of the Civil War in the West at Western Kentucky University. Mr. Biggs spoke to the CCWRT in December 2007 and was our guide for our 2012 field trip to Forts Henry and Donelson. This article originally appeared in the Charger in response to a book authored by our November 2012 speaker, Dr. John Cimprich.

In the November 2012 issue of the Charger, President Michael Wells wrote about the controversy of Fort Pillow. He made mention of our time at the Tilghman House in Paducah and how the guide there compared the casualties at Ball’s Bluff to Fort Pillow and wondered why, since Ball’s Bluff had very similar casualty rates, it was also not called a “massacre.” The person who brought up this discussion was not the house guide, it was me.

To begin, what, exactly, is a massacre? Wikipedia, citing a dictionary source, calls a massacre, “an incident where some group is killed by another, and the perpetrating party are perceived to be in total control of force while the victimized party is perceived to be helpless and/or innocent with regard to any legitimate offense. There is no clear-cut definition for when killings are referred to as massacres or not, rather, this choice is a result of an individual or collective assessment, depending e.g. on how the circumstances of the killing align with given ideas of acceptable use of force and on the desired status of an event in collective memory.”

In other words, who really knows what comprises a massacre? The definition seems to dovetail with the assertion that the side who wins the war gets to write the history books.

The comparison I was trying to make between Ball’s Bluff and Fort Pillow was based on many calling Fort Pillow a massacre due to the skewed figures of killed to wounded in that engagement. Typically, the ratio of wounded to killed is 4 or 5 wounded per one killed in the Civil War. At Fort Pillow, it was skewed the other way, more killed than wounded. It is largely from this that the description of a massacre comes. The terrain at Ball’s Bluff and Fort Pillow are virtually identical, the only exception being that the Mississippi River (now Cold Creek) runs to the west of Fort Pillow and the Potomac River runs to the east of Ball’s Bluff. I have been to both battlefields.

A depiction of the Fort Pillow massacre

Secondly, the Union garrison at Fort Pillow was driven from its works and towards and down into the river; the Union battle line at Ball’s Bluff was shattered and also driven into the Potomac River. Union troops were shot down while trying to get down each bluff and even while getting into the water to try and escape. Lastly, I checked with Jim Morgan, THE expert on Ball’s Bluff as to the Union casualties there and they were one per cent (1%) different than those of Fort Pillow and skewed much more towards the killed to wounded ratio. Hence my comparison, which I think is still valid. It matters not what color these troops were. The fact that the kill to wounded ratio was higher towards the former, under the oft used definition of Fort Pillow being a massacre, could easily determine the same for Ball’s Bluff.

A depiction of the climax of the Battle of Ball’s Bluff

Again, what is a massacre?

Fort Pillow was held by white and black Union troops. Your November speaker, John Cimprich, has written a fine book on the fort, its history, and how it became viewed after the war (Fort Pillow, a Civil War Massacre, and Public Memory). However, he repeats the same mistake that every other author has made regarding the white Union unit holding the fort, that is, calling them the 13th Tennessee Cavalry (U.S.). There was an existing 13th Tennessee Cavalry (U.S.) in the field commanded by another officer, which had been raised earlier in the war. According to the two volume set, Tennesseans in the Civil War, written by the state centennial committee in the 1960s, which is the definitive account of all Tennessee units, Union and Confederate, the unit holding Fort Pillow was raised as the 14th Tennessee Cavalry (U.S.) and that it was, “erroneously called 13th Tennessee Cavalry…” The black artillery units were raised from west Tennessee. White Unionist Tennesseans, called “renegade Tennesseans” by Forrest in his reports, and black Union troops confronting Confederates, many of whom came from the same areas, was a volatile mix.

Men of both colors, not just black troops, died in a greater killed to wounded ratio at Fort Pillow. Cimprich has the casualty tables in his book for reference. Using his research, the white Tennesseans numbered some 285-303 men. Of these, 85-103 men died in the battle or shortly after. Only 30 were wounded. Of the black troops, some 304 were in garrison and 192 died in battle or from wounds while 30 were wounded. 157 whites were taken prisoners and 56 blacks. Comparing the two, three times more white died than were wounded and about six and one-half times more blacks. Cimprich delves into the reasons why and I do not disagree with any of his reasoning.

Nathan Bedford Forrest

Cimprich makes another mistake in his book by failing to add to his analysis why the killed to wounded ratio skew may have happened, at least in the initial fight. He cites an account that mentions some of the Union garrison being killed by bayonets and then states that, since Forrest’s command was cavalry, they would have had carbines. He is incorrect. Anyone who has studied Forrest, as I have, knows full well that Forrest started his command with shotguns and Maynard carbines in 1861, which they carried at Fort Donelson, as I mentioned on our tour. As the war progressed, Forrest rearmed his command, mostly with captured Union weapons, arming his troops with Springfield and Enfield muskets exactly like those used by the infantry. His reasoning was simple; since he fought so many Union infantry units, he believed that his men had to be able to match them in terms of longer range fire power when fighting dismounted, as his men often fought. When they captured these weapons from the Federals they also took their bayonets, so some of his troopers had bayonets on their muskets at Fort Pillow.

What Cimprich omits from his book and analysis of the killed to wounded ratio is that, when the Confederates made their final assault and reached the top of the wall of the inner earthwork, the Federal garrison was packed therein like sardines confined in a reasonably small place. I co-led a tour there some years ago with Ed Bearss and Brian Wills and made mention of this. Thus, as Confederates topped the wall it was like shooting fish in a barrel. Even with a Colt Navy six shooter, a man shot at ten feet is dead, not wounded. It gets even worse when you factor in rifled muskets in the hands of veteran soldiers. Thus, the ratio of killed to wounded was skewed towards the killed from the start without even considering any men shot after surrendering. Bearss and Wills concurred with my analysis. I am not just picking on Cimprich here, as most authors who have written about Fort Pillow make the same omission. I only know of one who used it as part of his analysis. Most who have written about Fort Pillow have also never been there; Cimprich seems to have been and that is to his credit. When you see how small the final earthwork is, it becomes apparent.

John Cimprich’s book is a good read and offers the reader quite a bit to think about. I found it to be one of the finest accounts of the controversial battle written. Brian Wills, one of Forrest’s more recent biographers is, I understand, also going to tackle Fort Pillow with a new book and I will state here what he stated on the tour that I co-led; if Bedford Forrest wanted to slaughter the garrison to the man before he attacked, then they would have been slaughtered to a man during it. No one would have remained alive. There is no such order, verbal or written, that demanded this result. Forrest went there, in his own words written to his commanding officer, to get supplies and horses from the garrison. Whenever Forrest needed supplies, he often beat up a Union garrison somewhere and took all of their stuff and he had been doing so successfully from mid-1862 onwards.

Brian Wills, in his fine biography of Forrest (A Battle from the Start: The Life of Nathan Bedford Forrest), analyzes what made Forrest tick as a man better than any other recent biography. Once you get into it you will learn several facts. Forrest had a volcanic temper that could be aimed towards Federals in battle as well as at his own men. The aftermath was quite different; he often became quite serene following his explosions. He did not suffer fools well be they inferior or superior officers. Forrest was also a control freak and at Fort Pillow he lost some control over his troops. Yet accounts exist, that Cimprich cites, of Forrest and James Chalmers, one of his division commanders, stopping the shooting after Union troops had surrendered. Still, an officer is responsible for the conduct of his soldiers in any army.

I admire much about Nathan Bedford Forrest and made some mention of that on our tour as Michael Wells writes in the November Charger. He was a fierce fighter and a brilliant tactician and strategist. He made mistakes and learned from them; the Forrest of 1864 was a very accomplished cavalry commander, arguably the war’s best, and he was far superior to the Forrest of 1862. He was feared by the Federals; William T. Sherman detached two full corps to keep him tied up in Mississippi while the Atlanta Campaign was taking place in 1864. Such was the level of Sherman’s own fears. No other Confederate cavalry officer commanded such attention by as great a detachment of troops of the Union Army in the war.

Forrest was a brilliant raider and a fine combat commander who led the way for his troops. He personally killed thirty Union troops in hand to hand fighting and lost twenty-nine horses shot from beneath him. This attests to his leadership style and bravery. Only three American soldiers began their careers as a private and ended them as a lieutenant general; Forrest was one. If I were commanding an army in 1864, I would want Forrest as my chief of cavalry. I want a fighter leading my troops, not a push over.

Forrest, like all of us, was a human being with good and bad points. He knew it, mentioned it, and, after the war, cautioned his son to be more like his mother, a fine Christian woman, rather than him. He was a product of his time with a rough upbringing on the frontier helping to raise his family after losing his father, trying to carve out a life as so many did back then. This is why Wills titled his book as he did. It was indeed a battle from the start. The story of Forrest hunting down the panther that attacked his mother gives you a great insight into the man. He had some six months of education and yet became a millionaire before the war and a Memphis elected official. Some of his character I greatly admire and some I would not care to repeat. Who among us would be that much different if we had been raised as he was? Judge him in the context of his era, not 21st Century mores.

I am a military historian; studying only one war quite frankly bores me. I can attest that, historically, civil wars and wars of religion tend to be the nastiest when compared to wars between nations over territory, etc. (Hitler versus Stalin being the great exception). The Thirty Years War in northern Europe saw the wholesale slaughter of civilians simply because they were of a different religion than those doing the slaughtering. Civil wars, including ours, have their nastier sides as well. East Tennessee (both sides did atrocities on each other), the Crater, Poison Spring, Saltville, bleeding Kansas (both sides did atrocities there as well), “Bloody” Bill Anderson, and William Quantrill are part of our Civil War. So was Nathan Bedford Forrest, warts and all, and he was not nearly the terrible man that the latter two were.

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