Shelby Foote Was Wrong!

By Dick Crews
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2014, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in The Charger in October 2014.

Way back in the year 2000, when William Vodrey was President of our Roundtable, Shelby Foote was our big name speaker. You can argue that Ed Bearss or Bruce Catton are bigger name Cleveland CWRT speakers, but Shelby Foote was by far the most expensive.

One theme Foote repeated frequently was that the American Civil War produced two geniuses: Abraham Lincoln and Nathan Bedford Forrest. Lincoln has stood the test of time, but Forrest made one serious error affecting the outcome of the Civil War, which has been ignored by history.

This summer I visited Fort Pillow, Tennessee. Fort Pillow is located 50 miles north of Memphis. The fort was on the Mississippi River. The river has now moved two miles west.

The fort itself was built as an outer defense for Memphis, but when Island #10 in the Mississippi River was taken by Union Forces, the fort was abandoned by the Confederates.

Nathan Bedford Forrest

No important Civil War battles were fought at Fort Pillow. History treats the attack on the fort by Nathan Bedford Forrest on April 12, 1864 as a racial act. There was no military reason for the attack, and later Forrest founded the Ku Klux Klan after the war, which this conclusion about the Fort Pillow battle seems to fit. History missed that the Fort Pillow attack was important to the outcome of the Civil War.

Look at the map of Tennessee. It shows Forrest at the western end of Tennessee when a critical Civil War event was happening in eastern Tennessee. Forrest attacked Fort Pillow on April 12, 1864. Three weeks later William T. Sherman left Chattanooga for Atlanta. Reading Sherman’s autobiography will tell you that Sherman was very worried all during the Atlanta Campaign about Forrest cutting his single railroad supply line.

Sherman need not have worried as Forrest was at the other end of the state. Forrest had no military reason to attack Fort Pillow. Despite the ferocity of the attack, Fort Pillow was of little significance to the Confederate army. Nathan Bedford Forrest’s troops abandoned it within hours of the massacre. Letters at the fort from his friends back in Memphis asked Forrest to teach the black troops at Fort Pillow a lesson.

He did have a very important military reason to attack Sherman on his way to Atlanta. William T. Sherman captured Atlanta on September 2, 1864. Historians have said the capture of Atlanta was the number one reason that Abraham Lincoln was reelected in November of 1864. The reelection of Lincoln ended any Southern hope for a negotiated settlement of the Civil War.

In mid-November, after Lincoln’s reelection, Sherman started his famous March to the Sea and captured Savannah. In January of 1865, Sherman’s army moved north from Savannah. First he forced the Confederates to abandon Charleston. He then captured both capitals of South and North Carolina.

April 1, 1865, Sherman’s now in North Carolina near the Virginia state border. He had a reinforced army of 90,000 men. He executed a plan devised between him and General Ulysses S. Grant. He was preparing to march north and trap Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, now in Petersburg and Richmond. Between both Union armies, Robert E. Lee saw he was about to be caught in a vise and marched west. Ten days later Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House. The American Civil War was effectively over.

Sorry, Shelby Foote. Nathan Bedford Forrest, who used his army for personal reasons when the South needed him at a critical time in the Civil War, cannot be called a genius.

Related link:
A Rebuttal to “Shelby Foote Was Wrong!”